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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

When Your Child Is Special

Decisions about where to enroll a child should come down to this: What would I do to ensure success if this were my child?

Everywhere you go in education today inclusion is the new buzzword, the new save-the-world concept. Everyone seems to have not only an opinion, but a strong opinion about allowing any physically, emotionally, or academically handicapped child, regardless of the severity, to return to the regular classroom, preferably with support.
Social reformers zealously seek to change society through the schools. In order to provide the handicapped more accessibility, they seek to abandon the traditional resource room and, teachers fear, revert to many practices commonly used prior to passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (P.L. 94-142 amended) in 1991. Teachers publicly protest and sign petitions.
Proponents of full inclusion, alluding to a P.L. 94-142 provision, argue that the regular classroom is the only true “least restrictive environment.” They contend that all children do better academically and socially when exposed to higher performing students, and that “normal” children need to learn how to live in a society with handicapped people. Many parents of handicapped children want their offspring in an age-appropriate educational environment for many of these same reasons.
Then there is me. I am a former classroom teacher, counselor, and principal. I am now a professor and still teach Sunday school. I am also the mother of a handicapped child. Where does that leave me? Somewhere in between, in Peter Pan's Never-Never Land.


Why do so many people push for inclusion?
I have a 12-year-old daughter named Brooke. Her middle name is Elaine, after me, her mom. She has long blonde hair almost to her waist. She has beautiful blue eyes and braces on her teeth. She has a smile from ear to ear and loves to have a friend over to spend the night. She likes to sing in the front yard while she jumps rope. She is a nice, well-behaved child who earns “Excellent” in Conduct on her report cards. She also has a great big learning disability.
School is hard for Brooke. She is academically and developmentally delayed. She was slower than her peers in learning to talk. She had difficulty learning to read. We still haven't mastered two-place long division. Fractions elicit blank stares. Even attempting much work on her grade level is a major event. Every teacher Brooke has had has been loving, cooperative, and helpful. It's not their fault Brooke is a slow learner. Her father and I work with her every night of her life just to help keep her afloat.

The Teacher's Perspective

Many mainstream educators argue that they lack the time, training, and inclination to teach handicapped students. They see it as modified baby-sitting at the expense of the rest of the class, and often feel that slow, sometimes very slow learners will hold back the rest of the class. In many cases, they see the presence of severely handicapped or emotionally disturbed children as a distraction at best, a major disruption at worst, impinging on the rights of the other children to a calm and safe environment.
As a former teacher, I can sympathize with teachers' typical anxieties. I prided myself in having a well-organized, structured, efficient learning environment. I also enjoyed being creative with my class, and taught the love of language and reading as life skills. I was proud that my classes were disciplined but fun, that my students scored well on standardized tests, and that parents often requested that their children be placed in my classes. I was into lots of hugs, kisses, and warm fuzzies for my students.
So how would I have reacted to having a severely handicapped child in my class? I would have to answer that with a firm “it depends.” If the child was physically able to maintain himself or herself in my room, was cooperative, and, most important, able to behave so as not to distract or threaten the safety of my other students, then great. Send that child in. I would not mind modifying, or using a totally different curriculum for the child. On the other hand, if the student's behavior negatively affected or harmed the other children, I would have a problem; that, I firmly believe, is where that person's rights end. It would be time to have another Admission, Review, or Dismissal meeting and either modify the situation or change it totally.

The Principal's Perspective

As a principal, my philosophy was the same. I was responsible for the total learning situation for our campus. Because of that, it would not have been fair to come out for or against inclusion. I was for all children having every opportunity to succeed to the best of his or her ability in a positive, supportive environment.
These decisions must be made on an individual basis. No school district should say, “We are going to full inclusion; we are getting rid of our resource rooms.” Phooey! No one learning situation is perfect for all children. Recommendations on inclusion or anything else should be made for individual children by everyone involved in their education.
I believe parents' views should be strongly and compassionately considered. Some parents of severely or multiply handicapped children do not want their child removed from the security of the resource classroom. They feel their child is physically safe with more people who have been trained to work with his or her disabilities. Regardless of the philosophy of the district, the campus, or the special education department, those parents' wishes should be honored. Not listening to parents has been a major factor in public education's bad rap.
Of course, other parents are equally adamant that their handicapped children be placed in a regular classroom, with support as needed. Common reasons are the desire to expose their children to good behavior and higher academic standards. Still other parents point out that the world is not segregated. They feel their children will make greater strides if they are in the mainstream. But then what?
Again, if it is possible to honor the parents' wishes and write an Individualized Education Program to make the situation work, go for it. Be reasonable with it. Write in behavioral as well as academic objectives. Allow for classroom modifications. Try from the outset to set the child up for success and a happy day. Don't expect more from a child than that child can possibly give.
I'd also try my best to provide the child with a cooperative classroom teacher who is open-minded and really wants to try to make the situation work. Teachers need to want the child in their room. I would never consider putting a child into a classroom in which I did not think he or she stood a reasonable chance of success.

Brooke's Challenge

For the last three years, my daughter Brooke has received assistance with math and language. Her resource teacher has become a surrogate mother to her. She sincerely loves Brooke, and Brooke returns her love. Every child with a learning disability should have a teacher as fine, efficient, and caring as Helen Nelson. And still Brooke struggles.
Next school year Brooke will be entering intermediate school. We will attempt to place her in the regular classroom and attempt content mastery. Do you know how I feel as her mother? Scared to death. What if she can't do it? What if changing classes and having so many teachers is more than she can handle? She may be 12, but maturationally she is behind. What if she can't keep up with her assignments? What if in her anxiety to bring home her math, she completely forgets her language arts and science?
What if the teachers and principal don't take good care of Brooke? What if no one looks out for my little girl? In elementary school her classroom teachers and Mrs. Nelson worked together to keep her on track and somewhat organized. Now, we won't be there as her safety net, even though we have worked hard to make her independent. She knows she is as responsible for herself, her work, and her conduct as any other student. Behavior is not a problem for Brooke. Learning is.


As a former principal, I believe teacher attitudes and perceptions are critical to successful inclusion for any child, regardless of how minor the handicap. Some teachers will welcome a handicapped child with open arms; many others will pitch a screaming fit, especially if the child placed in their classroom is emotionally disturbed or has a behavior disorder. Selling inclusion to this group will be a formidable task.
Many teachers feel overwhelmed just keeping up with their daily routine and their regular children, let alone teaching a handicapped child. They do not feel educationally, emotionally, or, sometimes, philosophically prepared to handle handicapped children in their classrooms. Even the strongest of inclusion advocates believe in providing training and support for regular education teachers. But reality intrudes. Where will the money come from? Where's the available time? Most local school districts are strapped for both. Few special education departments or district instructional specialists have the staff or expertise to provide the training classroom teachers so desperately need.
When Brooke goes off to her new school next year, I, like all the other inclusion parents, will worry, bite my fingernails, and pray a whole lot. Her father and I want Brooke to succeed so much. We'd give anything to make learning easier for her. I understand how the parents of more severely handicapped children feel. They want their children to be normal. We all want our child to be one of the rest of the kids, to experience all the joys of childhood, to have a happy, successful life. In a perfect world we wouldn't have these worries. But we don't live in a perfect world.
Which brings us back to the concept of inclusion. Is it good, or is it bad? It's both. Under the best of circumstances, it can be very, very good. With too little funding, training, or development, it can be a disaster. Like anything else, it is what we make it. One secret is in selecting the right children to use it. And that decision ultimately comes down to the child's Admission, Review, or Dismissal Committee.
Every committee must think, What if this child were my child? Think about the child's tomorrows. Think about what we do now that will affect those tomorrows. We can't afford to make mistakes.

Elaine L. Wilmore has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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