Meeting Special Needs: Inclusion Classrooms Fair But Not Equal

There was a specific culture-building lesson I liked to use at the beginning of each school year during my time as an early elementary teacher. I would call three students of varying heights to the front of the room, where I’d taped three pieces of candy evenly across the board:

“You may each take one piece of candy,” I’d say, knowing that given their heights only the tallest of the three students would be able to reach a piece. When the righteously indignant protests began, I would pose a crucial question to the class: “Was this fair?”

Amidst the shrieks of “No!” I would offer the shorter students chairs to stand on. “What about now?” I’d say. “Fair?” (Yes!) “Ok… but was it equal?”

This activity led to what I considered one of the most essential discussions for laying a strong cultural foundation in my classroom. Understanding that some classmates might need different kinds of help (different “chairs,” as it were) to be as successful as others in reaching our classroom goals helped build a small, but mighty, cadre of youngsters all primed to support one another and operate in an environment where their teacher frequently gave more attention to some students than others. In my third year of teaching, I taught second grade in an “inclusion” classroom setting—meaning my roster consisted of both general and special education students, each with a diverse set of individual needs. There were challenges, to be sure, but this “fair-but-not-equal” foundation of what appropriate behaviors should look like led to incredible, often unprompted displays of empathy among students throughout the year.

While inclusion classrooms in early elementary school are more common, inclusion settings in early childhood are not the norm. Many children with disabilities face barriers to accessing high-quality, inclusive pre-K, or are more frequently relegated to classrooms completely separate from their peers. In light of this, and in an effort to set a national expectation for the availability of high-quality inclusion classrooms in all early childhood programs, the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released guidance on the importance of inclusion in early learning. In a webinar hosted last month by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (within ED), Assistant Secretary Michael Yudin noted the gravity of this expectation with his introductory remark, “Being meaningfully included as a member of society is the first step to equal opportunity in this country. It is one of America’s most cherished ideals and is every person’s right.”

The newest guidance, issued in September 2015, includes recommendations for both states and early childhood programs and providers. States are charged with creating interagency task forces to plan for inclusion, ensuring high-quality ratings systems for early childhood programs that support inclusive practices, and creating professional development that meaningfully includes the education of young children with disabilities. Similarly, the guidance recommends early childhood providers partner with families on advocacy and policy development, develop formal collaborations with community partners, and strengthen collaboration among staff members to better support inclusion.

Each of these recommendations will take a huge lift by the entity responsible for implementation, as the current reality for inclusion in early childhood settings is complex. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) does not actually use the term “inclusion” at any point. What it does mandate is that schools place children in their “least restrictive environment” (LRE), meaning that to the maximum extent possible schools should educate students with disabilities alongside their peers in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports, unless a student’s individualized education program (IEP) requires another arrangement. The issue in early childhood settings is that meaningful, differentiated options are often unavailable to the parents of young children with special needs. Most often, there is just one option:  education separate from children without disabilities.

Why is this? There are a number reasons commonly cited as barriers to creating inclusive learning environments, including: false beliefs and negative attitudes about inclusion, interpretations of IDEA that emphasize individual IEP requirements over LRE requirements, lack of training among the early childhood workforce, lack of comprehensive services necessary for student support, and limited time to build necessary partnerships. Though challenging, none of these are insurmountable obstacles. But, in sum, they have led to a huge deficit of inclusive early childhood programs relative to nationwide demand.

Despite this reality, a huge body of research exists on the benefits of inclusive environments in the early years for children with disabilities. Dr. Mary Beth Bruder of the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and Dr. Michael Guralnick of the Center for Human Development and Disability note that a child’s initial experiences with the early education system determine how connected they feel to their natural community for the rest of their lives. Establishing this crucial “degree of belongingness” through inclusive environments shapes children’s expectations for all future relationships, and impacts how they will live and work within their communities. Further, children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms experience greater socio-emotional and cognitive development than peers relegated to programs serving only children with disabilities.

Also worth noting is that children without disabilities also benefit significantly from learning in inclusive environments. Studies show that typically developing children who engage at young ages with peers who have disabilities develop more positive attitudes and levels of understanding toward diverse counterparts than those who do not. It seems impossible, knowing this, to argue against any opportunity that might enable the next generation to grow up with more empathy for those different from themselves, especially as the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse.

There are some strong examples of existing inclusion programs around the country that others can learn from. Head Start, for instance, supports quality inclusive environments among its programs by providing resources and instructional strategies to increase the effectiveness of teachers working with diverse groups of students. Head Start’s leadership is positive, but more work is needed. Less than half of all American children attend pre-K in the U.S., and even fewer have access to high-quality pre-K programs. Children with disabilities are all the more limited, therefore, in their options for high quality, inclusive early childhood schooling.

The push to increase the number of inclusive early childhood settings is worth the effort, and the time is right for making change. Last year marked a number of important anniversaries for early childhood special education—the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and the 50th anniversary of Head Start. Across these spans of progress unfortunately lie a history of segregation and denial of access for children with disabilities. Research and decades of educator experience point to the potential of inclusion for dramatically changing the lives of children both with and without disabilities. We should work to ensure every child has the opportunity to be included."


Katharine Parham is a former intern for the Education Policy program at New America with the Early & Elementary Education team.