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Inclusion Practices in Education

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Special Education Inclusion

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This article was updated March 15, 2007

Inclusion remains a controversial concept in education because it relates to educational and social values, as well as to our sense of individual worth.

Any discussion about inclusion should address several important questions:

Do we value all children equally?

What do we mean by "inclusion"?

Are there some children for whom "inclusion" is inappropriate?

There are advocates on both sides of the issue. James Kauffman of the University of Virginia views inclusion as a policy driven by an unrealistic expectation that money will be saved. Furthermore, he argues that trying to force all students into the inclusion mold is just as coercive and discriminatory as trying to force all students into the mold of a special education class or residential institution.

On the other side are those who believe that all students belong in the regular education classroom, and that "good" teachers are those who can meet the needs of all the students, regardless of what those needs may be.

Between the two extremes are large groups of educators and parents who are confused by the concept itself. They wonder whether inclusion is legally required and wonder what is best for children. They also question what it is that schools and school personnel must do to meet the needs of children with disabilities.

While recognizing that there are no simple answers, this paper attempts to give an overview of the concept of inclusion and offers a set of recommendations that can help to ensure that we meet the needs of all students.


In order to discuss the concept of inclusion, it is first necessary to have a common vocabulary. Research Bulletin Number 11, 1993, from Phi Delta Kappa's Center for Evaluation, Development, and Research provides a useful set of definitions. The following have been edited for clarity.


Generally, mainstreaming has been used to refer to the selective placement of special education students in one or more "regular" education classes. Proponents of mainstreaming generally assume that a student must "earn" his or her opportunity to be placed in regular classes by demonstrating an ability to "keep up" with the work assigned by the regular classroom teacher. This concept is closely linked to traditional forms of special education service delivery.


Inclusion is a term which expresses commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the support services to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students). Proponents of inclusion generally favor newer forms of education service delivery.

Full Inclusion

Full inclusion means that all students, regardless of handicapping condition or severity, will be in a regular classroom/program full time. All services must be taken to the child in that setting.

In addition to problems related to definition, it also should be understood that there often is a philosophical or conceptual distinction made between mainstreaming and inclusion. Those who support the idea of mainstreaming believe that a child with disabilities first belongs in the special education environment and that the child must earn his/her way into the regular education environment.

In contrast, those who support inclusion believe that the child always should begin in the regular environment and be removed only when appropriate services cannot be provided in the regular classroom.

Does Federal Law Require Inclusion?

Two federal laws govern education of children with disabilities. Neither requires inclusion, but both require that a significant effort be made to find an inclusive placement.


The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as amended in 2004, does not require inclusion. Instead, the law requires that children with disabilities be educated in the "least restrictive environment appropriate” to meet their “unique needs.” And the IDEA contemplates that the "least restrictive environment" analysis will begin with placement the regular education classroom.

However, IDEA recognizes that it is not appropriate to place all children in the regular education classroom. Therefore, the law requires school districts to have a “continuum of placements” available, extending from the regular education classroom to residential settings, in order to accommodate the needs of all children with disabilities. Using the continuum concept makes it more likely that each child would be placed appropriately in an environment that is specifically suited to meet his/her needs. The law intends that the degree of “inclusion” be driven by the student’s needs as determined by the IEP team, not by the district’s convenience or the parents’ wishes.

In developing the Individual Education Program (IEP) for a child with disabilities, the IDEA requires the IEP team to consider placement



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