Inclusion and integration may seem that they have the same meaning, but there is a significant difference. Inclusion has been one of the buzzwords in special education for the last twenty years or so. One goal in countless IEP meetings is to include the child with special needs in the classroom. However, inclusion is often “inserted but separated.” Many children are brought into the classroom with typically developing children for lunch, specials, and recess, but they aren’t exactly included in activities. They are allowed to participate, but they are often separate from the rest of the class. One way to prevent this is with integration.
Integration is More Than Eating Lunch at the Same Table
When a child with special needs first enters your classroom, many students are already in their groups with friends they already have. They don’t know this person who is only in the classroom and may need help getting to know them. They also need help understanding how to interact if the student is nonverbal. One common misconception for adults is that if students are nonverbal, they are also non-communicative, and nothing could be further from the truth. Students are often included in specials, lunch, and other non-academic activities, but they aren’t really integrated into the classroom. They are present but not integrated. Consider this like mixing baking ingredients. They don’t combine into cake if you just pour them together. Even dump cakes require some amount of motion. However, if properly mixed and baked, they become fabulous desserts.
Authentic Public Praise and Valuation
When children with special needs are included in typical classrooms, they are often celebrated for simple things, but it’s less authentic. It becomes painfully obvious that the teacher is only looking for something to praise the student for doing. However, with proper integration, you can see the new perspective these students may bring to the classroom. For example, loud playing of instruments in music can spark a conversation about how key strike changes the volume of instruments. However, you should work with the student to also learn to play quieter and praise them when they do. You might be surprised at how much you learn.
Inclusion Was Critical
In the last twenty years, it was critical for schools to require the least restrictive environment and inclusion into typical classrooms. Many students with special needs have been put into self-contained classes all day and segregated from the general population. Then, when these students finish school and go on to have jobs in the public sector, they don’t know how to interact. The general population doesn’t know how to respond to their needs, and the special needs population has no authentic experience dealing with people without special needs. As a result, the two groups suffer more. Least restrictive environment has been challenging for some schools to adopt because outdated stereotypes are alive and well in their communities. Legally we stepped in to force them to consider how to make these students successful beyond high school.
Integration Is the Next Step
Now that we are seeing more students being included in the classroom, we must begin to integrate them into the activities and lessons. You can still differentiate instruction and assignments without segregating this population. Additionally, students vary in their level of need. For example, students on the autism spectrum may have one habit or challenge that affects their education, and they need minimal support. On the other hand, a student with Cerebral Palsy may have significant cognitive delays. The reverse could also be true of either of these groups. We must consider that each student is a vital part of the education system and deserves a quality education.
Throw Out Stereotypes
Talk to students about hurtful stereotypes. Talk to them about the stereotypes that hurt them personally. What stereotypes follow gender, race, identity, religion, or ethnicity? How and why are these things hurtful? Even if a kindergartener doesn’t understand the word stereotype, they know when it hurts for people to think something about them because of their skin color, accent, or name. Then you can talk about abilities and things they believe about people with disabilities. Involve the students with disabilities. Ask them how this makes them feel and what they want the class to know. This talk doesn’t need to be harmful to anyone, but it should open the classroom to talking about what they thought and what happens when they are right or wrong. Stereotypes aren’t always negative, but they are never accurate 100% of the time.
Allow Authentic Interaction
Don’t stop an interaction because you are afraid it is going poorly. People with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else and need to learn to deal with negativity appropriately. If a situation is getting out of hand or the reaction could be dangerous, you should step in, but children argue over toys, opinions, and clothes. Let these things go.
Now that we have mastered bringing people into the classroom with additional needs, we need to begin integrating them into the class culture. Let them showcase their talents and creativity like you would anyone else. If they are in class for academic time, call on them and let them try to answer questions. You’d be surprised how much they would understand and respond if you just let them try. Most children just want a change. Inclusion is crucial, but integration is vital.