Students with special needs have a distinctive place in educators’ hearts. When done correctly, inclusionary education benefits all students, teachers, administrators, and parents. To figure out how to implement best practices for inclusionary education, we interviewed Paul Branagan, the principal at Middleborough High School in Middleborough, MA; Hannah Grieco, an author, education advocate for students with all types of disabilities, and former public school elementary teacher, as well as the mother of two children with special needs from Arlington, VA; and Cathy Schultz, a computer teacher at Margaret Buerkle Middle School in St. Louis and the mother of a child with special needs. Principal Leadership’s senior editor, Christine Savicky, moderated the discussion.

Savicky: How do you define inclusion instruction for students with special needs? And what is the difference between that and integration?

Grieco: I believe inclusion is a well-planned approach to pedagogy, where you have kids with specific needs coming into general education classrooms where the teachers have tools, they have support from other staff members, they have support with curriculum, and there is often a behavior plan in place in case that is an issue—whatever the IEP or 504 shows as a need and as what needs to be addressed in the classroom, that teacher has supports in order to do that. It’s balanced.

For example, my son—who is autistic—has very high behavior needs in the classroom but very low academic needs. He will have a different plan than a child with hearing loss or a child in a wheelchair. Each student has their own plan, but a teacher will need a schoolwide team to help them address that in the classroom. Inclusion incorporates that aspect of support. Integration may include that component, but it might not. It doesn’t require that level of support. Many times, inclusion gets a bad name because students with very specific needs are put into a classroom without support, and the teacher can’t begin to address everybody’s needs. Really good inclusion benefits everybody. Poorly done integration can be very harmful to everybody.

Schultz: “Inclusion” in our school district is when a student has full access to the same curriculum, but they learn a different way, including—but not limited to—gifted students or ESL students. Our “integrated” students are students who learn something different alongside their peers. So, typically, those students have a para (paraprofessional) in the class, or they have another special school district teacher who’s in that class. Some of the classes they take are in a separate center and not with the other students. For example, my daughter—who [has] special needs—attends classes in a center, but she also has family consumer science class and art class and physical education class where she’s with her peers. She has a tremendous amount of support in those classes, but then she takes her math class and other classes in a different setting with students with special needs. That is how our school district does integration.

Branagan: At our school, inclusion instruction is our ability and our responsibility to provide access to the general curriculum in a way so that each individual student is able to learn. These students participate in their least ​restrictive environment with general education peers to promote really high expectations for both social and academic progress. Integration is our ability and responsibility to provide access to the general education peers so that even our students with alternative educational tracking can have meaningful and engaging social interactions as well. We work really closely with our guidance team, special education team, and our team facilitator; they come together and actually do the schedules for our students that would be more specialized. Our inclusion program is done in the prework of our schedule, where we identify the teams of teachers that would be doing the co-teaching model together.

Savicky: What is the cost difference between well-supported inclusive instruction versus separate special education classrooms and/or segregated schools or programs?

Grieco: I like to give this example: My son was struggling in school when he was 8. He was placed into a private school—where he had no contact with nondisabled students—that cost the county $65,000 a year in tuition plus transportation costs for a four-hour round trip. That same amount could pay the salary of a special education teacher, or potentially two assistant positions. He was then brought back into public school and put into a private, segregated special education classroom based on behavior—for kids who had behavioral needs and autism-related needs—but then there was a push into inclusion. That classroom had a teacher and two assistants. It served 10 kids who transitioned into other graded general classrooms as they were able to develop their skills. My son ended up needing an assistant only when he was struggling. The rest of the time he was able to attend general class[es] and be very successful. Over time, that scaffolding worked, and he became this wonderful included member of his school community. He was so happy at that school because it was his first time feeling successful. There is more of an upfront time and investment with inclusion, but in the end, schools actually save money, and we’re certainly changing the experience for him and for students by allowing him to have interaction with his general education peers.

Schultz: Segregated self-contained classrooms do cost more because of the extra cost of staffing, the square footage for the classroom, the duplicate furniture, and busing and those expenditures. But I think what a lot of people fail to see is even though that costs a lot of money, that intensive intervention helps students grow and learn the skills that they need so they don’t need as much one-on-one help. Then they can be included in the general population.

Our school—the Mehlville School District—has something called Special School District (SSD). That district is in charge of the special needs for students throughout the whole St. Louis County—which is several dozen school districts. Our students with special needs are Mehlville students, but they also receive help from SSD, and that district handles many of the placements based on how many minutes the student’s IEP says.

Branagan: In Massachusetts, we have what is called “circuit breaker money” that is given to school districts for financial relief purposes. If a student is in need of services beyond what the school can provide, and we need to move into an out-of-district placement of some degree, that becomes incumbent on the school district to provide that funding. In Massachusetts, that money is reimbursed. Our mantra is that we do whatever we need to do to make sure that we’re able to provide the services appropriately within the school community regardless.

Savicky: What do studies show, both in terms of test scores and otherwise, about the long-term impacts of inclusion?

Grieco: I believe that varying types of assessments are important to make sure that we are reaching our goals and educating each child. But a focus on testing with students with special needs included scares people. They think, “The kids with high needs are going to take away from the gen ed kids and their ability to test well, and we need these test scores,” which can snowball into panic. What the actual studies show is that test scores either stay the same or go up when inclusion is done in a supported, thoughtful way, and the only time that is not true is when there are more than two high-needs kids [in terms of behavior]. If kids have very strong behaviors—and the teacher is not supported—then that situation impacts the ability of the class to focus and learn. In a good classroom environment, where the teacher has support [such as an assistant] and where there are behavior plans for kids, then you don’t have that distraction, and kids get to learn different types of learning strategies and actually get more individualized instruction. Teachers get used to that and start individualizing more organically. Now, we’ve got a real focus on individualizing, and test scores often go up in addition to nontestable things [increasing], like empathy—the way the kids feel toward other types of kids—and basic kindness.

Schultz: The data that our school district evaluates depends a lot on some other variables that we have. We have a lot of [students who receive] free and reduced-price lunches. We also have several students who are ESL students. And just like Hannah mentioned, the test scores depend on how the inclusion is done. But something that our school district has definitely noticed in the long term is students’ empathy. For all of our students—our inclusion students, our general ed students, our ESL students—their empathy, their interest in society, their compassion all increased.

Branagan: Our research—data collection and our own manipulation of how we use our data—suggests that our inclusion practices have a positive impact on students academically, socially, and emotionally. In the state of Massachusetts, all students have to pass an exam in order to receive a high school diploma, so we put a lot of energy into the historical data of students, especially when we have students who have been on an IEP throughout their journey and have to take these baseline state assessments periodically through their elementary and middle school years. Our goal is that our students only take the assessment once—because if the student doesn’t pass it, they have to keep testing until they do.

In ninth grade, we assess all of our students—whether they had an IEP or not—and look at the students who were most academically at risk for this state test. By doing so, we create a team approach based upon what their middle school experience was like, so we have full inclusion in English and in algebra and in biology. Those teachers all work with the same group of kids. We also have peer models in the room based upon their own placement in this longitudinal study. These students will stay with these teachers for two years up through their state assessment. We have found great success with that by thinking outside the box and really creating a schedule within the current high school schedule.

Savicky: How does inclusion benefit students with special needs?

Grieco: There’s so many ways that inclusion can help both students with special needs and general education students. When students don’t have interaction with general education peers—age-appropriate, nondisabled peers—they don’t learn how to interact with general education nondisabled peers, so maladaptive behaviors become heightened. My son has anxiety. He panics and spirals and struggles to not catastrophize things. He would struggle to complete even five minutes of work despite being profoundly gifted. School was a nightmare. But he didn’t have any role models. In fact, what he had was kids with stronger behaviors in the classroom showing him how to act. He had teachers with low expectations because they were just trying to get kids to sit for five minutes.

In the general education classroom, he started out in math, as it was his favorite. He loves it. In fourth grade he was able to go straight into a general education math class. The rest of the time he was in a special education classroom. When he went into math he sat there, and everyone was OK. If someone got a question wrong, it was really not that big a deal. Kids would talk to each other; nobody was hurting anybody. Nobody was running from the room, and nobody was having really disruptive behaviors. If a student had a problem, they solved it. My son said, “Oh my gosh. This is a completely different world.”

Over time, he learned some of these techniques for behavior: controlling his own impulses and behaviors. When he had trouble, he started to learn that he could do things to help himself. He started learning to advocate for himself. This was just what the other kids were doing naturally, which wasn’t a natural thing for him. After success in that class, he started adding in more and more classes. Ultimately, he could do not just five minutes of work, but an hour to three hours of work at a time. All of a sudden, he was learning things he [would not otherwise] learn from nondisabled kids, which is so important academically, behaviorally, and socially. For kids with any type of disabilities, it’s important for them to know that they are a part of the world, that they are part of the school community.

Schultz: My daughter attended a center-based summer school. Unfortunately, she picked up some really negative behaviors from some of the other students in the class. She had not picked up those habits when she was in a general education classroom. Even if she wasn’t learning the same math the other students were learning, just being with them taught her, “OK, if this is a little bit rough, I just kind of stick it out. I can ask my teacher if I may take a break.” At first, it’s a bit difficult for some of them, even with para support. But by the end of the semester, they’ve grown so much. … They also learn self-control from each other, and it gives them positive role models. They can see that even if they’re very different than other people, they still have some things in common.

Branagan: We have real intention in what we do in a classroom to what we do outside of the classroom—in athletics and in our activities. Inclusion is everywhere. We have found that our students have gained both that social and academic benefit by participating in inclusion classes. When someone walks into our classroom, we don’t want them to notice a difference between how the student with the IEP and the student who doesn’t have one are treated. That intention has leveled the playing field for students in terms of their engagement in all classes. Students from our more substantially separate program are engaged in classes as well, especially in the arts like music and theater, and in visual arts.

I think inclusion is a principle. It’s really about culture, and if inclusion is infused in all facets of your school, then it just becomes part of what you do. So, it’s really not a program, process, or a system. It’s really just the way we do business. I think that’s really a core tenet of when you want to have successful, meaningful inclusion. That it just goes beyond the four walls of the classroom. It’s really about just the good work of school.

Savicky: How does inclusive education benefit the general education, gifted, and ESL students?

Grieco: We can look at the individualizing that happens. When teachers get used to teaching different types of learners, that becomes just their go-to versus a one-size-fits-all. Teachers then also start to look beyond the standardized tests because they have to find different ways of assessing and demonstrating what the students have learned. Teachers learn to look at all students a little differently when they have different types of learners in the classrooms. A teacher may address a student—who doesn’t have an IEP but is struggling—differently just because of the nature of the classroom and the makeup of the classroom already. The teacher may ask, “I wonder if this child is showing distress versus acting up?” or, “I wonder if this child over here didn’t get enough sleep?” or, “I wonder if something’s happening at home?” Now the teacher is looking at kids as kids, not behaviors. Students are even doing that with each other. They’re learning to solve problems. They’re learning that kids look and act differently than they do.

Schultz: I love the benefits that we see from inclusion. It surprises a lot of students that “oh, this person does things this way, and that’s totally acceptable,” which is neat to watch students learn. It also teaches them to have a growth mindset, because it opens up their preconceived notions. I think it helps everyone academically and socially and emotionally because, like I said, they’re learning from each other, and they’re just growing in ways that I don’t think my students did 24 years ago.

Branagan: I would just add that when I think of our inclusion classes, I think of the students’ ability to be able to see different learning styles and different teaching styles. They can see when the special education teacher is sharing a strategy that he or she maybe created for a certain person or a small group in the room, but that strategy is actually universal. That’s just good teaching. It just allows for a really diverse kind of engagement in a room.

Savicky: For teachers who have students with special needs in their classrooms, is special training needed?

Grieco: When teachers work together, of course, the kids benefit [in] countless ways, but it also benefits teachers, the school, and parents. Everybody feels supported when teachers are working together, sharing, collaborating. There’s a weight lifted off everyone’s shoulder because they share the weight together. I was a teacher for a long time before I became a mom, and so I know from both sides of it how important support is. While I now believe that training is critical, I was a classroom teacher who had no disabilities training. Training would have helped me so much. It’s very humbling to know that I wasn’t adequately prepared, but it wasn’t my fault that I wasn’t given that training, and it’s not teachers’ faults now if staff development is all about increasing test scores. So now we do as much training as we can, and we collaborate. We have to be given resources, and we have to share stories. If we can share with each other as educators, everything becomes a little bit less like we’re reinventing the wheel.

Schultz: Training is needed with both the older teachers and the newer teachers because I’ve discovered when I observe other classrooms that our newer teachers enter the classroom with not a lot of knowledge about students with special needs, whether on the gifted side, on inclusion, or our ESL learners. If we, as educators, are better at helping our students just learn in ways they can, I think their test scores will go up, but I don’t know that schools always see correlations. We can help each other with the struggles and the successes, because that’s just as important. We need to be able to say, “Oh, yeah! Hey, this happened,” and celebrate with everyone.

Branagan: Many new teachers have one, maybe two courses in special education, but in terms of really engaging with the new teachers coming into a school district that engages in inclusion, it becomes a curve for them, because that’s not enough training. As a school district, special education inclusion training is part of our professional development [PD] plan every year. It is about how we engage inclusive practices across the curriculum and not just in an inclusion classroom. We make sure that all of our teachers are trained and have at least something in their toolbox that they can use at any time. Even though we have carefully laid plans and our director of special education is involved daily with our students, training is a vital part of our entire yearly PD.

Savicky: What kind of inclusion programs have you found work best for students with special needs?

Grieco: The program that my son was placed into a couple of years ago was new to me and really changed my perspective about inclusion and made me more of an inclusion advocate because of how it was done. Many programs have students segregated for academics but have an inclusion experience in specials such as art, music, PE. My son wasn’t ready for those specials—they are harder for him. So, the team had him do [inclusion] bit by bit; they started with math. If he wasn’t OK, he could ask to go back to the special ed classroom. If he was feeling very anxious—a big issue for him—he would head back.

But as he did more math, he became more comfortable. It was like having training wheels on in his math class. He then tried science, and then math and science, and then writing. The last thing he did was lunch, because the lunchroom was very loud and crowded. This program concept of slowly building coping mechanisms and tolerance worked wonders. It’s almost like it’s a muscle, like weightlifting to learn and handle your impulses. He used to run from classrooms. He used to self-harm. Those behaviors were diminishing as his panic and anxiety was diminishing, and it was because of the slow, thoughtful way that they started introducing him and supporting him into the gen ed classroom.

Schultz: What I’ve seen with my daughter and our students here at our school is when individualization happens, students are more successful. We’ve tried a project that is problem-​based this year at our school that includes both general ed students and students with special needs. For some of the students with special needs, the only classes that they’ve attended in the past with everyone else have been the specials—physical education, health, computers, and an elective. This problem-​based class integrates students with special needs and the general population. They have para support and support from the SSD staff. The class is individualized for everyone because the whole class comes up with what they can do to help solve some real-world problems.

For example, one of our classes toured an outside-of-school program that is for students with special needs called TASK—Team Activities for Special Kids. They toured the facilities, and then they had a discussion about what they can do to help this organization. Two of our students with special needs happen to participate by playing baseball with this group. It was interesting to watch, because those two had a voice with knowledge that the general education students didn’t have. The students with special needs were able to tell the other kids, “This is what we do, and this is what we would like to do.” Together they were able to come up with a plan.

Branagan: There are two strategies that we have adopted here at our school that we have seen some really wonderful results from. Our first one is called RISE—Revitalizing Inclusive Instruction for Students and Educators. This program reviews the four broad categories of a disability—perception, processing, language, and memory—as well as how to effectively support these students in the work we simply lead with a co-teacher. With the RISE training, we’ve done full-school training with all of our teachers. We then take our inclusion teams every year and they go through intensive, focused training, which establishes a brand-new team. It’s not just high school engagement, it’s a K–12 engagement. The idea is that as the students are moving through grade to grade and school to school—the strategy work is building on each other, rather than just having one school doing one thing and another school doing another.

Another one that we’ve used as well—out of the University of Kansas’ Center for Research on Learning—is called SIMS, a strategic instruction model. It helps us build on the RISE training, really focusing on strategies that can be taught in isolation, and then how it can be generalized in the inclusion setting. SIMS may teach a student how to do note-taking. The special education teacher then has a time in their day during which they teach a learning strategies class. The students work closely with the special education teacher and practice certain skills. They take the goal of note-taking and really work on that skill in isolation.

But those same special education teachers are also the inclusion specialists in the classroom. So when that student now walks into the classroom, they’ve learned that skill in isolation, but then they’re able to generalize it in the inclusion setting. What SIMS also does is use those same strategies with all of the kids in the room, which reinforces some of the skills for the students who may need that little bit of extra [support] as well.