In about two weeks here in Upstate New York, the students will be heading back into the classrooms and the learning will begin. What a lot of students don’t realize is that the majority of them (at least in my district) will have a student with special needs in their classroom for, at the very least, a portion of their day.
Inclusion, or coteaching as it is called around here, is a hot button issue with a lot of parents and teachers. For me, there are really no easy answers. In education, there never are.
This is nothing new for me. I spent the first 9 years of my teaching career teaching Special Education. I was actually an inclusion specialist for three of those years. In that time, I saw coteaching done right and coteaching done wrong.
I have a child who is in a coteaching classroom. Isaac has been included since the minute he started preschool. I wouldn’t have it any other way. He has both pull out and push in services-he’s pulled out twice a week for speech, physical therapy and occupational therapy and speech pushes in another two times a week. He also gets consultant teacher support both in his regular classroom and in a resource room environment. He also has a part time aide that helps out with the times he’s having difficulty and can set up supports that are prescribed by the OT and speech people.
Isaac’s classroom is the model of coteaching done properly. Lessons are planned with multiple levels that reach each child in the classroom where they are, the slant board, seat cushion and all of Isaac’s other support materials aren’t brought to the forefront. The aide that is assigned to him assists the entire classroom if Isaac doesn’t require her for a specific task. Basically, all of the students in the classroom think she is there for all of them. Not just Isaac. The students are compassionate, helpful and love Isaac for who he is. Even when he gets tangled in his HowdaHug chair during circle time.
When coteaching is done properly, it looks like Isaac’s classroom. You never know that there’s a special needs kid in the room at all, unless there’s something visible about the child or their set up, like Isaac’s slant board. The room functions just like a fully typical classroom. The students all receive the same core curriculum, and special needs students are fully participating in that curriculum.
When coteaching is done wrong, it is complete and utter chaos. I’ve seen classrooms that have been in such disarray because the teachers working together, both special ed and regular ed, don’t get along. I’ve seen teaching styles not mesh. I’ve seen aides pay more attention to behavior of the other students in the room rather than the one that they have been assigned to. I’ve also seen the wrong students placed in fully included classrooms for the sake of being included. The students in those classrooms are always dragging academically, because the classroom is so chaotic and disruptive. The core curriculum is delivered, but the big question is how effectively is it being delivered in these situations.
Even with seeing the wrong side of coteaching, as both a parent and a teacher, I feel that it really is a great way to educate kids with special needs and kids who are typical alike.
First, when done correctly, coteaching benefits everyone. Teachers plan together, making the most of a curriculum. Sometimes, two heads are better than one! New and different activities, centers and learning experiences are planned that reach every student in the room. Having a second set of trained eyes in the room also helps in identifying students who have special needs that aren’t currently being served or students who could just use a bit more support.
Second, the students learn that compassion, tolerance, caring and helpfulness aren’t traits that go along with a specific holiday or done for prizes. They voluntarily help each other. If a child needs help getting up, they are helped-no one has to ask the kids in a coteaching classroom. They live with compassion and differences daily. They are tolerant of the differences around them, and see the world for its diversity rather than its sameness.
Lastly, the students who are included feel less different and more apt to participate in school life outside of the classroom. Being in classes with regular peers allows for opportunities for the special needs student to participate in birthday parties, playdates and outside trips. Students who have special needs already feel different, because they know they have to work harder than everyone else, and they know they don’t get things as quickly. They often feel left out. Putting them in with the typical students allows for the feeling of being part of the group.
Coteaching is one of my favorite educational advancements. It takes some work, but the benefits outweigh the concerns that any teacher should have about having a fully included classroom.