As part of her final year studies in the School of Clinical Speech and Language Studies in Trinity College Dubli last year, Ciara O'Toole undertook a study of attitudes to the integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools.


Helen Keller is quoted by Gash and Coffey (1995) as saying that ‘The heaviest burdens of disability arise from personal interaction and not from the impairment itself’. Children with disabilities are also open to prejudices which can have a profound effect on their social, cognitive and emotional development, and on their self-image. These prejudices may be displayed during the school years, where children learn to develop their own peer-group relationships independently of adults. Ashman and Elkins (1996) describe how most governments have accepted that it is important that the experiences of people with a disability whould be as close as possible to those of others who do not have a disability, and that children should be educated together in a mainstream school.

The majority of the literature relating to the educational integration of children with Down Syndrome demonstrates positive effects. Conneally (1993) describes how integration is vital to help society recognise the abilities of people with learning disabilities: ‘The two people must have an opportunity to know each other and to spend time together so that they can come to recognise each other’s abilities and talents’. Leadbetter and Leadbetter (1993) report societal benefits when disabled students are able to contribute to and live happily within their society. Integration also has implications for society in general, in that a more realistic, sensitive and optimistic view of the capabilities of children with disabilities can be seen. If people experience no personal contact with persons with disabilities, their images are likely to be stereotyped and possibly mistaken.

In Ireland, provision for education of children with moderate learning disabilities shifted to special class placement in mainstream schools by the 1970s. This policy of integration is now government policy, outlined in the White Paper on Education (1995), which states that policy on integration: ‘Will be to ensure a continuum of provision for special education needs, ranging from occasional help within the ordinary school to full-time education in a special school unit, with students being enabled to move as necessary and practicable from one type of provision to another’ (p .24).

Although the White Paper describes the establishment of a special task force to help implement the policy of integration, the onus is still placed on schools’ boards of management (consisting of parents and teachers) to organise placements. Consequently, the decision is not always related to the student’s capabilities but rather to the attitudes of those on the board of management, and to the resources available. Consequently, although in theory integration appears to be a positive option for children with a learning disability, McConkey et al. (1983) hold that: ‘if the public’s attitudes are negative and unwelcoming, then there is little chance of creating a conducive living environment for people who are mentally handicapped’. The single most important factor may be the willingness of the mainstream school to accept the child with special needs. Negative attitudes need to be confronted and overcome if approaches to integration are to be effective.

The present study

The present study was conducted with a total of 60 pupils in sixth class in two all-girl mainstream primary schools in two neighbouring Irish towns, and with a sample of ten parents from each school. One school encompassed a special school located in the same building as a mainstream primary school (locationally integrated), where efforts for social integration were being implemented, although the schools were still functionally segregated. The study sought to compare attitudes on the integration of pupils with learning difficulties (specifically Down Syndrome) in the locationally integrated school with those in the non-integrated school.

Although the majority of the study focused on the children’s attitudes, it also sought to establish the attitudes of parents of the mainstream children, to see how their views compared with their children’s. This article presents a brief summary of that part of the study which surveyed parental attitudes.

Parents were asked to fill in a questionnaire based on one used in Gash’s study (1993), and modified to focus both on the parents’ own attitudes and on how they felt that their children would react to the integration of a child with Down Syndrome into their mainstream class. (The questionnaire is reproduced below.)

Study results

There were differences between the attitudes of children and those of their parents concerning the integration of children with Down Syndrome. In general, the responses confirmed the results of a previous study of 48 Irish schools by Beveridge (1996), which found that children were more favourably disposed to integration than their parents. In the present study, children were significantly more pro-social than their parents; the parents were less agreeable to having their child socialise with a child with Down Syndrome.

The parents also had significantly more negative attitudes on the general issue of integration. Forty per cent of parents of the non-integrated schoolchildren felt that they would not like someone with Down Syndrome to be in their child’s class, and that a child with Down Syndrome would not like to go to a mainstream school. In the locationally integrated school, 20% (of both the children and the parents) gave a negative response to the question.

Parent-respondents were more socially concerned and more understanding of the extra needs which a child with Down Syndrome would have if integrated into a mainstream school. They had more realistic and accurate attitudes about the general characteristics and abilities of the children. Another encouraging result was that all the parents of children in the locationally integrated school reported that they liked having children with Down Syndrome in their child’s playground.

On the adjective checklist, all the children in the non-integrated setting used more positive/sensitive descriptive adjectives than their parents. However, the children in the locationally integrated school used more negative adjectives than their parents.

Outcome of the study: suggestions for more successful integration

This study highlighted the benefits of positive attitudes in the parents of mainstream children, achievable through locational integration with practices of social integration. Such positive attitudes were shown by the parents of children in the integrated school, as well as by their children, in recognising the flexibility and understanding needed, socially and academically, to accommodate children with special needs. This was shown in their overall sociable attitudes toward children with special needs and their overwhelming preference to have children with Down Syndrome in a mainstream class and to include them in games.

However, some of the negative attitudes shown in the study will be seen as disappointing. Simply placing children with and without learning disabilities in the same school environment is unlikely to ensure successful social integration. Locational and even functional integration may be implemented, but success will depend significantly on the level of social integration achieved.

The following suggestions are made for more successful integration:

  • Planned interactions
  • Curricular activities
  • Peer tutoring
  • Information
  • Early integration
  • Ongoing improvements
  • Reformulation of special education policy
  • Parental involvement

Because parents (particularly members of school boards of management) are key decision-makers in the integration of children with learning disabilities, they too must become familiar with the abilities and characteristics of those with learning difficulties in order to make accurate and realistic decisions. One practical parental-education programme is suggested by Carpenter (1994), who describes the development of an informal parents’ centre linked to an integrated nursery which produced increasingly positive responses from parents.

Children with Down Syndrome/learning difficulties can have their needs met in a mainstream school setting. However, an examination of the school system as a whole is needed and a positive school ethos is important. But some children may be better served in a special educational environment which values the individual needs of pupils–with specialist teachers, equipment and support professionals, and a wide curricular flexibility. Both options must be made fully available to children and their parents if we are to recognise those with disabilities as equal members of society.

Section One

I want you to pretend that a new girl has come into your daughter’s class this year. She has Down Syndrome. Please answer the questions about this girl. Your answers will be kept private. Please circle yes or no for each of the questions below.

  1. Would she look different to your child?
  2. Would she be as tall as ordinary children her own age?
  3. Would she sound different when she talks?
  4. Would she be sick more often than other children?
  5. Would she be able to run as fast as ordinary children?
  6. Would she be able to draw as well as others?
  7. Would she be able to swim by herself?
  8. Would she be good at music and dancing?
  9. Would she be able to do the same maths as your child?
  10. Would she be able to read the same books?
  11. Would she be able to speak Irish?
  12. Do you think she would use computers?
  13. Do you think she would have the same hobbies as other children?
  14. Would your child like to sit beside her?
  15. Would your child play with her at break time?
  16. Would she tell her secrets?
  17. Would she allow her to break the rules in a game?
  18. Would she ask her to her birthday party?
  19. Would she ask her to your house after school?
  20. Would she need to help her with her homework?
  21. Would she give her a head-start in a race?
  22. Would this girl prefer to have children with Down Syndrome as her friends?
Section Two

Now I want you to pretend that your child is describing this girl. What words might she use to describe the girl with Down Syndrome? Please circle the words she might use. She is …

Clever or stupid

Tidy or untidy

Unkind or kind

Happy or sad

Quiet or lively

Mean or caring

Cool or a nerd

Friendly or unfriendly

Ugly or pretty

Busy or lazy

Popular or lonely

Dirty or clean

Weak or strong

Nice or horrible

Bold or good

Gentle or rough

Section Three

Now I would like you to answer some questions about having a child with Down Syndrome in your child’s class. Please circle yes or no for each question.

  1. Do you think children with Down Syndrome could be in an ordinary school, with a little extra help?
  2. Do you think all children with Down Syndrome could be taught in the same classroom as ordinary children?
  3. Do you think some children with Down Syndrome could be taught in the same classroom as ordinary children?
  4. Should children with Down Syndrome go to their own school where all the children are mentally handicapped?
  5. Would children with Down Syndrome be able to be in the proper class for their own age group?
  6. Should they have to do the same homework as other children?
  7. Would children with Down Syndrome be able to behave properly in the classroom?
  8. Would they be able to go to secondary school with the others in their class?
  9. Do you think children with Down Syndrome might be picked on at an ordinary school?
  10. Do you think children with Down Syndrome would like to go to an ordinary school?
  11. Would you like to have someone with Down Syndrome in your child’s class?
Section Four
  1. Do you know anyone who has Down Syndrome?
  2. Do you know anyone who is mentally handicapped?
  3. Are there children in your child’s school who need extra help?
  4. Are there children with Down Syndrome in your child’s school?
  5. *Do you like having children with Down Syndrome in your child’s playground?
  6. *Does your child include these children in her games?

(*Questions asked only of parents of children in the locationally integrated school)


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