Towards inclusion of students with special educational needs in the regular classroom BRUCE ALLEN KNIGHT

Towards inclusion of students with special educational needs in the regular classroom BRUCE ALLEN KNIGHT


Classroom scenario

You are teaching a Year 3 class in a regular school. Typical students in your class include two very able students (probably gifted and talented), a group of five students who can easily complete all assigned tasks, a core of fifteen ‘average students’ who can usually complete assigned tasks with little assistance, six students with learning difficulties who struggle with all tasks and need constant teacher assistance, one student with a learning disability who cannot read but is ‘average’ in other subject areas, and one slow-learning student who has a mild intellectual disability who generally needs teacher assistance in all subject areas. Of these students in this ‘typical’ class, two exhibit behaviour problems such as non-conformity and aggressive behaviour to their peers, three are boisterous to the extent of unsettling the class, three come from homes where English is a second language, and ten are from single-parent homes.

Welcome to the inclusive classroom! You may be surprised, but the classroom described above is indeed typical of many classrooms around the world as we move into the new millennium. In these inclusive classrooms, teachers need to be flexible to cater for the diversity of students’ needs through appropriate teaching programmes, organisation, resources and other adaptations that are necessary.

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is a concept which views children with disabilities as true full-time participants and members of their neighbourhood schools and communities. The inclusion philosophy proposes that there not be a range of placements but rather all students be educated with their peers in the same physical location. Inclusionists espouse that inclusive schools ‘are based on the belief that the world is an inclusive community with people who vary not only in terms of disabilities but in race, gender, and religious background’ (Mercer 1997, p. 201). With inclusion, students come to the regular classroom with all the specialised services they require. Every child has unique learning needs requiring an educational programme implemented to take into account the wide diversity of their characteristics and needs.

Stainback, Stainback, East and Sapon-Shevin (1994, p.489) state that ‘the goal of inclusion is not to erase differences, but to enable all students to belong within an educational community that validates and values their individuality’. Giorcelli (1995) outlines the following principles of full inclusion:

• placement in the neighbourhood school; • zero rejection philosophy; • age and grade-appropriate placements; • no special classes or schools; • co-operative learning practiced; and • special education support given to regular education.

Other arguments to support inclusion include:

• 20 per cent of students require special attention, but because they are not categorised as ‘disabled’, they are not eligible for special education services;

• collaborative efforts are needed to provide services to all who need them;

Support for Learning Vol. 14 No. 1 (1999) 3 © NASEN 1999.

This article discusses the philosophy of inclusion before outlining the advantages and some concerns of implementing inclusion into classroom practice. Advice is given on school policy, and the concept of ‘guided internality’ is introduced. The author warns against reproducing the features of a segregated school in a mainstream setting.

• the current system defines children as either disabled or not disabled, with no in between; and

• the current dual system is discriminatory. (Smith, Finn and Dowdy 1993)

Concerns of inclusion

Teachers and schools are expected to cope with large class sizes, students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, developmental variations of students’ skills, social problems, and what teachers label as unacceptable behaviour. To add to this list, teachers are expected to cater for students with high support needs who were previously taught in segregated settings. The impact of all this suggests that teachers need to be very organised, have expert skills, have routines well established and be adaptable to ever-changing factors and conditions in the regular classroom (Knight 1998).

The literature (such as Kauffman 1993, Knight 1992a, 1998, Mercer 1997) debates such questions and issues as: Is inclusion appropriate for all students to be included in regular classrooms or will some students actually be worse off because of a lack of services? Can the instruction and resources needed by students with special needs be provided within the context of the regular school environment? Will some students’ needs for highly specialised services such as speech therapy and physiotherapy, which can only be delivered outside of the regular classroom, highlight students’ needs more and interrupt the flow and routine of the regular classroom? Some parents of students (such as those with Down syndrome) are also expressing concern about whether their children will progress and gain skills if they are moved from a segregated setting (D. Biddle and P. Johnstone, personal communications). In general, literature reviews have generally been inconclusive regarding the benefits of inclusive education (Farrell 1997, Manset and Semmel 1997).

While the concept of inclusion is logical and socially just, proponents of inclusion tend to make emotive statements such as, ‘inclusion is justified because all children can learn’. However, Kauffman (1993, p. 4) suggests that these same people making these statements need to clarify: ‘What can all children learn? At what rate? To what criterion of performance? With what resources? For what purpose?’

Mere placement of students with disabilities in a physical location with other school students does not mean that inclusion will follow. In fact, inclusion in some situations (for example, of a student with autism) may be more like exclusion because the student’s needs are not being met and appropriate services not provided in the regular classroom. The stigmatisation of students with labels will not disappear by simply placing students in regular schools as they, and their peers, will need to be taught appropriate social and academic skills. Indeed, without careful management and the development of the included students’ skills, other regular school students may create their own discriminatory labels for included students.

Another kind of stigmatisation can occur when disabled students are not successful in schools. Students should not be blamed for school failure, but rather there is a need to look at the system and its expectations and modifications for children with disabilities. Vaughn and Schumm (in Smith, Finn and Dowdy 1993, p. 156) talk about the need for ‘responsible inclusion’ and define it as ‘that which provides for appropriate resources, teachers willing to participate in the inclusive process, and consideration of student and family needs over placement’. This notion of responsible inclusion can most likely only work if a continuum of service placements is used.

‘Teachers are not typically disposed toward change’ (Ungerleider 1993, p. 95), especially when the change involves the inclusion of students with special needs into regular schools. The notion of inclusion is being met with some resistance from regular classroom teachers worried about the impact on their teaching and other students in the classroom (B. A. Knight, in progress). It would appear from the literature (for example, Kenny 1996, Vaughn, Schumm, Jallard, Slusher and Saumell 1996) that some teachers perceive the movement toward inclusion as threatening and therefore it is to be expected that inclusion will meet with a great deal of covert resistance from teachers (especially with overt compliance). Florian (1998, p. 105) indicates that teacher resistance will occur because ‘Educators have serious reservations about supporting the widespread placement of pupils with SEN in mainstream schools because many questions about teaching and learning in inclusive schools remain unanswered.’ In fact, a study by Forlin (1995) of teachers reported that the most experienced educators had the lowest level of acceptance for inclusion.

‘When teachers resist a change, the change will only be implemented with considerable social dislocation and high social cost’ (Ungerleider 1993, p. 98). What is needed then is for teachers and schools to be aware of planning for and teaching students with disabilities. This article will therefore now examine the necessary aspects of successfully translating the philosophy of inclusion into practice. Included will be a discussion of the development of a school policy, and the characteristics of effective teaching.

Inclusive practices and school policy

Students can and do learn in an inclusive setting. It is important that the school develop a policy that includes a set of beliefs on inclusive practices. Structures need to be set up that support teachers and students as they attempt to bring about changes in their thinking, attitudes and practice. A policy should detail how needs will be met and the strategies that will be used to implement inclusion so as to ensure that real (not superficial) inclusion is visible in classroom practice. Parents, teachers, school executive, specialist teachers and other major stakeholders need to be involved in the planning, on-going monitoring and evaluation of a policy.

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The following issues need to be considered when discussing inclusive practices as part of school policy, with teacher input vital to the successful implementation of policy.

• How can general and special educators collaborate in the classroom?

• How is full and active participation by students encouraged?

• Is there a need for modification of the regular curricula? • What support do teachers need? • What support services are available to students? • How will the school monitor the effectiveness of

individual programmes and services?

Westwood (1997, p. 3) outlines other aspects which are necessary if students with significant learning and adjustment problems are to be successfully included in regular classrooms. These include:

• for teachers and students to develop positive attitudes toward students with disabilities;

• a commitment by staff to work collaboratively by sharing responsibilities and expertise;

• to develop productive links with outside agencies and services;

• to continually update teachers’ professional development; • to liaise with parents; and • to adapt curricula and teaching methods to suit students’


Effective teaching

Whether teachers will accept the philosophy of and implement inclusion very much depends on their individual starting points regarding their experiences and their commitment to it. Do they feel comfortable with the type of teaching required? Are they already experienced in working with students with disabilities? What skills do they already have? What stage are they at in their career? What is their sense of efficacy regarding implementing teaching and learning that is consistent with the philosophy of inclusion?

As there needs to be a match between a student’s capabilities and the task at hand, instruction needs to be flexible so as to respond to individual needs. Effective teaching practices are suitable for teaching all students, including those with special needs. Effective practices as outlined in the National Competency Framework for Beginning Teaching (Commonwealth of Australia 1997) include:

• being sensitive to students’ academic and emotional needs; • negotiating goals and expectations with students; • making the intent of activities clear to students; • selecting, adapting and sequencing learning content to

suit individual students; • using a wide range of teaching approaches and pacing to

meet student needs; • actively teaching strategies to students;

• setting appropriately challenging tasks; • modifying materials and assessment to suit students’

needs; • adapting instruction to appeal to different learning

styles; and • continually monitoring teaching programmes and student


How will teachers know they are being inclusive in their practice? Some would suggest they are being inclusive but have they really changed from their previous practices? Fullan discusses the notion of ‘false clarity’ to describe non-change (Fullan, 1991, p. 35). False clarity occurs when teachers believe they have changed but they have merely assimilated superficial aspects into their current practices.

Gathering information and being able to problem solve with others during implementation is critical to effective teaching and the implementation of inclusion. Effective implementation takes time as teachers need to build up a repertoire of successful strategies and practices as outlined above.

Explicit teaching

It must be emphasised that direct, explicit teaching is necessary, especially if students’ skills are to develop, particularly in the early stages of learning. Students with special needs do not develop skills incidentally, but need to learn skills so that they can later apply these skills in new learning situations. The teacher is thus working with students at their instructional level and thus within each student’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky 1978). Students are active participants in the learning process and the teacher is gradually transferring control to the students. The amount of teacher–student interaction necessary to promote active student involvement within a supportive context will vary with each individual and with differing classroom situations (Knight 1994a, 1998). As in the successful Reading Recovery programme (Clay 1991), the teacher works with students to develop skills and then gradually fades out cues and assistance, thus enabling students to be more independent in their learning.

A guided internality teaching perspective

The following teaching perspective, which emphasises dialectical constructivism involving working with students at their instructional level and within their zone of proximal development, has been labelled guided internality (Knight 1991, 1992a, 1992b, 1993, 1994a, 1994b). It promotes a belief in personal responsibility while being realistic about the personal responsibility limitations of students with disabilities.

Guided internality can be applied to all instructional areas, encouraging students to become active learners and thereby reinforcing their beliefs in realistic personal control. This perspective provides direction for teaching–learning

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situations, with the teacher’s role being to guide students and emphasise to them the management of their own learning. As students take more responsibility for their learning, having learnt appropriate strategies, the teacher phases out the guiding cues, with the degree of intervention depending upon students’ abilities, characteristics and situational contexts.

A guided internality teaching perspective is generated by:

• the teacher modelling and making thought processes overt;

• the teacher (in collaboration with individual students) setting realistic goals;

• promoting students’ active role in the learning process, i.e. making decisions, taking risks;

• giving students sufficient practice to ensure mastery of skills; and

• teaching strategies which match students’ cognitive abilities so that, for example, a task should firstly be analysed to ensure that students have the skills to be able to complete the task.

(Knight, Paterson and Mulcahy 1998)

The following case study provides an example of a teacher implementing explicit teaching using a guided internality teaching perspective.

Case study

Mrs Y. (a fourth grade teacher of thirty students) wants to teach her class to write procedural texts and she wants to teach it in an explicit manner. Firstly, she will familiarise the students with many examples of different procedures, such as how something is done and giving instructions to complete tasks. She will dovetail her reading programme to fit with her intended writing skills programme, thereby giving the students many opportunities to read and examine procedural texts in different contexts. She will then (with the whole class) analyse different examples of procedural texts to show to her students the ‘rules’ involved in writing these texts.

In the next phase, Mrs Y. will model (and think aloud) the processes to go through when writing a procedural text. For this she will use a common experience familiar to the children, where her students cooked pancakes the previous week. She constructs a procedural text by inviting her students to add details while she writes them in an appropriate format following the ‘rules’ of procedural writing that the class has previously formulated.

This modelling and thinking aloud will be repeated many times. There would also be many shared writing experiences between Mrs Y. and individual students and between the students themselves. It is at this point that Mrs Y. is aware of the students who will require more assistance and she will organise her teaching to cater for them. Next, steps to teach procedural writing may include more guided writing

for some students, independent writing for others and then giving all students the opportunity to share their writing with an audience.


Florian (1998, p. 108) asserts that ‘Despite the difficulties associated with the implementation of inclusive education policies, there is a great deal of philosophical agreement about the rights of children with special education needs to equal opportunity.’ However, whilst attempting to include children with special needs in regular classes, special education to date has merely ‘reproduced itself in a mainstream setting. It has, in other words, colonised rather than transformed the mainstream’ (Dyson 1997, p. 154). Rather than attempting to reproduce the features of the segregated special school within a regular school, schools and teachers need to be active in promoting the ideal of inclusion. This ideal can be achieved when schools restructure, set timelines, remain sensitive to individual students’ needs and explicitly teach skills to students.

Supportive classroom teachers and administrators are critical to the successful teaching of students in inclusive settings. Teachers’ behaviour, attitudes and skills, together with peer acceptance of individual differences are important factors in the successful inclusion of students.


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Correspondence Bruce Allen Knight Faculty of Education and Creative Arts Central Queensland University (Mackay Campus) Mackay Mail Centre PO Box 5606 Queensland 4741 Australia

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