In 2010, 13 percent of children in public schools were identified as having a disability. In the past, chances are that they would’ve been excluded from what was seen as a “normal classroom,” i.e., a room full of students not identified as having a disability.
Students would have been excluded for any number of reasons, ranging from a teacher’s inability to understand the student’s disability, to the belief that students with disabilities would be unable to keep up with their peers. Regardless of the the reason, it’s clear that, in the past, students with disabilities were left out of many activities that typical students were able to enjoy, including peer relationships.
That’s generally not the case anymore, thanks to the growing popularity of inclusive education. If it’s your dream to be an early childhood education teacher, it’s essential to understand inclusive education to ensure every child who comes through your classroom door gets the opportunity to develop to his or her greatest potential.
What is inclusive education?
What immediately springs to mind when mentioning the phrase “inclusive education” is putting students of all abilities in the same classroom, but it’s more than that. Inclusion means that each student participates, feels welcomed and is able to achieve his or her academic goals. For example, a teacher with an inclusive classroom might employ several different techniques to teach a concept to accommodate different learning styles.
Inclusive education isn’t the rule at every school, though the U.S. Department of Education says there are thousands of such schools across America. Thanks to extensive inclusive programs, schools considered leaders in this type of education are most prominent in Madison, Wis., Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. and Clark County, Nev., The New York Times reports. Madison, in particular, is seen as a leader in inclusive education because 17.5 percent of students in the district are disabled, and of those, more than 50 percent are in regular classrooms.
Benefits of inclusive education
Why are so many schools focusing on inclusive education in the classroom? The simple answer is that there are many benefits for everyone involved.
“Inclusive education is a child’s right, not a privilege,” PBS says. “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act clearly states that all children with disabilities should be educated with non-disabled children their own age and have access to the general education curriculum.”
The benefits of inclusive education are numerous, both for the students with disabilities and those without. Students with disabilities benefit from having peer role models in the classroom; being challenged with to higher academic expectations; and access to the general classroom environment.
Meanwhile, students without disabilities gain friendships with a greater variety of people; build an understanding of diversity; and prepare for the “real world,” in which people aren’t generally divided according to ability.
Education department officials shared the story of two high school students met in gym class and became inseparable. One of them had Down syndrome. The other wrote in an essay: “‘Right from the moment I met her, I knew my best friend was a blessing. I needed someone in my life that was going to change my perspective and give me a different outlook.’”
It’s hard to say if those two students would have met, had they not been in the same class.
Inclusive education has benefits for teachers, too. In addition to expanding their knowledge of different types of learners and teaching methods, teachers often work more closely with their colleagues and develop better relationships with them.
So while some additional work on the part of teachers is to be expected, they’re not expected to know every strategy for helping students with disabilities be successful—that’s where their colleagues help.
Detriments to inclusive education
While the benefits sound helpful for all of the students in the classroom, inclusive education does have detractors.
Some critics fear that both students with disabilities and their typically learning peers would be at a disadvantage in an inclusive classroom. Education research organization SEDL says special education students wouldn’t be getting the truly specialized learning they need, while typical students wouldn’t get a typical amount of time and attention from teachers.
One concern many school districts have is the cost of inclusive education. In Madison, educating a typical student costs the school $12,000 per year, while educating a student with autism costs nearly double that amount.
At first, it might not seem like a big deal—a school can’t arbitrarily decide to reject students with disabilities. But the Times reports that in Madison, for example, certain schools are well known for their special education programs. Those schools are often inundated with additional students whose parents are unhappy with their current school.
Teachers faced with inclusive education may second guess their ability to teach students of varying abilities in their classrooms. Teaching an inclusive classroom takes extensive planning in terms of both course matter and teaching style to ensure that every student is learning and improving their skills. Teachers not used to the additional techniques often require additional training to master the complexities.
Extra training might be a short-term disadvantage for school districts, but it creates confident instructors, who then produce well-educated students.
How you can help
If learning about inclusive education has piqued your interest in helping students of all abilities, great news: You can! If you want to be a teacher and work with students with disabilities, your first step is to earn an early childhood education associate degree with special needs specialization.
If you’re unsure about stopping your education at the associate level, be sure to check out 3 Reasons to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education.