An inclusive form of education, mainstreaming is the practice of placing students with regular abilities alongside students with special needs in the same classes for set times and durations. While there are arguments for and against mainstreaming, there is no doubt it is regularly utilized throughout the United States’ education system, and it plays a vital role in special education.
Whether you’re a special education teacher working in a school utilizing mainstreaming to help meet your budget or you’re a concerned parent whose child has classmates with challenges, the pros and cons of mainstreaming have real consequences. Here is a closer look at the positives and the negatives of this everyday pedagogical approach.
Students With Disabilities Excel
When mainstreaming was first tried out in schools, it became immediately clear students with disabilities benefit greatly from the practice over and above when they are kept apart from regular classrooms. Graduation rates increase, academic improvement happens—and at an accelerated rate—and basic skills are gained more readily, too. It turns out it isn’t just the regular classroom time, but the combination of mainstreaming and time away in a resource room with a special education teacher that yields the greatest benefits to students with special needs.
It Fosters Tolerance and Understanding
One of the greatest benefits to traditional students in a mainstreaming environment is interaction with students of differing needs and abilities yields empathy, tolerance and understanding. It’s as though mainstreamed classrooms becomeplaces where children must test out beliefs and practices of treating one another well and learning to get along with people who are different from them.
Special Needs Students’ Self-Esteem and Social Skills Improve
When students with disabilities are included in regular classrooms, they show more confidence and demonstrate higher self-efficacy—a trait which is linked to better learning. In addition, special needs students also feel a sense of equality with their peers when they are mainstreamed. Adding to their confidence and self-esteem is the improvements they make in social skills. Any aspect of inclusionary practice and education results in situations for students with disabilities to learn behavioral skills through observation, practice and interaction with other students. It’s one of the primary benefits of being a part of a complex and differently-abled community. In particular, students with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis or ADHD greatly benefit socially from mainstreaming. Kids on the spectrum become more engaged and responsive to engagement, and students with ADHD learn a greater self-awareness by observing acceptable behavior in mainstreamed classrooms.
Traditional Students can Receive Less Attention
Because a mainstreamed student may need more attention from a teacher, the amount of attention available to children without special needs can go down. For students who learn easily, this difference may not be noticeable in their performance, self-esteem and progress, but for non-disabled students who have a tendency to struggle, less attention from a teacher can have negative academic and behavioral consequences. Including aids or volunteers in mainstreamed classrooms is one way this disadvantage can be mitigated.
One great thing about the special education classroom is students with disabilities are protected from bullies who could take advantage of them in a mainstreamed class or school environment. Research shows special needs students are bullied at a higher rate than their peers, although students with disabilities can also be guilty of bullying. Mainstreaming breaks down the barriers between traditional students and those students whose needs are less common, which can offer an opportunity to bridge the gaps in the difference. Of course, sometimes difference is noticed and abused instead of noticed and accepted, and mainstreamed schools and classes need to keep an eye out for bullying behavior.
In the United States, schools are required to provide special education, but they are not always given adequate funding. Because the cost of educating a special needs student is high, mainstreaming can help offset the monetary pinch of providing quality education to students with disabilities. In general, the cost of educating a student in need of special education costs roughly 1.6 times as much as a regular student. If mainstreaming is done well, it can lower those costs.
Mainstreaming is not a perfect solution. Students with regular abilities may receive less attention and students who are differently-abled may be bullied. However, even with these disadvantages, the practice’s positive yields are too great to go back to a more exclusionary model of special education.