The other day I was sitting in a classroom where one student with rather significant disabilities was integrated for an Ivrit (Hebrew) lesson. Here’s what she didn’t do: she didn’t answer any of the teacher’s questions, she didn’t repeat any of the words in Hebrew the teacher was saying and as a matter of fact, I’m not even sure she was watching when the teacher showed a video. For all intents and purposes, it seemed like she wasn’t doing much.

On the other hand, here’s what she did do: she moved when a student said, “I can’t see- you’re blocking me!,” she asked her seatmate for a crayon and said, “Thank you!” when she got one, she watched her peers carefully and colored and cut the pictures on the worksheet just like they did. From a social inclusion perspective, she did a great job!

As an educator, I needed to ask myself, “What is the best use of this student’s time?” Would she have benefitted more from one-on-one instruction? Was the fact that she was responding to her peers more important? In my heart of hearts, I believe the latter to be true.

In the real world — at home and in the community — being able to integrate with others socially is a fundamental skill and need. That’s not to say that academic instruction isn’t equally important. The challenge of providing both in just the right measure is a balancing act that the day school administrators, teachers and parents need to perform on a regular basis, always evaluating what’s best for each individual student, knowing that “one size does NOT fit all.”

In the classroom, inclusion refers to an approach to educating students with special educational needs. It is a term that is often interchanged with mainstreaming or integration but really means something entirely different. Mainstreaming refers to moving students into regular education classrooms only in situations where they are able to keep up without specially designed instruction. Integration provides targeted opportunities for social inclusion during non-academic periods, such as PE or recess, or during select academic periods such as social studies or science.

“Inclusion is the full acceptance of all students and leads to a sense of belonging within the classroom community,” according to the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council. Students can be partially or fully included. Partial inclusion occurs when students are in the regular classroom most of the day or at least half of the day, but may receive specialized services such as reading instruction or speech therapy outside of the classroom, in the resource room or therapy room. Full inclusion occurs when students with special needs are educated alongside students without special needs, as the first and desired option while maintaining appropriate supports and services in the regular classroom.

In the case of full inclusion, the special educator, the speech therapist and the reading specialist all work with the student in the classroom within the context of the core curriculum and general class activities. Sounds great, but not an easy task to say the least! Inclusion is a controversial topic in public education and the subject of a great many debates. Advocates of inclusion believe that it results in better outcomes for all students. The phrase “inclusion delusion” is enough of a clue as to what the other side is thinking.

Given that day schools are not subject to federal guidelines for “inclusion” what does it mean when they consider successful inclusion then? Is it social inclusion? Academic inclusion? A little of both? A lot of both? How do we determine what is best for each child?

February is Jewish Disabilities and Inclusion Awareness (JDAIM) month. We dedicate this blog posting to the 200 plus students to whom SHEMESH provides a continuum of services, ranging from classroom consultation to instruction in a self-contained classroom.

Are you a parent or a teacher of a child with a disability? Let me know what you think about inclusion/integration in the day schools!

By Faye Friedman, Program Director, SHEMESH