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Schools – An Overview

Schools are a fundamental part of our communities. Our educational institutions are not only the place where children learn, they are also the place where children develop friendships.

Children are heavily influenced by education and are especially affected by what happens in the classroom. This is particularly true when children with disabilities are included in the classroom and learn alongside children without disabilities.

There are many benefits to inclusion and many reasons to do it. Children with disabilities achieve better life outcomes when they are included, regardless of the type of disability. Children without disabilities often have better developmental and social outcomes. They also have more positive attitudes about their peers with disabilities. Inclusion in the classroom sets the stage for a lifetime of community living,  as the documentary film Including Samuel shows.

Full inclusion in learning environments means more than simply placing students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their peers. To make inclusion work, it is important for it to be meaningful for everyone. It involves an intentional focus on the academic, social, and psychological aspects of education that are so important to all students’ development.

We know full inclusion can work for all types of disabilities and at every stage of a child’s development – from early childhood all the way to the college years. And the good news is that the majority of students with disabilities spend most of their time in the regular classroom. However, there is still work to be done:  Children with autism, intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, and deaf-blindness are more likely to spend most of their school day in separate classrooms, and only 45% of 3-5-year-olds with disabilities are learning alongside their peers without disabilities.

Early Childhood

Inclusion in early childhood programs happens when children with disabilities in early childhood programs and are learning and playing together with their peers without disabilities and they are held to high expectations. Children with disabilities are intentionally encouraged to participate in all learning and social activities. They have individualized accommodations, using evidence-based services and supports to foster their cognitive, language, communication, physical, behavioral, and social-emotional development; friendships with peers; and sense of belonging. This applies to all young children with disabilities, from those with the mildest disabilities to those with the most significant disabilities.

Preschool children with disabilities (ages 3 – 5) have difficulty accessing early childhood special education services in inclusive settings. In 2019, more than half (55%) of preschool children with disabilities received early childhood special education services in settings separate from their peers without disabilities. Data trends over the past three decades indicate that the percentage of preschool children with disabilities who receive early childhood special education services in general early childhood programs has remained largely unchanged.

Many children are referred to separate settings, such as special education preschool classrooms, as a first resort. This may be especially true for children with more significant disabilities, despite evidence that inclusion is beneficial to children across ability levels.

The following challenges are frequently cited as barriers to inclusion in early childhood programs:

  • Attitudes and beliefs
  • Interpretation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and perceived barriers
  • Lack of staffing, training, and expertise of the early childhood workforce
  • Lack of comprehensive services
  • Limited time and commitment to build partnerships  

Despite this, early childhood inclusion can work and can work well, as seen at this early childhood center ( in Washington, DC. Here children with and without disabilities play and grow together.

It is important to plan for inclusion and there are a wide variety of resources to assist. Many of these are listed in a 2015 joint policy by HHS and the Department of Education on early childhood inclusion:

Head Start is a federal program funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families for children from 3 to 5 years old and their families. The main goal of Head Start is to help children from low-income families to be prepared for school.

Head Start can help children with disabilities. Federal law says that each Head Start program must reserve at least 10% of their enrollment for children with disabilities. A child must be eligible based on the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA) to get special education services from a Head Start program

Some of the services Head Start provides include special education for children with disabilities, plus health, dental, nutrition and mental health services. The Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center includes resources on supporting children with disabilities in Head Start programs, including information about the Head Start Program Performance Standard on the eligibility and selection of children with disabilities:

The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA) funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs has a number of resources, including indicators of high quality inclusion:    

A lack of program capacity to manage challenging behavior or social-emotional developmental delays may be barriers to inclusion and may contribute to expulsions and suspensions. The ACL funded Florida Center for Inclusive Communities is partnering with other universities on the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) This Center is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs to improve and support the capacity of state systems and local programs to implement an early childhood multi-tiered system of support to improve the social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes of young children with, and at risk for, developmental disabilities or delays. Last year the Center collaborated with ECTA to host a webinar called: “Indicators of High-Quality Inclusion: A Comprehensive Set of Tools”:


In the past 20 years, students with disabilities have made substantial educational progress—academic test scores, high school graduation rates, and college-going rates have all increased. This progress, in part, is related to the requirements in the nation’s special education law the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law requires that students ages three through 21 be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE), to the maximum extent appropriate, factoring in an individual child’s unique strengths and needs.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—the nation’s major federal law related to public education in grades pre-kindergarten through high school. ESSA provides for the current federal parameters for standards-based reform for all students, including students with disabilities. With standards-based reform, educators must pay attention to what all students should be able to know and do for the grade level assigned and address gaps in academic performance, including that of students with disabilities. The National Council on Disabilities issued in February 2018 the Every Student Succeeds Act and Students with Disabilities: report on the overlap between ESSA and IDEA.

One way in which ESSA and IDEA overlap is in terms of educational approaches aimed at systematically supporting struggling students. ESSA refers to using a Multitiered Systems of Supports (MTSS). IDEA uses the term Response to Invention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Over the years, both RTI and PBIS have expanded beyond the special education field. They are both considered as methods of improving instruction and academic results for all students. "Multitiered Systems of Supports" is used as an umbrella term that encompasses both RTI and PBIS.

The film Who Care about Kelsey features documents the lives of students with emotional/behavioral challenges, and shows innovative educational approaches that help these students to succeed – while improving the overall school culture and climate.

The key to ensuring access to the curriculum is designing with a purpose. Universal design for learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. Universal design for learning uses accessible educational materials (AEM) which are print- and technology-based educational materials, including printed and electronic textbooks that are designed or enhanced in a way that makes them usable across the widest range of learner variability, regardless of formats (print, digital, graphic, audio, video):

  • Print materials, such as textbooks, manuals, workbooks, paper assessments, and handouts, may be converted to make them accessible to learners with disabilities related to blindness, reading, and mobility. For example, braille, large print, audio, and digital text can make print more accessible.
  • Digital materials, such as websites, ebooks, podcasts, and videos, are media-rich sources of course content. They may include text, audio, video, graphics, and require interaction.
  • Technology-based delivery systems such as web-based applications, social media, video players, simulation programs, adaptive learning platforms, learning management systems, tablets, smartphones, and computer stations can all be used to make education materials accessible.

The ACL funded Institute for Community Integration (Minnesota UCEDD) has funding from the US Department of Education for the TIES Center. This is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten–grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs.

Higher Education

Inclusion doesn’t end when children graduate from high school. Inclusion also happens in colleges and universities. Think College at ACL’s Institute for Community Inclusion in Massachusetts supports institutes of higher education in creating inclusive post-secondary programs. The Next Steps program supported by the ACL funded Vanderbilt

Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD). The program grew out of several years of planning by a group that originally included the VKC UCEDD, the ACL funded Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee and The Arc of Williamson County.

The ACL funded Southwest Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Regional Center partnered with ACL’s Partners for Inclusive Communities at the University of Arkansas to develop the Disability as Diversity Programming Toolkit. This resource is a tool for promoting disability access and inclusion.  The Toolkit provides disability resource professionals and others working at postsecondary institutions with modules that can be used to lead campus presentations and discussions on disability as a part of diversity.

Last modified on 07/24/2020

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