In reviewing the data on inclusion, I was struck by the lack of change in the percentage of students who are served in separate schools and facilities. So, I took a deeper look at the types of disabilities that tend to be served in separate settings. In a report from the National Center for Education Statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012), I learned that of the 4-5% who are served in separate facilities:
• 30.6 % have Deaf-Blindness
• 18.5% have Emotional Disturbance
• 25% have Multiple Disabilities
Students who fall into these disability categories tend to require the most intensive supports and are often considered the most difficult to serve within regular education environments, so the statistics aren’t all that surprising. With the support of integration facilitators, speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, paraprofessionals, and other specialists- students with severe disabilities have been successfully transitioned from separate facilities to neighborhood schools. In one study, 58 of 77 students made the transition to their home school without a re-referral to an out-of-school placement (Thousand, 1990). While there have been efforts like this to reduce social isolation for these students though increased integration in less restrictive settings, there appears to be little change in the actual number of students served in separated settings.
It’s hard to imagine that separate educational facilities will ever go away. Separate facilities may arguably be the best allocation of resources and in some cases may be the only option for addressing the complex needs of this vulnerable population of students. So, how do we address the concerns of social isolation for this group of students?
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
LRE should never be a onetime determination. As students gain new skills, we should see movement toward more and more inclusive environments. Schools that are designed to address emotional/behavioral needs can be a sort of educational “dumping ground.” These students are typically placed in separate settings because of disruptive behavior. Once placed in separate programs, these students are at risk for being forgotten and there may be insufficient efforts to support re-integration into less restrictive settings.
Professionals working in separate programs must make an extra effort to collaborate with professionals in less restrictive settings so that they can maintain a perspective of what’s next for students. When this collaboration is missing, the likelihood of a successful transition decreases.
Separate educational programs have a tendency to group students according to skill level. However, there is much to be gained by forming more heterogeneous classrooms. Every student, regardless of the severity of their disability, has a strength or skill that can benefit another student.
One way to do this is through school-wide shared experiences. I’ve seen this done by grouping students according to similar interests for participation in weekly clubs. Multi-age, multi-level groups of students participating in shared activities can promote unique opportunities for relationship development and skill building. This model also supports a sense of school-wide community and collaboration.
Reverse Inclusion and Peer Mentoring
Reverse inclusion and peer mentoring both involve bringing typically developing students into a special education environment. Reverse inclusion may involve pairing students for a shared social activity. Peer mentoring is usually more intensive in that it involves training a peer to provide instruction or tutoring within the special education setting.
Bringing students with intensive medical or behavioral needs into a general education classroom may not be appropriate or feasible. In these cases, reverse inclusion or peer tutoring can be a great option. It can take creativity to do this successfully. Effective implementation of either approach requires partnerships with general education teachers in area neighborhood schools who are committed to making it work.
Inclusion, undoubtedly, requires tremendous amounts of creativity and collaboration. Above all, there must be a commitment to the process for every student regardless of the severity of the disability. I’d like to believe that inclusion is possible in every setting.
Data Accountability Center. (2005-2011). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Data. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Retrieved from https://www.ideadata.org/default.asp
National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Digest of Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=59
Thousand, J. a. (1990). Strategies for educating learners with severe disabilities within their local home schools and communities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 23, 3:4-24.