By Kate MacLeod, Julie Causton, and Nelia Nunes
Sabrina is a popular 3rd grader. Her classmates love spending time with her both in and out of school— they line up to read to Sabrina during story time, crowd around to help with her math flashcards or classroom chores, and are eager to have their parents set up weekend play dates.
But two years ago, if you had asked her mom, Nelia, whether Sabrina was a popular kid, you would have gotten an anxious look, a shake of the head, maybe a few tears.
When Sabrina entered school, her well-meaning teachers saw a lovely child with an intellectual disability. They saw her communication challenges and her academic and social delays and decided her support needs would best be served in a self-contained special education classroom: She would be part of a small class. She wouldn’t be bullied. She wouldn’t be distracted. She would be able to learn and grow and make friends with students who had similar significant disabilities.
Sabrina entered this separate special education classroom and remained there for several years. Although her teacher was kind and loving, Sabrina didn’t have access to the general education curriculum and neither Sabrina nor her family felt part of the school community. Worst of all, because the other children in Sabrina’s class also had limited verbal and social skills, she did not make much academic progress or meaningful friendships.
After three years of sleepless nights, frustration, and worry, Nelia decided to ask the school to move Sabrina to her neighborhood school and into the general education classroom. Nelia explained she wanted Sabrina to have the same opportunities students without disabilities have: access to the general education curriculum and community.
Sabrina’s school team (her special education teacher, behaviorist, school psychologist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, school principal, and program specialist) tried to convince Nelia that she was making a mistake, that it wasn’t possible for a student with such significant needs to be included in the general education setting. When Nelia pressed them—why not?—they responded that Sabrina was too far below grade level; her sensory challenges would cause her to shut down; she would disrupt other children; the students would bully her. Worst of all, they worried, Sabrina would be even more isolated and alone.
But Nelia still believed inclusion would work. So she hired an attorney.
Not long ago, most teachers, administrators, and researchers agreed that students with disabilities were better served in separate classes, programs, and schools. But over the past several decades, there’s been a change. Advocates have pushed for more inclusion from a human rights perspective. And researchers have found that when students with and without disabilities are educated in inclusive settings, if there is adequate support, time for teacher planning, and communication with parents, it works to everyone’s advantage—academically, socially, and emotionally. According to researchers George Theoharis and Julie Causton, “the best way to provide quality education for students with disabilities—and all students—is to increase marginalized students’ access to the general education classroom, where the best curriculum and social opportunity are often provided” (2010).
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), legislation that was largely initiated by organized parent advocacy, all students with disabilities have the right to be included—with the appropriate supports and services—in general education classrooms at their neighborhood schools to the maximum extent possible. In some situations, schools and school districts have implemented inclusion programs from the top down and without critical discussion, planning, training, or support for teachers. This can lead to stress and difficulty for all involved. And although many schools and districts have made strides toward well-supported inclusion, it is often parents who are the catalysts for this type of grassroots change. Perhaps this is because parents and guardians of children with disabilities practice inclusion every single day. They understand their child’s strengths and needs in ways that may be more difficult for the school to see.
Fortunately for Nelia, her campaign to move Sabrina coincided with a new special education administration in the district that was more supportive of inclusion. After six months of countless meetings and a trial run, Sabrina finally received an official placement back in her neighborhood school in the general education classroom.
To contextualize Sabrina’s situation, it is important to note that her neighborhood school is fairly small, with approximately 400 students and an average of 29 students in each class. The population is 75 percent white, and only 6 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. Sabrina was not the only child in the classroom with a disability; there were two students diagnosed on the autism spectrum and five additional students with IEPs (Individualized Learning Programs) for specific learning disabilities. But she would be the only child with such significant disabilities and complex support needs. And although Sabrina’s new school team (special education teacher, general education teacher, school psychologist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, program specialist, and principal) was willing to include her, they felt unprepared. The special education teacher worried that Sabrina wouldn’t be able to keep up with the curriculum, the occupational therapist worried that she wouldn’t be able to focus during instructional time, the speech therapist wondered if she would have difficulty interacting with her peers. But with a supportive administration, the school team carved out time to discuss these concerns with each other and with Nelia to strategize approaches to facilitate Sabrina’s inclusion.
To prepare for her first meeting with this new school team, Nelia created a short video that showed Sabrina’s successes in various areas of her life. When the school team viewed the video and saw Sabrina engaged in family activities—singing and playing and reading together—and community activities—swimming at the pool and dancing at the recreation center’s spring dance—they could see how Sabrina might be successfully included in her 3rd-grade class.
As Sabrina’s general education teacher, Nancy Preto, talked with Nelia and began to prepare for Sabrina’s inclusion, she realized that a traditional whole-class instructional approach would not work. So she decided to create activity stations and focus on small-group instruction. During Sabrina’s first week, it was clear how these stations provided Nancy with opportunities for accommodations and modifications.
For example, Sabrina was not yet able to decode, so Nancy made sure she had reading buddies at the reading station. To introduce the buddy system, Nancy explained to students: “Some of us need out-loud reading support. Are any of you willing to read aloud to a buddy at the reading station?” Many students raised their hands.
“Great!” Nancy responded. “Let me show you my favorite way to read with a buddy.” She then modeled the “say something” strategy: Students partner up (both students might be reading independently or one might be reading aloud to the other) and periodically stop to turn and “say something” to each other about what they have just read. Nancy was modeling how to provide peer reading support while simultaneously teaching a reading comprehension strategy that all students would use.
Sabrina also had difficulty with fine motor skills, so Nancy made sure she had large manipulatives at the math station and a writing buddy at the writing station. Nancy introduced the purpose of a writing buddy: “Some of us need writing support to help us share our great thoughts and ideas.” She asked for volunteers who were interested in learning to transcribe Sabrina’s thoughts at the writing station, and then modeled the process of listening and writing a student’s thoughts down verbatim. Within a few weeks, students were skilled at capturing Sabrina’s thoughts on paper and even encouraged her to share ideas during whole-group discussions.
Nancy was careful to rotate Sabrina’s reading and writing buddies. She often noted similarities between Sabrina and her peers, highlighting Sabrina’s strengths and making it clear all students were expected to support each other. For example: “Sabrina and Rachelle, both of you love stories about animals. Would you like to read this book together?” Nancy also facilitated other opportunities for peers to work closely with Sabrina on academic tasks and social activities. For example, she asked another student to check math problems with a calculator while Sabrina solved the same math problems with manipulatives
As she gradually understood Sabrina’s needs, Nancy implemented more accommodations. Sabrina had difficulty sitting on the floor during rug activities, so Nancy gave her a small stool that helped her stay seated and increased her focus. She liked to dump materials out, so Nancy set up a basket of fidgets that Sabrina and other classmates used for sensory stimulation. Sabrina and the other children often shared favorite fidgets with each other.
After a few weeks, the team met to formally write Sabrina’s IEP. Sabrina’s parents came to the meeting with a student profile outlining Sabrina’s strengths (e.g., she enjoys leadership roles and routines, loves music and dancing) and her needs (e.g., she requires support for engaging with peers and new activities, and kinesthetic movement to stay focused). Together, the IEP team and Sabrina’s parents determined goals they wanted her to accomplish that year, including: initiate communication with peers; greet people by name; sequence events and draw conclusions after listening to a story; use a calculator to solve problems involving the addition, subtraction, and multiplication of whole numbers and decimals; build independence in transition; and maintain focus during tasks.
The team then looked at different aspects of Sabrina’s school day to determine how to best address her goals at each point. For example, Sabrina was considered a “runner” and the team had always assumed she would need an escort to hold her hand while she transitioned through the building. But when they sat down to talk about embedding her IEP goals throughout her day, the special education teacher suggested a new plan: create a job for Sabrina that required her to collect classroom books and take them in a cart to the library. This “librarian’s helper” job drew on her strengths while addressing two IEP goals: build independence for transition and greet people by name. When Sabrina was provided with the freedom to engage in kinesthetic movement while performing a job she took seriously, not only did she complete her job daily but her transitions also improved drastically. As the year continued, Nancy reported that Sabrina often volunteered to lead the class line from the classroom to lunch or music.
Naturally, new challenges continued to arise, but instead of saying “Inclusion isn’t working,” the team posed specific questions based on Sabrina’s strengths to effectively guide their problem-solving sessions. For example, because she couldn’t decode yet, during whole-class
or independent reading time, Sabrina remained at her desk with a paraprofessional instead of joining the other children
on the floor. Nancy was concerned that she would fall behind in reading instruction. During a brainstorming session the team realized two key things: Sabrina loves to listen to familiar stories and many of her peers enjoy reading to her. So, after talking to Nelia, Nancy implemented a pre-reading strategy in which one of Sabrina’s peers would read her the book in advance so that she would be prepared to engage during class reading time. After trying this strategy for a few weeks, Nancy emailed Nelia: “Yay! Sabrina sat and listened to the entire story of Mrs. Brown. She smiled at me while I read and had eye contact with me or the book for most of the story.”
Overall, Sabrina’s teachers and therapists are excited about her academic and social growth, reporting that she is focusing during instruction, meeting her academic goals, becoming more independent, and making friends. Of course, there are ongoing challenges, particularly helping Sabrina access grade-level curriculum. This continues to take a lot of time, creativity, and collaboration from the entire team. Including her in math lessons continues to be a struggle, and math is often the time when Sabrina is pulled out of class to work one-on-one with her special education teacher. But instead of perceiving these challenges as barriers to Sabrina’s inclusion, her team now views them as opportunities to work more collaboratively to meet her ever-changing needs. Nancy explains: “Our expectations are changing as Sabrina progresses. Expectations for Sabrina always continue to grow and she is meeting them.”
Many of the other children in the class enjoy working with Sabrina, and her inclusion has provided opportunities for students to understand and value individual differences. With Nelia’s permission, Nancy discusses Sabrina’s differences with the class when the subject arises. For example, recently Sabrina got up in the middle of a lesson, stood very close to Nancy, and touched her face. Many of the children thought Sabrina would be in trouble. But Nancy paused the lesson to explain that, although this action could be seen as disruptive, it was simply Sabrina’s way of showing that she was interested in the lesson. This turned to a whole-class discussion about how everyone’s differences should be respected and valued, and that differences make the world a more exciting and interesting place.
Working with Sabrina has had a positive academic impact on other students, particularly two boys, Tim and Talon. In the beginning of the year, Tim could barely read. When Nancy started the peer pre-reading strategy, Tim realized that Sabrina loved listening to stories. Slowly, he began reading her simple picture books during reading time. As Sabrina listened and took in new information, Tim’s reading fluency and confidence grew. His attitude toward reading has shifted, and he is now reading Sabrina chapter books while she sits and listens intently.
Talon struggles with focus and attention, but when he works with Sabrina he is patient, calm, and loving. Talon’s mother recently wrote in a letter to Nancy: “What I have come to realize is that having Sabrina in class has helped Talon in more ways than I could have imagined. It has taught him so much and he truly loves her.”
The three children often sit and read together. As Nancy wrote to Nelia: “When I saw these three in the classroom together I burst out in a huge smile. . . . The question about inclusion is easily answered during moments like that.”
The school district has taken note of the benefits of Sabrina’s inclusion. Next year the district will concentrate on inclusive program development in two more schools. Then they plan to take the inclusive program development to more schools, with the eventual goal of a more inclusive district.
Although many research studies provide evidence about the benefits of inclusion, perhaps it is most powerful to turn to personal stories like Sabrina’s. When Nelia speaks with other parents or educators who are struggling with the concept of inclusion, she can speak from experience about the positive impact of true collaboration and careful, ongoing planning. And so can Sabrina and her friends.