Is Inclusive Education Right for Children with Disabilities?

This week, we’re honored to feature an article by Edward Fenske, MAT, EdS, the former executive director of the Princeton Child Development Institute, who shares his critique on the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education’s joint statement on inclusive education for all children with disabilities. Ed’s extensive experience in delivering intervention to children with autism, support services to their families, and training and supervision to professional staff spans 39 years. His published works address home programming, language development, and early intervention.

Is Inclusive Education Right for My Child with Disabilities?
by Edward Fenske, MAT, EdS
Princeton Child Development Institute

On September 14, 2015 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education issued a joint policy statement recommending inclusive education for all children with disabilities begin during early childhood and continue into schools, places of employment, and the broader community. The policy includes numerous assertions about the educational benefits and legal foundation of inclusion and a lengthy list of supporting evidence. This paper examines some of these assertions, the supporting evidence, and comments on the departments’ recommendation.

Is Inclusive Education Right for Children with Disabilities

Assertion: Children with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities and the highest needs, can make significant developmental and learning progress in inclusive settings.

Supporting Evidence: Green, Terry, & Gallagher (2014). This study compared the acquisition of literacy skills by 77 pre-school students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms with 77 non-disabled classmates. Skill acquisition was assessed using pre/post intervention scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Third Edition (Dunn & Dunn, 1997) and the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening Prekindergarten (Invernizzi, Sullivan, Meier, & Swank, 2004). The results found that children with disabilities made significant gains that mirrored the progress of their typical classmates, although the achievement gap between the two groups remained. Participants had a variety of diagnoses (e.g., developmental delays, autism, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, speech and language impairments, cognitive impairments, and Down syndrome). There were several requirements for participation in this study that would appear to severely limit conclusions. Participants with disabilities were functioning at social, cognitive, behavioral and linguistic levels to the extent that their Individual Education Program (IEP) teams recommended participation in language and literacy instruction in the general education classroom with typical peers-an indication that these skills were considered prerequisite to meaningful inclusion.

A further restriction for participation was that only data from children who were able to complete the tasks according to standardized administrative format were included in the study. It is therefore unclear whether all students with disabilities in these inclusive preschool classes made significant developmental and learning progress. The authors suggest that had the lower achieving students received explicit, small group or individual instruction, the achievement gap between typically developing students and children with disabilities may have been narrowed. We can therefore conclude that regular instruction provided in the inclusive preschool classes in this study was not sufficient for all students with disabilities. Furthermore, because the results were not separated by disability, it is not possible to determine whether there was a significant difference in learning across disabilities.

Assertion: Some studies have shown that children with disabilities who were in inclusive settings experienced greater cognitive and communication development than children with disabilities who were in separate settings, with this being particularly apparent among children with more significant disabilities.

Supporting Evidence: Rafferty, Piscitelli, & Boettcher (2003). This study described the progress in acquiring language skills and social competency of 96 preschoolers with disabilities attending a community-based program. Sixty-eight participants received instruction in inclusive classes and 28 attended segregated special education classes. Progress was assessed using pretest and posttest scores from the Preschool Language Scale-3 (Zimmerman, Steiner, & Pond, 1992) and the Social Skills Rating System (SSRS)–Teacher Version (Gresham & Elliott, 1990). Level of disability (i.e., “severely disabled” or “not severe”) was determined by scores on the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-R), but the authors did not provide any information about the participants’ specific clinical diagnoses. Posttest scores were comparable for “not severe” students in both class types. Children with “severe” disabilities in inclusive classes had higher posttest scores in language development and social skills than their peers in segregated classes, but had higher rates of problem behavior. The extent to which problem behavior interfered with learning for both typical children and those with disabilities was not addressed. Problem behavior, such as tantrums, aggression, stereotypy, self-injury, property destruction and defiance; is displayed by some children with disabilities. These behaviors have very different implications for preschool-aged children than for older children. In this writer’s experience, severe problem behavior is extremely resistant to change when not successfully treated during preschool years and may ultimately result in more restrictive academic, vocational and residential placement during adolescence and adulthood. The significance of any academic gains by children with disabilities in inclusive settings should be carefully weighed against the long-term implications of unchecked maladaptive behavior.

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Federal Government Calls for Greater Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Preschools

Federal officials say that young children with disabilities should be receiving educational services in inclusive settings in greater numbers. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are encouraging greater inclusion of children with disabilities in preschools, Disability Scoop reports. The Department of Education has reported that while a majority of preschoolers with disabilities did attend general early childhood programs since 2013, more than half received special education in contained environments.

States are being urged to create task forces to promote early childhood inclusion, establish new policies, and allocate funds to facilitate these programs and track goals for expanding inclusive learning opportunities.

In a draft policy statement on the inclusion of children with disabilities by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the lag in progress on giving children with disabilities and their families access to inclusive early childhood programs is troubling for several reasons, such as:

  • “Being meaningfully included as a member of society is the first step to equal opportunity, one of America’s most cherished ideals, and is every person’s right—a right supported by our laws.
  • “A robust body of literature indicates that meaningful inclusion is beneficial to children with and without disabilities across a variety of developmental domains.
  • “Preliminary research shows that operating inclusive early childhood programs is not more expensive than operating separate early childhood programs for children with disabilities.
  • “Meaningful inclusion in high-quality early childhood programs can support children with disabilities in reaching their full potential resulting in societal benefits more broadly” (U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, 2015).

What are your thoughts on this urge for change in the early childhood setting?

Read more: “Feds Call for Greater Inclusion in Preschools”