How inclusion affects our youth

Inclusion and the Other Kids

Debbie Staub

Nationwide, 50 percent of disabled students aged 6-11 are in regular classrooms. The same holds true for 30 percent of disabled students aged 12-11. Overall, inclusion is up 10 percent over the past five years. Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Here’s what research shows so far about inclusion’s effect on nondisabled students.

Inclusion is receiving lots of attention, both in school districts across the country and in the popular media. Most of that attention is focused on how inclusion affects the students with disabilities. But what about the students who don’t have disabilities?

As a project coordinator for the Inclusive Education Research Group at Emily Dickinson School in Redmond, Washington, I’ve been in contact with hundreds of teachers, parents, and students affected by inclusion, and I’ve done extensive research on the subject. Of course, each inclusion situation is unique: Some teachers receive more training than others, some schools provide classroom aides and others don’t, some classrooms have one disabled student while others have several, and so forth. Regardless of the circumstances, though, I’ve found that teachers and parents usually want to know what the research says about these two main concerns:

  1. ¬†Will the nondisabled students’ learning suffer because of inclusion? Only a few studies have addressed this question. So far, these studies have shown no slowdown in nondisabled children’s learning in inclusive classrooms. Surveys conducted with parents and teachers involved in inclusive settings generally show that they see no harm to the nondisabled children and that they have positive opinions about inclusion. In fact, one survey of more than 300 parents of elementary-age children shows that 89 percent would enroll their children in an inclusive classroom again.
  2. Will nondisabled children receive less attention and time from their teacher? Only one study has directly investigated this issue. In that study, researchers randomly chose six nondisabled students in classrooms that had at least one student with severe disabilities (all of the classrooms had support from paraprofessionals). Then they chose a comparison group of nondisabled students in noninclusive classrooms. The researchers compared the amounts of instructional time and found that the presence of students with severe disabilities had no effect. And time lost to interruptions wasn’t significantly different, either.

The glass is half full

So in a nutshell, the research conducted thus far shows that being in an inclusive classroom doesn’t hurt the nondisabled students. But does it help them? Teachers surveyed indicate that nondisabled students gain these important benefits from relationships with their disabled classmates:

Friendships. One of the most important functions of friendship is to make people feel loved, safe, and cared for. Researchers have documented cases in which meaningfial, long-lasting friendships that benefit both students have emerged between disabled and non-disabled students. For example, one study chronicles the friendship that Stacy, a non-disabled 12-year-old, and Cary, a 13-year-old with Down’s syndrome, have had for more than four years. A teaching assistant explains how she sees Stacy benefit from this relationship: “Stacy sees the growth Cary is making, and she is a big part of that success. She also benefits because Cary makes her feel good-always choosing to sit with her, always goofing around with her.” Social skills. Non-disabled children become more aware of the needs of others, and they become skilled at understanding and reacting to the behaviors of their friends with disabilities.



Self-esteem. One study documents the friendship between Aaron, a non-disabled sixth grader, and Cole, a classmate with severe disabilities. Aaron’s ability to understand Cole’s behavior has helped him take on a leadership role that he wasn’t able to assume in the past, resulting in an increase in Aaron’s self-esteem. “This has given Aaron a special place in the classroom, and he feels really good about himself,” his teacher says.



Personal principles. Non-disabled students grow in their commitment to their own moral and ethical principles and become advocates for their disabled friends. For example, Cary’s classmates became very vocal about making sure that she wasn’t pulled out of the class unnecessarily. Developing these strong personal principles will benefit students throughout adulthood.





Comfort level with people who are different. On surveys and in interviews, non-disabled junior-high and high-school students say they’re less fearful of people who look different or behave differently because they’ve interacted with individuals with disabilities. One seventh grader says, “Now I’m not like, ‘Uh, she’s weird.’ She’s normal! I’ve gotten to work with people with disabilities, so I know that.” Parents notice the difference in their children, too. An interesting side effect is that these parents report that they feel more comfortable with people with disabilities because of their children’s experiences.




Patience. Non-disabled students who’ve developed relationships with disabled classmates report that they have increased patience with “slower” learners.