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The Case for Inclusive Education: Sabrina’s Story

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

By Kate MacLeod, Julie Causton, and Nelia Nunes

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.

This article was originally published at Rethinking Schools and republished here with permission from the authors.


Kate MacLeod is a doctoral candidate in special education at Syracuse University, inclusive education consultant, and former special educator. Julie Causton is a professor of inclusive education at Syracuse University and has spent her life supporting educators to successfully include all students. Nelia Nunes is a small business owner in California, a passionate advocate for people with disabilities and inclusion, and mom to Sabrina.


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