Including Students with the Most Significant Needs in General Education
One of the goals of SWIFT is to create school environments where ALL students—even those with the most significant needs—are learning together within the same classroom. This goal can seem daunting to almost impossible to some general education teachers, to say the least. However, with a great transition plan, training, and support from school leaders and parents, it really can become a possibility. Implementing the SWIFT Framework with fidelity helps schools and districts to consider all the moving parts that will make inclusive environments a positive learning experience for all.
One way to ensure that schools are creating environments to include students with the most significant needs is to have them revisit their vison statements. Most vision statements that I have read include such phrases as “all students will compete,” “all students will develop skills,” or “all students will read on grade level.” They do not say “all students, except those with the most significant disabilities.” If schools or districts were given a chance to explain the significance of their vision statements, I’m sure they would not say they were creating learning environments where some kids would be left out. When thinking about this population of kids, sometimes the only environment in which they are segregated is school. These kids adapt and function in environments at home, their neighborhoods, and at church. Outside of school, supports are put in place so that they can be a part of the larger community. Allowing schools to really think deeply about their vision and how it is implemented will change or enhance the practices at schools and more inclusive environments can be developed.
Another way that I help to support this goal in the Mississippi SWIFT schools is to help schools identify the strengths and opportunities of students with disabilities. Using tools that SWIFT provides—such as the SWIFT Fidelity Integrity Assessment (FIA—the school’s self-assessment of SWIFT feature implementation), SWIFT Fidelity of Implementation Tool (FIT—an external view of the school’s SWIFT feature implementation), and Tiered Intervention Matrix (an inventory of intervention tools used at the school)—help schools to target their actions to provide support for these students. These tools also strengthen their implementation of the MTSS and Integrated Educational Framework domains as they begin to shift students from less inclusive environments to ones that are more inclusive. The data allows them to determine whether students with more intensive needs are being universally screened and to identify the supports that will be needed when placed in a general education classrooms. These practices help to move whole schools from the traditional way of thinking that a disability label determines student placement to considering a student’s abilities and types of supports that can help foster achievement in general education.
One thing you definitely do not want to do is to move students into a less restrictive environment without considering a few key things. Here is what I suggest:
- Determine the academic and social needs of the students. How can students actively participate in the general education environment? What supports are already available? What supports are needed (personnel, materials, space)?
- Train staff and support personnel on how to integrate students into the general curriculum. Consider integrating for an activity or content before full integration is implemented.
- Design activities in which students can work in small mixed-ability groups together. Students do really learn from one another, and mixed ability groups can also teach children how to be sociable.
- Ask students with disabilities to perform specific roles or tasks to get them involved. Do not use their disabilities to define what they can or cannot do.
- Involve parents and students in planning their IEP as their input is valuable. The non-academic skills that are discussed will help to support attainment of academic skills. Encourage students to share their interests and reflect them in the plans when possible.
Always remember that each child should have an individualized education program (IEP), and placement should be made based on the child’s skills, abilities, and social readiness. Do not try to fit a child into a program; instead, design a program that fits the child. Students with the most significant needs are just children who need additional time and support. They present schools with challenges, but they are not insurmountable challenges. Considering the learning environments in this way can be an opportunity to provide these students with a more comprehensive program that enhances their overall development. Inclusive environments help to tap the potential benefits these children can receive and add to the growing number of effective techniques that will help each of these students reach their full potential.
Dr. Andrea Mayfield