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Inclusion of Students with Disabilities: Issues for the Classroom Group
Author: Teesue H. Fields
Students with disabilities are now being educated with same age peers under a model of education known as inclusion. Other models of special education assign students with disabilities to segregated classes for primary instruction by teachers with different training and certification. Only limited time, if any, is spent in the regular classroom. With inclusion, any academic services needed for students with disabilities are provided in the regular classroom. Services may include special materials or equipment, adapted lessons, or classroom aides.
The inclusion model hopes to bring about favorable academic and social benefits for students with and without disabilities. However, when students who were previously excluded from the classroom are now included, there are implications for the social structure within the class. Parents and teachers have been concerned that it will be difficult to integrate students with disabilities into the regular classroom. When school personnel utilize what is known about how groups form, work and process activities, then the inclusion classroom can be more successful (Lyman, 1993).
The Classroom Task Group
If a group is defined as people who relate to each other in some way, then the classroom is a group. Even though the degree of relationship may vary by classroom organization or by class activity, there is some group interaction during the course of the class day.
The classroom group is basically a task group rather than a psychoeducational or therapeutic group. The overt task of the classroom group is to master the school curriculum. The covert task is to promote personal and social growth of the students (Schmuck & Schmuck, 1992).
In many classrooms, issues of personal and social growth are seen as extraneous to the central task of the classroom, mastering the curriculum. Teachers often deal with conflicts, issues of acceptance and rejection and class cohesion only when they are forced to do so. In the inclusion classroom, these issues will surface quickly.
All teachers can be more effective if they plan time and activities which will enable students to deal with issues of personal and social growth that occur in the classroom group.
Using the Classroom Meeting
The method for group process frequently used in schools is Glasser's (1969) model of classroom meetings. Through regular and frequent meetings of the classroom group, the teacher can help the group process both task issues and personal conflict issues in non-evaluative sessions.
The teacher can lead a discussion of task related issues, for instance whether or not the directions were clear or whether the resources were adequate. But the teacher can also introduce topics such as individual differences, cooperation, and decision-making which are essential to group functioning. The class meeting is also the place to work on interpersonal conflicts that may be interfering with task completion.
While the classroom meeting can provide an effective structure for group process, there will be some unique issues for the inclusion classroom.
Issues for Inclusion Classrooms
Before beginning the work of the classroom group, it is important for group members to feel comfortable with each other. When a student with a disability enters the classroom group, other students may focus on the "differentness" of the student and be reluctant to accept him or her into the group. The teacher can promote group cohesion by expanding the norms of acceptance to include the differences. This should be done with the entire group present, including the student with a disability (Bilken, Corrigan & Quick, 1989). If the discussion on differences occurs without the student with a disability present, then the student with a disability is excluded from the outset.
It should be expected that acceptance will be a recurring issue for the classroom group and the student with disabilities. For instance field trips typically taken by the teacher may have to be modified to be sure the student with a disability can be included.
Recognition of Commonalties
One of the benefits of all group interactions is for the individual to be aware of the commonality of human problems, thus decreasing the sense of isolation. This is particularly valuable for the student with a disability who is often isolated in the classroom group.
As the classroom group recognizes common problems, joys, and interests, the classroom becomes a more cohesive unit. All students feel less alone. For instance, many students can share a love of popular music or feel sad at the loss of a pet. This loss of isolation will also enhance cooperation on classroom tasks.
When the classroom group works on a curriculum task, there is a sense of shared expectation and mastery, even though there may be individual differences in levels of achievement. The student with a severe disability, however, may need to work on a entirely different task. The teacher can help the class understand that while the task might be different for the student with a disability, he or she is still working on a learning goal which will advance the student's progress.
The class can process the ways in which all students contribute to the overall classroom group task. Or, with some tasks, the group can suggest ways that each member can best contribute to mastering the task (Johnson, Johnson & Johnson-Holubec, 1988). If the level of acceptance is high in the classroom group, then it will be easier for the class to appreciate the contribution of the student with a disability. This is another reason that issues of acceptance will need to be reprocessed throughout the life of the classroom group.
One of the strengths of an inclusion classroom is that it allows all students to interact socially with peers. However, often a peer friend is "assigned" to provide social interaction and some caretaking of the student with a disability. Although this may be a very positive relationship, it does not allow the student with a disability to be truly a part of the classroom group.
A more effective group work model would be to use peer helpers for a variety of students and also have different peer helpers for different tasks. Of course, it will be equally important to recognize and promote the helping skills of the student with a disability. When all students are seen as having capabilities that will help their classmates, then group cohesion is enhanced.
Dealing with a conflict when it occurs is an extremely valuable group process, but it may be even more important in an inclusion classroom. Because inclusion students are dealing with a new social structure, it is beneficial to discuss concerns when they arise if possible. An alternative would be to have classroom meetings at the end of each day so that issues can be discussed while still fresh. If the classroom group spends sufficient time at the beginning of the year becoming familiar with the group process and working through issues of acceptance, then students will be comfortable with immediacy.
The inclusion classroom offers great opportunity for all students to experience broadened norms of acceptance and respect for the contributions of all individuals. Although the primary task of the classroom group is to master the curriculum objectives, task completion need not come at the cost of personal and social growth.
When the classroom teacher pays attention to the way in which groups form, work and process activities then the student with a disability stands a greater likelihood of being integrated into the classroom group. When all students are included, the classroom task will be accomplished more effectively with benefits of intellectual, personal and social growth for all participants.
Bilken, D., Corrigan, C., & Quick, D., (1989). Beyond obligation: Students' relations with each other in integrated classes. In D. K. Lipsky & A. Gartner (Eds.), Beyond separate education: Quality education for all (pp.207-221).
Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co. Glasser, W. (1969). Schools without failure. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., & Johnson-Holubec, E., (1988). Circles of learning: Cooperation in the classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.
Lyman, L. (1993). Group building for successful inclusion programs. Paper presented at the Flint Hills Educational Research Development Association Special Education Inclusion Conference. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 366 138)
Schmuck R. A., & Schmuck, P.A. (1992). Group processes in the classroom. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers.
Teesue H. Fields, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at Indiana University Southeast.
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