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. In the United States every child is granted a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by law:

  • no matter the academic level
  • economic status
  • cultural background

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.  They have access to the same instructional materials as their non-disabled peers in the least restrictive environment.  In fact, the IDEA states that “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Those who work in the field of Special Education (SPED) or who have a child who is in a special education 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 special education.  While these terms are often used interchangeably, they do not historically stem from the same movements or mean the same thing. 

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What is Mainstreaming in Education?

Some people believe the term mainstreaming has a negative connotation.  Others completely misinterpret what it means and its purpose. What is the definition of mainstreaming in special education?  “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).

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 regular classroom while giving them the same opportunities as other students to:

  • access instruction
  • gain knowledge
  • grow as an individual
  • participate in the academic and socializing environments that a school has to offer

Mainstreaming also mean making all the necessary accommodations a student needs to be successful.  What does this look like?

  • A student with a visual impairment may be given large-print textbooks or an audiobook in order to access the same reading material as their peers.
  • A student with a physical impairment may be use a special desk to accommodate their body type in the classroom
  • A student with sensory impairments may require their classroom be free of harsh florescent lighting or large, colorful, stimuli

These accommodations are written into a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).  These customized plans are written by an interdisciplinary team familiar with the student.  They spell out every detail of the accommodations a student needs.  It is up to the special education teacher and support staff to make sure an IEP is followed.

What is Inclusion?

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.  Others have a year-long theme and jazz it up for every holiday. 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 can fully participate in the classroom activities regardless of their:

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  • academic level
  • physical disability
  • not-so-obvious disability

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 special education 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 special education teachers to access. 

The Many Pros and Cons of Mainstreaming in Education

Mainstreaming special ed students 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.  Many are based on personal opinions of teachers and parents.

  • The economic concern that having special education students rotate classrooms with the general population is costly.  It requires more adults in each classroom and more specialized equipment that a school district may not be able to afford.   It takes a significant amount of time to manage an IEP.  With the national teacher shortage, special education teachers are being pulled away from their primary focus to co-teach other classes as a way to remedy the problem.  Successful mainstreaming can only happen when there are an appropriate number of teachers and funding to maintain the level of staff needed successfully implement an IEP.  
  • The teacher training concern that every single adult that works with the special education 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 ostracized in a general education classroom due to their disability. Parents and teachers have concerns about students potentially being left out or getting made fun of. There are also concerns that the student may not fully understand the schoolwork.  These issues can cause:
    • low self-esteem
    • anxiety and/or depression
    • 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 a disruption of learning for other students.  Certain students may be willing to emulate those negative behaviors, causing even more chaos.   Mainstreaming is not a one size fits all approach to special education.  It is not appropriate in every case.  Careful consideration should be made when determining the best educational setting for each student.

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.  They become better prepared for life in the community as children and adults.
  • The mainstream classroom 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.
  • Mainstreaming special education students allows them to work on individual goals while being with other students their own age.
  • A mainstreamed classroom approach 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.  For many students, that is by getting out of the self-contained and resource classrooms and into a co-taught or assisted regular classroom setting. 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 mainstream education, 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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