Inclusion of students with disabilities into general education has always been controversial, sometimes even polarizing educators. But over time, with skillful and deliberate implementation, one success at the time, the movement has gained many supporters and advocates. In fact, the Eighteenth Annual Report to Congress on the status of special education released last spring clearly indicates that more youngsters than ever are receiving all or part of their services in general education settings. With this undeniable progress, why are many of us arriving at work each day feeling as if we are always returning to the starting line? Why does it feel as if resistance to including students with disabilities is at an all-time high? As one teacher said recently, "I thought I was past having to beg and cajole to get my kids into regular classes. How could I have been so mistaken?"
Perhaps this teacher is not wrong, but unprepared for the formidable challenges change can bring. Experts in the change process tell us that change takes a long time and goes through various developmental stages, consisting of predictable peaks and valleys. If the valleys are unavoidable, then the key may be to identify some strategies that are likely to get us through to the next peak. One approach is to listen to psychologists who advise us to send ourselves different messages. Examples of effective strategy-message combinations include:
Strategy: Openly acknowledge that tough times are natural and expected
but not a justification for depriving students of their right to
full access to opportunities in general education.
Message: "These high standards and large classes make inclusion of students with disabilities more difficult for everyone. We are going to work together to see how the kids and all of us can be more successful."
Strategy: Redouble your efforts to support the important work of
your collaborative team. All teachers, generalists and specialists,
are currently on the front lines.
Message: "Everyone is working hard and not always receiving any acknowledgment. I will praise my colleagues for their efforts."
Strategy: Take stock of the successes.
Message: "We've successfully included students who we never dreamed would do well in the regular classroom. What did we learn from those experiences that we can now apply to new challenges?"
Strategy: Take command of effective practices. Become a true expert
in your field. One of the keys to improved student achievement is
the quality of teacher performance.
Message: "I'm interested in learning and growing. Professional literature, conference attendance, and dialogue with talented colleagues are important ways to enhance my skills and master new and better strategies."
Strategy: Seek out and foster relationships with professionals
whose philosophy, attitude, and skill you admire. With the Internet,
it is possible to make connections with individuals all over the
world who share your commitment to children and their right to normal
Message: "If I connect with others who understand my values and share my vision for children, I can begin a dialogue that will be positive, productive, and reinforcing."
Strategy: Identify legitimate barriers to students' success
and continuously search for solutions.
Message: "I don't have to sacrifice what I believe in because the current methods are not working. What will it take to make it work? What do we try next?"
Strategy: Counter resistance with your constancy of purpose. It
is easy to join the nay-sayers and moan about increased class demands,
larger class sizes, more difficult students, and lack of parent
Message: "It is always an option to become discouraged and disheartened when times are difficult. But does that attitude get me where I want to be or the results I want? The answer is: Never."
Strategy: Take good care of yourself so that you can take good
care of others.
Message: "I will nourish my body and my spirit with food, rest, relaxation, and fun so that I am healthy and able to do important work for children."
Much progress has been made in the effort to improve the quality of experiences that students with disabilities are offered in our schools. Fewer students are being segregated from their peers simply because they have special needs. And those who are included have achieved at levels that have restored our belief in the strength and power of the human spirit. Consequently, unexpected resistance is particularly frustrating and confusing. The explanation for resistance probably lies in a variety of factors. Pressure on teachers and administrators to meet higher academic standards, increasing numbers and diversity of students, deteriorating facilities, shrinking dollars, competing political agendas, escalating disruptive behavior and violence, and intensifying threats of legal responses to school actions are all issues impacting public school culture. Each of them alone is stressful. Combined, they create a climate in which resistance flourishes. Perhaps one response to that resistance is to remain committed to an agenda focused on the success of all children by sending ourselves some new and positive messages.