What Is Full Inclusion and How Is It Damaging Our Public Schools?

Updated on February 18, 2020
letstalkabouteduc profile image

With a master's degree in special education and a son with autism, Ms. Meyers is passionate about getting services for students in need.

The idea that children with autism, ADHD, and learning differences don't need specialized help is the biggest lie in special education.
The idea that children with autism, ADHD, and learning differences don't need specialized help is the biggest lie in special education. | Source

The Negative Impact of Full Inclusion

Today, school officials push full inclusion as the miracle cure in special education: the one-size-fits-all fix for autism, ADHD, behavioral issues, emotional problems, and learning differences. They love to recite its virtues: that all students are treated the same and, therefore, don't have to suffer the stigma of getting special help outside the regular classroom. What school officials fail to mention is that full inclusion is primarily a cost-saving measure and has long-term negative consequences for students, families, and society as a whole.

  • Did you know that full inclusion in special education can promote learned helplessness in children?
  • Did you know it can contribute to long-term societal problems such as increased mental illness, more homelessness, and higher drop-out rates?
  • Did you know that full inclusion is penny wise, pound foolish because early intervention services can prevent the need for more costly ones in elementary, middle, and high school?
  • Did you know that small group direct instruction has been proven highly effective with special needs students and is what many of them need to succeed at school?

Fair doesn't mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving each child what they need.

— Richard Lavoie, long-time advocate for children with special needs

Don't Buy the Inclusion Lie

The idea that full inclusion in special education is all students need is a lie. If parents buy into it, they're signing away their children's opportunity to receive the unique services they deserve: speech and occupational therapies, small group activities, one-on-one tutoring, and direct instruction.

Moms and dads should understand that inclusion is not a comprehensive program to help youngsters succeed at school; it's not a program at all but merely a cost-saving measure. If they want what's best for their youngsters, they must fight hard to get those special services at public schools or pay for them in the private sector. To illustrate how the inclusion lie works, a familiar tale from childhood serves to explain.

The Emperor's New Clothes

Remember the tale from childhood called The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen? Pretending they were gifted weavers, two swindlers arrived in town to con the emperor and his staff. They convinced the townspeople that they made fabulous clothes that were the envy of everyone.

They cleverly added one warning: those who were stupid or unfit for their jobs wouldn't be able to see the stunning clothes. To the eyes of these foolish folks, they'd be invisible. Thus, person after person complimented the emperor's non-existent wardrobe, not wanting to seem dumb and incompetent. When the emperor paraded down the road, a little boy, in all his innocence, shouted the truth: “Hey, he's naked!”

Full Inclusion: There's Nothing There!

Full inclusion is just like the emperor's new clothes—there's nothing there! School officials, just like the two swindlers, convince parents they're getting something spectacular for their children when, in fact, they're getting nothing at all.

While they peddle full inclusion to save money, their practice is actually penny wise, pound foolish. Yes, school districts save money on early intervention services for little kids but then need to shell out more funds when these same youngsters struggle in elementary, middle, and high school. The lack of early intervention services leads to grave societal problems: higher drop-out rates, greater rates of mental illness, and more homelessness.

Full inclusion in special education costs us all in the long-haul with higher drop-out rates, more mental illness, and increased homelessness.
Full inclusion in special education costs us all in the long-haul with higher drop-out rates, more mental illness, and increased homelessness. | Source

What's learned helplessness?

Psychologists have studied this behavior in both animals and humans. Their research shows that, when put in situations where they have no control, both animals and people will eventually give up and surrender. Even when conditions improve, they still feel powerless, accept their fate, and take no action to change their circumstances.

Full Inclusion and Learned Helplessness

Imagine your family moved to Moscow when you were 8-years-old and you attended school without knowing one word of Russian. That's how many children with special needs feel in regular classrooms today in the US. Their teachers speak too rapidly, and they can't process their words fast enough. Classmates move around the room—engaging effortlessly in cooperative learning tasks and group projects—while they struggle to keep up with all the social communication swirling around them: both verbal and non-verbal. The class moves at break-neck speed, and it's overwhelming.

Full inclusion in the regular classroom leaves many students with special needs anxious, tense, frustrated, confused, and defeated. They start to feel invisible as nobody seems to notice or care how lost they are. They become a casualty of learned helplessness and give up trying. Even when they can answer the teacher's questions, they might say “I don't know” because they've given up hope. Sadly, this can begin as early as preschool or kindergarten.

In this video, overwhelmed teachers are finally speaking out about the problems with full inclusion that affect all students.

What's direct instruction in special education?

Direct instruction is the explicit teaching of concepts and skills in a systemic, guided step-by-step manner. In direct instruction, the teacher is the expert, delivering information in an orderly fashion so students master the material. Direct instruction typically involves clearly defined objectives, on-going practice and review, and frequent teacher-student interactions.

The Benefits of Small Group Direct Instruction

The benefits of small group direct instruction in special education are too numerous to list but here are some:

  • It lets teachers target the specific areas where students need extra help: doing long division, learning to decode, holding a pencil correctly, and so on. It allows for drill and repetition until the skill is mastered.
  • In "The Disadvantages of a Full-Inclusion Classroom," author Dean Traylor makes the case that full inclusion can work well with students whose needs are mild to moderate. However, those with severe needs are better served outside the regular classroom for all or part of the school day.
  • Dr. Jerome Rosner, author of Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties, argues that youngsters with special needs require “explicit, unambiguous instruction.” They need more drill and practice, especially in key subjects such as math and reading, and that can't happen in a regular classroom with 20 or more other students.
  • When children act out in the regular classroom, it's often a cry for help. They're saying: "Notice me. I'm drowning here. I need help." Small group direct instruction is the appropriate response to their cries. Keeping them in the regular classroom all day is cruel, unfair, and will make them fall further behind their peers.
  • Being in a regular classroom all day can wear on students with special needs. Small group direct instruction gives them a break from that anxiety-inducing environment. With fewer students in the room, they feel more comfortable to ask questions, request help, and interact with the teacher and fellow students.

This video shows how an elementary school meets the needs of all its students with small group and one-on-one instruction, not merely full inclusion.

What do you think?

In your opinion, why do parents of children with special needs not fight for small group direct instruction?

See results
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew: Updated and Expanded Edition
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew: Updated and Expanded Edition
When my son was diagnosed with autism, I turned to my mother for comfort and support and found neither. Like so many parents who have kids on the spectrum, I felt isolated, overwhelmed, and confused. Fortunately, my son's occupational therapist recommended this wonderful book to me that is warm, funny, and oh-so understanding. It's written by a mom who has a son with autism and ADHD, and it was just what I needed: informative, compassionate, and hopeful. It's on my bedside table, my companion during this journey so I no longer feel alone.

Questions & Answers

  • As a first grade teacher, I find it so infuriating that parents of students with special needs don't want them to get help outside the classroom. Little kids love receiving one-on-one help. Why are parents like that?

    As a teacher myself and as the mother of a son with autism, I share your frustration. With increasing numbers of kids with special needs (cognitive, behavioral, and/or emotional) and fewer resources to help them, school districts have resorted to full inclusion. Administrators do their best to convince parents that students leaving the regular classroom for small group instruction or one-on-one tutoring is a bad thing that stigmatizes them. Yet, you and I as educators of young children, know that this is patently false.

    Those of us who teach in the primary grades know how much our students love it when they leave class for one-on-one or small group instruction. What little kid wouldn't want to leave a group of 32 to get special attention in a smaller setting? It's not a stigma to them; it's a pure delight. Moreover, with their pliable brains, young children are more likely to reap the benefits from special help than older ones.

    Both my sons left their classrooms bi-weekly for speech therapy throughout their elementary school years. They played games with the speech therapist, worked on the computer, earned stickers, and had a blast. Moreover, they made enormous progress that could never have happened in the regular classroom. They got help from someone with an expertise that their classroom teacher lacked. They got crucial help with both articulation and social communication.

    While we're discouraged from saying anything negative about full inclusion, I strongly believe teachers should do so. We need to let parents know its limitations and educate them about the benefits of small group direct instruction. We must communicate with them how academic struggles, when not addressed in a smaller setting, often evolve into behavioral and emotional issues as well.

    I see how full inclusion is wearing down good teachers with some leaving their jobs. I would never recommend that a young person enter the profession today because of full inclusion. If you have students who are acting out or are struggling academically, there's little help for them or for you as their teacher. It's a sink or swim situation for both.

    You may want to read my article entitled: “What Parents Need to Know About Early Intervention Services.”

    https://wehavekids.com/parenting/Whats-So-Special-... Thanks for your question!

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      14 months ago

      Thanks so much for your input and your years of dedication to special education. Sadly, the full inclusion crowd has control right now, and they are a militant bunch that lacks common sense. They're worshipping the notion of full inclusion rather than looking at the individual needs of each child. I have a son with autism, and I'm so thankful that he attended elementary school before the full inclusion movement grew. I'm grateful for the direct instruction he received, the small group work, and the speech and occupational therapies. His teachers and therapists were amazing professionals who helped him make enormous strides in a short amount of time. He never would have been able to do that in a class with 25 other kids. When he reached third grade, he was in a regular classroom full-time (only needing to leave twice a week for speech). An early investment of time and resources definitely pays off for our kids and parents should definitely fight for it. Furthermore, we should not be putting so much on the shoulders of our classroom teachers. They need more support, not less.

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      I agree with everything in this article. I’ve been a Special Education teacher for 31 years. The benefits of small group direct instruction are invaluable! My New York district is beginning full inclusion with students that I know are going to be lost, left behind,become behavior problems and simply not learn all they are capable of learning. Our new director acts as if specially designed instruction provided in a small group is the worst thing you can do for special needs children. To take them out of the mainstream is cruel according to our districts new programming. This makes me very sad as the pendulum swings back to not recognizing students individual needs.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      20 months ago

      That really means something coming from you, kariamor, a mother of a child with Down syndrome. I hope parents will heed my warning about inclusion and push for the services their youngsters need, especially during those critical first five years. Thanks for your support!

    • profile image


      20 months ago

      Am a social worker and a parent of a child with down syndrome. I agree with you!!!!!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      Well, Wilson, your point of view is way more extreme than mine, but I must say I'm wary of the government's current expansion into early childhood education. As experts in the field know, preschool is not just another year of schooling; it's quite unique because kids need hands-on experiences, lots of play, and time to explore. The government's focus on "academic rigor" in preschool is preposterous, not developmentally appropriate, and cruel to young children.

      As for early intervention services, I think the government can make a huge difference for the better, especially during the first 5 years. However, we need professionals to be working directly with the kids and not just visiting the preschools with clipboards in hand, observing and documenting. The first 5 years are when a child's brain is malleable and a lot of progress can be made. It's a good investment of time and money.

    • profile image

      wilson todd 

      2 years ago

      i say get rid of the schools and get goverment out of are schools

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      I agree with you, Nicola. When my autistic son was little, he had a spectacular speech therapist and an awesome occupational therapist who made all the difference in the world to him and me. But this was in California where the philosophy about early intervention services is very different from many places like Oregon where I now live. The professionals in California were able to make an impact because California strongly believes that the first five years are the best opportunity to make a difference in a child's life. Their programs are all about investing time and money in those early years. Places such as Oregon have talented and compassionate professionals, too, but with limited resources and a myopic approach on inclusion, they're not allowed to fully use their knowledge and abilities. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on the matter. I hope you and your son are doing well.

    • profile image

      Nicola Hunt 

      2 years ago

      I found your statements thought provoking and found myself thinking about this for a while.

      I am left feeling quite sure that Inclusion is only as effective as the school, nursery or practitioner/teacher implementing it. If individual people do not understand what good inclusive practice looks like they wont be putting it into practice.

      Sometimes, not always, it is individuals that make the most difference to a child's learning and development not the level of funding.

      I have a son with ASD and he has a EHCP - this is not what made the difference, individuals did.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      4 years ago

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and your work with special needs kids. I agree with you. My son has autism. Who he was at four -- a timid boy who was always stimming, unable to make eye contact, and hypersensitive to touch and sound -- does not at all resemble the confident and competent high school student he is today. He always received full inclusion, but he also got speech and occupational therapies, and I'm forever grateful for that.

    • profile image

      Lady Lilith 

      4 years ago

      Working with special needs kids, I will have to say I mostly agree with you. All in all, it depends on the child. I have seen children who are fully included with services at home thrive. I have also seen childen in special education classes fail. I think the most important key is to have a good support group who is always looking for the best in the child. Who the child is today, might not be who they are tomorrow.


    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      4 years ago

      Thanks for the support, Bill. I hope someone will benefit from what I learned along the way with my autistic son. He received awesome early intervention services and is doing so well now. I want every kid to have that same experience.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Call it like it is...good for you. Keep screaming from the rooftops. Parents need to know this.


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