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Making Inclusion
The Norm


Including special education students in "regular" classes and finding ways to meet their -- and all other students' learning needs -- should be the goal of every school, according to professor Dr. Mara Sapon-Shevin. Included: Included: A description of inclusion in practice.

Including special education students in "regular" classes is a process many educators fear will be difficult, time-consuming, and yet another burden for teachers weighted down by mandates. Educators and others in society, though, have to start viewing inclusion as a right and a social justice issue, not just an educational concern, according to Dr. Mara Sapon-Shevin, a professor of education at Syracuse University. And with the proper training and support for teachers and students, it can work, she said.

Inclusion teaches children how to live in "diverse, democratic communities," Dr. Sapon-Shevin maintains in her book, Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms. Segregating special education students or those with disabilities deprives them of valuable peer interaction and affects the quality of their education and prevents other children from learning from them, according to Dr. Sapon-Shevin.

She talked with Education World about why she is such an advocate for inclusion and how it can be implemented.

Dr. Mara Sapon-Shevin
Dr. Mara Sapon-Shevin
Education World: How does inclusion benefit all children?

Dr. Sapon-Shevin: Inclusion benefits all children by helping them to understand and appreciate that the world is big, that people are different, and that we can work together to find solutions that work for everyone. We live in an increasingly diverse world, and all people need to be comfortable and knowledgeable with people who vary in terms of a host of characteristics. It's important to speak more than one language, to understand how to help others who are having trouble and to accept help yourself, to resolve conflicts, to work together to challenge injustice. These are critical lessons best learned in inclusive classrooms.

It's very hard to learn to be comfortable with difference in the absence of diversity. Attempting to do so leads to abstract and theoretical learning rather than the concrete, grounded understanding that allows us to breathe deeply into our commonalities and our differences, confident of our places in the world and our abilities to connect well with others.

Every parent I have met wants his or her child to grow up to be able to move through the world with confidence and skill, and much of that will depend on the kind of education they have received. Inclusion is not a "favor" for students with disabilities. Inclusion is a gift we give ourselves, the gift of understanding, the gift of knowing that we are all members of the human race, and that true joy comes in building genuine relationships with a wide range of other people.

EW: What is the difference between mainstreaming and inclusion?

Dr. Sapon-Shevin: Mainstreaming was an attempt -- ill-founded and unsuccessful -- to place students with disabilities in typical classrooms, hoping that they might succeed. Mainstreaming basically says, "We won't change the regular classroom, the curriculum, the teaching, or pay much attention to the social environment, but if you can succeed here, you are allowed to stay." Not surprisingly, students with disabilities, many of whom had a history of school failure already, didn't do well, and then, their lack of success was seen as evidence of their inability to be with typical students.

"Inclusion says'You have a right to be here. This is your classroom and your school as much as is any other student's.'"
Inclusion says, instead, "You have a right to be here. This is your classroom and your school as much as is any other student's. We will do what we need to make this classroom a safe, welcoming, and successful environment for you. We will make sure that the curriculum is broad, that the pedagogy meets your needs, and that the social environment is carefully structured to promote acceptance and welcome for you and for every other student in the classroom."

EW: So what would an inclusive classroom look like?

Dr. Sapon-Shevin: In my book Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms I draw a parallel with the game of musical chairs. In typical musical chairs, the game is competitive --- the rules are the same for everyone, and those who are shorter, smaller, weaker or less competent in any way are quickly eliminated. No one is asked to help or support, and the focus is on individual achievement and winning. In this game, many children are eliminated, and the lesson is: "If you're different, you are a loser. We have no responsibility to you." This is a mainstreaming model: we will leave the classroom (the game) unchanged, and maybe you can succeed.

The contrastive model is one of cooperative musical chairs. We will change the game so that everyone is working together to achieve something challenging. Students move around the chairs to music, and the goal, when the music stops, is for everyone to be on a chair in order for the group to win. There are more children than chairs, so students have to help one another, physically, verbally, and emotionally, in order to figure out a solution that keeps everyone playing, everyone engaged.

This is the model of inclusion. We will change the classroom (the game) so that everyone can be successful, and we will implement an ethos of caring and support. We won't win at the expense of others, but we will "win" because we have helped one another. This is inclusion in action.

EW: What is the difference between inclusion and inclusion done well?

Dr. Sapon-Shevin: I prefer to reserve the word "inclusion" for a consistent commitment to fully including all students. I reject terms like "partial inclusion" and the "continuum of inclusion" because they miss the point of inclusion completely. How can you partly belong? Either you are a full member of your class or you're not. And a continuum implies that inclusion is only available and appropriate for certain students.

I also am very suspicious when an administrator says, "This is our inclusive third grade." It makes me wonder about all the other third grades -- are they "exclusive"? Does that imply that in the other third grades, all the students are somehow "the same"? I believe that children differ in hundreds of ways: their race, ethnicity, family configuration, religion, socio-economic level, language, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientation, and so on. Even a classroom that is supposedly "homogeneous" actually has children who differ in many ways. Inclusion is a way of intentionally naming, honouring, and responding to those differences, rather than maintaining some "standardized" teaching that disregards all the differences that are actually there.

Dr. Mara Sapon-Shevin 2
I don't believe there are two kinds of students: regular and special. Either there is only one kind of student, or there are millions of kinds. But there definitely aren't only two! To homogenize the children who sit in our classrooms and schools is to do a terrible disservice to them and to our own abilities to provide meaningful, personalized educational experiences to all.

Doing inclusion well means paying careful attention to the curriculum (what is taught), to pedagogical strategies (how we teach), and to the classroom environment in which all this takes place. Inclusion cannot be "business as usual." Inclusion means broadening our curriculum and our teaching and meeting individual needs within a shared community context.

Of course not everyone is reading the same book -- but we can all be learning about the civil rights' movement, for example, by accessing information in a variety of ways and demonstrating our learning in an equal assortment of demonstrations of skill and competence. Student in a sixth grade class might read books about the civil rights' movement , listen to tapes, watch films, learn songs, examine documents, interview historians, and community members, etc. They then might write reports, produce cartoons and posters, write plays, construct readers theater pieces, write songs, or develop political campaigns to show what they have learned. Inclusion doesn't mean that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time in the same way with the same expectations. Inclusion means that educational experiences are structured so that all children are learning, all children have goals and objectives, and all children are expected to demonstrate their understanding.

Inclusion also means that we pay careful attention to issues of social justice and diversity. How do children talk to one another? Do they help one another? Is there teasing or exclusion going on? Teachers spend considerable energy helping students understand their own and others' differences and children are encouraged to ask respectful questions and to learn about one another. Helping is considered essential in the classroom, and time is spent teaching students to support one another through peer mentoring, collaborative learning, and other forms of peer support. In the inclusive classrooms, it matters how people treat one another. Learning to live together in a democratic society is one of the key goals of the inclusive classroom.

EW: What is the biggest misconception about inclusion classes?

Dr. Sapon-Shevin: The biggest misconception about inclusion classes is that inclusion can be an "add on" to what we are doing now. Inclusion requires a fundamental restructuring of our schools, placing priority on the creation of inclusive, collaborative learning communities in which high achievement for all is considered possible and desirable. Inclusion demands abandoning philosophies of ranking and exclusion, replacing these with a commitment to collaboration and success for all.

EW: Some teachers might be concerned about adequately meeting the needs of special education students in their classes, with all the other responsibilities they must juggle. How would you address those concerns?

Dr. Sapon-Shevin: It is completely reasonable for teachers to be concerned that they are being asked to take on lots of responsibilities in the classroom without adequate support. Asking teachers to meet the needs of a wide range of learners without educational and personal resources is a formula for frustration and failure. Teachers need to demand (and schools must provide) adequate training and support for inclusion, not only before students are included, but on an ongoing basis. Abandoning teachers with challenging students is irresponsible and unethical and doesn't lead to success for teachers, students, or their families.

"Doing inclusion well means paying careful attention to the curriculum (what is taught), to pedagogical strategies (how we teach), and to the classroom environment in which all this takes place."
Many teachers who are now being over-burdened with high-stakes standardized testing are witnessing the deterioration of their abilities to meet students' individual needs -- all students -- not just those who have formal disability labels. Parents must rally behind teachers demanding that schools provide teachers with adequate support (materials, consultation, time for collaboration, advanced training, and peer support) so that inclusion is successful.

There is a huge difference, however, between the two statements: "We don't have enough support for inclusion so we won't do it" and "Inclusion is critically important and we will demand that we have adequate support to do it well." The first statement leads to exclusion and discrimination, a violation of civil rights, and a moral imperative to educate. The second statement should lead us to political and educational activism to ensure that money is allocated to things that matter and the recognition that providing a good education to all students is in everyone's best interest.

It must also be said that many teachers have found that good teaching -- responsive, active, participatory, and multi-level -- benefits all students. It is not a zero-sum game in which making visuals to help Jonas hurts Carlos' education or that allowing Tiana to use manipulatives damages Malik's math skills. The more teachers broaden their curriculum and allow multiple entry and participation levels, the more students they are likely to reach. The more adaptations and modification are "standard," the less stigmatizing or problematic variation becomes for any student.

EW: Some people believe strongly that special education students' needs are met better in separate classes. At a conference, Dr. Naomi Zigmond, a professor of special education at the University of Pittsburgh, said she advocates assigning special education students to separate classes and providing them with "intensive, relentless instruction." How would you respond to that?

Dr. Sapon-Shevin: Providing students with disabilities with "relentless, intensive instruction" may improve their academic skills, although there is even debate about the academic effectiveness of segregated pull-out programs. But segregating students with disabilities will not provide them with the rich peer models and support available in the regular classroom, nor will it help non-disabled students grow in their recognition and understanding of the gifts and strengths of students with disabilities. We need not equate good teaching and instruction with segregation.

The choice is not between "abandonment in the regular classroom with no instruction" and "good teaching in segregated classrooms." The goal must be good instruction -- appropriate, individualized instruction when necessary -- within the context of the general education classroom. Special education is a set of services, and not a location. It's important not to confuse the two. Of course students with any kind of unique needs must have them met, be it through different materials, modifications in the learning environment, specialized tools or devices, or alternative teaching strategies, but such services are possible within inclusive classrooms that are adequately staffed and supported. That is the goal and the promise of inclusion.

This e-interview with Dr. Mara Sapon-Sheven is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


  • Special education
  • Inclusion

    Article by Ellen R. Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2007 Education World

    Published 02/26/2007