LAWRENCE — In the debate about how to improve U.S. schools, there's often a missing voice among the researchers, scholars, policy makers, administrators and parents — and that's the perspective of the students themselves.
A new study co-authored and conducted by University of Kansas researchers found that students attending inclusive schools — that is, schools in which students with and without disabilities learn together — recognize the value of inclusion and being part of an inclusive learning community.
KU is a national leader in helping schools transform and create conditions in which all students learn together in blended classrooms with specialized supports available for all students. KU conducted focus groups with 86 students both with and without disabilities to gauge their perspectives on inclusion. The students attended six schools identified as exemplars of inclusive practices by KU’s Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation, or SWIFT, Center. The center is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
“This is a critical stakeholder group,” said Karrie Shogren, associate professor of special education and co-director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities. “We also thought it was vitally important to get the perspectives of both students with and without disabilities. If we’re going to talk honestly about inclusion, sometimes students have more insights than we do.”
The interviews found that students with and without disabilities recognized and felt a sense of belonging in their schools, recognized the effect inclusion had on all students and were keenly aware of school and classroom practices used in inclusive schools. The results are included in a study co-authored by Shogren, Judith Gross, Allyson Satter and Martha Blue-Banning, all of KU; Anjali Forber-Pratt, formerly of KU, now at Vanderbilt University; Grace Francis of the University of Missouri-St. Louis; and Cokethea Hill of the United Way of Greater Kansas City. It was published in the journal Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities.
Previous research has shown that in inclusive schools academic outcomes improve for students when effective classroom supports are provided. KU’s SWIFT Center works with 64 schools in five states to put in place a model of education that does not segregate students for special education classes but instead supports all students in the general education setting and curriculum. The center conducted a national search to identify six exemplary schools using the model. Students with and without disabilities took part in interviews about their typical day at school, how they work with teachers and classmates, and more.
Among the most prominent findings, students repeatedly referred to the fact that they attended an “inclusion school.” They reported a sense of belonging and positive school culture. They realized expectations were high and reported they had support to meet those expectations and were connected to their teachers and peers. The fact that all students learned together was clearly evident. One student without a disability said, “This is the school where nobody can get picked on or judged by who they are … we have a variety of nice, different learners, and we’re unique and all creative and determined and responsible.”
That the students had recognized and internalized the message of inclusion reflected on the work of the schools.
“The schools were clearly doing a good job of changing their culture,” Shogren said. “And that confirms the research on the importance of school culture.”
The students also showed an understanding of inclusion and its effects on students, academically and socially. Students without disabilities across focus groups described how their schools emphasized educating everyone together. Many also pointed out the positive aspects of the arrangement, including being able to help their peers academically, receiving more help themselves and learning to socialize with others different from themselves.
“All students, with and without disabilities, identified ways in which inclusion helped them in their learning,” Shogren said. “This is critical. We want all students to benefit, and these students perceived significant benefits. We also want all students to support each other. A critical part of meaningful inclusion is making sure that students with disabilities have opportunities to take on academic and social roles and responsibilities.”
Students across the focus groups also showed that classroom practices in their schools are unique. Many classrooms use co-teaching and technological arrangements to support all students. Students reported the positive aspect of having more than one teacher present, as a co-teacher could often assist other students when the other teacher was busy.
“Kids picked up on ‘individualizing,’ or making sure that all students had the supports they needed,” Shogren said. “They wanted each and every student to get what they needed and to not limit supports to certain groups of students.”
The study not only sheds light on the often-overlooked perspective of students, it also provides direction for future research and practice in implementing inclusive practices at schools. The fact that students knew and could clearly communicate the aspects of inclusive education that work for them shows the student perspective should be considered when developing and incorporating educational advancements, the authors argue. As another piece of evidence in the growing body of research showing that inclusive education benefits all students, it adds to body of evidence showing the importance of considering all students.
“This is not just a disability issue. It’s about providing the best education and the best support for all students," Shogren said.