A Too Seldom Discussed Peril of Inclusion

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Inclusion above refers to the practice of putting special education students in regular classes and then providing them with adapted work.

I have one of these students. For all intents and purposes, he can neither read nor write. So he gets special assignments. One example: The others read the chapter and answer questions. He gets to draw a picture of the material, except mostly he won’t. I think he resents being different. Maybe he just doesn’t want to work.

A classroom is a fishbowl, though. All the other students see this student getting what seems like an easy ride. Some of them would prefer to color instead of reading and thinking, too. So they clumsily appeal to my sense of fairness.

“Hey, why does he get to do that? I want to color!”

“Why doesn’t he ever have to do anything?!”

“That’s not fair!”

Then sometimes worse things happen. A student or students will clumsily try to get the class to drop the subject.

“Stop it! She has to give him special work. He can’t do the regular stuff.”

“Yeah, leave him alone. He can’t write.”

I’ve tried to get the class to understand the situation while this student was out of the room with mixed success. Most of them are much nicer now. Most do not complain. But a few are still making fun of this kid, even if not directly, and the kid is now hostile to them. I missed the initial dynamic but I’m pretty sure one of the regular students made fun of my special student a couple of days ago. The special education student then told him (pretty sure it’s a him — I don’t know who it is but the girls are nice to this boy), “Triple fuck you!” That I heard.

My special student is having a hard time. It’s almost the end of the year. There’s little I can do. I’ve already spent a bunch of class minutes on sensitivity training with almost complete success. But a lot of class time was spend on sensitivity training and almost is not good enough. I still have a couple of 7th graders who are not with the program. In the meantime, this kid’s pretty miserable. He makes a lot of his own trouble by glowering at them — his social skills are very weak — but obviously the regular students are behaving unacceptably.

Here’s the bottom line: My special student feels like crap sometimes. The fact that everybody else can do things he can’t is obvious to him. He can see them write the paragraphs he can’t read or write. So he lashes out at them. But then some of them lash back. The whole thing’s ugly. I know that some people would blame me, would say the teacher has to stop this! But thirteen year olds are natural pack animals. I’ve done a lot to try to manage this situation. Unfortunately, my special education student is often rude to the other kids and the dynamic is just trouble. He’s mean, a few of them are mean back and I’m left to think the whole situation is just absurd, even as I devote more class minutes to managing it.

I have no special education training. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve gone to the internet, other teachers and outside experts. But I don’t understand how to help this kid. In the meantime, he’s not with teachers who have the education and experience to help him. He’s also with a peer group that’s making him feel stupid — even when they are being nice — in the same way that standardized tests are making him feel stupid. Being surrounded by people who are all better at something than you are can’t possibly feel good.

Inclusion is truly running amok.

A thought for parents of special children: I understand why parents want their kids in the regular classroom. They dreamed of that classroom. They want their child to have the most “normal” school experience possible. But normal is not necessarily best. The advantage to self-contained, special education classrooms is that students in those rooms are not always forced to compare themselves to academically-advantaged peers. Students inevitably make comparisons. Sizing up one’s position in the social and academic hierarchy is so natural that I doubt there’s any way to prevent students from going there. My student is lashing out because he’s figured out he’s at the bottom of that invisible totem pole.

In general, I’d say students who cannot read and write should not be in regular classes. Yes, I can adapt the materials. I can provide test adaptations. I can grade by different standards. I can work on student sensitivity. But in the end, my student feels lost because he is lost.

I can create successes for this boy, but I can’t disguise the fact that he can’t read his textbook, much less understand it, and I can’t always keep a couple of boys from glancing over at him with contempt. Because this is a regular class, the room is full. Regular classes may have over thirty students. That self-contained special education classroom, in contrast, would have maybe 12 students and probably an assistant. Someone could sit down with my student and work on his phonics. I don’t have an assistant and this boy needs much more repetition and explanation than I can give him in a regular classroom. Inclusion is cheating this boy, as it cheats many other students like him.