Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

To Reach for the Stars: How Social/affective Education Can Foster Truly Inclusive Environments

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

To Reach for the Stars: How Social/affective Education Can Foster Truly Inclusive Environments

Article excerpt

Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill did not work, because its proper implementation required large-scale structural changes within society. From the failure of that movement, Ms. Epstein and Mr. Elias derive lessons regarding the proper implementation of inclusion.

When he was 10 years old, KC (a pseudonym), who had been diagnosed with an autistic disorder, was placed in a regular classroom. At age 13, he wrote this poignant description of the transformation he had undergone: "I was really nervous when I first came into third grade, but as I got older and passed through fourth grade, I learned a lot more than I could have possibly thought. I learned about friendship and generosity, so that by the time I arrived in Mrs. B's class, I was ready to start having friends."(1) KC's experience is a success story - an illustration of the power and potential of inclusion.

The term inclusion is often used but poorly understood. Why, after so many articles and so many conference presentations, is inclusion still such an elusive concept? Even though a preponderance of educators have been touched by inclusion, the concept remains difficult to define. And teachers are by no means alone with respect to their incomplete grasp of inclusion. They are joined by administrators, psychologists, and other professionals in the field. An examination of the literature reveals that there is no commonly understood meaning of inclusion. In fact, what some refer to as "inclusion" is what others label as "mainstreaming", "integration," or "heterogeneous schooling."(2)

A popular definition of inclusive schooling is a system that serves all students adequately in regular classrooms, with the required support services.(3) Much of the debate involves the "all students" portion of this definition. Students who are currently being placed in segregated special education classrooms by no means constitute a homogeneous group. There are variations in both the nature and the severity of their disabilities. According to the popular definition, all members of this diverse group, regardless of the level of impairment, would be served within the regular education environment. This means including not only those children with physical impairments and learning disabilities but also those with behavioral and emotional problems - children who have histories of being "disruptive" in the mainstream setting.

The notion that inclusion has no boundaries raises the concern that children will be "dumped" back into regular education classes without having the appropriate supports in place. There is a fear that there will be an instant replay of the deinstitutionalization fiasco, in which civil rights were invoked in defense of a practice that unfortunately also had strong financial motivations. It is easy to see the parallel to the inclusion movement. If it is pushed forward for primarily monetary reasons, the likelihood of its being carried out properly is slim.

Perhaps the failure of deinstitutionalization can teach us a few lessons about the proper implementation of inclusion. After all, the civil rights component of deinstitutionalization was not merely a ruse but was indeed at the crux of the movement. Similarly, the goal of inclusion is very much in line with civil liberties. Unlike the Regular Education Initiative, in which the emphasis was on the improvement of academic achievement,(4) the focus of the present inclusive movement is mainly social in nature. The hope is to increase social competence and foster positive relationships with peers and teachers.

If the social aspect of inclusion is kept in the forefront, it is possible to see in the inclusive movement an opportunity long missing from the practice of special education in most public school settings. What inclusion truly represents is the opportunity to create a sense of community through the promotion of acceptance and respect for oneself and for others. If inclusion is carried out correctly, it could be an extended lesson to our youngsters about what it means to be citizens in our society. …

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