Building more inclusive schools starts with integrating classrooms.
In a perfect world, every classroom would be equipped with the necessary tools, education, and framework to promote inclusive spaces where all students can learn regardless of their needs or ability levels. Promoting inclusion involves taking the time to educate staff and students, and accommodate and modify for various needs.
To start developing an inclusive model at your school, integrate students with special education needs. Integration refers to exceptional students being partially taught in a mainstream classroom. Activities are adapted so the student can “fit in” with their mainstream peers while learning skills that may be better practiced in a room with more age-appropriate peers.
Integration supports student outcomes that include:
- Improved social skills.
- Exposure to typical classroom structure and curriculum.
- Eased transition to a mainstream class placement.
- Exposure to educational content that is appropriately curated for interest and skill level.
A strategic approach supports successful integration.
I follow six steps when establishing an integration program for my students:
1. Develop Goals
Consider why a student is integrating. Some students integrate to work at grade-level curriculum and some purely for socialization and exposure to classroom structure.
Entering a classroom, gathering materials, finding a group to work with, or raising your hand are all social norms that students will need to be successful in the larger class setting.
Think about the level of support that is required for this student to be successful – they may require Educational Assistant support when integrated which may affect your own classroom schedule. Having specific goals in mind will help you develop an effective program for the student and their needs.
2. Establish a Grade Level
Your student may be in the fifth grade, but at a kindergarten level cognitively. By using your judgment and collaborating with your school team, you can decide what grade would be appropriate to integrate into.
Many factors can influence a grade level placement, including the maturity of the mainstream peers, the particular subject or unit they are working on, or their own physical and emotional maturity. I like to keep my students at or as close to their own grade level as possible in order to foster relationships with their peers. If I have a fifth grader who is cognitively at a kindergarten level and my goal is socialization with peers, I may choose to skip math and literacy integration and choose subjects like physical education, music, or health, where I know more practical group work is happening.
Collaboration is critical—include your colleagues and classmates in the integration process.
3. Collaborate with Teachers
Once you have your goals and a grade level in mind, it is time to start collaborating with a mainstream teacher. Meet with them and develop a schedule for integration that will reflect the student’s best interest. Share IEP’s, strengths, needs, accommodations and modifications for the student’s success.
Most importantly, open up the lines of communication to allow for the sharing of materials and develop a system for the teacher to keep you up to date with what is going on in the classroom. I like to provide my students with an “Integration Binder” that includes visuals, behavior supports, and accommodations that will help them access the curriculum.
I ensure that my student has a designated work space in the classroom amongst their peers and are included in activities like reading groups, math rotations, classroom jobs.
4. Collaborate with Classmates
If a student feels welcomed by their peers when they walk into a classroom, they will be more motivated to socially engage with their peers, complete tasks, and contribute to the classroom.
Integration helps mainstream students learn about tolerance, acceptance, and teamwork amidst differing ability levels. At the beginning of the year, we meet with the students in the integration classes and teach them about our exceptional students, from their likes and dislikes to the ways they learn.
From there, we begin to foster relationships through a buddy system where students are paired up during each class. Troubleshooting different scenarios with their “buddy” is a terrific way to get students involved and accountable in the learning of both partners. Teach students how to greet their buddy, what to do when they think they are upset, or how to use different materials in the classroom to help them.
Understand the difference—and importance—of accommodations and modifications.
5. Accommodate and Modify
Once you have established an appropriate classroom for integration and educated classmates and staff, it is time to accommodate and modify so that your students can succeed.
Accommodations are things given or added to an expectation that will help the student to be successful. The curriculum expectations themselves are not modified. Examples include:
- Increased time for tasks
- A deskwork checklist for task completion
- A laptop for writing activities
Modifications are changes to the actual curriculum expectations that will make the task more achievable for the student. Examples include:
- Making a list of words instead of writing a sentence
- Throwing a ball in the air instead of into a target
- Learning to add using 1 preferred method instead of 3
An example of an accommodations and modifications checklist that can be used to adapt work tasks during integration periods.
Take time to observe, interview, and record progress.
Troubleshooting issues as they arise will become part of your regular routine, but it is important to take time to speak with teachers and classmates and conduct observations to ensure that integration periods are successful. Taking data to record student goals and progress will be essential to their integration program.
With time, your students may begin to greet their integration peers in the hallway, or approach new friends at recess, and that is when you will see the positive effects of inclusion begin to happen!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Seckington is a special education teacher in the York Region District School Board. She has been teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in treatment programs and school settings for nearly a decade. Laura's focus as an educator is to work collaboratively with mainstream teachers to promote inclusive and accessible opportunities for her students—you can check out her website here.
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