By Brian Freeman & Todd Grindal
Like most 13-year-olds, Aiden Killoran just wants to go to school with his friends and siblings. Last fall, as he attempted to join his elementary school classmates in moving on to middle school, he was barred from entering the school building. Aiden had not broken any school rules or done anything to endanger his classmates or teachers. The sole reason his neighborhood school denied Aiden access was because he has Down syndrome.
Aiden’s story is not unique (see here, here, and here). Children with Down syndrome are frequently turned away from their neighborhood schools and forced to attend segregated programs for students with disabilities. More than 40 years after the federal government guaranteed the right of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, more than half of students who are classified as having an intellectual disability (typically the official special education designation for students with Down syndrome), are educated in classrooms segregated from their non-disabled peers.
School officials often claim that attending a specialized school is in the student’s best interest.
Research suggests that this is not true.
In a systematic review of the research evidence released this week, we find clear and consistent evidence that inclusive educational settings can confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities. Among students with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, inclusive education has been repeatedly shown to support academic development, particularly in the areas of language and literacy. These inclusion-related differences can be substantial, with one study reporting that included students were approximately two and a half years ahead of their segregated peers on measures of expressive language and more than three years ahead in reading, writing, and literacy skills. In addition, included students with intellectual disabilities were nearly twice as likely as their non-included peers to enroll in some form of post-secondary education. Further, the report provides evidence that participating in inclusive settings can yield social and emotional benefits for students with disabilities. Such social and emotional benefits can include forming and maintaining positive peer relationships, which have important implications for a child’s learning and psychological development.
Despite the clear evidence of the benefits of inclusive educational placements for students with Down syndrome, some parents of non-disabled students may fear that inclusion will impede the development of their children.
Again, our review of the research evidence suggests that this is generally not the case.
The vast majority of studies on inclusive education find that non-disabled students experienced no adverse effects on their academic and social-emotional development as a result of being educated alongside students with disabilities. In fact, in some cases inclusion may bolster the social and emotional development of non-disabled students. For example, non-disabled middle school students attending inclusive schools demonstrated less prejudiced, patronizing, or pitying behaviors toward students with Down syndrome when compared to students attending non-inclusive schools. Other work focused on students with a variety of disabilities finds that non-disabled students who are educated in inclusive classrooms have more friendships and higher levels of peer acceptance than similar students in non-inclusive classrooms. To be sure, there is some evidence that non-disabled students may experience adverse effects of being educated in a classroom alongside multiple children with severe emotional disabilities and significant behavior problems, but other work suggests that teacher training and appropriate interventions can reduce the types of behavior that negatively impact other students. More generally, the inclusion of students with disabilities can serve as a catalyst for school-wide improvements that yield benefits for disabled and non-disabled students alike.
In the end, the reason students like Aiden should have the option of attending their neighborhood schools is not because it will allow them to spend time with their friends. It is because being educated in an inclusive environment can help the majority of students with disabilities, including children with Down syndrome, develop the skills and abilities to lead happy and productive lives. Moreover, these benefits do not appear to come at the expense of non-disabled children.
Ensuring that children like Aiden have access to an inclusive education requires coordinated efforts that work from the “top down” and the “bottom up.” Policymakers must continue to affirm the right of children with disabilities to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers. Although policy is critical, the long-standing misconceptions regarding the capacities of students with disabilities to thrive within an inclusive classroom often represent the greatest barriers to progress. Efforts to foster inclusion must help to counter these long-standing misconceptions and to support and educate teachers, school administrators, and parents so that children with disabilities experience effective, welcoming schools and classrooms that are able to meet their needs.
Brian Freeman is a Senior Analyst at Abt Associates who studies the impacts of social programs on participant outcomes.
Todd Grindal is a researcher at Abt Associates where he studies how policies and programs shape the development of young children and children with disabilities.