Inclusion is often thought of as a location—we are implementing inclusion if students are spending all or almost all of their days in general education classrooms. This way of thinking may occur for two reasons. First, IDEA defines Least Restrictive Environment in terms of location, but the federal law does not define the term “inclusion.” Second, it is easy to measure how many students spent all day in general education classes and how much time students spent in other locations. This can give some indication of whether a school is meeting the letter of the law with regard to inclusion. But a student can be physically in the least restrictive environment, in a general education classroom even, and still not be included.
I remember years ago visiting student teachers in a suburban school. I recall entering the 5th grade classroom and seeing a science lesson in progress. The teacher had been teaching about protons, neutrons, and electrons and was now demonstrating static electricity by rubbing balloons on students’ heads and watching the hair raising effects. The teacher did a beautiful job of allowing the students to be engaged in the activity, trying it on one another, move about the room, and returning over and over to the concept she was teaching to check for understanding and clarify, reteach, or expand. Everyone was involved except the little boy with Down syndrome who sat at the back table with his special education teacher working on something “more appropriate for his level.” His teacher struggled to maintain his attention as he twisted his body to watch the delightful activity take place, dying to be involved. What a sad sight this was.
Did the school meet the letter of the law in providing this student’s services in the Least Restrictive Environment? Maybe. He was being served in the general education classroom. But did they meet the spirit of this provision of the law? Were they using best practices? Did they really include him? No, no, and no. Not only was he not included, he was, in fact, excluded. It would have been better to pull the student from the classroom than to have him present in the classroom and excluded from the fun and social interaction. But pulling him from this activity was not necessary. Unfortunately, an opportunity for real inclusion was missed. Perhaps the learning targets of the day were not attainable for this student. That is possible. But within this fun, hands-on, engaging activity, what goals might this student have achieved? Did he have goals for communication, interaction, movement, or articulation? What about sorting, classifying, or grouping? We could generate a long list of possible individualized learning targets for this student in the context of this activity.
To implement the spirit of inclusion requires much more than meeting the letter of the law on where services are delivered. It means that every decision, from which students are supported to who designs intervention and how intervention is implemented, is done so as a team and with the goal of accessing the general curriculum. Implementing a team-based approach to support is complex and is, more often than not, different from how educators were prepared in their teacher education programs.