The Spirit of Inclusion – Embracing Special Needs Kids in the Classroom

by Jennifer VanBuren, Austin Family Magazine
Originally published March 2011 in Austin Family Magazine.

Every morning, children across America pledge, “with liberty and justice for all.” A pledge to education might add, “with a free and appropriate education for all.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that children with disabilities are educated with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible in the least restrictive environment (in general education as much as they are able).
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 95% of six- to 21-year-old students with disabilities are served in regular schools. Since 13.4% of all children in public schools have a disability, chances are, your non-disabled child will have a disabled classmate during her time in school.
Children with disabilities not only have a legal right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, some may say that they have a moral and ethical right as well. Children with disabilities are children first. They benefit from the experiences that are beneficial to all children. If separate is not equal, pulling children with disabilities away from the general population, while sometimes necessary, can have negative effects on their overall development.

Benefits of inclusion for students with disabilities

  • Friendships, interactions, and social relationships
  • Increased achievement of Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
  • goals and a greater access to the general curriculum
  • Greater sense of belonging to school community for parents and children
  • Access to peer role models
  • Higher expectations
  • Increased inclusion in future environments
  • Increased school staff collaboration
  • Increased parent participation and families are more
  • integrated into the community

Benefits of inclusion for students without disabilities

  • Meaningful friendships
  • Increased appreciation of individual differences
  • Respect for all people
  • Preparation for an adult life in an inclusive society
  • Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others
  • Greater academic outcomes

One benefit of inclusion is generally unstated. With 13.4% of children being born with disabilities, there is a good chance one of your kids’ own children or someone they love will have a disability. At some point in everyone’s life, people will go through a period where they are disabled: whether after an accident or illness or as a result of aging. With an instilled sense that all people are to be valued and included regardless of their ability, accepting an individual with a disability into the family will feel natural.

Can inclusion work?

Dawn Jennings, Parent Liaison of Georgetown ISD and mother of an adult son with autism reports that a school’s best chance for effective inclusion is when there is collaboration and buy-in from the entire district, starting with the superintendent and flowing through the ranks. While districts are legally required to provide inclusion, it will never be completely effective unless everyone involved believes it is the best thing for students.

Sometimes issues arise. Perhaps your child comes home and is disturbed by another student’s loud noises or distracting behavior. If having a talk about how people are valued even though they may be different does not help, get information from the teacher. Is your child’s education being negatively effected? Is there additional adult support in the classroom? Sometimes a special needs child is placed into a classroom without the support and modifications needed to be successful.

Remember, all kids, no matter their ability, will sometimes have a less-than-beneficial effect on each other. One mother reports that her son’s pre-K teacher was worried that because of his autism, he would teach the other children bad habits. Upon visiting the classroom, the mother watched her son with autism giggling at the neurotypical boy who was eating glue and the cute little girl at the end of the table who was picking her nose. Surely they all had plenty of bad habits to teach each other.

There are times when the most appropriate setting is not in a general education classroom. Sometimes a child requires small group instruction, extra review or preview time, and individual therapy sessions. Inclusion does not need to be all or none, but based on a close look at the child’s individual needs.

How can you help?

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a very dedicated village and a team of experts to raise a child with a disability. There are many things a parent of a non-disabled child can do to support inclusive education.

Model acceptance of all people and practice inclusion in your life. If your son is in soccer, consider inviting a kid with a disability to try it out; if your child has a birthday party, invite all children.

Remember the parents of disabled children may feel isolated and out of place with parents of non-disabled children. Unfortunately, many are subjected to judgment and blame from strangers and even family, which may lead to fear of being rejected by other parents. Try to treat parents of disabled children as you would any parents. If you have a moms-night-out, include them. If you are on PTA, ask them to volunteer their time just like you would any parent.

Educate yourself about disabilities and teach compassion. Remind your child that her classmate did not do anything wrong nor did she ask to be disabled. Explain why the child might exhibit certain behaviors and why she may struggle in the classroom.

Support inclusion in schools and beyond. One room mother visiting her child noticed that all of the special education students were sitting separate from the rest of the class. Knowing this was not in the spirit of inclusion, she discussed the matter with the teacher and principal. Every Sunday, a woman noticed a parent showed up in church with only one of her two children. She learned that there were no opportunities in Sunday School for her child with a disability. She helped arrange for adaptations, including a one-on-one teenager who could help when needed.

Parents of non-disabled children may not fully understand the challenges families face or how much the smallest gesture is appreciated. One year a room mom innocently forgot a child’s name on the classroom Valentine’s list because he was not on the official roster. One little girl noticed and told her mother, “We have to make one for Justin, he is part of our class too.”

Now that is the spirit of inclusion.

Jennifer VanBuren is an advocate of inclusive practices in all aspects of the community, and was fortunate to teach science in a fully inclusive classroom. She is the mother of three boys.

Note: Permission to republish this article was received from the editor of Austin Family Magazine.



  1. […] month that we were given this choice, Austin Family Magazine published an article titled, “The Spirit of Inclusion. Embracing Special Needs Kids in the Classroom.” I know it sounds cliche, but I am a believer in everything happening for a reason and the […]

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