Every child has the ability to learn, but the way children learn and how much knowledge they can absorb can vary considerably — especially for a child with special needs. Yet, as a society we owe all children a chance to reach their potential, so it is important to create the best possible learning environment for that to happen. That’s why many people suggest mainstreaming special-needs children into regular classrooms rather than assigning them exclusively to special education classes.
Figuring out how to provide the best education for a child is is never easy because what’s best for one child may not be best for another. When looking at mainstreaming, it is important to look at inclusion, including full inclusion.
With mainstreaming, special education students “earn” the right to be in a regular classroom for at least one class to see if they are ready for the challenge. Inclusion involves bringing special education services to a child who is in regular classes, rather than bringing the child to the services (in a special education classroom). It focuses on the benefits of being in the class, but the requirements for that student are tailored to the child’s special needs. With full inclusion, all students are brought into the regular classroom, no matter what their disability might be.
Proponents of mainstreaming point to the possible benefits of bringing a special-needs child into the regular classroom. At the same time, they realize that full-time inclusion might not provide the best learning experience for the special-needs child or the other children in the class. Children who are mainstreamed will spend time in a resource room where they can receive more individualized attention from teachers.
By using both the regular classroom and individualized time in special education classes, pupils are exposed to mainstream students but get the attention they need for their specific challenges. Several studies have suggested that overall, including disabled children in mainstream classrooms improves academic achievement, self-esteem and social skills.
When looking critically at either the mainstreaming or inclusion of special education students, one of the first issues that comes up is budget. A 2005 study conducted by the Special Education Expenditures Program (SEEP) showed that the price tag of educating a special-needs student is between $10,558 and $20,000. Educating without special education services costs $6,556, by comparison.
Another potential drawback is that a special-needs child can easily get lost in a regular classroom. In some cases they may be disruptive and may compromise the learning environment of other students. Neither mainstreaming nor any sort of inclusion is right for every child, so it is important that an Individual Education Plan (IEP) be developed for each special-needs child to help them find the balance between regular classroom exposure and getting the attention each requires.
Deaf children face a special challenge because the significant communication barriers between them and their mainstream classmates can cause feelings of lower self-esteem and isolation among the hearing-impaired. Some critics also fear the practice may undermine some components of deaf culture.
When addressing the needs of disabled students, it is important to remember the needs of the rest of the class. Including special-needs children in a regular classroom can be disruptive and make learning more difficult for the majority. However, children without special needs can benefit from interacting with children who struggle in some ways.
Whether a person with a disability is a child or an adult, ultimately they have more in common with a non-disabled person than they have differences. For children, and many adults, these distinctions are harder to discern without exposure to disabilities. This exposure encourages children to help one another and develop empathy for other human beings, whether they suffer official “disabilities” or not.
At the end of the day, we all have special needs, and many of these will be discovered by parents, teachers, mentors, employers and friends throughout our lives. Mainstreaming special education may be the way to assure we are as prepared as we possibly can be for all of the challenges that lay ahead.