Teaching Students with Special Needs in Inclusive Settings

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Teaching students with disabilities in an inclusive setting is a complex task that requires full cooperation and participation from teachers. While many teachers are reluctant to try inclusion, it is critical that we shift our mindset and allow access to general curricula to every student, regardless of their abilities or limitations. This lesson will outline what an inclusive classroom looks like, along with the benefits and challenges that come with it.

Separate Is Not Equal

Not too long ago, students with disabilities were rarely seen in public schools. If they received an education, it was in a separate school away from their regular peers. Following the Civil Rights Movement, equality for all people, including those with disabilities, became a hot topic. Through education and advocacy, the mindset of separating people who are different has shifted. We now understand that separate is inherently unequal. Legislators have written into law the necessity of including students with all ranges of disabilities in regular schools and classrooms with their regular peers. Research supports the positive outcomes of inclusive settings over separate classrooms.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that protects the rights of students with disabilities by ensuring that everyone receives a free and appropriate education. Students with disabilities are entitled to formal assessments, special education services, and other related services as needed. These additional supports are provided at no additional cost to the child's family, and are outlined in a legally binding document called the Individualized Education Plan (IEP).


IDEA also states that students with disabilities should be included in the general education classroom with their peers as much as possible. This is known as inclusion. The amount of time, and the extent to which a student with disabilities will participate in regular classroom activities, is different for each child. It is up to the IEP team to determine what is appropriate for each individual student.

For example, students with mild to moderate disabilities may be in the regular classroom for most of the day and only be pulled out for special instruction in reading or math. In this situation, these students usually participate in regular class assignments and activities with accommodations. Students with severe to profound disabilities may be in the regular classroom for only twenty or thirty minutes a day. They may join their class for silent reading or morning circle time, and then receive the majority of their specialized instruction in a separate classroom.

Benefits of Inclusion

Regardless of the amount of time spent in an inclusive setting, inclusion has been proven to be beneficial for everyone involved. Here are a few of the benefits for students with and without disabilities:

Students with Disabilities

  • More interaction with peers who act as role models for social and behavioral skills
  • Higher achievement of personal IEP goals
  • Held to higher expectations
  • Generalization of skills (Students work in various settings to make sure they truly master the skill.)
  • Greater access to general curriculum

Students without Disabilities

  • Increased acceptance of people's differences
  • Greater academic performance
  • Preparation for adult life in a diverse society
  • Opportunities for teaching and practicing with others

Challenges of Inclusion

Any teacher with experience in an inclusive setting will say that along with these benefits come unique challenges. These challenges require creativity, persistence, and collaboration between the special and regular education teachers. Let's look at some of these challenges listed below:

  • Teachers may lack experience working with all students in an inclusive setting.
  • Students with disabilities may experience bullying by peers.
  • There may not be enough time to address individual student needs.
  • Planning lessons that allow all students to participate can prove difficult.

Many teachers have a difficult time including students with disabilities in the regular classroom because of some of the issues listed in this section. Inclusion is not supported by everyone, and in some schools it is difficult to get people on board. Teachers must remember that inclusion is required by law, and that they are responsible for creating an inclusive environment where every student can learn. Although it's hard to achieve, let's look at the characteristics of the ideal inclusive classroom.

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