Friday, September 11, 2009

Including kids with special needs in mainstream classrooms (and ALL parts of life)

I've been thinking a lot about inclusion lately. It started when I read a post on Tiptoeing Through The Tulips about how Cristin's happy to keep her little boy Graham, who's deaf, in a school for the deaf.

I am totally with her on that one. After Max aged out of Early Intervention, we pretty much decided that he'd be best off in a school for kids with special needs. Between all the OT, PT and speech therapy he needed, it made the most sense. I also wanted teachers who specialize in working with kids who have disabilities to be on hand to help with other skills, like feeding and toilet training.

I still feel content with having Max in a special school (he's bussed there, our district pays for everything), though over the years I've certainly made requests about how he's "included" there. Back when he first entered school, I felt that Max should be in a class where he was functioning mid-way between the other students; I wanted him to have kids to look up to, for inspiration, and also kids who he was ahead of, for confidence. This year, though, I wanted Max to be in a class with mostly verbal other kids and a class that posed more challenges to him. It won't be easy for him, but he's ready.

When Max was just under two years old, I read this article in The New York Times Magazine about a kid named Thomas who has cp. His dad, Richard Ellenson (I blogged about their recent visit with The Yankees), had worked the system to get his child included in a mainstream class. It was a herculean feat, and I clipped and saved the article for inspiration. Over the years, it's given me pause; should I be pushing for Max to be around typically-developing kids? While I'm still content in my decision, inclusion may very well be in his future.

There's a documentary out on the topic that I'm so eager to see, Including Samuel; I first heard of it through the awesome AZ Chapman who writes the blog Life and Times of A Teen With Disabilities. Shot and produced by photojournalist Dan Habib, the film is about his son, Samuel, who has cerebral palsy and his family's efforts to include him in all parts of their lives. The film also follows four other people with disabilities and their families. I quote from the site's description: "Including Samuel is a highly personal, passionately photographed film that captures the cultural and systemic barriers to inclusion." It's airing on TV stations around the country over the next two months, here's the schedule.

Dan has kindly offered to give away two DVDs of Including Samuel; he asks that whoever wins one commits to hosting a viewing party with at least ten people, and then reports back on how the screening went/reactions people had/discussions it inspired (you'll receive a packet that explains how to plan the party and report back).

Leave a comment below with your thoughts on inclusion and children with special needs, and you'll be entered to win; the contest will be open until Sunday September 20, and I'll announce the winner on Monday September 21. Note, it is best if you submit a comment using a Blogger I.D.; if you leave a comment as Anonymous, please include your name and e-mail.

There's something about Samuel that reminds me of Max! Just look at his beautiful face in this clip from the film.


  1. Thanks for the shout ot Ellen!

    I don't know how I'd feel about inclusion if my child had a different set of issues. I was nervous when he was a baby, before he lost his hearing, about how he'd be accepted when he got older.

    I really think that we lucked out with the Deafness, because it does give him a world to belong to.

    I understand that he may choose to reject it and live in the Hearing world, but I want the decision to be his, not ours.

    That documentary looks excellent. I'll make sure to check it out whether I win it here or not.

  2. What a great post.... especially since Kasia just started JK in a completely mainstreamed classroom and I often question whether or not I'm doing the right thing for her. Of the 20 children in her class, she's the only one with special needs.

    I'd LOVE to see the documentary! And even more so, I'd LOVE to have a viewing of it for the parent support group I belong to. Many of us have pre-school/school aged children and are struggling with this very topic.

  3. I will start by saying I don't think there is anything wrong with having a child attend a specialized school or class. If that's what it takes to ensure that the child gets what he or she needs and both the parents and child are happy, that's probably the way to go.
    We made the very difficult decision when Daniel started preschool to put him in a fully mainstream class at a small private school. It hasn't been perfect, but in his case, it's worked out very well. He doesn't have any learning difficulties to speak of, and he's able to compensate for his physical disability pretty well. He does lag behind his peers at times, such as on the playground, but I think the peer modeling has been great for him.
    At the same time, I make sure that he's around other children with special needs. He has quite a nice "clique" of friends with hemiplegia. He has friends from therapy with various diagnoses and abilities, too. As you said, I think it's really good for our kids to be around both kids who are more advanced than them so that they have peer models and children who are more delayed than them to help build confidence.

  4. You know, Emily gets really get angry at her school for not including the disabled children in with the regular classrooms. I tried to explain to her that they have their own curriculum, etc. Anyway, your post just made me think about her tyrad on that subject.

  5. I have pretty strong views about inclusion. I taught preschool for 7 years before going back to get my masters in early childhood special education. The focus of my program is on inclusion.

    One of the keys to inclusion is that there should be only 10% of the class population (about 2) children with special needs. AND THEY NEED TO HAVE THE CORRECT SUPPORTS!!! That is so often forgotten by admin. Kids are basically thrown into a class and the teacher, parents and the children are left to figure out how to handle everything. I have seen inclusion work beautifully. I really hope NJ gets there fast!

    I would love to show this documentary to my disabilities studies class at MSU. I will definitely DVR this one.

    Thank you for posting. I really enjoy reading a parent's perspective.

  6. Though I was in Special Education it was not for my lack of ability... I simply needed extra help for things like reading, because of my vision.

    I think kids should be given the chance to attend "normal school", but they should also be in a place they can be helped. It's your choice as a parent and each choice is different.

    There are schools for the deaf, and schools for the blind. How ever given PROPER SUPPORT there is no reason to send these children to a special school, if they can preform at proper levels. They interact with "normal" people ever day; or when they get older, will need to... Some parents shelter their children way too much.

    There is a deaf-blind 4th grader that attends our local school system; he in fact has the same mobility and vision support therapists I had!!! He's doing quite well.. even wrestles; and is very good!

    In the end it's your choice, but those who think in some way they are protecting their child b sending them to a special school; are in the end hurting them.

    TLC's series "My Life as a Child" also documents a few special needs children, thew their eyes; one our friend Cole... Too bad TLC never released the show to DVD... The kids speak from the heart, and is worth any parent to listen. They are smarter, and understand more then you think.

  7. Thank you for posting about this, I feel it needs to be addressed. My son Connor who has cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair, g-tube, cannot walk or stand, sits alone for short time, not real verbal(but getting there:) and other medical issues, just started kindergarden with his twin totally mainstreamed, no special classes at all. He does recieve some OT and PT bu I have him in private care so that is fine. He absolutely LOVES being there and I think he likes it better there than his special needs school he had been in since he was 3. I think he feels "normal" to be with other able bodied children because he is mentally there, just his body not cooperating. And I also feel it is such a great lesson for the other children to have someone like him in school with them, what kind of life lessons he will give them! Thanks again!

  8. I agree with Melanie that "they need to have the correct supports."
    Micah's day care situation was one where he was left to watch videos all day. His first year of school was in a classroom for "physically impaired" students. He loved that class and we did too. He was surrounded by children with similar challenges and taught by those who were well trained to care for children with special abilities.
    Then we moved to the country. The school had no children with special abilities Micah's age. There were very few, and they varied much in age. Micah was integrated into the main classroom. He had an assistant who was wonderful, but otherwise it was not a great experience. The IEP for the following year included a teacher who did not want Micah in her classroom and only spoke up to reserve the right to remove him if he "made too much noise." We chose to remove him, and for two years, continued his education in the home through a charter school, and sought private therapy.
    To receive therapy from another school we benefited from the "school choice" program by signing him up for a larger district. He now attends and receives therapy three days a week at the school in the special abilities classroom with six other boys his age, and will possibly be integrated into some of the classes. (The other boys spend time in both places.)
    Thank you for posting the video about Sammuel. I will post it as well. It spoke to many of the same concerns I have for Micah! I've found that people do have trouble including him and I think they just don't know how.

  9. I think the desireability of inclusion is as varied as kids' disabilities. And I definitely agree with the need for proper support.

    In my case my daughter with undiagnosed Aspergers/Anxiety disorder managed to cope through elementary school in mainstream classroom. We were very fortunate to have flexible and understanding teachers who worked with us even though none of us understood what was going on.

    However she was completely unable to handle traditional middle school. She spent 3 years in a therapeutic middle school, and two years in an exceptional special ed class in high school. These schools worked at giving her the skills she needed for regular school. She transitioned with great success her senior year, and has since been successfully attending college.

    However, I think we may have lost her if she had been forced to attend regular classes during her middle school years. I am so-o-o greatful that she was able to be in an environment that was able to accomodate her.

    So I think choice is extremely important.


  10. Ahhhh. . .I am so very conflicted on this topic. I was an inclusion teacher for two years--in our district that meant as many as eight kids in a room could be SPED and the rest regular ed.

    From what I could see, the kids who were below average but close did wonderfully. Ones who were quite far behind didn't fair so well and we would work to find them another option. I do think, however, that many many regular teachers resent having special needs kids in their classes and really fail to understand the needs of these students. Don't get me wrong--they are caring individuals--they just don't "get" special ed and what it entails.

    I've heard of simply wonderful scenarios for mainstreaming but I've never seen it in the south. I've not completely dismissed the idea of home schooling although that's not my first choice. In the end, I think I'll just have to see what's available and how far Charlie has progressed.

  11. My daughter is too little for school yet, but this is a topic I have thought about a lot. Initially I was thinking of special school for her, but after speaking to some university lecturers who told me 'all the research' says kids do better in mainstream schools I am rethinking. Our local primary school is a mainstream school with a disability support unit - so kind of in between mainstream and special school. At the moment I am thinking Ashlea will go there. Still it is a big decision...she has very high support needs and is visually impaired and I worry she won't be supported enough at the local school. I would LOVE her to be fully included in mainstream school but I think that would be a very big battle seeing as our local school has a support unit - we would be automatically put into the unit.

    PS No I haven't seen or read 'all the research' although I am keen to, that is just what they said to me.

  12. I actually like inclusion (or partial inclusion in the form of half days in the regular classroom) because I feel that for the most part we (as a society) need for our children to see that we're all people. My kids have a disabled friend and he's always invited to my teenaged daughter's birthday party. Seeing him playing with the other kids, seeing how easily he fits in once he's given the opportunity, has truly been a blessing to me. I know that it's paramount that his needs are met in school... but I also see the needs of the other kids. The need to make a friend who is different yet still a friend, the need to be inspired by someone overcoming the odds, the need to learn to relax around someone who is disabled, to learn to be at ease with a life that is out of their norm... all these build caring and tolerant adults. So while I would never suggest that someone put their disabled kid's needs on the back burner just to fit in or even just to enrich the lives of other kids, I do think that there's a real opportunity there, a chance to change the world. That being said I agree that it needs to be done with great care. There's a real possibility that more harm than good could be done.

  13. Great topic Ellen. I would love to see the doco. Thanks for sharing.

    In my past life, I was a secondary school teacher, so I have seen quite a bit first hand about the advantages and perils of mainstreaming kids with special needs.

    I totally agree with what others have said about the need for effective support AND definitely agree that it's often a matter of 'case-by-case'. I don't think there's any perfect solution for every child.

    I think schools need to be well funded to put in place extra staff/services/equipment/staff training for kids with special needs to ensure that a)they get the best education possible b)the staff have the time/expertise to best include the students and b)there is a schoolwide inclusive policy that everyone supports and understands.

    I've worked in schools that have this and saw amazing results. Students, parents, teachers alike were happy and I think the whole school community benefited.

    However, I also, sadly, have worked in other schools were these supports were NOT in place. It's not a pretty sight. Kids with special needs were bullied, many staff members had no idea how to cater for them (nor the time to learn how to), there were no extra staff on hand to facilitate inclusion, poor access to classrooms and these kids were falling through the cracks. It broke my heart.

    I think that parents need to be very careful if choosing a mainstream school, asking lots and lots of questions and ensuring that the school was excited, innovative and prepared for dealing with kids with additional needs.

    I have also worked in some specialised schools and have to say that exactly the same rule applies! It all comes down to how well the school operates.

    We've decided to mainstream BC, largely because I feel he has enough cognitive strength to thrive in the mainstream classroom, also he's physically able ENOUGH to fend for himself in many ways. I would say I would have gone in the other direction if he needed more cognitive support OR had medical needs that I was not sure a mainstream school would handle well.

    Sorry for the marathon comment ;-).

  14. Austin is not yet 2yo so there are no discussions of inclusion yet. But next year when he phases out of EI it certainly will be on our minds. That documentary sounds awesome and I would LOVE to host a party!! My sister is having some issues with her son's HS about inclusion right now...such a stressful time. Thanks for posting!

  15. I have loved your posts lately. So full of hope, fun, interesting topics...I always love your posts. But lately - more so.


    I saw this documentary and loved it. It was so well done and it's so nice of Mr. Habib to share some DVD's with your "audience" :-) They are inspiring parents.

    I would love a DVD - but even if I don't *win*, I will still consider hosting a viewing party (when I get my act together) as I know several people who are interested in this topic. It's about a year away before Gavin goes to pre-school so I have some time to consider everything. I think for the first few years at least I would like him to be in a special class just so he can continue to get focused and intense attention. But what do I know...I'm still in the thick of diapers and babydom. :-)

    xo to you Ellen. Thanks for brightening my day lately.

  16. I think it completely depends on the child, your goals, and the options available. I begged (well, advocated) for special ed preschool when Oscar was ages 3 and 4 because that teacher was known to be excellent and the class was much smaller. She regularly brought in typical kids from other preschool classrooms and those were the children with whom they tried to pair Oscar and facilitate social interactions. I also sent him to a private preschool 2 days a week for more typical interactions that first year. The following year, at age 5, we mainstreamed him in the public preschool. He shared an aide, and had a great inclusion specialist that followed him and his program closely.

    For K, we chose a small private school. He is still there with an aide. It works for him because the curriculum is integrated and developmental. There is an emphasis on diversity and celebrating individual strengths. He has been with the same 18-19 kids for 4 years now so they know Oscar well. It's a small supportive community of caring kids/parents, and teachers who are trained to meet kids at their individual level. I hire the aide so I know that the person is a good match for his personality and the school. OT and speech come to school and PT and behavior do consults. It's been a process setting this all up and I have NO idea what we will do about middle school in 3 years. I am keeping my ears open for good special ed school because I think that might be the time to switch back. But if there was a great regular ed school that I think he could manage I would try that. There's isn't one appropriate for him in our city, so who know what will happen.

    I keep reminding myself that we will just need to keep re-evaluating year to year to make sure we are happy with Oscar's program. And, your goals for your child are important in this determination. Mine are that he remain happy and confident while still getting work that is appropriate for him. I want him to be excited about school, be open to trying new things, be able to carrying conversations with other kids, and above all believe in himself. Right now this school is perfect for him.

    Ah, what a discussion you've started!! Such a great topic. I've heard about the film and definitely plan to see it.

  17. hay why didn't I think of that I feel strongly about inclusion I have been included since kindergarten.
    well pre K I redid twice.I would defiantly host a viewing party pick me pick me me

  18. oh I meant I did preschool twice a couple years of sped preschool and then pre-k when I was five

  19. This is Joyce. From the old timer here, I have to say that I have advocated in support of having a continuum of choices. I do believe though that inclusion is about more than just your kid, it's about what all the other children are learning by having him/her in their class. I am about to launch a series on Sarah and schooling and you will see why I say this. If we continue to segregate all the kiddos with some difference from the rest of the population, how can we expect them to fully accept humans with differences? I
    believe we need to allow it to happen naturally when they are toddlers and preschoolers and acceptance will thus happen naturally.

  20. WOW. This has given me so much food for thought. I am not sure that at this point, cognitively, Max could keep up in a first-grade class. That's where I think his school is the right fit for him. But I will reevaluate later this year. Because I do think there are benefits to having him around typically-functioning kids—although as several of you wisely pointed out, there has to be good support.

  21. I just though of something I'd like to add to my original comment. If you are debating mainstreaming your child PLEASE go meet their teachers before school begins and see what their views are, how they plan to work with your child's disability, etc. I am not a teacher, but my husband is one and I regularly volunteer in the local schools. Some teachers are so wonderful and enthusiastic and supportive. They include every child and encourage the other kids to interact positively and respectfully. And sadly, some teachers stigmatize the disabled. Even more upsetting is that this is true of both regular classrooms and special ed classrooms. So go to the schools you're considering during the summer when the teachers are not overwhelmed and take some time to meet both the special ed teachers and the mainstream teachers. These are the people who are the biggest factor in how well a kid adapts and fits in. You're going to be in a much better position to decide what is best for your child if you get to know them.

  22. Hi everyone,

    I've been enjoying the comments in reaction to Ellen's post about inclusion and my film Including Samuel. I want to make sure everyone knows that even if you don't 'win' one of the two free DVDs (Ellen, tell me who to send them to and I'll get them in the mail asap), you can watch the film on public tv in the next couple of months. We have a list of broadcasts, plus a film trailer, a 'host a screening' kit and many, many free downloadable resources on inclusion on our website,

    I think the film represents my thinking about inclusion more than anything I can write in a few sentences. But here are a couple of thoughts: I deeply believe that ALL children with disabilities can be fully included in a general education classroom, learning the general education curriculum, if that child has the proper supports. And that the social benefits of inclusion are powerful and lasting to both kids with and without disabilities.

    Every parent makes the placement decision they feel will make their child feel successful and loved. I would never question a parent's motivations around this difficult decision. But I strongly believe that as a matter of public policy, ALL schools must be truly welcoming and accomodating to ALL children. I hope you see the film and let me know what you think by posting on our Facebook Group page,

    Looking forward to hearing from many of you!

    Dan Habib

  23. I agree with Melanie. I am all for inclusion whenever/wherever possible, WITH PROPER SUPPORT. When done right/well, the whole class benefits.

  24. I have such mixed feelings about this topic.

    As a teacher in public education, I believe inclusion is a good thing. I agree with the teacher in the clip who says that inclusion is best for "every child" not just the child with the disability. And, I'm frustrated by the teacher (and others like her) who hated having to work with the child who had been mainstreamed into her classroom and was difficult, to say the least.

    I fought hard, years ago, to make sure my own son - with minor learning disabilities - was in the regular education classroom more than in special ed classes.

    However, being the custodial grandmother of a severely disabled child, I can now see why exclusion might work too; maybe even be a better fit.

    My Brianna is not in school yet (she'll start with head-start next year), but I cannot imagine her being in a regular ed classroom. Her disabilities are too severe. She's non-mobile, non-verbal, blind, is g-tube fed, has daily seizures, etc. I would think that in a regular ed classroom, not only would she not get the one-on-one attention that she needs, but the other students in the classroom would miss out on the quality education that they deserve as well.

    Don't misunderstand me. I want - no, insist - that Brianna be included in everything that she possibly can be. I want her to be around typically developing children to learn from them, and they from her. We've taken Brianna to the public pool, to Chuckie Cheese, to birthday parties, etc. And, at all those places, we've taught others about Brianna's conditions and we're sure that Brianna has gotten something from the experiences as well.

    I guess my opinion is one of "do what is best for the child". In our case, for now, a mainstream classroom would not help Brianna at all. If that is not the case for another child, then by all means he or she should be included in the regular ed classroom and that class should be staffed with a teacher trained in multiple learning styles and be accepting of differences. Still, I think the feeling of inclusion, and hopefully the total acceptance of a differently-abled child can be accomplished regardless of what classroom that child is in.

    Just my opinion.

  25. When I went to junior high we had a few "special" kids in our school. I only knew a few of the kids by name; There was Starla, who would try to hold kids' hands while they ran away screaming; Will, who constantly said "Base" (to everyone elses amusment); and there was a boy, known to the typical school population as "Nature Boy", who would eat bugs while the other boys in the school cheered him on and laughed.
    My daughter is only just 3 years old. She attends gymnastics, preschool, and other community play groups and is often the only child with special needs there. Right now she is inculded easily. She occasionally needs support, but often is able to keep up with her peers. The other kids in the class don't see her as 'different', and if they do, its no big deal. Its just Esme.
    But I am afraid.
    I am afraid of when her peers are old enough to know what 'different' means. I am afraid of her not knowing when someone is being a friend or when someone is teasing her. I am afraid of her being a Starla or a Will or a "Nature Boy", trying to reach out to the other children and being ridiculed.
    I want my daughter to be inculded in everything life has to offer. I want her to be seen and accepted as who she is, whoever that may be. I want her to be included with people of all different abilities. But I am afraid for her.
    And for me.

  26. I have seen that documentary and I think it is just wonderful--I don't know ten people I could invite to a party, though, nor do I have the evenings off (or the room in my house) to host such a thing, so don't include me in the contest. I'm glad it's being aired on PBS, I will pop in a tape and see it again.

    I send my kids to their school (despite the religious component) because of small class size and an active intolerance of bullying (on and off campus) because that is a concern for me--our public schools aren't up to speed in that fashion. Several of the teachers are quite attuned to the needs of special ed kids too, which is a winner for us.

  27. When Lola does go to school I want her in a school where there are kids w/o disabilities, kids with mild disabilities, kids with moderate and kids with severe. Lola has a severe physical disability only which means she will need a w/c later on.


Thanks for sharing!

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