Melody Musgrove, the director of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, once said, “The smallest meaningful unit of inclusion is the school.”  I understand the logic of this statement to mean that inclusive education involves a common set of practices and beliefs that must be a part of a school’s culture, rather than something that one person can do as a part of a special “inclusion” classroom––an island in the sea of an exclusionary school.  An experience with a friend and her daughter highlights the importance of a whole-school inclusive culture and its benefit for all students.

Danielle was in the “inclusive” kindergarten class when her mom was informed that the “inclusive” first grade Danielle would not be “a good fit” next year; instead, she needed to move to the self-contained classroom, because the teachers would not be able to meet her needs in a less restrictive setting. I was floored. Danielle is a sweet person who loves to laugh; she also happens to have a label of ADHD and an IEP for language and articulation. At the time, she was reading a little below grade level, but she was building her vocabulary through sight words as well as strategies for decoding unknown words. She understood basic math concepts, although she sometimes needed reminding about how to approach a problem. So, Danielle was a little below grade level but certainly making progress. And now she was being told that she was not “able enough” to be in the “inclusive class” in her school?

Two years later, Danielle is the same happy kid and doing quite well in school. The IEP team even determined that since she is doing so well, she can be “included” in some of the general education classes once again. I am not going to delve into the myriad of decisions and pressures that led to this current position; instead, I want to focus on Danielle’s IEP as an artifact of why Dr. Musgrove’s statement is so true and an example of why inclusion as a place is a limited and ultimately dangerous construct.

Danielle’s latest IEP began with a summary of her present level of performance as well as results from her recent cognitive assessments. The first thing I noticed about this summary was the fact that it was not a strengths-based review of the findings at all. Even though Danielle scored in the average range throughout some of the sub-tests, the focus was on how “low” her performance was. In fact, the word “low” was used in seven of the eight sentences, with each area of “low performance” specifically highlighted and the three areas of strength combined into a single sentence. I understand that some people will say I am being picky, but this linguistic choice hides the strengths and focuses all attention on a deficit-based construct of the student.

The next important flag in the IEP was the list of supplementary aids and services. Here were Danielle’s recommended supplementary aids and services:

  • Use of a graphic organizer
  • Check for understanding
  • Refocusing and redirection
  • Will receive simplified complex directions
  • Will have initial work closely monitored to assure understanding

I am trying to understand what a classroom typically looks like if these are considered “supplementary.” Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a vital component of all teaching practices, but especially inclusive practices. UDL was sparked by work in architecture that found that if spaces were designed to be accessible for a particular need (e.g., curb cuts for people who use wheelchairs), then those accessibility components were helpful to others who had not been considered In the original design (e.g., parents with strollers, people using canes or with sore legs, etc.). David Rose with CAST, a clear leader in UDL research and design, states, “Barriers to learning are not, in fact, inherent in the capacities of learners, but instead arise in learners’ interactions with inflexible educational goals, materials, methods, and assessments” (Rose & Meyer, 2002 pg. iv). The fact that Danielle’s school sees these strategies as supplementary rather than a universal expectation for all students is potentially the largest barrier to inclusive practices.  If these strategies are only provided to students who have a specific IEP requirement or who are in a specific classroom, then it is highly likely that many students in this school are needlessly struggling.

Two important foundational principles for inclusive schools include a strengths-based focus and using UDL principles to make instruction accessible for all students. These are not beliefs and practices that only support students with IEPs. Nor is it possible for a single teacher in a single classroom to implement these principles in an effective, meaningful way because no matter how segregated a classroom is, students, teachers, related service providers, and families will be working within a larger community of the school.  To create inclusive practices, we need to leave behind the idea of inclusion as a place and, thus, the misconception that a school may have both inclusion classrooms and segregated classrooms. The overarching structure and beliefs of that structure are not inclusive; they are ablest and ultimately detrimental to students building on their strengths and reducing barriers. By having a set of “inclusion classrooms,” the school creates the idea that here––and only here––is where all students are welcome. Here and only here is where we expect student variability to be present.

Sustainable inclusive practices need to be:

  1. focused on strength-based paradigms for students and educators
  2. school-wide (at a minimum)
  3. premised with the idea that variability is an expectation rather than an aberration and, thus, all learning needs to begin with UDL

Rose, DH, & Meyer, A (2002) Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo Credit: hjl/Flickr

Debbie TaubDr. Deborah Taub is the Director of Research and Programs at Keystone Assessment. In this role, she provides research and professional development assistance for states, territories, and other entities working to develop and sustain best practice. She has assisted states in building and evaluating systemic programs, especially around issues of inclusive practice for students with complex instructional needs, such as those with low incidence disabilities or who are dually identified as having a disability and ELL. Dr. Taub has designed, implemented, and evaluated alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities, developed UDL and standards-based curricula and instruction, and conducted validity and alignment evaluations. This work is informed by her experiences as a classroom teacher and school reform specialist. She has experience building curriculum that is universally designed and accessible for all students, helping schools and district meet state and federal requirements through teacher and student centered reform, and supporting educators as they make grade level content accessible for students with complex needs. She has contributed journal articles, book chapters, and numerous professional development trainings to the field of educating children with complex needs, and has presented internationally on working with students who have autism. She believes strongly that all students deserve equal opportunities and is an advisory member of the Council to Promote Self-Determination education and workforce committee, National Center for Universal Design for Learning’s UDL Taskforce, and an active member of the TASH inclusive education committee. In addition, she is a member of the Council for Exceptional Children’s CCSS Advisory Group.