Mrs. Few didn’t know what to expect from her new third-grade class. She knew she’d have a few special needs children added to her roster. However, she never expected the type of challenges she’d face that year.
Issues pertaining to discipline, accommodations, and in some cases, modification of the lesson plans frustrated her in the beginning. She wondered if she’d ever want to return to teaching the following year.
Mrs. Few and an increasing number of general education teachers had faced this dilemma. Other challenges included individualizing an assignment for a child in a full classroom; understanding the child’s disability; and collaborating with the case-carrier/special education teacher on either assuring accommodations or co-teaching.
Whatever the case may be, an inclusive classroom is not an easy place to teach. However, due to current state and federal laws pertaining to education and students with disabilities, the inclusive classroom is becoming more common. And, as budgetary restraints on public education as well as the current shortage of special education teachers continues, this type of classroom will be around for a long time.
What is Inclusion?
At the heart of the matter is inclusion. The term refers to the practice of mainstreaming (or placing) students with special needs in general education classrooms. The practice is supposed to be in accordance with the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The goal is to have the students with special needs acquire equal access to the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers.
The laws also stipulates that the children’s placement in a general education setting will be (1) the least restrictive on their access to an education, and (2) adhere to a free and appropriate placement (it should be noted that these goals are often listed in the IDEA and Section 504 as LRE or FAPE – free and appropriate public education).
Appropriate is a key word. It doesn’t state that a severally handicapped student shall be placed in a regular PE class or that a student with intellectual disorders needs to be placed in algebra class. The placement should fit the student’s educational needs if possible.
The students who are usually placed in an inclusive classroom have mild to moderate learning disorders. This may include those with processing disorders, high-functioning autism, physical disabilities, or ADD/ADHD. Many of them will have Individual Education Plans (IEP) in accordance to IDEA, while others will have accommodations written into a 504 plan.
Students with Section 504 plans will have conditions that don’t affect their learning or intellectual abilities. Many will have physical disabilities; visual or hearing losses; debilitating diseases such as cancer or AIDS; or ADD/ADHD (if it doesn’t affect their learning ability).
In theory, the students with mild to moderate conditions are placed in inclusive classroom. However, there are cases in which students with severe disabilities such as Down’s syndrome have been placed in these classes (as a note: this usually occurs at the elementary school level, sometimes in middle school). Usually this happens after by request from the parents or a district protocol. Either way, it sets up a new challenge for the teachers; the decision to modify a lesson plan for the individual student with this condition.
Modification often means making lessons reflect the student’s ability. The reading materials or math problems are supposed to be at the student’s level not at the class level in this scenario.
Usually, students with severe disabilities have minimum contact with the general education population. Their needs are vastly different from the rest of the population. On average, teachers in inclusive classes will not have to deal with this segment of the student population.
For teachers in the situation, it means they may to write an extra lesson plan for the individual student and juggle it with the one they wrote for the rest of the class. This can be taxing.
Accommodation in the classroom
Students with mild/moderate disabilities are more common. Many of them will have accommodations added to their curriculum. These accommodations, if done right can help the children. However, these techniques have some drawbacks.
While behavior is often on the minds of many general education teachers in inclusive classes, the most important challenge for them is accommodation. As the name refers, accommodation is an act of accommodating students with disabilities.
It can be the use of technology such as computers, audio-books or keyboards in the classroom or it can be a technique such as repetition or scaffolding. There are numerous types of accommodations that can be used in the classroom; however, not all accommodation will work for an individual student, or are easy to implement – especially when there are 30 or more other students in the classroom.
It is important that a general education teacher is in contact with a special educator. A Resource teacher will have the pertinent information needed to implement accommodations that will work for a particular child.
Another challenge for teachers in an inclusive classroom is to work with other teachers or specialists. Collaboration is a goal in most schools; however, the thought of working with others – in many cases, within the confines of a classroom – can be daunting.
Co-teaching is becoming a popular model in most inclusive classrooms. The benefits vary: individual students – in particular the special needs student – can rely on more than one teacher. Also, larger classrooms can be split into smaller groups allowing for more coverage and concentration on subjects.
Still, co-teaching only works if the teachers can work with each other. Also, it can work if the teachers can do away with the traditional model of teaching in isolation (It should also be noted that some special education teachers and specialists are apprehensive to work other teachers in a co-teaching model. Many believe they will be relegated to being an over-glorified teacher’s aide).
Finally, there’s the issue of behavior and classroom disruption. In any classroom, a misbehaving child can ruin the structure or make-up of a classroom environment. Children with ADD/ADHD are often singled out as the purveyor of disruption. Their impulsiveness can turn any typical school day into a disaster.
Also, another concern is the rising rate of children with autism. In most cases, a child with autism spectrum disorder – especially with Asperger’s syndrome – will have self-control and be manageable in the classroom. However, there are those who have repetitive habits, outbursts, and poor hygiene. This latter group can be a handful for a general education teacher – and a special education teacher – to handle.
Many of these challenges can be managed. Collaboration with other professionals in special education can help ease the student’s transition into an inclusive classroom. Also, taking a pro-active stance can help. Teachers need to educate themselves on the various learning disabilities, effective accommodations, and useful behavioral managements for handling these students.
Mrs. Few learned another lesson during that trying year. A little patience helped, along with better implementation of accommodations supplied to her by the special educator at her school. She never left after that year, and is looking forward to a new school year.