Inclusive Education: How To Be An Advocate For Your Child

Parents may face many challenges when exploring education options — especially if they have a child with special needs.

How do parents find the educational setting that best fits their child’s specific needs? Will the supports they’re seeking for their child be provided by the school? And, if not, how do parents advocate for a more suitable placement? Finding the right education for a child with a disability can be challenging, but the search is most effective when accompanied by research and a few key advocacy strategies.

What Is Inclusive Education?

Years of research and experience tell us that inclusive education — the practice of educating children of all abilities in one classroom — is the gold standard. Some schools, however, still have classrooms where children with disabilities are educated separately from the rest of the student population. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a federal law originally enacted in 1975 and revised multiple times since, provides guidance for educating children with special needs. Though the word “inclusion” isn’t specifically used in its documents, the law requires that, to the greatest degree possible, children with disabilities should be educated in the “least restrictive environment” alongside their non-disabled peers — that is, in classrooms with children of all abilities.

Providing this type of learning environment, however, is subject to the needs of the student and the ability of the school to meet them — particularly if the school is private, and operates with fewer state and local regulations than the public schools. If a child’s learning needs can be met in general education classes, then the school can offer inclusive education — in fact, in many public school districts, this is a requirement. But if the school believes it won’t be able to provide the supports a child requires in this type of setting, then a child might be placed in a “self-contained” (or segregated) classroom. There is a legal grey area when it comes to why schools can deny inclusion; in public schools, for example, lack of funding is not considered an acceptable excuse. Students can only be pulled out of inclusive classrooms when the constraints of their particular learning needs demand a different educational option — when classroom learning just won’t work.

Inclusive education is not a program that can be handled by one classroom teacher; rather, it requires a comprehensive system of support that includes the principal, teachers, bus driver(s), recess supervisor(s), and parents. Successful inclusion will also require you to attend meetings, respond to correspondence, and regularly communicate with your child’s teacher.

While advocates for children with learning disabilities often support inclusive education — and many parents prefer it — the reality is that the educational landscape is still navigating this practice, and you may not always have a choice at the school your child will attend. If you are looking for this type of placement, it’s important to know exactly what inclusive education is, and how it will work for your child. There are terms and definitions associated with this model, but their use may not always be consistent Though inclusive classrooms are gaining steam in the US, it will be helpful for you to understand what the terms are, what to look for, and what to ask about when investigating potential schools.

How Can I Learn More About Inclusive Education Options?

There are several reliable resources that describe inclusion, such as The Inclusive Schools Network. It’s also important to learn your district’s policies regarding inclusive education. Is your child’s school generally flexible and accommodating of students with special needs? Or does it send these students to magnet, private, or other schools that provide better services to students with disabilities? Research on your local department of education website can get your started understanding the district’s policies on inclusion. You can also call the district office to speak with the special education director, who will be able to give you the relevant information and provide you with district policies.

To learn which schools have adopted inclusion successfully, reach out to national organizations like TASH and The Arc; they both support the inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of life, including school. Being well-informed about the philosophy and practice of inclusion is your first step in this journey.

There may also be organizations in your local community that will put you in touch with other parents who have worked with schools to adopt an inclusion model. Discussing their experiences of what was and was not successful in their advocacy efforts will help you to adapt your approach to your child’s school.

How Can I Advocate for My Child?

If you decide to advocate for an inclusive setting in your child’s school, you will need to provide relevant information about your child’s special needs to the school staff. Being honest and upfront about your child’s strengths and weaknesses will be critical in deciding which types of supports are needed, and whether the school can provide them.

Typically, schools develop services for children based on a learning disability diagnosis. While these are valuable, parents can provide much more comprehensive, well-rounded information that will give schools a greater understanding of their child’s needs and abilities. For example, they can discuss the types of supports that work for their child in situations that commonly arise in school, such as transitions, participating in large groups, or taking part in recess.

If your child is being included elsewhere, or has had other learning experiences in inclusive settings, you may be able to share videos or pictures of him or her in these environments. By providing this information in an open and honest manner, either through conversation or a portfolio, you’re more likely to persuade school leaders to consider this as a path to success.

Beyond your own knowledge, also be prepared to share inclusive education resources with school staff. These can be in the form of handouts, books, videos, or photos; Brookes Publishing has many professional books about inclusion classrooms that are geared towards educators.

These resources help staff who haven’t worked with an inclusion model envision what that might look like in their school, how classwork would be handled, and the ways in which disabled students would be included with non-disabled peers. Schools may not have the budget to buy additional teacher resources, so sharing your expertise can enable them to explore inclusion as an option for their students.

Beyond the materials and online resources you share, let the school know about organizations in your community that offer training and support for inclusion; tapping into outside agencies can provide extra materials and expertise for schools.

Inclusive education is not a program that can be handled by one classroom teacher; rather, it requires a comprehensive system of support that includes the principal, teachers, bus driver(s), recess supervisor(s), and parents. Successful inclusion will also require you to attend meetings, respond to correspondence, and regularly communicate with your child’s teacher.

Moreover, you’ll need to be supportive and understanding of the limitations that schools face with budgets, staff placement, and teacher personalities. Staff must be trained, materials need to be in place, and schedules must be sorted out for inclusion classrooms to succeed.

Inclusive education does not happen overnight; it requires thoughtful preparation from staff at all levels of the school community. Be supportive when advocating for inclusion, and acknowledge that, in some cases, an entire system has to change —  not just a classroom. Wherever your advocacy lands your child, be positive and continue to look for additional ways in which he or she can be included, both in and out of school. As inclusion educator and specialist, Lisa Friedman says, “Be an opener of doors.”

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