Children with special needs are very special indeed. They are young men and women that are caught between their disability and being accepted as normal by their peers. Some agencies argue that they should be kept secluded and educated with their disabled peers. Others contend that they must be integrated into the main school system and taught the necessary skills to survive in the post school community. While this debate continues, lives are at stake. The question should not be, where do we place these individuals, but whose interest are we truly concerned about? If it is the children’s, then we must do all that we can to prepare them for their futures.
In an article by Brown, et. al., we see a clearer picture of why children should be integrated into the classroom. Children with disabilities live with non-handicapped parents, play with non-handicapped siblings and friends, wait in waiting rooms with non-handicapped citizens, worship with non-handicapped parishioners, and lie in the sand next to non-handicapped sun bathers. “These same handicapped individuals are segregated from non-handicapped citizens in what is presumably the major educational force in the life of any child – the school” (2004).
Before 1975, most students with disabilities were educated primarily in separate schools and/or facilities. “Now, fully inclusive schools are structured under guidelines that provide the least restrictive environment for all students” (Adamek, 2001). Partial participation is an important principle to consider when planning for an integrated curriculum. “Partial participation means that the student can benefit from participating in some aspects of an activity, even if the student’s disability prevents him or her from full participation” (Adamek, 2001). An easy way to classify accommodations that may be needed for partial participation is to think of minimalism. Tiered instruction is a way to set-up an altered curriculum to allow for multiple levels of learning in a classroom. All students can work on the same general concept, but different goals and objectives are defined for the differing levels of ability present (Lapka, 2005). Examples may include allowing ample time and giving specific instructions to help students reach their goals. Altering the test is another solution. While some students work from a detailed list of 20 questions, students with disabilities may only be required to focus on five questions. In multiple choice tests, four choices may be reduced to two. “The task is to change the attitude, it is not how well you perform, but are you improving” (Lapka, 2005).
There is a danger when modifications are used. These adjustments have the potential of becoming a crutch. Barnes states that it should be the goal of the instructor to gradually wean the students from their modifications as their abilities increase. He goes on to explain that special education students need to fit in. Modified assignments are passed out along with regular assignments so that attention is not drawn to the differences, the special education teacher helps all students when in the room to obscure the fact that she is there for certain students and major classroom decisions are made when the entire class is present (2006).
Student empowerment is key when incorporating special needs children into the classroom. A group of teachers decided to begin to help students become self-advocates and leaders in their life decisions. “These teachers agreed to work with their students to explore the steps it takes to guide students toward their own empowerment” (Jones, 2006). What they discovered through this exercise was that students were transformed when given the opportunity to help make their own decisions and goals. Four themes that surfaced are that students are able to gain knowledge about their disabilities, the IEP process and why they receive services; no student is too young to learn about himself and become involved in decision making; student empowerment promotes learning “as they are encouraged to engage in inquiry, to develop leadership skills, and to make decisions that affect their own lives”; and student empowerment is contagious (Jones, 2006).
Through the efforts of Jones and her colleagues, they concluded that student self empowerment does not take extra time and is not difficult. There are five steps that she outlines for empowering students. These include encouraging disability awareness and self-discovery. Children are taught about their disabilities as well as their particular learning strengths through inventories, internet research, surveys and discussions. Second, students learn about special education services. Some students were not only unaware that they had an IEP, but did not know what one was. “Many students expressed exasperation about the types of goals and objectives written on their behalf” (2006). Students were invited to help determine their goals and develop strategies for meeting them. Third, students are taught to monitor themselves toward the achievement of particular goals. This places ownership of their behaviors on themselves. Fourth, before students can participate in IEP meetings, time needs to be spent preparing the participants. This step includes preparing the student and the other members of the IEP team. Parameters must be set for the language that will be used and how the students will be supported in this endeavor. The fifth step is to evaluate your efforts. In all things, we must be looking for ways to improve the process (Jones, 2006).
Although many of the school environments may lack some educational necessities for special education (physical therapy room, swimming pool), it is not enough to circumvent the advantages of offering long-term interaction with non-handicapped peers. “It is the responsibility of all educators to develop and implement educational delivery systems that maximize the opportunities of all students…to learn together the necessary skills for full participating membership in heterogeneous adult communities” (Brown, 2004).
Barnes, Peter (2006, March). The Inclusion Classroom. _[online]. Available: http://www.teachingk-8.com/archives/your_middle_school_classroom/the_inclusion_classroom_by_peter_barnes.html
Brown, Lou, et al. (2004). Classic Tash Article I: Toward the realization of the least restrictive educational environments for severely handicapped students. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities. 29 (1), 2-8.
Jones, Melissa (2006). Teaching Self-Determination: Empowered Teachers, Empowered Students. Teaching Exceptional Children. 39 (1), 12-17.
Lapka, Chris (2005, Fall). Special Learners: To Assess Students with Special Needs Think PG”. Illinois Music Educator. 73.