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09 Apr Mainstreaming and Your Special Needs Child

The decision to send a child with special needs into the public school system alongside peers without learning disabilities is called mainstreaming.

Although many families choose to home school their child(ren) for a variety of reasons, some families, as well as educators and some researchers, believe that mainstreaming children with learning disabilities brings with it benefits that may be more difficult to achieve within the homeschooling environment. Behavioral and social skills, self-esteem and an increased level of academic learning are critical, and may be more easily incorporated in environments where peer to peer interaction is constant.

Learning how to interact, share and empathize with others is important for any child at all stages of development. The ability to appropriately convey affection, anger or frustration, and communicate effectively outside of the home is detrimental in helping a child with special needs become as independent as possible. The social interaction between children has a two-fold effect.

First, visual examples of behaviors (and consequences) strongly influence children, especially those with special needs. Children do what they see, and when an action brings rewards or consequences, it can become a useful motivator and learning tool.

Secondly, children without disabilities learn the importance of patience, understanding, empathy and compassion for those around them. Understanding others and building healthy peer relationships promotes positive self-images and self-esteem.

Children with learning disabilities may struggle with self-esteem issues. All children feel the need to ‘fit in’, and those with special needs are generally aware that they are different from their peers in some way. This can create isolation, inferiority and/or loneliness. It is important that they are openly accepted by their peers – and encouraged to participate in everyday activities. Healthy and positive interaction within a classroom setting can bring about tremendous rewards. When a child no longer views themselves as different, but part of a group – a healthy self-image can blossom. This in turn creates confidence and should promote greater participation within the classroom.

Confidence is vital for academic success. The “I can do it” mentality encourages healthy competition, which can reinforce social interaction skills. Any child willing to participate is making an effort to learn and achieve. This increases their level of comprehension, and academic achievement should be evident.

Creating the environment discussed is not without some challenges. In her article, Successful Daily Practices of Inclusion Teacher of Children with Down Syndrome, Dr. Gloria Wolpert, an Education expert from Manhattan College, School of Education in Riverdale, NY writes:

“….study indicates that inclusion of children with Down syndrome, as it exists now, is successful according to the regular education teachers, although there is room for improvement. Teachers reported the experience as challenging, rewarding and of great value to their regular education students as well as the child with Down syndrome. Extra work was indicated as necessary for preparation of modified class assignments, homework and evaluation procedures. Caution should be taken that regular education teachers should prioritize the included students’ IEP goals (which may be more social in nature) and not determine effectiveness primarily from the same academic standards as regular education students (Dover, 1992; Hardman, Drew, & Egan, 1996). However, efficacy research on inclusion has already shown that included students show higher academic gains than those kept in segregated settings (Bierne-Smith, Patton and Ittenbach, 1994; Blatt, 1981; Bos and Vaughn, 1998). Most effective methods were individual instruction and small group instruction, especially at the students’ desks. Most effective materials were “hands-on” activities or computer assisted instruction. Praise and small rewards were most effective for motivating students, and the best methods’ reported for grading were class participation and effort, rather than homework and tests. Peer tutors were somewhat helpful for learning in an enjoyable way, as indicated in prior studies (Fields, Leroy and Rivera, 1994; Tumbull, Tumbull, Shank and Leal, 1999). The most common request for improvement to the inclusion model was for more planning time to be built into scheduling as well as the possibility for more 1:1 instruction. This may necessitate the reduction of class size and/or the addition of more staff. It is likely that these results are particular for included students with Down syndrome only….”

If the requests in Dr. Wolpert’s study were to be implemented, every child in the public education sector could benefit tremendously. Even allowing for 1:1 instruction would not necessarily require paid educators or aides. Parent volunteers or peers from higher grade levels could be considered. Having an extra person within the classrooms would allow more individualized attention for every child, increasing academic success within the entire classroom.

In conclusion, social and behavioral skills, the building of healthy self-esteem and increased educational academia can all be successfully attained if adjustments can be made. Making those adjustments requires the community to come together, reflecting the very skills, behaviors and achievements sought by mainstreaming. This is also a great example of visual learning….!

Jaime Connor

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