Inclusion: A Journey So Far and Lessons Learned

January 17th, 2016

By Lisa Ackerman

Inclusion – the process of taking a special needs individual and including them in a typical education setting – is a tough, delicate, and extremely complex subject to address. Each situation is unique to the child as well as the desired setting – which can change year to year. This statement can especially be true for children with autism and other developmental and behavioral issues. My goal is to give parents and professionals a viewpoint on inclusion for their own use so they may benefit from a parent’s perspective.

It is also important to note that my beliefs for children may not apply to everyone who reads this article. In many situations, I believe most children–typical or otherwise – should be fully included or mainstreamed at some point in their school experience. The process of inclusion should incorporate many steps in planning, preparation and support of the classroom experience. I am not a big believer in throwing the child into “the deep end of the pool” of inclusion without those prior considerations and preparations. Properly preparing the child and the support staff is crucial for success. Having a plan, a working IEP (Individualized Education Plan), choosing the most Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) possible (within the available school setting), and detailed independent assessments are the first important steps of the inclusion process.

This article was written with having my son spend one year in a Special Day Class in Kindergarten, repeating the next year in typical education Kindergarten and having him in a typical educational setting ever since (at the time of this printing, my son is in 8th grade.) How long will my son remain in a typical educational setting? The answer is simple: as long as the placement is appropriate, progress is made, and he continues to learn from the curriculum presented. All the elements for my son’s success are detailed in this article. It is my hope that other parents can utilize this as a launching pad for their team to review the options right for their child.

Inclusion programming does not just benefit the special needs child but helps all the children and adults in the classroom. With the overwhelming rise of autism in the past two decades and no end in sight for newly diagnosed children, we are all going to encounter people “on the spectrum” during our life. Interaction with children, teens, and adults affected by autism will be a part of everyone’s life today or in the near future–it is just a reality we face given the numbers of individuals affected. Getting familiar with special needs individuals early on in one’s life can make a large difference for everyone’s future in all communities and especially in a school setting.

First, it is important to define inclusion and mainstreaming. Inclusion is a process in which a child with an IEP is placed in a “typical education setting with typical peers” for some or all of their educational days. Mainstreaming is process in which a child with an IEP is placed in a “typical education setting with typical peers” for a designated portion of each school day, such as art, physical education, music, story time, etc.

Second, proper supports in the classroom are also key for inclusionary programming to be successful. Supports could include some of the following:

  • Instructional Aides who assist the child in a dedicated or part-time fashion
  • Visual supports for curriculum, activities, schedules and other key areas
  • Curriculum pre-training or homework help

The success of inclusion greatly depends on four important components – I call them the Big Four – that should be reviewed, addressed in a plan, and understood before placing a child in any classroom.

1. Assessment Assessments for children on the autism spectrum should cover behavioral, speech, academic, cognitive, and social-emotional areas. These reports, findings, and recommendations should be reviewed during the IEP process and provided to the teacher, aides, and any other personnel assisting in the classroom. Related reading on assessments.

2. Environment The classroom and playground settings should be studied and reviewed with the needs of the child in mind and assessed as a proper LRE. Areas to review are:

  • How distracting is the classroom? (i.e., are there classroom pets?)
  • Is it a contained classroom (i.e., a rectangle) or does it have adjacent hallways, opening dividers, and/or easy access to exits?
  • How busy is the classroom? Are there a lot of interruptions?
  • How many children are currently in the classroom? Is the classroom at full capacity, or will more students be placed there?
  • Where is the the classroom located within the school, relative to exits, playgrounds, lunchrooms, and restrooms?
  • What is the level of “friendliness” of the children at the school and in the classroom?
  • What type of playground and recess areas are available to all the children? What other children will be out on the playground at the same time as your special needs child?)
  • How is access to typical school activities presented to the student population, including assemblies, dances, or off-site activities? During these activities, an aide often assisted my son, or a designated peer helped guide him through an activity.

All of these details play key roles in the child’s comfort level in a school setting. Exploring the facility with the child well before school starts is highly recommended. Watch what the child is drawn to, shies away from, and how the child interacts with the environment. These responses will provide important clues in preparation and planning for the first day of school.

3. Teacher The teacher is one of the most important parts of the child’s team. The teacher’s involvement with your child, teaching style, use of visual supports, willingness to adjust learning presentations as needed, use of technology, and willingness to learn how to meet the child’s needs, are crucial considerations. Finding an easy way to communicate with staff is important.

Some considerations to review with your key team members include:

  • The general education teacher needs to attend IEP meetings
  • Occasionally, it is recommended that teachers attend supervisorial/home program or clinic meetings. This is necessary if there is an outside program in place involving in-classroom aides and supervision of a behavioral program. If teacher attendance cannot be arranged, it is important to share any meeting minutes and/or have follow-up conversations between the program supervisor and teacher to keep everyone apprised of changes in the child’s program.
  • Parents and professionals who work with your child inside or outside of school should work with the teachers to:
    • Make them an important part of the team.
    • Support their efforts by helping in the classroom and/or with tasks needed to support the child in the classroom.
    • Assist them with obtaining any necessary training or materials.
    • Provide on-going support, receive their critical input, and troubleshoot as needed.

4. Support The school’s support staff plays a pivotal role in the child’s inclusion experience. These key players include: aides, resource teachers, the principal, and the school administration staff. All of the school’s staff should welcome inclusion.

Tools unique to each child may also include the following:

  • A behavior plan: If the child has any negative behaviors, conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to address issues identified in the FBA. Create a mechanism to log progress and educate staff on how to address any new behaviors that crop up.
  • Required visual or auditory supports for the child: If the child has visual or auditory issues, it is important to identify strengths and to address any deficits in the classroom setting.
  • Primers to prepare the child for all aspects of their day: Prepare your child by visiting the school site, discussing how the day will be scheduled, and most importantly, when mom or dad is coming to pick them up!
  • Social stories: Prepare social stories to help the child understand new situations.
  • Technology: Technology can be helpful to assist learning and engage the student. Augmentative communication or listening devices help pre-verbal children participate in classroom activities. Devices may include iPads or other touch screen technology and FM auditory trainers or other listening devices.Building community, awareness, and parent involvement are keys to successful inclusion. School should not be viewed only as your child’s placement, but as your child’s community. Volunteering in the PTA, the child’s classroom, or with district advisory committees for special education will ultimately benefit your child.

    Case Study: Jeff

    Here is my personal story about my son, Jeff. Jeff was diagnosed with autism in September 1999, and with apraxia and auditory processing issues shortly after that. From age 2 ½, Jeff received thousands of hours of ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), speech therapy, occupational therapy, and other intensive therapies such as Fast ForWord, Tomatis, social skills training classes, and medical interventions to address his unique needs. Jeff also used an auditory trainer to address his auditory processing needs beginning in December 2003. It is also important to note that Jeff had words at 15 months, then abruptly lost them, and did not speak again until he was almost 5 years old.
    In 2003, when Jeff was 5 1/2, he started in a special day class for kindergarten with seven kids and one teacher (who was a speech pathologist), a classroom aide and a 1:1 aide for Jeff. It was a hard year because Jeff was still learning to speak, as well as learning the structure in the classroom. These concepts and conditions were all new to him and the transition was difficult. We worked with Jeff slowly through the process and he started to enjoy school, especially once he understood what was expected from him. Over a two-month period, Jeff integrated into his classroom, but still had many issues with attention, activities, and behaviors.
    In 2004, Jeff moved to a typical classroom setting to repeat kindergarten with an aide and in 2005, he was placed in a typical first grade classroom with an aide. Since then, Jeff has benefited tremendously from inclusion. He is thriving and learning in typical classroom environments and has made friends.
    When he transitioned to a general education classroom, we had to pre-teach some of the abstract curriculum (for example: a sample pre-lesson was about how an egg turns into a chicken). I obtained certain materials in advance from the teacher, made copies, and used it in Jeff’s in-home program for teaching some advanced concepts ahead of time.
    In addition to curriculum preloading, we also incorporated a major classroom modification with a personal auditory trainer/FM device. The teacher and aides wear microphones, while Jeff a device that looks like a hearing aid. His response time and ability to work independently greatly increased with the introduction of the FM system.
    Could we have done inclusion from the beginning? I don’t believe so. Jeff had major behaviors, learning and attention issues, could not speak, and was not even able to pay attention to a one-on-one instructor. And oh yes, he has autism, apraxia, reading comprehension, and auditory processing disorders. No wonder this process called inclusion was tough! The preparation work took thousands of hours of ABA, speech therapy, occupational therapy, biomedical intervention, social skills training, facilitated/scripted play dates, consultations with professionals, and prayers to help Jeff be successful. The goal was setting him up to be successful–not throwing him in the deep end of the pool with a concrete anchor.
    Inclusion may not work for every child all the time, but if the Big Four (assessment, environment, teacher(s), and support) appear solid and the team that works with your child thinks he or she is ready, inclusion deserves consideration.


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    Author Information

    Lisa Ackerman is a parent, not a professional with any credentials or background in inclusion or teaching special needs children. Her experience includes one child: her son, Jeff. She has quit her full-time job in management to work full-time with her son and other families with a group she founded called Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) in California. TACA started with 10 families in November 2000, and by April 2005, had more than 2000 families and seven meeting locations in California.

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