A Moment With Dr. Moore

June 26, 2024

All Different and the Same: Benefits of Inclusive Classrooms

“Helen is a miracle and Miss Sullivan is the miracle worker,” Mark Twain exclaimed after meeting Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan in 1895. Decades later, William Gibson would write a Tony award-winning play, The Miracle Worker, which premiered in 1959 and became a film starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in 1962. Since then, millions of viewers have seen how a persistent, patient teacher helped a blind and deaf child become a Radcliffe graduate, prolific author, human rights activist and founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Keller owed much of this success to her miracle working teacher, who believed “the immediate future is going to be tragic for all of us unless we find a way of making the vast educational resources of this country serve the true purpose of education, truth and justice.” It’s a conviction that became law in 1975 with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which enshrines the right of children with disabilities to learn in general education classes, an approach known as inclusive education. The IDEA requires all public schools that accept federal funds to provide children with disabilities with a free and appropriate education. The act also sets guidelines for accommodations and individualized education plans (IEPs) to support the children while learning alongside their nondisabled peers, beginning at the time of birth.

The act has gone through several revisions to strengthen its impact on young learners, and the federal government has shown its commitment to inclusive learning in policy statements from 2015 and 2023. According to the more recent statement, “All young children should have access to high-quality, inclusive early childhood programs that provide appropriate support so they can fully participate alongside their peers without disabilities, meet high expectations and fulfill their potential. The responsibility to ensure that young children with disabilities and their families are included in high-quality early childhood programs is shared by federal, state and local governments, early childhood systems, local educational systems and schools.”

So, who benefits from inclusive early childhood classrooms? The answer is all children, according to the World Bank, World Health Organization, United Nations and U.S. federal government, which touted the value of inclusive early learning in its 2023 policy statement. The updated statement outlines the many academic benefits of inclusion for young children with disabilities. It also emphasizes the positive impact inclusion has on all children in the classroom. When children with or without disabilities learn together, they have a chance to strengthen their social skills, build new friendships, and join in building a sense of belonging that will lead to a kinder, more just world when the children grow up.

And there’s research to back up the value of inclusive education for children. A 2014 study from Ohio State University found that children with disabilities get a big boost in their language scores over the course of a year when they can interact with children who have age-appropriate language skills. “In fact, after one year of preschool, children with disabilities had language skills comparable to children without disabilities when surrounded by highly skilled peers in their classroom,” said the study’s aptly named lead author, Laura Justice. And Kate de Bruin, a senior lecturer at Monash University also provided solid proof that inclusive education makes a concrete impact. In 2019, de Bruin published an analysis of 40 years of research that showed positive outcomes when students with disabilities are included in general education settings, rather than siloed off for special instruction. In an inclusive model, she wrote, “students with disabilities achieve higher test scores and grade point averages, stronger math and literacy skills, and better communication and social skills.” Typically developing students also benefit by gaining empathy and reinforcing their skills by acting as experts who help their less developed peers.

So, all children can reap benefits from inclusive education. It opens the world for children who have disabilities and serious health issues while opening the hearts and minds of their typically developing peers. Still, it can pose roadblocks for teachers, as I learned firsthand while a novice teacher at Head Start in the nineties. In my first classroom, I had a young girl with a large wheelchair, and it was a struggle to design the classroom so she could join in all the activities of the class. I also had a child with HIV, a scary disease in those days, and I had to arrange for the parents to come in and give the child an injection every day. That was on top of scores of children with speech impediments and attention deficit disorders, which sometimes led to a difficult and stressful environment for me in the class.

I managed to cope with help from the IEP team, made up of folks with the expertise to support children with challenges like these. But many teachers now lack the support I had since the number of special education staff has shrunk over the years. Meanwhile, the number of children with disabilities has soared. There are around 7.3 million U.S. students with disabilities, accounting for 15 percent of the K-12 public school population. Of these, many are children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—a figure that rose from 1.5 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2023 and is expected to keep going up. In the past two decades the number of children diagnosed with ASD by age 8 has jumped from one in 150 to one in 36. And these figures are alarming when you consider the shortage of special education staff.

Another source of concern is that most general education teachers don’t feel prepared to teach children with disabilities. Fewer than 1 in 5 general education teachers feel “very well prepared” to teach students with mild to moderate learning disabilities, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, according to a recent survey from the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood.org. The survey also found that only 30 percent of general education teachers feel “strongly” that they can successfully teach students with learning disabilities—and only 50 percent believe those students can reach grade-level standards.

Teachers aren’t ready to teach all children, agreed another recent study from the University of Nebraska. The study findings were that nearly 70 percent of educators felt well prepared to teach typically developing children while only 20 percent felt well prepared to teach children with disabilities, and the problem may reflect current teacher training. Many teachers have said that they weren’t required to take courses on working with students with disabilities or found that the courses they did take left them unprepared to work with all students. And it doesn’t help that states have set a low bar in preparing educators to teach students with disabilities. Few states have specific coursework requirements for teaching students with mild to moderate learning disabilities despite the growing ranks of children with disabilities in general education classrooms.

At the same time, the benefits of inclusive education have led some universities to offer programs that will ensure educators are ready to teach all children. The North Carolina State College of Education is making sure to produce educators who are prepared to teach in inclusive classrooms, requiring that all undergraduates complete the “Exceptional Students in the Mainstream Classroom” course. The college also offers a dual licensure that combines an elementary with a special education qualification. And four Virginia community colleges have partnered on Workforce Ready, a five-year federally funded effort to help educators identify and support children with disabilities up to age five. In New Jersey, The Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University has a three-year project that provides targeted inclusion practices at 12 preschool sites as part of the center’s commitment to ensure every child has access to services that meet their unique needs.

We are all different and the same, words that sum up inclusive education, an approach I took during my days teaching typically developing children and children with disabilities together at Head Start. I tried to practice mindfulness by being present in the moment for the children and aligning my instructional practices with their abilities and skills. No matter their background or medical diagnosis, I looked the children in the eye, put myself on their level, spoke to them clearly, listened closely—and treated them all the same.

These are tips that help all children advance and with the right support, children with disabilities can do more than people expect. This was the message that a kind neurologist and teacher told the parents of a child with ASD in the 2016 film The Accountant. “Your son’s not less-than. He’s different. Now, your expectations for your son may change over time. They might include marriage, children, self-sufficiency. They might not. But I guarantee you, if we let the world set expectations for our children, they’ll start low, and they’ll stay there. And maybe your son is capable of more than we think, but he doesn’t know how to tell us. Or we haven’t yet learned how to listen.”

Fortunately, Helen Keller had a teacher who knew how to listen, learned how to get through to her student and helped her achieve more than anyone ever dreamed. Anne Sullivan’s work made history as she transformed a severely disabled child into a woman who would become an icon and a source of inspiration for people with disabilities worldwide. Sullivan’s work is the stuff of legend, still celebrated on stage and screen. But all teachers should set their expectations high for all young children. Inclusive classrooms can help children with disabilities achieve more. So can proper teacher training, along with patience and persistence, as Gibson showed in The Miracle Worker. “When we do the best that we can,” he pointed out, “we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.”


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