For students with special needs, the most effective solution for their success may not be as complicated as it seems: inclusion. By giving students the chance to learn in the same environment and with the same curriculum as general education students, they can gain meaningful learning experiences and feel less like an outsider. 

Our Advocate’s Guide to Special Education explains why it’s important that schools and districts provide rigorous content to students with special needs, and then the support they need to master it.

Below are some guidelines for what to look for in your school and district.

What to Look For

District/Charter 

  • District / charter school leaders share a district-wide vision for inclusion of special education students as an explicit core value. This is clearly expressed in mission, vision and strategic planning.
  • District / charter school leaders give schools flexibility to make decisions about how to best use staff and resources, and to create the schedule in a way that includes students with special needs in general education classrooms, at every grade level. 
  • Special education staff are included in annual district level or charter school network-level conversations in which principals make decisions about their budget and staffing.
  • District / charter schools keep track of the number of students who are fully included, partially included, or in separate settings and the extent to which these approaches are working for students.
  • District / charter school leaders expect and support general education teachers to build their expertise in special education, and special education teachers to develop greater content expertise. This could include professional development for the entire staff that is focused on special education topics, knowledge, and skills. It could also be integrating special education topics into general trainings (e.g. a session on literacy that includes a focus on learning disabilities and specific strategies to support struggling readers with dyslexia or traumatic brain injury).

School/Classroom

  • School leaders make staffing decisions that allow students who need additional intervention or small group instruction to get the time and support they need. For example, a school leader may hire more paraprofessionals, resource specialists, teacher assistants, and co-teachers according to the needs of the student population.
  • The school has regular common planning time for general and special education teachers to plan instruction together. Both special education teachers and general education teachers collaborate, co-plan, co-teach, and work with small and large groups of students based on student need. Both deliver content and provide specific supports to struggling students.
  • Students with special needs are seated throughout the classroom alongside their peers without special needs, at all grade levels. Teachers regularly call on all students, including those with special needs and ensure all students are engaged in the lesson.
  • Student groupings are flexible and change over time based on students’ needs and academic progress. Students are not working in the same groups every day based exclusively on their special needs status.
  • For students who can’t be fully included in the general classroom, the school team provides opportunities throughout the school day for students to build relationships and participate in important aspects of the school’s culture (e.g. extracurriculars, homework clubs, assemblies, shared lunch times and recess, etc.).

What to Ask

When visiting a school or speaking with a district/charter school network administrator, ask: 

  • Are students with special needs included as much as possible in general education classrooms (per their IEPs)? Right now, what percentage of students with special needs are fully included, partially included or in separate settings? 
  • Are students with special needs included not just in general instruction classrooms, but in all aspects of school culture, e.g. school events and field trips, enrichment, sports and extracurricular activities? Do leaders allocate resources and provide staffing and training to effectively support inclusion?

Adapted from An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education