Inclusion: 12 secrets to make it work in your classroom

Inclusion: 12 secrets to make it work in your classroom – special-education students

Mary Pearce

Some of the new faces you see in your classroom this fall may belong to students with special needs. The law mandates that special-education students be schooled in the least restrictive environment, so more of them are being included full time in regular classrooms. How do you manage to meet their needs along with those of the rest of your students’? We visited 13 schools where inclusion is a reality. Here’s what teachers in those schools suggest.


1 Develop classroom rules.

Clear rules with consistent consequences are crucial. Marsha Kessler, head of the Churchill Center for Learning Disabled Children in New York City, advises, “Keep it simple. Respecting others and keeping safe are global rules.”

Kim Meininger at Gardner Elementary in Gardner, Kansas, helps her third graders brainstorm what following each rule would look and sound like, then posts a chart (see below) so kids can monitor themselves.

2 Focus on structure.

Students with special needs should know exactly what classroom routine to expect – and what is expected of them. Mary Ellen Burke, director of special education in District 45, Villa Park, Illinois, looks for ways to convey that information visually. For example, she suggests giving kids a photo or diagram of a neat desk to make it clear what neat means.

3 Teach students how to learn.

By explicitly teaching study skills such as skimming subheads, you can help special-ed kids unlock the secrets of classroom success. Mary Ellen suggests taping directions for important study procedures (“Before turning in a paper, check the following…”) to students’ desks.


4 Work with specialists to adapt your curriculum.

A big concern teachers have in taking on an inclusive classroom is how to adapt their curriculum. At Barrington Elementary, in upper Arlington, Ohio, the learning-disabilities teacher helps grades 3/4 teacher Betsy O’Brochta by doing a task analysis of each classroom activity. Together, they list the steps kids have to follow – then, with a particular child in mind, they star the steps they’ll have to adapt. For example, if a child has trouble with the physical act of writing, Betsy can plan to have him or her give dictation or use the computer.

In the beginning of the year, K-2 learning support teacher Donna Nebistinsky meets with each regular teacher in Northern Elementary in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania. They go through the curriculum to identify what Donna will concentrate on with the special-needs kids. Then she plans her activities to what the class is doing; for example, if the class is learning to tell time to within five minutes, her students might work on telling time to the hour.

5 Use special-ed teachers to help all your students.

In most inclusive schools, special-ed teachers work with kids in the regular classroom. While having another teacher in your room may take some getting used to, Kim Meininger points out, “you can get twice the work done.”

Kay Williams works with regular teachers to plan activities that they couldn’t do alone. In a third-grade class, for example, she and the classroom teacher created a unit that required each student to write and illustrate a “baby book” for an animal. Kay was there to help all the kids – not just the ones with special needs.

When Linda Goode, a special-ed teacher at Stanford Elementary in Las Vegas, Nevada, visits a class for reading, the group she works with usually includes one or two learning-disabled (LD) kids and three or four “gray-area kids,” regular students who are struggling but don’t qualify for special services. The LD kids get the help they need without being made to feel different – and the gray-area kids get extra help, too.

6 Ask for help!

Donna Nebistinsky advises, “When you have a kid who is driving you nuts, don’t be afraid to ask the special-ed teacher for help.” The specialist may offer to work with the child in or out of the classroom or just be a sounding board for your frustrations.


7 Tell students what to expect from their inclusive classroom. “Kids know other kids are different,” says Betsy O’Brochta. She talks to her students about special needs, explaining that some kids’ disabilities require them to need to use tape recorders or to draw instead of write – and that all students may be able to use these options when possible.

At the Janet Berry School in Appleton, Wisconsin, special-ed teachers Jane Zwickey and Diane Zwierz say that when a special student enrolls, they talk with the class about the student’s needs and goals. So if a goal is to walk independently, classmates will know not to take the student by the arm; instead, they’ll offer emotional support. “That way everybody is working to help,” Jane says.

8 Use cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and other group work.

All the teachers we talked to stressed the value of grouping to meet students’ needs.

Kim Meininger says cooperative learning is key to making her class work. She offers the following tips.

* Start with simple cooperative-learning techniques. For example, in a basic pairs structure, one child reads a math problem to a partner. Once they agree on the answer, the other child writes it down.

* Help children use their strengths. Let a poor handwriter draw the answer to a problem.

* Make each child accountable for assignments and have children practice handling a situation in which one partner isn’t working.

Linda Goode trains peer tutors in her class. After they practice with each other, she matches tutors with kids who need help.

Donna Nebistinsky established “study buddies” for special-needs kids. She provides an activity box with flash cards, folder games, and so on.

9 Help kids develop friendships.

Many teachers find that connecting special and regular kids helps inclusion run more smoothly.

On the playground, Betsy O’Brochta helps her special students find ways to play – for example, a kid with cerebral palsy could hold the jump rope. “The others see that this child has to work hard, and they respect that,” she says.

Putting special ed children in groups with others helps at Kay Williams’s school. She recalled one emotionally disturbed fifth-grade boy who was grouped with “two very nice girls. If the boy did something inappropriate, they told him, ‘That’s not what we do in fifth grade.’ Soon, peer acceptance became very important to him, and his behavior improved.”


10 When a child is disruptive, look for patterns.

As Mary Ellen Burke points out, “Kids who act out are communicating. It’s up to you to figure out what they’re saying.” Marsha Kessler suggests you ask yourself the following questions about a flare-up: At what time of day did the incident happen? What was going on around the child? What was I doing before and during?

“Once you figure out why a behavior is happening,” says Marsha, “then you can head it off before it happens again.”

11 Make use of “time-out.”

Many teachers have a place where disruptive kids can go for time-out. For Kristina Mowles, a fourth-grade teacher in North Sacramento, California, this is a nook in her classroom where she can conference privately. Kim Meininger has a buddy teacher who takes time-out kids into her classroom until they’re ready to return.

12 Know when to change course.

Flexibility is key. Gretchen Goodman, an instructional support teacher at the Derry Township School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, had a child who just wouldn’t stay in his chair – so she changed the rule to require that one part of his body had to touch the chair.

When a child is having a problem in Donna Nebistinsky’s school, the instructional support team brainstorms strategies and the teacher selects three to implement.

But when no strategy seems to work, it may be time to reevaluate the child’s placement. Kim Meininger recalls one LD boy who was fully included in her classroom. Gradually Kim saw that the child couldn’t handle the demands of the regular classroom. All involved, including the boy’s mother, agreed that a partial day pullout would be a better approach.

“We did not consider this a failure,” Kim says. “To be successful in meeting the needs of students, you must consider each case individually. It relieves some of the stress about inclusion if you know that if it is truly not working, each case can be reconsidered.”


Looks Like:

* Your mouth shouldn’t be open too much if talking.

* You should be looking at the person talking if listening.

Sounds Like:

* “6-inch voice” – You shouldn’t be able to hear the person talking if you’re more than 6 inches away.


Managing an inclusive classroom requires new skills and a lot of thought. Here are some materials you may find helpful.


Adapting Curriculum and Instruction in Inclusive Classrooms: A Teachers’ Desk Reference, Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities, 2853 E. 10th St., Bloomington, IN 47408-2601; (812) 855-6508

Creating Schools for All Our Students: What 12 Schools Have to Say (publication #P5064), Council for Exceptional Children, Dept. K50170, 1920 Association Dr., Reston, VA 20191; (800) CEC-READ

Children with Exceptional Needs in Regular Classrooms (ED 341 213) by Libby G. Cohen and Strategies for Full Inclusion (ED 338 638) by Jennifer York are available in libraries that have ERIC microfiche collections. Call ACCESS ERIC at (800) 538-3742 for the collection nearest you, or order from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service at (800) 443-ERIC.

Educational Care: A System for Understanding and Helping Children with Learning Problems at Home and in School by Dr. Mel Levine and Educational Prescriptions for the Classroom for Students with Learning Problems by Lynn Meltzer and Bethany Solomon, Educators Publishing Service, 31 Smith Place, Cambridge, MA 02138; (800) 225-5750

Inclusive Classrooms from A to Z and I Can Learn! Strategies and Activities for Gray-Area Children by Gretchen Goodman, Crystal Springs Books, 10 Sharon Rd., P.O. Box 500, Peterborough, NH 03458-0500; (800) 321-0401

Integrating Students with Special Needs: Policies and Practices that Work, National Education Association, NEA Professional Library, P.O. Box 509, West Haven, CT 06516; (800) 229-4200

Taming the Dragons: Real Help for Real School Problems by Susan Setley, Starfish Publishing Company, 5621 Delmar Blvd., Suite 110, St. Louis, MO 63112-2660; (314) 367-9611

Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom by Susan Winebrenner, Free Spirit Publishing, 400 1st Avenue North, Suite 616, Minneapolis, MN 55401; (800) 735-7323

“Including Students with Disabilities in General Education Classrooms” (ERIC Digest #E521), ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, 1920 Association Dr., Reston, VA 20191; (800) 328-0272 or

“Winners All: A Call for Inclusive Schools,” the Report of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) Study Group on Special Education, NASBE, 1012 Cameron St., Alexandria, VA 22314; (703) 684-4000


The Churchill Center: curriculum materials for use in teaching students with learning disabilities. Contact Marsha Kessler, Churchill Center, 22 E. 95th St., New York, NY 10128; (212) 722-7226.

Council for Exceptional Children (CEC): comprehensive information and publications on students with disabilities; access to the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, CEC’s own database, and the National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education; national and local conferences. Write CEC, 1920 Association Dr., Reston, VA 20191; (800) 641-7824.

The National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion (NCERI): information and training in inclusion; network of inclusion districts. Write the NCERI, City University of New York, 33 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036; (212) 642-2656.


Focus on Education is an on-line chat moderated by Louise Elkind every Thursday at 11 P.M. ET in the CNN open studio area on America Online. Keyword: CNN; then click on the icon: live chats in the lower right hand corner; then click on open studio.

Special Education Through Technology, Media, and Materials (, developed and maintained by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), integrates resources on technology as it relates to students with disabilities, and includes eight discussion forums.

MARY PEARCE, a former teacher, is an educational writer and editor based in New York City.

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