The dilemma of educational choice

by Vianne Timmons

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As parents of children with special needs you face difficult decisions when it comes to where your child should be educated. This dilemma is worldwide, parents everywhere want their children to have the best education possible. Since the 1980s, there has been a movement towards more inclusive schooling for children with special needs. In some areas, such as Eastern Canada, segregated schools have closed and children are educated in neighborhood schools with their peers. Inclusive programs have opened in universities and colleges to ensure a continuum of learning for young adults with special needs.

Eastern Canada is not isolated in its approach to education of children with special needs. Inclusive education has become a global trend with the United Nations endorsing it as an important development. Article 24 of the 2006 UN Convention, which has been signed by over 100 countries, addresses inclusive education:

In realizing this right, States Parties shall ensure that:
(a) persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary and secondary education on the basis of disability;

(b) persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality, free primary and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live;

(c) reasonable accommodation of the individual’s requirements is provided;

(d) persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;

(d) effective individualized support measures are provided in environments that maximize academic and social development, consistent with the goal of full inclusion.

Many families feel torn regarding the best type of education for their children with special needs. Parents want to ensure the education they choose is the best one possible for their child. Parents often feel a special school provides individualized instruction and a safe environment for their child. It is difficult to imagine that an inclusive education can provide a quality education for a child with special needs. Actually it can.

Many parents who select a regular classroom placement end up satisfied with the educational service provided. In a study undertaken with twenty families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder who chose an inclusive education for their children, parents felt overwhelmingly positive about the education their children were receiving (Timmons, 2004).

Benefits of inclusive education

Here are key findings about the benefits of inclusion for children and families:
Parents’ visions of a typical life for their children can come true
All parents want their children to be accepted by their peers, have friends and lead ‘regular’ lives. Inclusive settings can make this vision a reality for many children with disabilities.

Children develop a positive understanding of themselves and others
When children attend classes that reflect the similarities and differences of people in the real world, they learn to appreciate diversity.

Friendships develop

Schools are important places for children to develop friendships and learn social skills. Children with and without disabilities learn with and from each other in inclusive classes.

All children learn by being together

Because the philosophy of inclusive education is aimed at helping all children learn, everyone in the class benefits. Children learn at their own pace and style within a nurturing learning environment.

These benefits do not happen by placing a child with special needs in a classroom with his/her peers. It takes significant work by the teacher, parents and students to ensure the child receives a quality education. In Timmons’s (2004) research, parents of children with autism felt that regular, sometimes daily, communication was essential for the child’s success. Teachers clearly identified the benefit of including children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the classroom. They recognized the growth in tolerance and the benefits of peer learning. Having a student with ASD in the classroom did not impact negatively on other students’ learning.

Teachers do need to implement inclusive practices to ensure all students are included and taught. This requires time to plan and develop different approaches to teaching. Teachers who are effective in inclusive classrooms find that their methods benefit all students in the classroom. Teachers do have to change their teaching methods when they have children with a wide range of abilities in their classroom. They do have to plan for the class and then look at accommodations required for the children with special learning needs.

Hawkins (2007) in his research connects improved academic performance of students to inclusionary practices. Willms (date) supports Hawkins work by demonstrating that classrooms with heterogeneous ability grouped children have an overall greater academic achievement than homogeneous ability grouped children. We want to ensure that children with special need benefit from inclusive education and recent research is supporting this assertion.

So, knowing that inclusive education can be a positive experience for your child, what do you as a parent have to consider? You need to make contact with school board officials responsible for children with special needs and express your desire to have your child in his/her neighbourhood school. You should expect support from the School District, school and classroom level. Children should be included in the educational process, the class should have a session with the teacher and parent explaining the disability the child has and how they can support the child in their classroom. They should be given roles and responsibilities. Our job is to educate all students, to support them in becoming good citizens. We need to educate them about differences and give them opportunities to ask questions and learn to understand behavior and learning that is obviously different. One of the benefits of inclusive education is the education of all children and the focus on them becoming partners in the learning enterprise. When our child is included we need to be active partners. There must be regular communication between the teacher and us. This is essential, as issues will arise that will need a collaborative approach to solve. We do have a lot of expertise that can assist the teacher in his/her work and the teacher has a lot of expertise to support our parenting.
There may be times when a child cannot be fully included for the entire school day. Then arrangements will need to be made, in consultation with you as the parent, to provide either one.on-one or small group instruction. The amount of time your child is removed from the classroom should be mutually agreed on and transparent. There should be discussions on how to ensure the classroom experience is fully realized and a strategy on supporting the child to re-enter. If a child is disruptive to other children’s learning, he/she should be removed and an intervention program developed with the goal to have the child join his/her classmates as soon as possible. Inclusive education is where all children feel welcome, safe and included and therefore that needs to be the goal we all aspire to achieve.

We live in a society that is full of people from different countries, religions, races and abilities. We want to have a society that promotes and supports these differences. The best way to ensure the next generation is accepting and respectful of differences is to have them educated with classmates from different countries, religions, races and abilities.

When our children with special needs grow up and live in our communities we want our communities to be accepting. They will live in the community with their former classmates, eat in restaurants with them and encounter them when they walk down the street. We want our children to gain meaningful employment, and their classmates may be their employers or workmates. This will only happen if they grow up together, play together and learn about each other under our guidance as parents and teachers.

Working together, schools and families can ensure that education for children with special needs is as inclusive as possible and aspiration to have an inclusive society is maintained. Inclusive education is an important step in this process. We are fortunate that there are examples of inclusive school systems that are working well and many parents who have served as pioneers in this field.

Dr. Vianne Timmons has recently been appointed President of the University of Regina, Canada. Dr. Timmons’s research areas include family literacy, knowledge translation and inclusive practices. She has worked and researched with children and adults with unique learning needs for the last 30 years. She has numerous research grants and has published extensively in international and national journals. She served as editor of the journal, Education Exceptionality Canada, for 10 years.
Dr. Timmons is asked to present frequently on her work in Canada and internationally.  Vianne has spent the last decade working in India where she was instrumental in the development of the National Resource Centre for Inclusion. She has developed a curriculum for teachers in India to support them in the implementation of inclusive education practices. She is presently working with the Ministry of Higher Education in Sri Lanka on a project to improve teacher education.

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