In the 1990s, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established new guidelines for the best education placements for children with disabilities. After the law was passed, it became a federal requirement to educate children in the least restrictive environment, meaning every effort must be made for them to succeed in a general education setting before the child can be moved to a special education classroom. Unfortunately, that also led many parents to question if and when their child might be ready for a mainstream classroom.
Inclusion vs. mainstreaming: What’s the difference?
As mentioned above, special education laws indicate children must be educated in the least restrictive environment. Yet there can be confusion between the terms inclusion and mainstreaming and how they impact students. Generally, mainstreaming means that the child is expected to keep up with the demands and learns from the environment with few or no modifications. Inclusion refers to the idea that the child should be included in the environment but not explicitly required to meet the education standards. The curriculum may be modified, but the child still spends all or part of the school day in the same classroom as their same-aged peers.
Why is mainstreaming important?
There are many reasons why parents and specialized education professionals recommend mainstreaming children into general education classrooms. Not only does it encourage socialization with other children, but many children with special needs also thrive with age-appropriate behavior models. Access to these appropriate models can be the catalyst to help a child excel in new areas and build lasting friendships with other learners
The goal of an educational placement
Regardless of whether you decide a mainstream or inclusion approach is best for your child, you should always have a clear idea of the goals of your child’s current educational placement. They can help you identify the best environment for your child’s learning, and if a mainstream classroom is the best fit.
Questions to ask before identifying your child’s best school options
As you begin to determine whether your child is ready to be mainstreamed, it can be helpful to ask yourself a series of questions about your child’s needs, the classroom options available, and an outline of the best pathway to transition to the new classroom environment. The following is a series of questions that may be helpful as a guided reflection on classroom readiness:
Step One: What are the essential skills your child needs to succeed?
Begin by exploring your child’s needs for a classroom setting. Copy and paste these questions into a separate document and record responses or jot some notes down with paper and pen. The goal is to identify if your child has critical skills and behaviors your child needs to succeed in a mainstream classroom:
- Does my child demonstrate grade-level or above scores on reading, math, language arts, and other core curriculum areas?
- Does my child demonstrate age-appropriate social skills, including an understanding of how to respond to everyday classroom activities (waiting in line, working independently, hand-raising, etc.)
- Does my child demonstrate age-appropriate play skills, including managing the expectations of structured play opportunities like gym class and unstructured play opportunities like recess or free-choice time?
- If my child has gaps in some of these areas, how much teaching does he or she need to learn new skills? Is it similar to other children? Which areas do you anticipate your child needing more or less support in?
It’s common when parents begin this evaluation process to answer many of these questions, “I’m not sure.” or “We’ve never seen him/her in the classroom.” If that’s the case, you’ll want to set up opportunities to gather this information before you enter a mainstream classroom transition. Work to understanding as much as you can about what your child needs to child succeed. It can outline potentials struggles and lead to better outcomes.
Step Two: What does the classroom need to be like for your child to succeed?
Once you’ve identified the skills and behaviors your child will need to succeed, spend some time considering what type of classroom environment will be the best mainstream choice for your child. Now more than ever before, parents have options and a voice in selecting the best classroom environment for their children. Open enrollment, charter schools, private and parochial options all exist alongside public school classrooms. Next, explore these types of questions when considering a mainstream classroom for your child:
- What are the qualifications and skills of the classroom teachers that would help my child succeed? Does your child need a teacher who provides frequent praise and positivity? Does your child need a teacher that gives clear instructions and will help minimize distractions?
- Does the school need to have prior experience working with students who are newer to mainstream placements? Do the administrators and support staff have a background in working with unique learners?
- What ratio of students to instructors will be the best for my child? Is there a way to identify a smaller class size where my child is likely to receive more 1:1 attention?
- What about the physical environment? Does my child need a large, open classroom? Bright, cheery lighting? Or will my child benefit from a school with fewer distractions? The ability to have a desk or locker close to the teacher?
Identify the top three or four things that you think are the most essential characteristics to help your child succeed in a mainstream classroom. Then keep this list handy as you begin to speak with schools and classroom teachers about your child’s transition to a mainstream environment.
Step Three: If there are gaps in the above, how will they be addressed before your child begins?
In examining the questions above, you may identify gaps in the ideal classroom placement and the available options for your child. Or they may identify gaps in their child’s skills that might raise a concern about the success of the mainstream choice. The next set of questions helps evaluate the best options for addressing these areas of need:
- Of the gaps identified, which ones do you think need to be addressed before beginning a mainstream classroom placement? Are there areas the school recommends addressing?
- If your child has skill areas to build on (e.g. below grade-level reading), are there tools and supports at the school that can help address these needs? Can your child benefit from the same types of support the school offers to other students?
- If the classroom teacher or classroom environment could benefit from changes, is the school willing to make any modifications or reasonable accommodations?
- Are there additional supports that can be included at the beginning of the transition to the mainstream classroom (part-day vs. full-day schedule, social skills groups, additional paraprofessional support, daily parent reports, etc.) and gradually faded as your child gains more skills?
When it comes to mainstream placements, it’s best to identify as many of the variables that might impact the outcome upfront as possible. The more you can prepare your child, the school, and your family for the transition, the more successful it’s likely to be.
Step Four: What measures will be used to evaluate success?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s essential to consider how you’ll know that the transition has been a success. Spend a few moments, jotting down notes and ideas about how you will know the mainstream placement has been a success. Some questions you may want to consider are:
- What are my goals for this mainstream placement?
- How will I know that my child is succeeding in the classroom academically?
- How will I know that my child is succeeding socially, including making friends and getting along with others?
- Will the classroom teacher provide feedback to me about the goals, including both positive feedback on progress and areas of concern?
- If there are concerns that come up, how soon will I be notified?
- What data should we be collecting along the way to measure progress?
In some cases, the classroom teacher or school administrator may have recommendations on evaluating success. Creating a collaborative team environment as your child enters the mainstream placement can help establish ways to measure success.
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