Special educators throughout the country have been given a goal by state and local educational agencies: mainstream as many special needs students into a general education setting. Mainstreaming has been a part of special education since its inception; however, the need to place these particular students has never been more critical than now.
With drastic cuts made to public education funding, threats of lawsuits from parents, fears from violations of laws such as American Disability Act (ADA), Section 504, and Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA), the concept of mainstreaming is being aggressively pushed forward – sometimes unwisely – by administrators, school board members, and local and state government officials.
While this push may benefit several students, it may harm those who can’t cope or learn in a regular educational setting.
Mainstreaming is not a negative educational tool. It adheres to the very laws that govern special education, especially ADA and Section 504 – two federal civil rights laws which protects the right of disabled students to have equal access to the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers. This tool also opens up the world of education and opportunity for students with mild or moderate disabilities.
However, not every student with disabilities has the same effects or conditions, and mainstreaming is not always the right tool to use. Those labeled as “moderate to severe” usually have intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders (such as severe cases of autism), or emotional disorders that put them at an extreme disadvantage in the classroom. Some of them may not have the intellectual capacity to keep up with their peers.
Keeping up with the curriculum is merely one negative result that may occur when mainstreaming students with severe disabilities. Safety is another concern. A student with emotional disorders may be a risk to him/herself and to other students – especially if the student has a past record of violent outburst. A student with Down syndrome or some other form of intellectual disability would probably find a chemistry lab an extremely hazardous place.
The negative outcome of mainstreaming can affect students with physical disabilities or chronic illness. Some of these students need constant medical attention while others with problems with mobility will need therapeutic or alternative activities during Physical education (this, of course, is the reason for adaptive PE).
Another negative aspect is the education or quality of the general education teacher. Some of them may not have the expertise of ability to accommodate or modify a learning disabled student’s lesson plan. Although teacher preparation course and Response to Intervention (RTI) programs are changing teacher perceptions of special education and the population it serves, there are still several teachers with little understanding or reluctance to serve special needs students appropriately.
By all means, mainstreaming is an effective tool. Most students with mild learning disabilities such as auditory processing, visual processing, Asperger’s syndrome, or ADHD, may have the intellectual capacity to learn the same material as their non-disabled peers. They need, in most cases, a few accommodations such as placement near the board, repetition of lesson, audio tapes or visual cues. In part, this is the reason many of them have been successfully mainstreamed.
Still, even this population can feel the negative effects of mainstreaming. Many students with mild disabilities have reported that (1) the teacher went too fast with the lessons; (2) the workload was too much; (3) the teacher doesn’t understand them; and (4) the classroom is too big, loud, or has too many distractions.
In order to reduce the negativity of mainstreaming, several factors need to be addressed and improved. There needs to be more collaboration between the teachers, administrators, and special educators. Also, the special educators need to inform or teach general education teachers the various methods of accommodations, as well as some facts to understand the students’ disabilities.
Students with mild to moderate disabilities can make it in a general education setting. However, students with severe disabilities will have major limitations. It is important that special education classes should be used for these students.
Mainstreaming is not for every student. It should be considered on an individual need or basis.