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Nicole Eredics
BY Nicole Eredics

11 Different Definitions of Inclusion:The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Inclusive education is still not widely practiced in schools across the United States. As a result, only the lucky few have seen what inclusion really is. Those that haven’t, are generally left to sift through myths, misunderstandings and the occasional truth. Therefore, there is quite a bit of confusion as to the real meaning of an inclusive environment. The following is a run-down of the different definitions of inclusion (the good, the bad and the ugly) that I have heard over the years:

The Good

Let’s start with the good. In other words, let’s begin by stating what inclusion really is. By knowing what it is, then we can easily identify what it is not. These are definitions that tell what a truly, inclusive environment is. They are not conjured up or idealistic views of a theory taken from a book. They are an accurate reflection of what inclusive education is:

1. Children, regardless of ability, are taught in general education classrooms with same- age peers.

2. Inclusion allows all students equal access to the curriculum through differentiated, adapted and/or modified lessons.

3.  The majority of learning needs are met in the classroom where support services are brought to the child.

4. Children of all abilities are included in all activities throughout the school, such as class activities, recess, lunchtime, assemblies and field trips.

The Bad

Now, let’s move on to some definitions of inclusive education that aren’t so good. If they describe a situation that you know of or are in, be aware that it can be better. Perhaps a resource such as Cheryl Jorgensen’s book, The Inclusion Facilitator’s Guide , or Paula Kluth’s, Don’t We Already Do Inclusion?, will help shed new light on ways in which your school’s activities and/or events can be more inclusive. These definitions have some elements of what inclusion truly is, but still miss the mark.

5. Students are included in the general education classroom for only part of the day and then go to a self-contained room for the rest of the day to receive different lessons.

6. Only mild to moderate students are included in the general education classroom while students with severe needs receive their education in a self-contained special education classroom.

7. Students with special needs are included in activities that can easily accommodate the child. For example, the child has to fit the activity; the activity does not have to fit the child.


The Ugly

Finally, here are some definitions of inclusive education that are just wrong! The following descriptions are of an environment where students are not naturally included to the best of his or her ability. Instead, these are definitions that describe inclusion as more of a place or program where a concentrated effort is given to including students with special needs.

School clubs such as a Lunch Buddy Club (a time when a typically developing student is paired up to eat lunch with a special needs student in a designated lunch area), while have good intentions, only perpetuate the “we need to help them” or “we are doing them a favor” attitude. It does not provide a natural inclusive experience such as a lunchtime would where all the students sit together in the same room.

8. Inclusion is a program that is delivered by the school and hosted in “inclusion classrooms”.

9. Inclusion is a place in the school where students with special needs can receive some interaction with their typically developing peers.

10. Students with special needs are included in enrichment activities only such as Music, Physical Education and Art.

11. Students with special needs are considered included when they are “mainstreamed” into classrooms. This means a student with special needs must be able to keep up the with grade-level work of the other students without any extra support.

Use this information and more about inclusive education by checking out so you can easily identify a situation that is authentically inclusive!

Nicole Eredics

Written on March 25, 2014 by:

Nicole Eredics is an elementary teacher who has spent over 15 years working in inclusive classrooms. She is also a parent, advocate and education writer. Nicole is creator of the blog The Inclusive Class, where she regularly writes about inclusive education for teachers and parents. She can also be found on Twitter at @Inclusive_Class, Facebook at The Inclusive Class, and Pinterest.
  • Karen Wang

    This is brilliantly written. My son has experienced firsthand all 11 of these scenarios.

    • Nicole Eredics

      Thank you, Karen! I hope he is in a great situation now!

    • Nicole Eredics

      Thank you, Karen!

  • Linda Q

    I do not agree at all with the “buddy at lunch” scenario. Our school uses a Peer to Peer program and it has been a HUGE boost in my child’s self esteem. It might be inclusion if your child is in the lunch room with his peers, but if no one sits with him what exactly is the point?

    • Nicole Eredics

      Hi Linda,
      Happy to hear that the “buddy lunch” program is a benefit to your child! It sounds like the school is doing a good job at making it work. If that is the only program to include students with special needs in regular school activities, however, by definition it would not be an inclusive school. But, as long as your child is happy, then that’s what counts!

    • Nicole Eredics

      Hi Linda,

      I wrote you a reply a couple of days ago but don’t see it here! Anyway, to clarify my comments about the Lunch Buddy program — it is not the service (or in this case, the program) that is a problem (although some parents/teachers will disagree about the inadvertent consequences of such a situation) but it’s calling that service “inclusive”that is the problem. By definition, the Lunch Buddy system itself is not truly and authentically inclusive. So glad to hear, however, that your child enjoys his lunchtime with his peers! Is he a member of their classroom as well?


  • Lesley Noble

    I am expecting my son to be in #5 next year. I don’t understand why it is bad. He is progressing through the ABLLS list, and for some of his goals, things that he needs to learn, they are not things that are taught in Kindergarten. He still needs to know it, though. When is he supposed to learn it? After school? I really don’t understand this. My son benefits a huge amount from intense one-on-one instruction…. am I supposed to not want him to do this anymore? I really don’t understand. I do not understand how he can do DTT at the same moment that he is in a regular classroom participating in the regular curriculum. Please explain, I do not get it. Also, what I see is that my son makes much better gains from DTT than from exposure.

    • Diana M

      Why wouldn’t you be willing to work with own child on tasks he needs to do in kindergarten? Everyday kids have to do homework, (a lot!) the older they get, and they will always need a little help from you, time to time, to complete these tasks. We used to set the kids up at the dining room table at 5 PM, to work on homework.I would be right there, fixing dinner, and helping them at the same time. Some thing just are not the school’s responsibility, they belong to the parents. The more support your kids get from you during the school year, the better student they will be. If your child knows his school is important to you, the more importance he will place on it himself! Sorry such a long post! I’ve been through all this! I am a veteran! 😀

    • Nicole Eredics

      Hi Lesley,

      Thanks for your comments. To clarify the intent of my post, the “Bad” and “Ugly” definitions of inclusion that I gave are meant to be just that. It is the definition that I have a problem with and not the service. Children should definitely receive services that meet their special needs, but not all of them are truly inclusive (see Jennifer Greening’s post above). Unfortunately, administrators and teachers use these haphazard definitions in an attempt to advance disability rights or pacify parents. It sounds like your son is in more of a “pull-out” program. Inclusive or not, I’m happy to hear that your child is doing well and enjoying his school program – and in the end, that’s what counts.


    • Karen Wang

      One of the problems with #5 is that the student who needs the most consistency and fewest transitions will have a highly disrupted day. It was distressing to my son when he was placed in 2 classrooms and kept moving back and forth. He had a peer buddy who assisted him with the transitions, but it was unnecessarily difficult, and with the constant adapting and adjusting he was being asked to do MORE than all of the other children in his grade.

  • Jennifer Greening

    I presented a webinar today about inclusion for The Developmental Disabilities Institute at Wayne State University. At the end of my webinar the host asked me to clarify the difference between “inclusion” and “mainstreaming.” The DDI is a wonderful, supportive organization and the purpose was to emphasize that inclusion means that you are a full member of the class with all your supports and services in place. The term “mainstreaming” is often used to describe someone that comes only to music or gym–or possibly part of the academic day feeling like a guest in the class. This is nearly an impossible situation for children to have success with because children with special needs often have trouble with transitions and are usually being monitored on a trial basis–any “behavior difficulty” and their “privilege” of being included is often decreased. True inclusion experiences happen when the child is a part of their classroom without the ongoing threat of being removed to “somewhere else” (a different “program”) if there is trouble with “behavior.” Children that are non-verbal use their behaviors to tell us they need more support–not a change of placement! All children should have access to daily lessons using technology, scheduled breaks, sensory rooms, and peer supports–in a natural and reciprocal way. I never want my daughter (with special needs) to be considered charity–she needs to learn to be helpful and develop leadership skills.

    • Nicole Eredics

      Thanks for your description, Jennifer! Behavior is definitely a deal breaker for a lot of schools when it comes to “including” kids with special needs.

  • melelani

    The absolute bottom line is that if only a handful of parents across our country fiercely advocate for their child’s meaningful inclusion we will make little progress. As the years go on and I see so many who complain about it and realize how FEW parents are willing to truly fight with me-honestly I am beginning to resent these parents who talk the talk but won’t truly walk the walk!

  • Lisa

    I am a special education teacher working in inclusive environments for 24 years. While in a perfect world your definitions would be accurate we do not live in a perfect world. My son with Asperger’s as well as my more involved students who have Down syndrome eat lunch in your definition of an inclusive environment in their different public schools. While they are all together no one sits with my son without intervention. No one plays with him at recess instead he is often bullied. My students on the other hand have benefited from lunch buddy programs and they will often sit with their similarly functioning peers because these are their best friends. They will play with all peers at recess but I find this is because the typical students have been educated not just put in a parallel situation. Every parent should be very aware of their own child’s program with its good, bad and ugly parts. Nothing is perfect but we as parents need to strive to bring our children the closest to perfect that we can provide. This will look different for each individual.

  • Sonia

    I hear a lot of what parents and educators think is best for kids but not a lot about what the children, themselves, think. So, I’ll offer this: Adrien is 10, in a spectrum only school and very clear in his preferences. His learning path has been highly individualized to bridge areas of interest with academic lessons since he was 3 (something that required constant parent attention to bureaucracy, even in a specialized school) and he’s thrived, going from non-verbal to reading with above goal reading comprehension. He even makes short stop animation films and directs them thoroughly from script to score.

    He already socializes a lot with non spectrum children where we live, at parks, and functions but he’s very adamant about NOT wanting to be in school with them, he says they don’t understand him like his school friends. I ask him before every yearly IEP meeting since the equivalent of 2nd grade (he’s now in what would be 5th grade) and his answer is always a resounding, “no”. He likes the camaraderie of having an educational haven that is for him and his spectrum peers, where no person is considered ‘weird’, or, rather, where every person is free to be as ‘weird’ as they choose without social shame. In his school, he’s popular, even the high school age kids know, love, and include him in their school yard games. This environment is a source of pride for him. He doesn’t want to join “the other” school and it’s not about the teachers or parents. It’s about feeling unrestricted in behaviors he’s noticed neurotypical children are socially critical of. He can tell non spectrum children aren’t accepting of behaviors outside of their conditioning and he already deals with that when he’s not at school. He already cries when other children incessantly make him feel lesser than rather than equal to, it affects him psychologically and he regresses in progress, becomes withdrawn introspective compared to the social butterfly seen at school. I get why he wouldn’t want to place himself at risk of this treatment in school, especially when all he’s known is unwavering support and understanding. And, I’m not naive enough to think education professionals have proper eyes on discriminatory behavior at a child peer social level (’cause I went to neurotypical school once too, private, parochial, and public), to stop shaming and bullying from happening.

    Again, his views are based on inter-personal interactions with other children, not adults. Adrien advocates being in a spectrum only learning environment for himself, meaning not a self-contained class or inclusion, but a whole school for children on the spectrum. Do I not, then, have the responsibility, as his parent, to help him be as comfortable in academia as possible? Even if that goes against what non-spectrum adults say is correct for kids on the spectrum? We currently live in NYC (yeah, the place where despite the 3:1 professional to child ratio in spectrum schools, spectrum kids still are able to wander out of campuses) but we’re thinking of relocating to Seattle, where I understand inclusion is heavily peddled on spectrum children. How can I help his voice be heard in the sea of professionals who say they know more about the autistic mind than the autistic child? How can I help his voice be louder’s than Paula Kluth’s?

    What I guess I’m asking is, have we really asked ourselves the obvious but seemingly overlooked question: do all of our kids want to be included all the time or are we forcing our concepts of normal on some people who may have no use for our more arbitrary and divisive childhood conditioning? In our need to view our children on the same plane as typical children, are we neglecting a need for social and educational autonomy? Have we forgot to ask, “what if they don’t want to be like them?”. It was a tough question for me to ask myself, as a parent, but the answer for my child was undeniable (I tried to deny plenty). Adrien doesn’t want to be included, for him, autism only environments are the least restrictive environment, they are where he is most free.

    Any advice on how to properly advocate for Adrien’s educational choices in Seattle? I’ll gladly provide any tips for spectrum parents moving to or currently looking at NYC services.

    • Nicole Eredics

      Hi Sonia – thank you for sharing your son’s experience. As a parent, myself, I value the input my children have in their educational placement. I think the bottom line is, inclusion or not, we need to find the most appropriate educational setting in which our kids can learn and thrive. In some cases, such as your child’s, he knows what he likes and has a specialized program available to him. In other cases, we try to do what we think would be best, and we have learned that inclusion works well for many, many children. With regards to advocating for his educational choices, I suggest start by sharing his preference with your local school district and seeing if they have a suitable program. A parent’s voice is louder than Paula Kluth’s.


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