The inclusion paradox
Why the student with disabilities sitting next to your child may improve his or her education.
By Valle Dwight
When Bill Grundfest heard that his son’s kindergarten class in Bel Air, Calif., would include a child with a cognitive disability, he was concerned. He worried that this child would take up all of the teacher’s time, leaving the rest of the class twiddling their thumbs.
“In spite of good teachers being able to see out the backs of their heads, they only have a finite amount of time and energy,” he says. “One expects a disabled child to need more time and energy than a nondisabled one, hence less time for everyone else.”
In the tony Southern California school district, Grundfest kept his concern to himself, fearing that other parents would think him intolerant. But he fretted just the same, nervous that his son’s education would be a watered-down version of what he had envisioned.
The history of inclusion
Grundfest is not alone in his concern, of course. Many parents fear the effects on their own kids when a child with a disability joins their classroom. Some worry that the teaching will be geared to slower learners, some are wary of potential behavior issues, and others think that the resources to teach students with learning problems would be better directed at those without disabilities.
Inclusion of children with disabilities in the classroom is nothing new — it’s been around since 1975, when the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed. The law calls for children with disabilities to be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” opening the door for them to join general education classrooms in their neighborhood schools. In the almost 35 years since IDEA passed, more and more children with disabilities have been included in classrooms, but parental concerns about the education of typical students remains an issue.
What research says about inclusive classrooms
However, studies show that typical students do not suffer when there is a child with a disability in the classroom. Deb Staub, a social worker in Seattle, found in her research — “On Inclusion and the Other Kids: Here’s What Research Shows so Far About Inclusion’s Effect on Nondisabled Students” (pdf), published by LeadScape — that the academic performance of typical students in an inclusive classroom was not adversely affected.
She points to a study that compared the instructional time in an inclusive classroom to that of a classroom without children with learning differences and found that the presence of students with severe disabilities had no effect on typical students. In fact, research has found that when children with disabilities are present in the classroom, all students benefit — both academically and in other ways that are harder to measure.
What inclusive classrooms do better...