Guest Post: Class Inclusion for Special Needs Students: A Heated Debate by Sandra Woffington

The inclusion vs. exclusion debate has raged on for decades and has reached new heights in recent years. Special needs parents fight for inclusion in the classroom as an avenue toward inclusion in society, and non-special needs parents worry about discipline problems and disruptions within a learning environment. Before tackling the grievances on both sides, a brief history helps to understand the current laws and how they came about.

Before the EAHCA (Education for All Handicapped Children Act) of 1975, special needs children faced discrimination and exclusion. Public schools accepted only one out of five children with special needs. Many states excluded children with specific special needs: blind, deaf, emotionally disturbed, or mentally deficient. More than 1 million special needs children had no access to public education. Many were institutionalized and given minimal care but no education or rehabilitation (US Dept. of Education). Those who entered public school received little or ineffective instruction to become independent.

The EAHCA ensures that special needs children receive education in the “least restrictive environment” that allows children to interact with non-special needs peers. IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Education Act) of 1990 updated special needs education to include plans that fit individual student needs, not a special needs category. An estimated 13% (6.5 million) children received special education services in 2013-14 (NCES).

The basic tenants of IDEA include the following:

  1. IEP: Individualized Education Program—one that fits the needs of each special needs child
  2. FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education—this not only includes academic goals, it incorporates goals related to employment, additional education, and training to live independently
  3. LRE: Least Restrictive Environment—“A recipient of ED (S. Dept. of Education) funds must place a person with a disability in the regular education environment, unless it is demonstrated. . . that the student’s needs cannot be met satisfactorily with the use of supplementary aids and services.”
  4. Evaluation: This is done via the IEP team, made up of educators, parents and professionals.
  5. Parent-Teacher Participation: both are able to challenge decisions they feel negatively impact the student
  6. Safeguards: These protect the students’ and parents’ rights and allow for due process

Disciplinary guidelines allow for removal from regular education for a special needs child under specific parameters.


Full inclusionists argue that separate education is discriminatory and refer back to ethnic segregation of schools prior to the Civil Rights Movement. They fight for a full dismantling of the special education system, believing that all special needs children should receive education in a regular classroom. Some educators support this, as it would save millions by eliminating the special education system.

Exclusionists argue that special needs children should be placed in special needs classrooms, which better suit their needs and will prevent disruptions in regular classrooms. This includes some parents of special needs children, who recognize their child receives better education in a special needs classroom, as teachers in regular classrooms do not necessarily have special needs training.

The other widely used option is “mainstreaming,” where special needs students spend part of the day in regular classes and part of the day in special education classrooms.

The key concerns of non-special needs parents arise from behavior that disrupts learning or a concern that the special needs children negatively impact learning for the entire class. Teachers polarize along the same lines, some vying for inclusion or mainstreaming, others for exclusion.

Guidelines for placement include restrictions on behavior. However, behavior that relates to the special need, is not a reason for a change of placement. For example, if an autistic child, frustrated by sensory overload, pounds on a desk or runs out of a room, the behavior relates to the child’s special need. Each instance of inappropriate behavior is recorded, and if consistent problems arise, placement can be changed.


Every year, I have a handful of students with various issues, moderate to severe: ADHD, Asperger’s, processing delays, severe allergies, seizures, and more. Educating students to accept and value their peers, regardless of ability, is key to creating an inclusive classroom. For example, I once had a high-functioning autistic boy in my class. I educated the class about autism and this boy’s needs. The class nurtured him and learned how to calm him. This student, a math whiz, had his first ever birthday party surrounded by classmates. Likewise, the newest Muppet on Sesame Street, Julia, is autistic, and Big Bird does the same—educates others how to interact and aid special needs friends. All benefited by the life lessons learned by inclusion.

For comparison sake, students with ADHD do not always have special education status (IEPs), as most function well within a normal classroom, either with or without medication. However, these students cause disruptions too. They should be dealt with under the guise of working with their special need. Accommodations must be made as they learn techniques to modify their behavior.

Equally disruptive are non-special needs students. They, too, need to be taught how to modify behavior and not disrupt learning. In short, I do not find that my special needs students are any more disruptive than others. Each student deserves opportunities to improve behavior before removal from a classroom.

Consistent and severe behavior problems should be dealt with expediently by school administrators. Children have a right to a safe, disruption-free, educational environment.

The other problem of inclusion involves the teacher’s acceptance of special needs children in their regular classrooms. Some teachers welcome and embrace the special needs students, viewing them as individuals with just as much right to a quality education as their peers. They work as a team with special needs educators to establish successful education plans. Other teachers resist inclusion. Some feel unqualified, and others are simply unwilling.

Parents of special needs children complain about teachers who do not engage or otherwise marginalize their special needs children. One of my students, diagnosed with processing delays, could barely write a paragraph when he transferred to my school in the seventh grade. In addition, classmates had bullied him—special needs children are bullied five times more than peers. The boy’s parents complained his previous teacher would “let him get away with not doing the work, so he didn’t try.” This child worked hard over the next two years and raised his skills sets to be on par with his peers.

Inclusion offers opportunities for non-special needs children to gain empathy and compassion. Teachers and students benefit, but only if education includes special needs awareness. Literature presented to children must include special needs characters. Inspired by my experiences with special needs children and having gained the ability to see how vastly “abled” these students can be, I did not hesitate to include special needs teens in Evil Speaks, the first book in the Warriors and Watchers Saga series. As one reviewer noted, it shows that “just because you’re a little different, doesn’t mean you can’t save the world.”

Segregation in schools means segregation in society. Some special needs students benefit from restriction to special needs classes; others do not. We can become an inclusive society through education and experience. It starts with our children. We can teach them to include others, even those a little different from ourselves.


Sandra Woffington is a middle school teacher, freelance developmental editor, and author of Evil Speaks, book #1 in the Warriors and Watchers Saga, featuring quirky and special needs teens who must become warriors to save the world. For more, please visit