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What is Mainstreaming in Special Education?

What is Mainstreaming in Special EducationAll children deserve an equal chance at an education. This isn’t necessarily a right or even a privilege in some countries; however, in the United States, no matter the academic level, economic status, or cultural background, every child is granted a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by law. More specifically, neither a school nor individual teacher can exclude a student based on their disability. Thankfully, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that all students who qualify for special education can receive the same quality of instruction and have access to the same instructional materials as their non-disabled peers. 

Those who work in the field of Special Education (SPED) or who have a child who is in a SPED classroom are all too familiar with the overwhelming amount of field-specific vocabulary and acronyms. Mainstreaming and inclusion are two common terms often used in the world of SPED; while these terms are often used interchangeably, they do not historically stem from the same movements or mean the same thing. 

What is Mainstreaming in Education?

Some people believe the term mainstreaming has a negative connotation, while others completely misinterpret what it means and its purpose. “The word ‘mainstreaming’ comes from the concept that students with disabilities can be incorporated into the ‘mainstream’ of education, instead of placing them in separate classrooms and giving them completely separate instruction,” (BrightHubEd). While most public schools still offer self-contained classrooms for students whose disabilities are so severe that they interfere with the learning of themselves and others, mainstreaming involves placing a student with a disability in a general education classroom with a special education teacher as a co-teacher or with an assistant who knows the child and can ensure that s/he is accessing all of the same instructional materials. 

The primary purpose of mainstreaming is to include students with disabilities within the traditional classrooms while giving them the same opportunities as other students to access instruction, gain knowledge, grow as an individual, and to participate in the academic and socializing environments that a school has to offer. 

According to the experts at Bright Hub Education, inclusion differs from mainstreaming in that:

“The concept of inclusion is based on the idea that students with disabilities should not be segregated, but should be included in a classroom with their typically developing peers. A student in an inclusion classroom usually needs only to show that she is not losing out from being included in the classroom, even if she is not necessarily making any significant gains. This blanket statement does not apply to all inclusion settings, but proponents of inclusion tend to put more of an emphasis on life preparation and social skills than on the acquisition of level-appropriate academic skills.” 

One main focus—regardless of mainstreaming or inclusion—is to provide a student-centered educational experience. Just like no thumbprint is exactly alike, neither are two students and their disabilities. 

Creating a Child-Friendly Classroom for All

Some teachers often get excited about decorating their classroom by following the latest trend on Pinterest or those who have a year-long theme and jazz it up for every holiday as well. But creating a child-focused and child-friendly classroom isn’t about the elaborate trimmings and glitz and sparkle; it’s about ensuring that each student, no matter their academic level, physical disability, or a not-so-obvious disability, can fully participate in the classroom activities. 

A study entitled The Impact of Classroom Design on Pupils’ Learning shows that classroom design does affect the learning process. The author claims that the three design principles that should be considered are:

● Naturalness: light, sound, temperature, air quality and links to nature;

● Individualization: ownership, flexibility and connection;

● Stimulation (appropriate level of): complexity and color.

Examples of specific questions that SPED teachers should ask themselves when designing their classrooms are: 

● Does the seating arrangement work for each student’s physical ability or does this limit someone from viewing parts of the room?

● Do I have activities that are differentiated so that each level of student is able to access the same curriculum?

● Are there items around the room that may be too visually stimulating for some students and that may cause a distraction?

● Is the room well-lit and are reading materials large enough for my student(s) with visual impairments?

● Do I have enough activities that will encourage practice on specialized skills, such as social skills, life skills, emotion regulation, etc.?

There are so many ways to create a student-focused and friendly classroom and various resources out there for SPED teachers to access. 

The Many Pros and Cons of Mainstreaming in Education

Mainstreaming isn’t an option: it is in line with state and federal requirements for a child to be educated in what is called the “least restrictive environment.” However, this does not mean that there are no opponents to the concept. 

The following ‘cons of mainstreaming’ come from various sources and many are based on personal opinions of teachers and parents.

● The economic concern that having SPED students rotate classrooms with the general population is costly, requiring more adults in each classroom and more specialized equipment that a school district may not be able to afford. 

● The teacher training concern that every single adult that works with the SPED student needs to be trained thoroughly on their IEP, BIP, 504, safety plan, and/or whatever else is necessary. For the student to make progress, things must be implemented and done with consistency, accuracy, and fidelity. It just takes one person not doing their job correctly to throw a cog in the wheel. Those that have a concern regarding training also report that such specialized training takes much time away from the classroom and new people will always need to be trained. 

● A more personal concern for the student is that they may be more likely to get teased and ostracised in a general education classroom due to their disability. Potentially being left out, getting made fun of, or not fully understanding the school work are concerns parents and teachers have for those students with disabilities. These issues can cause low self-esteem, anxiety and/or depression, and excessive absences. 

● A concern related to behavior is that if the student with the disability tends to act out or display certain inappropriate behaviors in the general education classroom, this could cause not only a disruption of learning for other students but certain students may be willing to emulate those negative behaviors, causing even more chaos. 

When there are cons, there are pros. The following are examples of some of the positive aspects of mainstreaming: 

● All children can be part of their community and develop a sense of belonging and become better prepared for life in the community as children and adults.

● It provides better opportunities for learning. Children with varying abilities are often better motivated when they learn in classes surrounded by other children.

● The expectations of all the children are higher. Successful inclusion attempts to develop an individual’s strengths and gifts.

● It allows children to work on individual goals while being with other students their own age.

● It encourages the involvement of parents in the education of their children and the activities of their local schools.

● It fosters a culture of respect and belonging. It also provides the opportunity to learn about and accept individual differences.

● It provides all children with opportunities to develop friendships with one another. Friendships provide role models and opportunities for growth.

No matter the individual opinion, each student legally deserves the right to learn in the least restrictive environment–and for many students, that is by getting out of the self-contained and resource classrooms and into a co-taught or assisted general education class. School systems are required to obtain all necessary materials, equipment, and technology that each student with a disability needs and that is written in their IEP. While there can be possible obstacles to mainstreaming, it typically brings about positive outcomes for the student and others. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

April 2020

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