Child Development Central

Practical, evidence-based information for parents and professionals.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

How compulsory mainstreaming fails our students

One of the standards of American education today is the concept of ‘heterogeneous grouping' within ‘mainstream' classrooms: Children of every skill level remain together in every subject. This may be a pushback against a time when grouping children according to their abilities lead to a sense of isolation, with kids seeming to languish on the special education track. Yet to meet any long-term goal of integrating children with their peers, the short-term concern should be addressing immediate educational needs—a goal not always accomplished in the mainstream.

Individualized planning requires an objective exploration of strengths and weaknesses. This perspective often reveals a need for smaller, more structured classrooms and more refined placements; for any student who has extensive academic, behavioral or social difficulties, we need to consider all possible options. Yet due to policy trends in education and presumably the pressure of economics, many schools have eliminated these possiblities entirely. Left behind is a now ubiquitous policy of placing every child in a single setting, a trend that fails many of our children.

All for One ...

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School districts today tend to educate everyone lumped together. Instead of modifying content, this style of ‘individualized' plan doesn't adjust the basic material—even though a student may not yet have grade-level skills. Children with special needs receive a few minutes of direct attention targeted to their particular abilities during the day, but the vast majority of time is spent trying to keep up with everyone else.

Academic motivation develops best through success and mastery and is undermined when children flounder with work that is over their head. Steve, a ninth grader in my practice with reading disabilities, is a good illustration of this. He was asked to read Ulysses over the course of several months in spite of the fact that he lacked the ability to decode the words and comprehend the story. A teacher's aide outlined and helped him with vocabulary when he felt like asking questions. As had become habitual, Steve instead checked out on the entire project.

Given a more skillfully chosen book that Steve was capable of reading with minimal support, he might have engaged. With remediation to close the gap in his reading skills, which he was no longer receiving, he might have caught up. Even with tutoring he struggled not only with reading but motivation in general, overwhelmed by school work far beyond his abilities. Any potential benefits of spending his days with mainstream peers were completely overshadowed by his belief, mostly correct at that point, that he couldn't do the work even when trying his best.

... And One for All

Leaving students together throughout the day also means the curriculum is not tailored for remediation. Academic interventions are typically added by having teachers and therapists visit kids in their classroom, often called ‘push-in' services. These in-class networks of therapists and special educators work for some children, but many feel singled out. Living as the only one who doesn't easily ‘get it' in a classroom of kids who generally do leaves many children dwelling on the difference, and feeling like failures. Why am I the only one who has all these extra teachers?

Another push-in approach adds a special education teacher to an otherwise mainstream classroom. This set up (often called an ‘inclusion' or ‘integrated' setting) helps children whose primary requirement is additional adult attention, such as those with behavioral issues. And having a second adult in the room with a special education background can be beneficial to all, lowering the teacher-student ratio and adding a specialist's expertise. Yet as a catch-all intervention inclusion does not inherently address the needs of all children with special needs, such as those with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or any other concern that requires a more targeted curriculum.

There are also logistical issues when adding a special education teacher to a mainstream class. Grouping children for direct instruction by the special educator while another teacher continues a lesson for the rest of the classroom is often distracting for all the children, and limiting for the special educator. And like other push-in services, children may feel more stigmatized, not less, when pulled aside from peers in the same classroom. Lastly, as in mainstream settings there is frequently a requirement that children tag along with grade-level content and pacing most of the day instead of following their own prescribed curriculum.

A Custom Fit

On a practical level, contained settings address the needs of children in ways often impossible to implement otherwise, and they still do exist in places. There are classrooms and even entire schools geared to evidence-based academic instruction for children with learning disabilities. Some are structured to meet the needs of children with ADHD, allowing these intelligent, typically well-motivated children an opportunity to learn as well as any of their peers. Others are tailored for development of social and communication abilities in children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Every fall I see children blossom after switching rooms, able to manage their work on their own and to master it with the same level of help all the children around them receive. In spite of fears to the contrary, children generally feel more at ease when moved to a well-supported setting. Suddenly they realize that their issues don't define them: Here I am with ten other kids, all of us are smart and all of us can't read well! I'm not different after all! Reduced stress and gains in self-esteem lead not only to academic growth but to social and emotional benefits outside the school setting. While kids should not ever be ‘stuck' on a special-education track, self-contained settings are sometimes their clearest path to social-emotional well-being and academic success.

Coming soon—Part Two: Meeting the Needs of Gifted Children—and Teachers, Too

Mark Bertin, M.D.,is a developmental behavioral pediatrician, an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, and the author of The Family ADHD Solution.

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