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What are the pros and cons of including children with special needs in regular classrooms?

by Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Director of Educational Services, National Autism Center

Inclusion is a popular approach for educating children with disabilities such as autism. Inclusion is another term for "mainstreaming," or merging special education with regular education classes. The goal of inclusion is for all children with disabilities to attend "typical" schools and classrooms and receive the support they need to be successful.

The approach has a lot of appeal. It gives children with special needs the opportunity to learn in natural, stimulating environments. Inclusion makes it possible for friendships to occur with non-handicapped peers, provides positive role models, and may lead to greater acceptance in the community. In addition, children without disabilities may benefit by learning about differences between people and by having the opportunity to assist others. Teachers may benefit by achieving a broader appreciation of differences and by learning new techniques for instruction.

The approach is also in line with state and federal requirements for a child to be educated in what is called the "least restrictive environment." Finally, inclusion combats a long history of segregation in the field of special education and disabilities. For decades, people with disabilities did not have access to public schools, facilities, housing, and healthcare.

Many children have benefited from being included in their public schools. However, after more than 10 years of implementation, inclusion has not fully met its promise. Because inclusion is a philosophy about how children should be educated, it is sometimes recommended without prioritizing the needs of the individual child or preferences of the family. The place where a child is educated does not make instruction effective. Rather, it is the content and method of instruction that are most likely to result in improvement in the child’s language, social skills, and other behaviors.

Public schools are sometimes unable to provide the specialized education required for children with autism, especially those with the most severe language and behavior disorders. It is unrealistic to expect that regular education teachers will always have the specific training required for this population, be aware of the latest research, or be able to readily adapt the school’s curriculum. In addition, children with special needs are sometimes assigned one-to-one aides who have little training or experience in autism or other developmental disabilities.

Even with consultation from specialists, a regular school setting cannot always provide the intensive, focused, constant instruction these children require throughout the entire school day. Although schools may have a mandate to include all children, it is not uncommon that some eventually re-create special classrooms because the children did not receive the appropriate education or their behavior problems could not be addressed within the regular classroom.

In my opinion, inclusion is not always the best choice for every special needs student. There are other options available such as specialized, separate day schools for children with autism.

What should parents do when considering different options for their child? First, inclusion should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Parents need to consider the needs of their own child, the capacity of the school to meet these needs, and their own preferences. For example, the parents of children at a day school may be aware that their son or daughter has fewer opportunities to interact with typical children. On the other hand, they may also know their child is getting an educational program that is more specialized and intensive than their child could get in the public school.

Parents should find out whether the program they are considering – be it an inclusion or special setting model – includes these components:

  • a language-based curriculum;
  • a curriculum that progresses in an orderly manner throughout the day and addresses multiple skill development;
  • effective instructional techniques based upon research, including a strong focus on positive reinforcement, shaping, prompting, and fading of prompts;
  • frequent opportunities for the child to respond to instruction;
  • little time when the child is not engaged in instruction;
  • daily recording of academic work and behavior problems; and
  • frequent review of progress and timely changes in procedures if progress is not occurring.
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