Teacher to Parent – The inclusion of special needs students in mainstream classes benefits all students

Q. My student is in a class that includes some special education students who are being mainstreamed. I don’t have any issue with this. The problem is that one of the students is constantly calling and crying out and will often get up and wander around the room. I don’t want to be insensitive, but I also want my son to be able to learn in a classroom without distractions (he’s easily distracted already). What can I do?

I won’t assume that everyone who reads this column is familiar with how public schools address students with special needs, so permit me to provide a brief overview.

A “special need” is any diagnosed issue that may affect a student’s ability to learn. It can range from physical impairments (like cerebral palsy) to mental challenges (like Down’s Syndrome) to emotional issues (like anxiety or depression).

Schools are required by law to meet the educational needs of these students through “special education.” They usually do so in one of three ways: “Self-Containment” keeps special needs students confined to a certain area where they rarely mix with regular education students. “Inclusion” keeps students in a regular classroom but with two teachers, one regular and one special education. “Mainstreaming” occurs when special needs students attend regular education courses but may also receive instruction from a special ed teacher who removes (or “pulls out”) the students from the regular classroom.

Which kind of instruction students receive is determined by a team that includes teachers, parents, and principals. Before a student is placed into Inclusion or is Mainstreamed, the regular education teacher receives the student’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for how to best educate the child. In general, this is all a smooth, routine process.

Mainstreaming and Inclusion (which are the services you’re talking about in your question) often are beneficial to both special need and regular education students. When I was in middle school, one of my best friends was John. He was completely blind, but he attended most of our regular courses. He had a special table with a braille typewriter and braille textbooks, and he was often accompanied by a special education teacher. He listened and participated in the lessons along with the rest of us. If he had been confined to a special school or room, he probably wouldn’t have been as happy, and I wouldn’t have had the joy of his friendship.

Sometimes, however, problems like the one you describe can be caused by competing perspectives. The special needs parent and special education teacher are often understandably hyper-focused on the needs of their child. But regular education teachers ultimately have the same responsibility to the special needs student that they do to every other student. Every child must be given a good learning environment, and all of their learning needs must be considered equally. It’s not a zero sum game. Some students may require more work and attention than others, but to the regular education teacher of 25 children, every single one of them is special.

The inclusion of special needs students in mainstream classes benefits all students when it is implemented well. When done ineptly, it can induce chaos that hinders everyone. It is possible in your situation that the special needs student has been inappropriately placed. This can result in the needs of one student impinging on the needs of others. Ideally a mainstreamed student should be able to follow basic rules and procedures. But if the student is consistently obstructing the learning of others, and if changes to the IEP aren’t working, then the student’s placement should be re-examined.

My advice is to have a conversation with the teacher. It’s possible you’re not getting the whole picture. If after that, the situation doesn’t seem better, then meet with the principal. If nothing has changed still, you have every right to demand a schedule change. No child—special needs, regular education, or otherwise—is obligated to remain in a class where the behavior of others impedes his or her ability to learn.