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Four Essential Variables of Inclusive Schools

In my work promoting inclusive education for students with extensive and complex support needs, I’m often asked, “Why is inclusive education so important?”  While I view inclusive education as a basic human right—a right that is founded on a presumption of competence and the inherent value of all learners—the importance of inclusive education is grounded in research.  Compelling descriptive and comparative studies spanning 40 years demonstrate consistent benefits of inclusive education across important school and life domains (check out the studies cited in swiftschools.org for an overview!). Importantly, no studies show benefits of educating students with significant disabilities in segregated settings.  

Despite the positive effects of inclusion, students with extensive and complex support needs are all too often relegated to self-contained, segregated classrooms with little to no access to the general curriculum (Kurth, Mornginstar, & Kozleski, 2014). Why does segregation persist, then, in light of the compelling benefits of inclusive education?  The answer to this question is elusive, but seems to reflect a general sentiment that a continuum of placements is necessary and appropriate, and that, in fact, some degree of restrictiveness is appropriate for students with disabilities (Turnbull, 1981).   For example, during interviews with pre-service and mentor teachers and university faculty, educators routinely defined inclusion using the terms “as much as possible” and “when appropriate” (Kurth & Foley, 2014). 

Yet many schools, including those working with SWIFT, are including students successfully. So what do effective inclusive schools do?  Two years ago, a group of us visited six SWIFT knowledge development study (KDS) schools and asked staff to allow us to observe a student with significant disabilities who was successfully included.  Across every one of these schools, a number of key variables were present:  

1) While students were primarily part of large-group instruction, they still received individual supports and instruction from teachers, paraprofessionals, and peers.

2) Personnel used non-traditional teaching arrangements to support student engagement, including frequent use of co-teaching. In fact, in most observations, the special and general education teachers were present instructing all students. 

3) Students were engaged using a variety of supports, ranging from classroom fidgets to peer buddies to communication supports. For example, a young boy was observed choosing fidgets from a box to bring to carpet time so he would be more successful sitting and listening.  

4) We regularly observed students using modified curriculum and materials to support their learning of grade-level content, including iPads and other technology for students to communicate, write, and read adapted books. 

The classrooms themselves were supportive, with materials and visual aids readily available, along with personnel able to assist all students. Students enjoyed interactions with people across the school campus, including peers in reciprocal social activities, peer tutors, special and general education teachers, and school staff including office staff and paraprofessionals. In short, these schools pooled their resources and talents to make the school better – together!

We learned valuable lessons in the SWIFT KDS about how a diverse group of K-8 schools facilitated inclusion for students with significant disabilities.  But the question remains – how can we radically rethink and reimagine our schools to support all schools in this endeavor?  In my next blog post, I’ll share a few ideas, and hope that it sparks some ideas for you to implement and build upon.

- Jennifer Kurth 

Jennifer is an Assistant Professor in the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on inclusive education for learners with low-incidence disabilities who have extensive and complex support needs.