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Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke
BY Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke

Preparing Teachers for Inclusion: What Still Needs to Be Done

An important part of making inclusion work in our schools and for our kids is making sure teachers are well-equipped for this new way of doing things. In the first half of this interview, published last month, Friendship Circle asked Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke, associate professors of special education at Eastern Kentucky University, to answer some questions about how teacher training has changed to accommodate diverse learners in a single classroom. In this second part, they’ll consider how things could improve.

What more would you like to see done to prepare teachers for truly inclusive schools?

Laura: Definitely, we would want to see more teachers taking both content coursework and special education coursework. Many university programs require their general education teaching students to take only one or two classes that address disability across their entire program. When we consider the numbers of students with disabilities in our general classrooms, common sense tells us that teachers need more knowledge about disability, how to teach students with disabilities, and resources available to them as teachers to make sure they are making the most impact. Special education teachers need more content knowledge in literacy and math especially, but if they are co-teaching in biology or world history, they need that content too. If they are really going to co-teach well, they have to know the content.

All teachers need to better understand how to support student strengths and provide appropriate supports instead of doing work “for” students. We talk about the concept of the “least dangerous assumption,” which states that all children can and will learn if they are taught. We want to help prepare teachers to provide that high-quality, rigorous instruction based on grade-level standards and research-based practices, at the same time providing opportunities for teachers to learn how to individualize support and instruction so that students with disabilities can learn and demonstrate their learning—even if what they learn or how they demonstrate it looks different.

How do you feel, as moms of kids with disabilities, about inclusion? Do you think it’s realistic based on what you know about teachers and the training and resources they have available?

Dusty: I think inclusion is great … except when it’s not. The foundation of our special education law is individualization, so I think we have to look at students individually and consider whether or not an inclusive setting is best for the child. We also have to understand that if inclusion isn’t best at this time, it might be best at another time. My student will change and learn, and the least restrictive environment may also change as we move through school.

In my classroom teaching experience, most of my students receiving special education services benefited the most from instruction in the general classroom, and there’s no question that students without disabilities benefit from having students with disabilities in their classes. I want my own children to receive their instruction in the inclusive classroom when it’s most appropriate for them. That is, when my youngest needs social skills instruction, it’s more appropriate for that to happen in a resource setting and not the general classroom. However, she definitely needs to be in the general classroom to practice those social skills.

That said, your second question is about whether or not it’s realistic based on training and resources, and my response to that is that we, as parents, have to demand that our teachers are trained. We need to communicate with school board members and principals and directors of special education—saying “Inclusion is important” and asking “What is the district doing to make sure teachers are prepared?” When districts get that pressure, they communicate with their university partners.

I know our College of Education has a community advisory board made up of principals, teachers, superintendents, and parents, and they come to campus and tell us what they want, and that directly impacts what we offer. Our program has a brand-new class addressing English Learners and Gifted and Talented that is the direct result of those conversations. So I don’t think we, as parents, can limit our goals for our children based on what the school is currently offering. It takes time and persistence, but the changes can happen.

Laura: As a mom of a teen with a more involved disability, I totally support the level of inclusion that best supports each student’s individual needs. In Dan’s case, his learning and behavior needs are best met in a resource (or pull-out) setting for most of his academic day. He now enjoys lunch in the cafeteria with his peers and works out in the school workout room (part of his sensory diet), but to be in a general education classroom for instruction is too restrictive (and by that I mean stressful!): sitting in a desk maintaining silence and completing paper tasks are not currently skills he has mastered, so his academic and social needs are best met in a resource room. One key for me is that his teachers and peers talk to him, not “at him” and that they use respectful, people-first language when they talk about his strengths and needs.

What can parents expect from teachers at this point in the progress of inclusion? Do you think parents have unrealistic expectations?

Laura: Parents should expect their child to have:
• a meaningful role in inclusive classrooms
• the same rights as their classmates without disabilities (to sit with peers, to access content, to share what they’ve learned, to be part of activities, etc).
• the same (or adapted) “stuff” that other students have
• work to do that is similar to their peers’

Parents should not:
• see their child sitting in isolated locations
• see their child “playing” with non-academic materials (puzzles, toys) when peers are engaged in learning
• see their child sitting in the hallway or another non-academic location when their peers are learning
• see others doing all the work for their child

Dusty: We know that children with disabilities are more like their peers without disabilities than they are different. Just because a child has a disability does not mean that as parents we shouldn’t expect or that they don’t deserve the same rights and experiences as a child without a disability. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask a teacher, “How will that work for my child?” or “How can we make sure that my student is a part of this?” Teachers may not have an answer for that—and that’s when we can partner with and guide them.

Laura does this very thing with her son Dan’s teachers, and it’s fantastic to see them really explore ways to adapt activities and materials as well as think outside the box when it comes to what student participation can look like. My own kiddo’s teachers have been open to using technology to allow and increase her participation, and as a result, I’ve seen deeper learning and a level of interest and participation I hadn’t seen before from my student.

Laura: At the end of the day, promoting inclusion definitely takes a village!

Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke
Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury is an associate professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University and former special education teacher. Mom to two girls, she’s learned how to be a better special education teacher by participating in IEP meetings as a parent. Dr. Laura Clarke is an associate professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University and mom to four amazing children. Her experiences as a parent of a teen with a significant disability have shaped her teaching and research.