Is Integrating Children with Special Needs in Mainstream Classrooms Beneficial?
Every person is born with a purpose and the ability to give to society in one way or another. It is inevitable that some may have more needs than others. Integrating children with special needs into mainstream schools, unarguably, promotes a more inclusive society. That said, this integration brings with it situations that need addressing. Administrators should consider them when including these children in a mainstream classroom.
One of my teaching assignments was in a school for children with hearing challenges. Some of them had traces of autism. The experience taught me that integrating children with special needs is not without challenges. Yet, such inclusion is very important for developing an empathetic, well-rounded society. It is vital to nurture children with special needs, for they are society's future contributing members.
Integrating these children into a mainstream classroom has countless benefits. They extend to both themselves and others without these needs. There are factors for administrators to consider if integration into the mainstream classroom environment becomes an option.
What it is like teaching children with hearing challenges
Some years ago, I left a teaching in a secondary school and went instead to teach students who had impaired hearing. Breaking down mathematical concepts into manageable processes was a daily, interesting and fruitful challenge. So was teaching them to read, which I did with simple sentences, word structures and catchy songs. Sorting out mathematical concepts with manipulates and cards was challenging as well. The efforts bore fruit when some children began to read with more facility. Increasingly, they used manipulates to complete problem sums.
What made this school worthy of mention was that it made some genuine, though not always successful, attempts at including students with hearing impairment in a mainstream classroom. Teachers, including myself, had to wear FM transmitters so that they could properly communicate with students who had difficulties hearing. They attended classes in a mainstream setting with students with normal hearing. What was significant was that students with hearing difficulties learned positive social communication, while their peers without such difficulties learned to empathize with the obstacles they had to face.
Teaching students with a mild level of autism
Not too long ago, a student with mild autism attended one of my classes. He spoke well, but had difficulties connecting with literature as a subject. Socially, he coped admirably. He may have had some disagreements with his peers from mainstream environments, but they came to accept his differences and difficulties. He made many friends.
This boy even learned to play the piano. I had him over to my house several times and helped him compose a tune based on his favorite animated film. With such opportunities and support from his parents, we saw a distinct improvement in his grades.
What are the benefits of integration for the special needs child
More than 15 years of research has proven the benefits of inclusion for all involved in the process. All students grow when schools include special needs children in a mainstream environment.
Greater access to the mainstream curriculum
Students with special needs have more opportunities for academic growth because they have greater access to the mainstream curriculum. With greater exposure to the challenges of learning, they have better chances to take bigger steps forward.
In the above school for children with hearing challenges, students with both reduced hearing levels and Asperger’s Syndrome benefited greatly from integration in the mainstream curriculum, achieving outstanding results. They went on to do very well in various secondary schools.
Improved reading levels
Children with special needs, and hence, reading difficulties, benefit greatly from inclusion in the mainstream. The reading levels of their mainstream peers also increase.
Before entering a mainstream environment, a student who had impaired hearing and difficulties with speech did not have good diction when pronouncing some of his words. He amazed me a few months later by speaking with increased fluency and better pronunciation. He claimed that he learned to say certain words from listening to a friend sitting next to him.
Increased social opportunities and exposure to proper role models
Integration into the mainstream for the child with special needs means the chance to interact with peers from mainstream environments. Such play is a way of developing proper socialization skills for any child, and is indispensable. The role modeling helps to nurture social skills.
Increased skill acquisition opportunities
The mainstream curriculum presents the special needs child with more chances to acquire the skills that are not necessarily included in a special needs curriculum. For instance, more mathematical concepts would be included in a mainstream curriculum than in one targeted at children with more needs.
Increased parental participation
Parents whose children have special needs are often motivated to volunteer in their child’s school community and their child’s needs.
The mother of the autistic boy in my literature class was always present for Parent Teacher Conferences and volunteering to help in school based activities. This was beneficial for both her and her child, as she had greater awareness of how the school operated. She was better able to help her child at home as well.
Plymouth Zone Singing with children with special needs
Greater opportunities to be integrated into the community
Being in a mainstream environment affords more opportunity for children to be able to socialize This creates a higher chance of acceptance into the community.
Many children with special needs in the mainstream school where I taught made many friends and were widely accepted by them. More often than not, children in the mainstream environment accept them once their needs are explained.
Increased self respect and confidence
Being in a mainstream environment creates more self-respect and confidence for a child with special needs. Their self-esteem is given a great boost when they are around their peers in the mainstream environment.
Preparation for adult life in an inclusive society
Having the same experiences as their peers in a mainstream environment means that children with special needs are prepared for the rigors of adult life.They are armed with the sets of social and emotional skills necessary for coping with adult life
Higher employment rate among those with special needs
If children with special needs have the same sets of skills developed as their peers in mainstream schools, they are also better prepared to be contributing members of the workforce.
Does integrating children with special needs have benefits?
Students without special needs will benefit from having their friends with those needs included in the environment as well.
Increased application of strategies beneficial to all students
The teacher in an inclusive classroom has to use strategies that will help children who progress, academically, at different rates. The all rounded approach will benefit both students with and without special needs.
Enhanced feelings of self-esteem
Students without special needs can experience feelings of self-esteem when asked to help or tutor their disadvantaged peers. I paired a female student with the boy with autism I mentioned earlier. She was never respected by her classmates, for she was reserved and quiet. Pairing her with the boy helped her feel better about herself, her ability to understand literature and allowed her to help him as well.
Empathy for the limitations of others
When students without special needs see their peers with these needs on a regular basis, there is a higher potential for developing sensitivity and empathy for their limitations. They will know why they learn at a slower pace.
The students in the class the boy with autism belonged to were initially rather apprehensive when they saw him lose his temper over trivial matters. The form teacher’s explanation of his needs and how to relate to him helped tremendously with the integration.
Preparation for integration in an inclusive society
Students without special needs will come to accept that those with these needs can make contributions to society. They will build better rapport with others and understand their difficulties better when they enter the workforce.
What do administrators have to consider when integrating children with special needs into mainstream schools?
Integrating children with special needs in a regular, mainstream classroom comes with issues that need addressing. Awareness of these issues enables successful integration.
Properly trained teaching staff
One of the difficulties of including special needs children in mainstream classes is that the teacher in charge of the class might not have formal training in special education. To enable him or her to empathize with and handle its difficulties, such training is necessary.
Mainstream schools should have available support staff to help a special needs child with any difficulties he may have. It is a task for a teacher, who is addressing the problems that come with mainstream teaching, to balance this with the demands of teaching a child with special needs.
Schools which have decided to include children with special needs into their environment must have properly trained support staff.
The child's readiness
It is not wise to integrate a child into a mainstream classroom when he is not developmentally ready. This applies academically, emotionally and mentally. There are physical difficulties involved in integration, so school should do so only after it has assessed the child's readiness level.
Children with special needs have a higher tendency to find themselves in difficult situations during breaks, when they are not supervised. They may get lost or into unintended altercations with other children. Children who display traces of autism may also find it difficult to shut out lunch time noises.
The best way to counter theses problems is to occupy them during these breaks. The boy with autism in my literature class often came to me during recess for piano lessons. He kept himself gainfully busy.
Changing classrooms between subjects
This is the time when a child with special needs might become lost. It likely happens when he is first introduced to a new environment. A way of countering this potential problem is to assign a buddy who can help to guide the child to the correct room.
Children with special needs will need a more time to complete written assignments. This is especially true of language assignments or testing situations.
A few students with special needs in the mainstream school where I taught were given an added half an hour to complete their tests and assignments. One or two actually surpassed their mainstream peers in terms of academic performance.
Teachers need to develop alternative ways to manage special needs students who are a little restless in the classroom. They need to know how to react when these students lose control of their emotions.
What I did with special needs children in my classroom was to constantly reinforce that certain behaviors were not socially acceptable. That said, it is important not to punish children for behaviors that they cannot control. An example of this is talking too loudly. To ease these difficulties, parents should communicate them to teachers.
Including special needs children in a mainstream classroom benefits all students socially, emotionally and academically. It comes with challenges, but patience and effort makes it a fulfilling process.