Can inclusive education do more harm than good?

Recently, a teacher expressed his misgivings about the “inclusion at all costs” ideology of modern education. Despite being well supported by his school and hugely in favour of inclusive practice, he outlined his difficulties in managing a young fellow with Down Syndrome whose behaviour in the classroom was extremely difficult, and increasingly dangerous. This resulted in children and staff leaving the school, citing concerns about their safety and psychological health.

The article attracted derision from many, but also a sigh of relief from other teachers and a surprising number of parents of children with a disability.

I’ve witnessed instances in my own kid’s classrooms, where both the teacher and teacher aide were needed to skilfully “manage” one child’s behaviour, while the other 20+ children sat and waited patiently for the crisis to pass. So resigned was the rest of the class, I was curious as to how much of their time was routinely spent in this fashion, and whether this impacted their learning.

I also wondered whether repeated exposure to this behaviour promoted understanding and tolerance or, alternatively, led to stereotypes that people with disabilities are difficult and disruptive?

When I worked for a disability support organisation, there was much angst for parents in determining whether their child was better off in a mainstream versus a special school. This discussion was taken extremely seriously, involving their paediatrician and a range of allied health/education specialists.

The vast majority of the time we supported mainstream inclusion. On the few occasions we were concerned this was not in the child’s best interests, a number of parents had a great deal of difficulty believing that their child could have a positive alternative education experience.

Sometimes children with special needs need more special care than a mainstream school can provide.
from www.shutterstock.com.au

The outcome of parents insisting on mainstream inclusion was sometimes not helpful to their child. One young student had a severe level of cognitive impairment and social functioning. By high school she could barely read or write and had limited verbal expression. Her parents insisted on the most mainstream education possible, even preventing her from going on end-of-semester fun excursions with her class, lest it disrupt her studies.

No amount of discussion from her medical/education therapists could convince her loving parents that she would really benefit from some experience in crowds, queues and learning to interact appropriately in public, rather than focusing on her academic work.

This student is now an adult and I still see her around and about, always with a family member, as she frequently needs redirecting when her social interactions become inappropriate. This makes me wonder who benefited from her mainstream inclusion.

What if she had gone to a special school? The focus there would have been on teaching her useful life skills, such as how to interact with people in public. She may have even made a friend or two who shared her interests.

While I am a believer in the benefits of inclusion, it doesn’t automatically follow that inclusion is always the best choice for every child. Sometimes the decision to “mainstream” a child appears to be based more on appeasing the anxieties of their parents, as well as the ideology of the education system.

Inclusion doesn’t always work

The inclusion philosophy is based on the contact hypothesis – that by repeated contact/exposure to children with a disability, the general student population will be accepting of diverse needs and build friendships. However, research suggests this is not necessarily the outcome. In fact, on-site inclusion of children with certain types of disability may increase negative attitudes in the general student body.

Although there may be many benefits for the child with a disability, they are not unequivocal. These studies directly compared mainstream against special education settings. They found no difference in mainstreamed students’ social competence/functioning, as well as a lower self-concept (how someone thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves).

Finding the right balance

Should we automatically start with the assumption that inclusion always works best for everybody? There is a fair suspicion that a child in a mainstream school who frequently and intensely acts out, does so for a purpose (to achieve removal from an environment in which they cannot cope).

At what point should we “listen” to their behaviour and accept maybe this isn’t the best placement for them? At what point does a child’s behaviour become unsupportable in a classroom environment, regardless of whether it arises from an underlying disability?

In the messy reality of implementing the noble ideal of inclusion, there is not a universally clear path to best practice. Rather, there appears to be a worrying tendency to consistently preference ideology over the best interests of the child(ren).

The ConversationRachael Sharman is Lecturer in Psychology at University of the Sunshine Coast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Rachael Sharman

Dr Rachael Sharman is a lecturer and researcher in psychology, specialising in child/adolescent development. Rachael's research is focused on the optimal and healthy development of the paediatric brain, and has covered the psychological and cognitive impacts of: dietary practices of parents and their children; physical activity; obesity; autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; phenylketonuria; depression; concussion; acquired brain injury; childhood trauma. Rachael has a long history in working in child-related fields including child protection, juvenile justice, disability, advocacy and genetic research. A high point was meeting personally with the Queensland Health Minister in 2002 to successfully lobby the government to invest in expanded newborn screening. The result of that meeting ensured that every baby born in Queensland is now screened via the 'heel prick test' for an additional 30 rare genetic disorders. This has prevented the unnecessary death or disability caused by these disorders if left undetected and untreated. Rachael remains committed to research that ensures children have the best possible chance to meet their full potential.

11 thoughts on “Can inclusive education do more harm than good?”

    Sam Paior says:

    Hi Rachel, your article says “In fact, on-site inclusion of children with certain types of disability may increase negative attitudes in the general student body.”
    However, when I clicked on the corresponding link highlighted in that paragraph, I read “Results: Responses from 1135 students (612 females, 523 males; mean age 12y 8mo SD 7mo; age range 10y 8mo–15y) were studied (75.2% of the students approached). Factors independently associated with more positive attitudes were being a female, having a good quality of life, being friends with a child with disabilities, or having received information about disabilities from parents and the media. Presence in the school of a special class for children with cognitive disabilities was independently associated with more negative attitudes.”

    So, what the research actually says is that “special classes” made for negative attitudes, NOT the presence of kids with disability in the mainstream.

    This appears to me to be a blatant misrepresentation of the research presented and is certainly very poor scholarship.

    You are of course, entitled to your opinion, but not to misrepresent the research you used to justify it.

    Not cool. Not cool at all.

    Sam Paior says:

    “Inclusion” is when children with disability are fully included in mainstream classes, not when they have special classes on site.
    I’d be very interested if you can point me to research which demonstrates poorer outcomes for either the students with disability or their peers in fully inclusive schooling.
    Thanks.

    Catia Malaquias says:

    I agree with the above comments and I wrote a response to the teacher’s article to which this author refers http://www.globi-observatory.org/the-secret-teacher-got-it-wrong-a-response-to-i-am-all-for-inclusion-in-principle-but-it-doesnt-always-work/. Neither the teacher’s article nor this, in their criticisms of inclusive education either reflect or refer to the findings in the extensive body of practical and theoretical evidence that demonstrate that inclusive education provides the best outcomes for students with disability from both an academic and a social perspective, and instead rely on “anecdotal” observations and their own flawed conclusions. I would encourage parents who come across these types of views and advice recommending segregated “special” education for their child or indeed any “special” programmes or therapies, to always ask “show me the evidence” and then look at it to check that it in fact demonstrates what is being claimed.

    Kate Annells says:

    I think the comment about a girl who was expected to perform academically at all costs, even to her social detriment is hardly an example of what manority of parents wany when they seek inclusion and mainstream education. It is just one case study being presented as evidence of an entire flawed rationale for inclusion. We don’t need the discussion to be any more weighted against well researched (and anecdotal) evidence for mainstream education

    Colin Newton says:

    I have been an educational psychologist for over 30 years and am totally convinced of the value of inclusive mainstream education with the right supports both natural and paid for all children. Positive Outcomes in terms of friendship possibilities, relationsip opportunities and academic achievement are my experience and are reflected by research in Australia, UK and USA.

    80% of learning of behaviour, language and academic skills are by imitation so mainstreaming always makes sense compared to segregated group settings.

    Challenging behaviour can mean many things – we should indeed always listen closely. Our solutions should be more about, restoring relationships, building teams and problem solving then moving children out to special settings.

    Let’s make the presumption of mainstream our guiding principle and divert as many resources here as we can. All needs to really mean all!

    Glenda Irwin says:

    Thank you Colin I totally agree, let us not go back to segregation as it only polarises children rather than including them. I work in Early Education where we begin with inclusion, however I also have grandchildren with ASD and also agree that behaviour issues are for many reasons and is often a means of communication. It is our place as Educators to learn the cues and respond appropriately therefore bringing understanding and support to the child allowing them to find appropriate ways to communicate their needs and achieve the correct results. It’s complex but achieveable. There will always be specific needs for some children and there should also be appropriate settings available in such situations, but only after all other options have failed.

    Colin Newton says:

    http://www.cda.org.au/_literature_159457/Issues_Paper_on_Inclusion_-_PDF Read this Rachael!

    Also read Catia response to original article referenced by her above. It is excellent.

    Jenny says:

    A very interesting post. My own experience in education is of course no case is like the next one, and the rights of the child need to be balanced with their personality.

    […] condemnation for such views, many educators and parents agreed with the author. In a blog article, Rachael Sharman, a lecturer and researcher in psychology specializing in child development, […]

    Donna Morley says:

    As an Early Childhood Teacher/Director I have worked with the presumption of inclusion for many years and have always had positive outcomes for both the child & other students involved, however it has never been without hard work on the part of all team members, inclusion support agencies, parents, specialist therapists and support workers. I am constantly surprised when therapists thank me for being so welcoming of their presence in our service (apparently this is rare) when we see them as a vital addition to our team in supporting additional needs children. When our fully included children move on to “big School” however, I don’t always recommend mainstreaming. When children struggle to cope with following directions or basic classroom routines, are unable to self regulate their behaviour when someone else’s agenda is being followed, or need constant support for basic classroom skills, the reality is that adequate support is not available in most schools to support their needs. The problem is not the child, but often a system ill equipped to adequately support their learning. A child with down syndrome has been happily and successfully included in our program throughout 2014-15, but has moved to a special class within a mainstream school. At our centre he had a 5 hrs per day aid , fully funded and a 1-8 ratio of staff to children. At times when the aid was not present and he was tired, his behaviour was very disruptive, and compromised everyone’s learning experience. This of course was managed by well trained staff in an essentially free play setting, and the children learned skills such as patience acceptance and tolerance, however the reality is that in a mainstream kindergarten class the best that could be hoped for would be a 1-20 ratio with a support aid for possibly 3 hrs per day. It would be unfair to expect any teacher to accommodate this child in a mainstream classroom under those conditions. With adequate support, mainstreaming is ideal. It is not the concept that needs to be examined, rather the level of support that is available to allow all children to benefit from an inclusive education .

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