Inclusion is the process of changing the school environment so that a student with unique challenges can be successful. The idea of inclusion is not limited to disability — we also practice inclusion when we make accommodations to ensure that people from different cultural, economic, and other backgrounds are given equal opportunities in society. While inclusion is not limited to school environments, this article focuses on the basics of inclusive education for children with disabilities.
What is inclusion?
The Least Restrictive Environment
IDEA’s “least restrictive environment” (LRE) concept states that:
To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities should be educated with children who are nondisabled in public or private institutions or other care facilities.
Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment should occur only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
In this clip, Dr. Caitlin Solone, education advocate, teacher-educator, and administrator for the Disability Studies program at UCLA, explains a common misconception of children with disabilities in general education classrooms.
Check out The 5 Biggest Myths About Inclusion to hear more from Dr. Solone about correcting misconceptions that parents, teachers, and school administrators may have about including kids in GenEd.
IEP teams must consider GenEd placement, and whether more supports or services could be provided to make the placement successful. The law says that IEP teams should choose a placement that is as close as possible to the child’s home so that the child is educated in the school they would attend if they were nondisabled (unless their IEP requires some other arrangement). The same paragraph states that a child with a disability should not be “removed from education in age-appropriate regular classrooms solely because of needed modifications in the general education curriculum.”
Lawmakers clearly intended to maximize inclusion, but the “least restrictive environment” concept is open to broad interpretation, and the courts have not always stood by parents seeking inclusion where the district says there is no educational benefit. Dina Kaplan, an attorney at Vanaman German LLP, told us that “Each school district handles inclusion a little differently.” For example, her firm is challenging LAUSD cases of children who are able to work on the GenEd curriculum but can’t access inclusion support (an inclusion facilitator), which is a privilege restricted to students on the LAUSD alternate curriculum path. In other districts, inclusion support isn’t even offered as a service.
Kaplan explains that the courts weigh the balance between the requirement to educate children with their nondisabled peers and the primary IDEA responsibility to create an IEP that is reasonably calculated to offer an educational benefit. She argues that if a child has access to a modified curriculum and accommodations in GenEd, then placement will not usually matter when it comes to the question of educational benefit. In other words, it is possible to have both.
What's the reality?
Given the strong case for inclusion, you might expect it to be the norm. However, in California, most children with extensive support needs spend little time in GenEd settings.
In California, only 58% of all children with IEPs ages six to twenty-two are fully included. The majority of IEP students are eligible for SpEd because of a specific learning disability (SLD) or a speech and language disability, and these groups have high rates of inclusion. Looking at smaller groups such as autism (34%), intellectual disability (7%), or multiple disabilities (4%), many students are partially included, spending 40% or more of their day in a GenEd setting, but large numbers spend less than 40% in GenEd; this could be PE or lunch, or it could reflect no interaction with nondisabled peers. This is much lower than national averages. There is also a lot of variation depending on which California school district you live in.
Parent advocacy can help change this reality. In this clip, Dr. Solone explains how the push for inclusion can create a better environment, not only for your child but for all children.
How to write inclusion into your IEP
- When discussing services, ask if it’s possible for the service to be provided in the GenEd setting as push-in, meaning that it occurs in the GenEd classroom. If it has to be pull-out, ask if it’s possible to be provided outside the regular school day to minimize disruption to GenEd time. In the absence of a co-teacher or inclusion specialist, consider whether special academic instruction (SAI) could be provided as a consultation with the GenEd teacher. You can also write access to an inclusion specialist into your IEP, as Dr. Sarah Pelangka explains in this clip:
Make sure your child is receiving the accommodations they need to be successful in a GenEd classroom. Common accommodations to support inclusion include a 1:1 aide, an inclusion facilitator, access to modified curriculum, assistive technology (such as audiobooks, predictive text, and text to speech/speech to text), chapter summaries, shortened assignments, pre-teaching vocabulary and concepts, and much more.
Placement is an important part of your child’s IEP; be sure to express concerns while reviewing their present levels that include access to nondisabled peers and GenEd curriculum. Ask if skills that your child mastered in pull-out speech or occupational therapy are generalized when in a GenEd setting.
When identifying goals, consider whether you can ask to rewrite the goal to include “with a same-age typical peer” as part of the activity. Encourage your IEP team to identify goals that promote interaction with other students. Always ensure that the goals are tied to the Common Core State Standards or the Core Content Connectors. In this clip, Dr. Solone explains how these standards-based goals can be used to encourage inclusion in the classroom.
- Finally, make sure to follow up on parts of the IEP intended to facilitate inclusion. We have a checklist of questions you can ask your IEP team to check in on how your child is being included in the classroom and other school activities.
What to do if you get pushback
Knowing that many teachers still believe students with intellectual disability cannot be included in GenEd settings, many families refuse IQ testing and instead ask for an eligibility category of Other Health Impairment. Legally, however, there should be no connection between eligibility and placement.
If your school district is not supportive of inclusion, you can use the law to insist on placement in GenEd — but without support from the school, your child might not be as successful. Often, the district will say that the expertise your child needs is located in a self-contained class. Many families choose self-contained classes for this reason. However, all services should be portable, so you can ask for the expertise to be brought to your child in their GenEd classroom.
Many families feel that a 1:1 aide is necessary to make inclusion work for their child. They may be told that this is “more restrictive.” However, if the aide provides the support the child needs to stay in GenEd, having an aide is less restrictive than a self-contained class.
If your school does not offer an inclusion class, inclusion facilitators, or co-teachers, it might be helpful to request that a non-public agency (NPA) inclusion expert consult with the IEP team and troubleshoot support options.