What is Meant by Mainstreaming?

Mainstreaming is exactly what you think it is… The term is used as an informal way of describing the practice of including special needs students in regular classrooms and giving them the exact same opportunities as any other kid to enjoy every aspect of the school experience – from academics, to socialization.

The movement to bring special education students into the mainstream really took hold back in 1990, thanks largely to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that helped change the way public schools handle students with disabilities. One of the core concepts laid out in the law is that all students have the legal right to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible (sometimes just called LRE for short). This spelled the end of the special education classroom where kids with special needs were segregated from the general student population.

Looking back on this practice, it seems so obvious now how this type of classroom segregation would result in a limited educational experience while at the same time making it even more difficult for these kids to develop the kind of social skills they would need to function out in the world. It was a counterproductive approach to special education that was abandoned for something more holistic: Mainstreaming – keeping kids with disabilities in general educational classrooms with sufficient assistance to help them stay up to speed with their classmates.

Here’s how the LRE provision of IDEA reads:

…to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities including children in public or private institutions or care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and special classes, separate schooling or other removals of children with disabilities from regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

Since this is the rule, schools have to justify any exceptions to it—mainstreaming is the default approach now for all children with learning disabilities and other special needs. Schools can only put kids into a dedicated special education classroom when it is justified for their own education or if there would be some kind of major and ongoing disruption to the rest of the class. This is rare, and thanks to Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and the fact that teachers are often getting assistance from aids and other special education support staff, it’s becoming more rare all the time.

Mainstreaming Means Making All Necessary Accommodations

Districts have to make every effort to include special education students in general education classrooms, and this very often means making special arrangements and accommodations that cater to the unique needs of special needs students:

  • Specialized learning materials, such as large-print texts or audio versions of textbooks.
  • Classroom accommodations like special desks or projectors.
  • Additional in-class assistants trained to assist children with disabilities.
  • Pay for therapy time outside of class to improve the child’s socialization and communication skills to bring them up to a standard suitable for class.
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Each of these specific accommodations, as well as every other aspect of how the student is expected to fit into the classroom, are covered in the Individual Education Plan (IEP). The IEP is customized for each student with a disability based on their individual needs and lays out every detail teachers and other faculty need to know.

Mainstreaming sometimes works right out of the box—that is, a child with limited disabilities may be able to drop right into a regular classroom with only minimal accommodations to the overall environment. But sometimes it requires bigger changes to the class and how it is taught.

For example, many children with ASD have extreme sensory sensitivities, a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder. In extreme cases, this might require changes to be made to the classroom. Bright colors, loud noises, or even stimuli too small for most people to notice, like the hum of fluorescent lights, can become a painful distraction. In these instances, it may be necessary to limit large and colorful displays in the classroom, or change the lighting to accommodate a student.

In other cases, safe spaces are provided adjacent to the classroom where teachers can send these kids if the regular class environment just becomes too much to handle.

In fact, much of the success of mainstreaming rests on teachers, who usually do most of the work involved in implementing the IEP. This means being up to speed on each student’s individual plan and making every arrangement necessary to see to it the plan takes effect. This could involve everything from ordering a special desk (or adjusting the height of an existing desk) to accommodate a wheelchair to using alternative methods to communicate. In many cases, it’s not just a single student, either. A single teacher might have to deal with half a dozen kids with separate disabilities and unique IEPs that each require different accommodations.

To ease this burden, some mainstream classrooms are co-taught between a general education and a special education teacher. Although either teacher may work with any student in the class, the special educator can use their training in techniques like applied behavior analysis to better assist the kids with special needs when they run into obstacles.

Mainstreaming Has Both Obstacles and Benefits

The good news is that mainstreaming has been shown to have a lot of benefits for both children with disabilities and, surprisingly, for their general education classmates. An overview of studies on education outcomes conducted in 1994 showed that general education students in inclusive classrooms gained self-esteem and social skills when compared to students in restricted classrooms.

It’s not all sunshine and puppy dogs for mainstreamed kids with special needs, though. A 2012 Johns Hopkins survey of parents with children with ASD found that those children were more than six times as likely to be bullied than students in dedicated special education classrooms.

And, although both special needs and general education students tend to develop better social skills as a result of the experience, academic progress for the general education students in mixed classes is more of a mixed bag. Some studies have shown no effect in comparison to non-inclusive classrooms; others have shown detrimental impacts on math skills acquisition.

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But since mainstreaming is the law of the land, it is up to educators and parents to figure out the best ways to make it work for everybody involved. It definitely requires a cooperative effort to make it successful, both for the special needs and general education students in a class.