"I Believe in Inclusion, but ...": Regular Education Early Childhood Teachers' Perceptions of Successful Inclusion

Article excerpt

Abstract. The purpose of this qualitative study was to describe regular education early childhood teachers' perceptions of those factors that contributed to or hindered their success in inclusive classrooms. From among the K-3 teachers in one pro-inclusion school district, six teachers (three self described as successful with inclusion and three as unsuccessful) were randomly selected to participate in a series of four semi-structured interviews about their current experiences with inclusion. Analysis of the interview data indicated a strong shared belief in the fundamental value of inclusion, as well as revealing four themes that affected their perceptions about inclusion. The themes indicated a need for: more adequate and focused training (for both regular and special education personnel), better consideration of classroom load factors (including class size, ratios, and type and severity of special needs), more reliable support (in-class, collaborative, and administrative), and help to find more time to mee t the increased planning and collaborative demands of inclusive classrooms. These themes were examined in relation to the participants' perceptions of their classroom success with inclusion. Implications and recommendations for professional development are discussed.

In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, reported that nearly five million children, ages 3-11, with special needs were receiving special education services. Sixty-nine percent of those children with special needs were included in regular education classrooms 40% of the time (Winter, 1997). By 1995, 891 school districts in 50 states reported offering inclusive education programs (National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion, 1995). Regular education classroom teachers in K-3 early childhood settings give many students and parents their initial exposure to inclusion, as well as to the school experience itself. These regular education teachers are often the first to diagnose students with special needs. Even when a student has been diagnosed, these teachers will be responsible for providing for the needs of that student, meeting the needs of the rest of the class, and maintaining a classroom of mutual respect and academic standards. This initial experience i s critical since it forms the foundation for later school success; hence, the positive and negative perceptions, beliefs, and experiences of early childhood regular education teachers are at the core of the issue of successful inclusion.

Why are some early childhood regular education classroom teachers successful with inclusion, while others are not? What should school districts be doing to help maintain and increase the level of success for individual early childhood regular education teachers involved in inclusion? Substantial research and practitioner literature have been generated concerning the inclusion of young children with special needs in early childhood classrooms. Reviews of this research literature (Buysse & Bailey, 1993; Lamorey & Bricker, 1993; Odom & Diamond, 1998) have highlighted child outcomes, classroom practice variables, teacher and family belief systems, and social and educational policy implications. Similarly, much of the professional literature on inclusion has focused on the importance of the beliefs and attitudes of both regular and special education teachers (Vidovich & Lombard, 1998; Wigle & Wilcox, 1997), and on recommended practices that are seen as essential to making inclusion "work" (Blenk & Fine, 1995), suc h as collaboration and cooperative teaching (Bauwens & Hourcade, 1995; Jones & Carlier, 1995; Kaufman & Chick, 1996), staff development (Malarz, 1996), responsive scheduling (Snell, Koontz Lowman, & Canady, 1996), and the use of para-professionals (Wadsworth & Knight, 1996).

Much of the inclusion literature has been quantitative in nature. …