When it’s clean up time in the three to five-year-old classroom at the Discovery Learning Center in St. Petersburg, FL, the kids chant the Clean Up Song as they hurry around the room putting toys away and gathering their backpacks. Some students help one child who uses a wheelchair to pick up toys, get into the chair, and collect his belongings.

Inclusive classrooms like this one, with a mix of students with and without disabilities, help kids learn to constantly evaluate the environment, including figuring out what the other kids need. The benefits don’t stop there, which is why more and more schools are including students with disabilities in general education classrooms, says Bob Pianta, Dean at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. But just because a classroom has students with disabilities on the roster, doesn’t mean that it’s inclusive.

Inclusion vs. Mainstreaming

Enrolling students with disabilities is just the start. Having an inclusive classroom “is like having a culturally or racially diverse classroom,” says John Nimmo, associate professor and executive director of the University of New Hampshire Child Study and Development Center. “It doesn’t guarantee that kids are coming out of that experience with a better awareness and less biased attitude…teachers have to facilitate the process of understanding between kids.” In inclusion, children with different ability levels are part of the community and their needs are integrated into the entire program.

In an inclusive community, teachers work with specialists (occupational therapists, speech therapists) as a team, says Nimmo. And, it generally involves using a strength-based, instead of deficit-based, perspective which focuses on kids’ assets and talents instead of trying to fix a disability.

The Benefits of Inclusion

Inclusion classrooms provide a better experience for the entire class. “There is no question that there are social benefits all around,” says Pianta. “When things are handled well, when there are appropriate supports for the teacher, kids benefit from the environment in terms of being able to engage with other kids.”

In any classroom, children learn from their more experienced peers, and those more experienced learn from teaching others. Children without disabilities will learn tolerance, patience, and redefining their idea of “normal.” Kids with disabilities will also learn patience and will learn skills from their peers. Especially for kids with mild learning disabilities or language disorders, says Pianta, “being exposed to language of typically developing peers is a powerful intervention for them and their language development accelerates rapidly in a mainstream classroom.”

Ready to enroll? Here are tips on what to look for and how to get involved with your child’s inclusive classroom:

  • Make sure inclusion is the best fit for your child. Families of kids with disabilities do need to be honest about when their child might be best served in a specialized environment, says Nimmo.
  • Find out what’s involved. Ask whether the teacher is provided for kids with special needs. Is there going to be an aide in the room? How will the teacher manage the challenges of having a diverse group of students? Once your questions are answered, Pianta recommends getting evidence that those plans and supports are in place.
  • Communicate early and often. During the year, meet regularly with the teacher to review how things are going and discuss any potential concerns before they become crisis.
  • Plan for the future. In the Individual Education Plan meeting, make sure that the environment is designed to meet the needs of your child as they are and what they’ll become in the future, advises Maxine Duke, director of children’s services at the Discovery Learning Center. If she’s not walking now, but you think she will be during the school year, make sure there’s help to facilitate that growth whether it’s therapy or addressing the physical layout of the classroom.
  • Expect gains in social skills and empathy. “Your child is leaning how to reach out to and operate with a whole pile of different people,” says Nimmo, and learning how to communicate with kids who may socialize, deal with frustration, or learn differently than they do is a valid experience.