What Is Full Inclusion and How Is It Damaging Our Public Schools?
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.
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?
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.”
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© 2015 McKenna Meyers