Nationwide, 50 percent of disabled students aged 6-11 are in regular classrooms. The same holds true for 30 percent of disabled students aged 12-11. Overall, inclusion is up 10 percent over the past five years. Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Here's what research shows so far about inclusion's effect on nondisabled students.
Inclusion is receiving lots of attention, both in school districts across the country and in the popular media. Most of that attention is focused on how inclusion affects the students with disabilities. But what about the students who don't have disabilities?
As a project coordinator for the Inclusive Education Research Group at Emily Dickinson School in Redmond, Washington, I've been in contact with hundreds of teachers, parents, and students affected by inclusion, and I've done extensive research on the subject. Of course, each inclusion situation is unique: Some teachers receive more training than others, some schools provide classroom aides and others don't, some classrooms have one disabled student while others have several, and so forth. Regardless of the circumstances, though, I've found that teachers and parents usually want to know what the research says about these two main concerns:
So in a nutshell, the research conducted thus far shows that being in an inclusive classroom doesn't hurt the nondisabled students. But does it help them? Teachers surveyed indicate that nondisabled students gain these important benefits from relationships with their disabled classmates:
Friendships. One of the most important functions of friendship is to make people feel loved, safe, and cared for. Researchers have documented cases in which meaningfial, long-lasting friendships that benefit both students have emerged between disabled and nondisabled students. For example, one study chronicles the friendship that Stacy, a nondisabled 12-year-old, and Cary, a 13-year-old with Down's syndrome, have had for more than four years. A teaching assistant explains how she sees Stacy benefit from this relationship: "Stacy sees the growth Cary is making, and she is a big part of that success. She also benefits because Cary makes her feel good-always choosing to sit with her, always goofing around with her." Social skills. Nondisabled children become more aware of the needs of others, and they become skilled at understanding and reacting to the behavios of their friends with disabilities.>
Self-esteem. One study documents the friendship between Aaron, a nondisabled sixth grader, and Cole, a classmate with severe disabilities. Aaroni' ability to understand Cole's behavior has helped him take on a leadership role that he wasn't able to assume in the past, resulting in an increase in Aaron's self-esteem. "This has given Aaron a special place in the classroom, and he feels really good about himself," his teacher says.
Personal principles. Nondisabled students grow in their commitment to their own moral and ethical principles and become advocates for their disabled friends. For example, Cary's classmates became very vocal about making sure that she wasn't pulled out of the class unnecessarily. Developing these strong personal principles will benefit students throughout adulthood.
Comfort level with people who are different. On surveys and in interviews, nondisabled junior-high and high-school students say they're less fearful of people who look different or behave differently because they've interacted with individuals with disabilities. One seventh grader says, "Now I'm not like, 'Uh, she's weird.' She's normal! I've gotten to work with people with disabilities, so I know that." Parents notice the difference in their children, too. An interesting side effect is that these parents report that they feel more comfortable with people with disabilities because of their children's experiences.
Patience. Nondisabled students who've developed relationships with disabled classmates report that they have increased patience with "slower" learners.
So how do you realize these powerful benefits with your nondisabled students? What techniques and practices can you use? Surprisingly, many of the techniques you're already using contribute to these results.
Create a classroom that fosters kindness, consideration, empathy, concern, and care for others. Support this kind of atmosphere with these practices:
Celebrate the experiences and differences that each child brings to the classroom. You can do this in a variety of ways:
One caution: Be aware of how often you ask or just expect nondisabled students to assume helping roles. True friendships are more likely to grow when children cooperate and interact often and of their own choosing.
The research conducted so far points us in the right direction for improving the inclusion experience. Yet each question we answer leads to more to explore. These questions can be challenging to study because inclusion situations vary. We've just begun to discover the effects of inclusion on all students-disabled and nondisabled alike.