Legislation in Ontario has made it mandatory for children to be educated with age-appropriate peers in the least restrictive environment possible, resulting in a trend towards mainstreaming. Mainstreaming involves teaching all students (those with autism, behaviour problems, giftedness, learning disability, mild intellectual disability, speech/language problems, physical disability, or are blind, deaf or hard of hearing) in the same classroom for part or all of their day. The alternative to mainstreaming is special class placement, which educates children in classrooms geared toward specific ability levels with resources appropriate to the student.
In theory, inclusion benefits all children because it forces a rethinking of the one-size-fits-all curriculum, and enables children to interact with and understand those with special needs and abilities. This trend toward normalization is an extension of the contact hypothesis: if people with disabilities are integrated into mainstream society, attitudes about the disabled will become more positive.
Unfortunately, the results of mainstreaming are not always positive. A homogeneous curriculum is still the norm in many school systems that profess to be mainstreamed. Students with exceptional needs may feel very isolated and alone in a fully inclusive classroom. Other students may be resentful toward those students with special needs if the teacher must spend an inordinate amount of time with the exceptional student. Gifted students in a mainstream classroom may become very bored and even drop out if efforts are not made to give them more challenging work and keep them engaged.
Special class placements do not hold all the answers for educating students either. Students in special class placements have the opportunity to interact with other children who have similar disabilities or talents. In a learning-disabled classroom, there may be a lower student to teacher ratio than in a regular classroom, affording students the extra help that they need. In a gifted classroom, students may have the opportunity to explore subjects not typically addressed in the curriculum or accelerate their learning of traditional disciplines.
Labelling children by placing them in special classrooms may unfairly stigmatize them, particularly in the case of misdiagnosed learning disabilities, which is quite common. It has also been proposed that children educated in special class environments may never learn to deal effectively with the real world. They may learn the curriculum, but they may not learn the social skills that a student in a regular classroom will. This can lead to particularly negative consequences for those with physical or mental disabilities. Many parents feel that their children are not viewed as equal and that being in a special class limits their potential, possibly causing them to regress. Special class placements may also have lower expectations for the disabled; they may teach life skills, but they don’t always encourage pursuing successful employment.
Inclusion, or the lack thereof, has some very serious implications for teachers. Regular classroom teachers who have children with disabilities included in their classrooms may not have the training, interest, or time to help those students do their best. It is challenging for teachers to address the needs of a variety of students. Laws now require that teachers implement program modifications, including individualizing instructional methods, adapting the instructional environment, and lowering maximum class size to meet the needs of their students. Less experienced teachers may have a more difficult time, as they are engrossed in surviving daily routines and mastering classroom management.
Special education teachers may not have a holistic approach to teaching and learning. They may focus on techniques for unconventional students, behaviour management, and diagnosing or remediating deficiencies. They may also feel isolated and not supported by regular and special education administrators. Not all school boards can implement special class placements because of the high cost of facilities and resources, including support personnel and equipment, so lack of adequate funding often compounds the problems that special education teachers must face.
The key to effective education is not solely mainstreaming or special class placements for students. Both of these strategies have their place, but neither is sufficient to accomplish the successful education of our children. It is necessary to “look beyond the conventional, consider the overall dynamics of the classroom, and plan for a working environment in which all the students can fully develop their abilities and interests within the confines of one organizational unit” (Parke, 1992). Ideally, curriculum material should focus on understanding key concepts instead of memorizing facts. Weaker students can grasp and use powerful ideas, while advanced learners can expand their understanding and application of critical concepts and principles. Employing a variety of texts or supplementary material with a common core theme can engage a variety of learning styles and academic readiness levels. Teachers must help students learn to be responsible for their work to facilitate growing independence in thought, planning, and evaluation. School boards must ensure that time and energy are spent on training and supervising school personnel and that educational planning teams are used to collaborate and make decisions.