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Inclusive Schools in Action

by James McLeskey and Nancy L. Waldron

Table of Contents

Chapter 5. Logistical Issues in Developing Inclusive Classrooms

One of the authors was visiting an elementary school that had recently implemented an inclusive program. The general education teacher had just completed taking roll and handling the daily chores necessary to get the day off to a good start. As reading was beginning, the special education teacher entered the classroom. She went to a table in the back of the room, and four students with disabilities joined her. The general education teacher gathered the remaining 20 students in the front of the room. The special education teacher began working on a phonics lesson with “her” students, while the general education teacher was discussing a book she had been reading to the rest of the class for the past week. This approach to reading was routinely used in this 3rd grade classroom.

We have been in many other settings much like this 3rd grade classroom, which purport to be inclusive, yet seem to continue to segregate and stigmatize students with disabilities. In the preceding example, we would ask why the teachers had bothered moving the resource class into the general education classroom. Is it not likely that the students with disabilities will be even more stigmatized by having their separate instruction in the general education classroom? The purpose of inclusion must not be simply to replicate special education services in the general education classroom, although this happens all too often. Indeed, we would contend that inclusive classrooms are successful only to the extent that they can accommodate most of the needs of students with disabilities in ways that are a natural and unobtrusive part of the school day. Put another way, the ultimate goal of inclusion is to make an increasingly wider range of differences ordinary in a general education classroom. This chapter describes four crucial issues to address to meet this goal: (1) create inclusive classrooms where a broad range of student differences are accommodated as an ordinary part of the school day; (2) provide supports for students that are a natural and unobtrusive part of the ongoing classroom routine; (3) ensure that the “rhythm” of the school day for students with disabilities is as typical as possible; and (4) ensure that students with disabilities are active participants in the academic and social communities of the classroom.

Making Differences Ordinary

One of the authors attended a case conference for a 7-year-old student who was having difficulty in her 2nd grade classroom. Rosa was identified as mildly mentally retarded. Her teacher stated that Rosa always worked hard on academic tasks and was very attentive in class. Rosa's mother worked with her on homework every evening, sometimes for several hours, in an attempt to help Rosa meet her teacher's expectations and succeed in 2nd grade.
Rosa's teacher was concerned that Rosa could not successfully complete all the work that other children in her classroom could and that Rosa could not successfully participate in many classroom activities because of her limited academic skills. The teacher went on to suggest that Rosa would be more successful in a 1st grade classroom or in a separate special education class, where classwork could be provided that was “on her level.”
After the case conference meeting ended, Rosa's mother noted that Rosa had none of the problems that her 2nd grade teacher described when she was in 1st grade and that the demands for completing homework were much more reasonable during the previous year. The author then sought out Rosa's teacher from her previous year, to find out what happened between 1st and 2nd grade. Rosa's 1st grade teacher described Rosa much as the 2nd grade teacher described her. However, in contrast to the 2nd grade teacher, the 1st grade teacher said that Rosa participated in most of the activities in her classroom and made significant academic progress during her year in 1st grade.

In any classroom, a range of academic and social behaviors exists that are considered ordinary, typical, and acceptable. As every teacher and administrator knows, this range of behaviors is quite broad in some classes and very narrow (or at least not as broad) in others. Some teachers arrange their classes so they can tolerate and support a broad range of differences among students. For example, in classes where a broad range of differences are supported, students reading at a range of grade levels are supported and feel that they are part of the learning community in the classroom—they successfully participate in most classroom activities, and student outcomes are evaluated so that all students have a reasonable chance for success. Still other students, who have difficulty getting along with others in the classroom, are supported and made to feel that they are part of the social community of the classroom. In these classes, the behavior of these students and teacher responses to these behaviors are viewed as part of the “ordinary” activities of the classroom.

In contrast to the response these students would receive in this classroom, in other classes these same students would be viewed as outside the range of tolerance and support of the teacher. Their low reading level would cause them to be unable to successfully participate in many classroom activities, and their subsequent performance on tests would lead to failure and frustration. Further, their inability to get along with peers would lead to isolation and rejection in the classroom. These students would then feel that they were not a part of either the learning or the social community of the classroom.

We have come to view classrooms from the perspective of a “circle of tolerance.” Students whose behaviors fall within this circle are viewed as “normal” and the responses to their academic and social behaviors are perceived to be “ordinary” responses of the teacher to an acceptable range of student differences. In contrast, students who fall outside this circle of tolerance are viewed as “abnormal” and require specialized services that are not an ordinary part of the general education classroom. We have yet to find a teacher or classroom that could tolerate the full range of academic achievement and student behaviors that exist in schools; some students continue to need to be separated from peers for their own good as well as for the benefit of their peers. However, we also have never worked with a teacher who could not expand his or her circle of tolerance to make a broader range of differences ordinary. If inclusion is to be successful, the goal of change within classrooms must be to expand the circle of tolerance in a classroom, so that a broader range of behaviors is tolerated and provided for through supports that are an ordinary part of the classroom; thus, a broader range of student differences becomes ordinary (Biklen, 1989) in the general education classroom.

Making Classroom Supports Natural and Unobtrusive

There are two primary alternatives for increasing the range of academic and social behaviors that can be accommodated in a general education classroom. The first option is to add resources to the classroom. This may be done in a number of ways, including adding a special education teacher for part of the school day as a collaborator (e.g., coteacher) with the general education teacher, providing the classroom teacher with an instructional assistant, or reducing class size (thereby giving the teacher more time to work with each student). A second option for increasing the circle of tolerance is to change the classroom, for example, by altering what students are expected to learn and how they are taught. Regardless of which options are chosen for making a wider range of differences ordinary in the general education classroom, much evidence indicates that the supports that work best and continue to be used over time are those that fit naturally into the ebb and flow of the general education classroom (Gersten, Vaughn, Deshler, & Schiller, 1997; Giangreco, Dennis, Cloninger, Edelman, & Schattman, 1993).

Two general principles are useful in guiding the selection of alternatives being considered to increase the circle of tolerance of the general education classroom:

  1. Use the most natural supports for the classroom setting.
  2. Use the least intrusive supports that are effective.
These principles are adapted from work that has been done related to supported employment (Szymanski & Parker, 1989).

To illustrate the importance of considering these principles, let's examine teacher reactions when resources are added to the general education classroom as part of an inclusive program. Several authors have noted difficulties that may arise when a special education teacher assumes the role of coteacher or an instructional assistant is added to the classroom (Ferguson, Meyer, Jeanchild, Juniper, & Zingo, 1992; Giangreco, Dennis, Cloninger, Edelman, & Schattman, 1993; Giangreco, Edelman, & Dennis, 1991). For example, Giangreco and colleagues (1993) interviewed classroom teachers who received assistance in supporting students with substantial needs in their classrooms. Several of these teachers noted that they received some help that they could do without. “‘Help’ to address goals not identified or shared by teachers or referenced to the classroom program was not helpful. ‘Help’ that disrupted the classroom routine, as well as ‘help’ that was overly technical and specialized, also was identified as not helpful. Such ‘help’ was sometimes confusing to teachers or considered irrelevant” (p. 367). Giangreco and colleagues go on to note that these teachers were “involved in important work with their entire class and that anything that interfered with their mission was unacceptable. Most teachers indicated that the presence of a student with a disability did not create any more disruption than other students without disabilities. However, the presence of the specialists and other visitors who accompanied the students with disabilities did” (p. 367).

Ferguson (1995) has noted that these difficulties not only have a negative effect on the academic progress that students make in the classroom but also may negatively influence the social acceptance of students with disabilities and contribute to the dependence of these students on adults in the classroom. She describes observing students with disabilities who were “Velcroed” to “clipboard-bearing adults” as well as those who were “sitting apart in classrooms with an adult hovering over them showing them how to use books and papers unlike any others in class” (p. 284). She notes that these students “seemed in, but not of the class” (p. 284). She goes on to note that “these students were caught inside a bubble that teachers didn't seem to notice but that nonetheless succeeded in keeping other students and teachers at a distance” (p. 284). Thus, these students were prevented from developing meaningful relationships with other students in the classrooms (and at times with the classroom teacher or other adults) and became far too dependent on one adult in the classroom.

Similar difficulties may occur when general education classrooms are changed by altering what students are expected to learn and how they are taught. For example, Giangreco and colleagues (1993) noted that classroom teachers favored the use of “typical activities, materials, and approaches over special ones” (p. 367). While specialists did not always agree with the classroom teachers in this regard, one teacher noted that the specialists “get so specialized that they overlook the simple things” (p. 367). They go on to note that “teachers recognized that some ‘special’ approaches were helpful and necessary, while others are potentially unnecessary and stigmatizing” (p. 368). Giangreco and colleagues conclude by stating that “when specialists attempted to transplant traditional special education practices into general education environments, this was neither welcomed nor considered helpful by general education teachers” (p. 371). This resulted in several teachers' viewing the role of the specialist as a barrier to inclusion rather than as facilitative.

A final reason for ensuring that supports in the general education classroom are natural and unobtrusive is that teachers will continue to use supports that meet these criteria and will quickly discontinue using supports that are obtrusive and that don't fit the ebb and flow of the general education classroom (Gersten, Vaughn, Deshler, & Schiller, 1997). Gersten and colleagues have suggested, among other things, that for classroom supports to be sustained over time, they must

  • Fit the details of day-to-day classroom instruction.
  • Be perceived by teachers as being effective for typical students as well as for students with disabilities.
  • Enhance the teacher's current repertoire of instructional methods.

It is important to note that we are not suggesting that changes should not occur in the daily routine of the general education classroom. On the contrary, successful inclusive classrooms cannot be developed without such changes. What is being suggested is that special education cannot simply be replicated in the general education classroom, any more than general education classrooms can remain the same and successfully support students with disabilities. We agree with Ferguson (1995), who has stated that “in trying to change everything, inclusion all too often seems to be leaving everything the same. But in a new place” (p. 284). Pugach (1995) suggests that this lack of change is influenced by the perspective that is taken by some special educators that “inclusion, like its predecessor, mainstreaming, is essentially a function of what the field of special education is already doing . . . the answer to the challenge of inclusion lies only in what special education already knows how to do relative to the status quo in general education” (p. 218). This perspective obviously does not recognize the changes that need to occur in both general and special education if successful inclusive classrooms are to be developed.

In sum, when students fall outside a teacher's range of tolerance, supports must be provided that fit into the ongoing activities of the classroom as naturally and unobtrusively as possible, so that they are not viewed as simply importing special education services into the general education classroom. Indeed, Pugach (1995) has noted that, in the future, what counts as “special” may not always stand out in inclusive classrooms. “We might expect that at some point or another, each student might need to spend time in a small group to get . . . assistance . . . [and] that spending such time is a commonplace of the classroom and does not endanger a student's full and rightful membership in the community of learners” (p. 220). In short, general education classrooms are transformed into places where differences becomes ordinary.

Typical Rhythm of the Day for Students with Disabilities

One of the hallmarks of a good inclusive school program is that daily schedules and classroom activities for students with disabilities are as similar as possible to the daily schedules and classroom activities of students without disabilities. Thus, the “rhythm of the day” (Schwartz, 1991) for students with disabilities resembles that of the school day of other students in the school.

One of the authors was sitting in on a case conference that had gotten rather contentious. A 3rd grade girl, Hannah, was the point of contention for the participants. Hannah was a lovely, friendly student who had many friends in the school. Her teachers all described her as well-adjusted, friendly, and hard-working. As the room filled, there were 14 participants, including the school principal, parents, parent advocates, school psychologist, the speech/language therapist, the physical therapist, the special education teacher, three general education teachers, and others not identified. At the beginning of the meeting, I asked if everyone would explain why they were attending the meeting, to gain a better understanding of the interest all of these professionals had in a 3rd grade girl who had Down's syndrome and an IQ in the range of moderate mental retardation. As the responses went around the table, I counted the number of different professionals who provided services for Hannah. As well as could be discerned, Hannah left her 3rd grade classroom for education or therapy of some sort at least eight times a week. She left class, as did other 3rd grade students, for art, music, and physical education. In addition, her home-base 3rd grade teacher stated that Hannah could not do 3rd grade work, so she was sent to 1st grade for some subjects, 2nd grade for others, and a separate special education classroom for basic skills instruction in reading and arithmetic. In addition, she was pulled out of her general education classroom for speech therapy twice a week and physical therapy twice a week. I asked the assembled mass of professionals if this was a typical schedule for a 3rd grade student. They all agreed that it was not, although they all agreed that Hannah found her way to the various classes and therapy sessions with no problem. My immediate thought was that this was quite an accomplishment for any 3rd grade student.

Schedules such as Hannah's are not atypical for students with disabilities who are taught in traditional, pull-out special education programs—especially for students with more substantial needs. Fragmented school days present many disadvantages, including the following:

  • Moving to separate classes disrupts the student's routine and the routine of the general education classroom. Furthermore, the student will likely come and go during the middle of classroom activities and often will miss important academic content from the general education classroom.
  • It's difficult for the student to make friends, especially when the student goes to more than one general education classroom and is pulled out at various times during the school day to go to special education and various therapy sessions.
  • Instructional time is limited. Much time is lost as the student travels from one classroom to another, and it takes several minutes in each class to begin and end activities.
  • Students must learn the rules of several different classrooms, making it difficult to learn appropriate behaviors for each setting. This problem becomes especially acute for students with behavior problems.
  • Leaving the general education classroom may often stigmatize students. They are viewed as odd because they don't remain in the general education classroom during important instruction times.
  • A fragmented schedule makes learning difficult for the student and violates almost every tenet of effective instruction.

If the rhythm of the day for students with disabilities is much like that of other students, they avoid many of these problems and have the potential for a much improved educational experience. Not only should a student's daily schedule reflect the rhythm of the day of other students, but the activities that students with disabilities engage in should be as typical or routine as possible, for reasons similar to those noted above.

In an inclusive 4th grade classroom, a classroom teacher and a teacher of students with disabilities were teaming to teach mathematics. As the class was reviewing mathematics problems before a test, the teacher of students with disabilities was going over the material with the class, while the classroom teacher was moving around the room to respond to questions and keep students on task. At the end of the review session, the teacher of students with disabilities asked all the students if they would like to have the test read to them. Approximately half the students in the class (including students with disabilities and students who were not thus labeled) raised their hands and subsequently left the classroom to have the test read, while the other students remained in the general education classroom to complete the test (McLeskey & Waldron, 1996, p. 152).

Two factors stand out regarding the rhythm of the day of the students in this 4th grade class. First, the two teachers shared roles, so that both worked with typical students as well as students with difficulties. Thus, neither was readily identifiable as a “special” teacher; both were just teachers. Second, all students—not just students with disabilities—were given the option of having the test read to them or remaining in the classroom for a more traditional test administration. Thus, although some students were “pulled out” of the classroom, the rhythm of the day for all of these students was similar (McLeskey & Waldron, 1996).

In sum, ensuring that the rhythm of the day for students with disabilities is similar to that of other students and that the supports provided to students with disabilities are as natural and unobtrusive as possible are critical considerations in developing inclusive classrooms. These considerations help to ensure that “difference becomes ordinary” in the general education classroom and that students with disabilities become part of the learning and social community of the classroom.

All Students as Part of the Learning and Social Classroom Communities

After completing a three-year research project related to the study of inclusive school programs, Ferguson (1995) came to a troubling realization. She noted that even when students with disabilities were assigned to general education classroom full-time,

. . . their participation often fell short of the kind of social and learning membership that most proponents of inclusion envision. . . . Even to casual observers, some students seemed set apart—immediately recognizable as different—not so much because of any particular impairment or disability but because of what they were doing, with whom, and how (p. 284).
Ferguson (1995) concluded that a significant factor contributing to this lack of membership in the classroom was the fact that many of the teachers' (both general and special education) assumptions about students and learning remained unchallenged and unchanged. These included the following:
  • “Inclusion” students were viewed as “irregular,” even though they were in “regular” classes full-time.
  • These students needed specialized “stuff” that could not be provided by the classroom teacher.
  • The special educator was the officially designated provider of the specialized stuff.

These assumptions reflect a fundamental problem with many inclusion programs: that special education is simply moved into general education classrooms, without questioning what students with disabilities are taught, how they are taught, and by whom they are taught. These assumptions must be questioned and rejected if successful inclusion programs are to be developed and implemented.

An underlying assumption of successful inclusive programs is that all children will be included in the learning and social communities of the school and that classrooms in these schools will be so accepting of diversity that no one will be left out from the very beginning (Stainback, Stainback, & Jackson, 1992). The challenge to make general education classes places where a more diverse range of students can become part of the learning and social community is a more difficult task than many proponents of inclusion realized (Ferguson, 1995). There seems little doubt that neither general nor special education teachers alone have the knowledge and skills to achieve this goal, but rather that meaningful change will require that these educators collaborate “to reinvent schools to be more accommodating to all dimensions of human diversity” (Ferguson, 1995, p. 285). To achieve the goal of reinventing services that better meet the needs of all students, Ferguson suggests a logical approach that seems very useful. This approach begins “with the majority perspective and build[s] the tools and strategies for achieving inclusion from the center out rather than from the most exceptional child in” (p. 284). Based on this perspective, general and special educators collaborate to “invent the next generation of inclusive classrooms—and to go on generating knowledge that will facilitate the goal of inclusion in the long run” (Pugach, 1995, p. 218).

This approach to changing classrooms would suggest that teachers who are collaborating to make a classroom more accommodating of diversity begin with the curriculum, instruction, and organization of the general education classroom, then build in the tools and strategies for making all students part of the learning and social community of the classroom. A good beginning point for this discussion is to question what is taught in the general education classroom and how it is taught. Ferguson (1995) suggests that such a discussion address three types of shifts in general education classrooms that would make them more accommodating of student diversity:

  • A shift away from organizing schools and classrooms based on ability or skill levels and toward schools that are structured to accommodate student diversity and the many different ways of organizing students for learning.
  • A shift away from the teacher as disseminator of knowledge that students must retain “toward approaches that emphasize the role of the learner in creating knowledge, competence, and the ability to pursue further learning” (p. 287).
  • A shift away from the view that the role of schools is to provide services for students to one of providing supports for learning. Thus, students are supported in their efforts to become active members of the learning community of the classroom.

A discussion of these issues provides a good beginning for reinventing the general education classroom as a learning and social community for a broad range of student needs. There is a broad range of options that teachers should consider in making the general education classroom more accommodating. (See Chapters 6 and 7 for a review of several of these options.) There is no formula for this process—far from it, successful inclusive classrooms are dynamic and ever-changing, as the needs of students, the content being covered, and available resources change. However, ensuring that “difference is ordinary” in a classroom, that supports provided students with disabilities are as natural and unobtrusive as possible, and that the rhythm of the day of students with disabilities is as much like that of other students as possible provides a sound foundation for building inclusive classrooms and schools in which students with disabilities are active participants in the learning and social communities.


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