Mainstreaming Essay

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Mainstreaming is a legal policy mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that addresses the placement and participation of students with disabilities in general education classes to the degree appropriate to meet their needs. Students with disabilities are integrated with their nondisabled peers for all or a portion of the school day and for all or only a few classes, depending on the students’ characteristics and the accommodations required. Previously, mainstreaming was invoked primarily when moving students from special education classrooms to general education classrooms, typically for nonacademic portions of the school day, such as art, music, and physical education. More recently, it has included reintegration into content area (e.g., science, social studies) and even core academic subjects (e.g., reading, math). Notwithstanding this focus on the return to more inclusive, normalized settings, the special educator has principal responsibility for the mainstreamed exceptional child and works collaboratively with the general educator to ensure that curricular and/or behavioral modifications are implemented effectively.

In actual practice, the terms mainstreaming and inclusion, and to some extent, least restrictive environment, are used interchangeably; however, they can have very different meanings, and at a minimum are not synonymous concepts. Least restrictive environment, a principle mandated by IDEA, states that students with disabilities must be educated with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate. Inclusion refers to the notion that placement of students with disabilities in the general education setting (alongside their nondisabled counterparts) is a right of all students, with special education support services being provided within the general education setting as needed. Advocates of full inclusion believe students with disabilities should be educated only in the general education setting. The courts have expanded on the notion of mainstreaming by stating that it should be pursued as long as it is consistent with providing students with disabilities an appropriate education; that is, students should receive educational services with nondisabled peers as appropriate, but not necessarily exclusively in general education.

The law does not require inclusion. It requires that children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment, which, for the majority of students, includes at least partial inclusion in the general education classroom. The most recent reauthorization of IDEA uses language that favors inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings; however, most in the field of special education concur that this should not eliminate the continuum of services (range of placement and service delivery options) available to students. The educational needs and characteristics of some students with disabilities are such that separate classes and/or pull-out services are required for part or all of the school day. Although there is debate in the field among advocates of full inclusion and those who favor maintaining the range of placement options, there is definitive agreement that students with disabilities need to be educated in the most normalized environment available and that extensive experiences with nondisabled peers are critical to their overall social and academic growth. The guiding principle in this decision-making process should be the extent to which these types of normalizing experiences can be provided while not compromising needed special education support services for the special needs child.

Educators may employ several strategies to implement mainstreaming effectively. Three of the most commonly used strategies in the schools include prereferral teams, collaborative consultation, and cooperative teaching. Although definitive research confirming their effectiveness is still in the investigational stage, authorities in the field of special education do recommend their use.

Prereferral teams refer to groups made up of a variety of school personnel (including the special educator, school psychologist, school counselor, administrator, reading specialist, etc.) who work with general educators by observing children who are manifesting cognitive or behavioral problems in the general education classroom and then devising strategies for working with them. The goal is to reduce the number of premature and/or inappropriate referrals to special education by emphasizing that general education teachers attempt as many alternate strategies as possible before deciding that challenging students categorically require special education services.

Collaborative consultation is an approach to meeting the needs of students with disabilities wherein a special educator (or psychologist/specialist) and general educator collaborate to develop strategies targeted toward addressing a student’s academic or behavioral difficulties and capitalizing on his or her strengths. The child may see the special educator in a resource room setting, or the student may receive consultative services within general education. Although the special educator/psychologist serves as the expert in recommending accommodations for the student, the relationship between the professionals is based on the notion of shared responsibility for the child and parity in decision making.

Cooperative teaching (i.e., co-teaching) occurs when general and special educators team-teach in a general education class comprised of students with and without disabilities. This approach takes the collaborative consultation model a step further in that the educators teach in tandem. As a result, the special educator becomes more aware of the academic and social demands for students with disabilities in the general education setting. Moreover, there is variation in terms of how cooperative teaching is delivered. The general educator (as the content-area expert) may assume primary responsibility for instruction, whereas the special educator may provide needed academic survival skills, compensatory strategies, and behavioral modification techniques. In other cases, the special and general education teachers may jointly plan and teach the curriculum to students.

When it is deemed appropriate that a student return to the general education setting through the process of mainstreaming, one principle to consider is that of natural proportions. This concept suggests that students with disabilities should be placed in general education classes in proportion to the incidence of the exceptionality in the general population. A school district serving students with disabilities at a rate of 10 percent should have the schools and classes within it including such students at similar rates. Therefore, a class of thirty would contain no more than three students identified as exceptional. Others in the field have recommended that not more than 20 percent of the total class should have disabilities, which, in a class of thirty, would mean six students. Furthermore, the overall number of students with disabilities included should be reduced if some of those students manifest more severe impairments and require more extensive support services. As the field continues to embrace the notion of students with disabilities becoming the responsibility of all educators, it is likely that the debate over how mainstreaming is conceptualized, operationalized, and actualized will continue.


  1. Douvanis, G., & Hulsey, D. (2002). The least restrictive environment: How has it been defined by the courts? Retrieved June 9, 2006, from
  2. Hallahan, D. P., & Kauffman, J. M. (2006). Exceptional learners: Introduction to special education (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
  3. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, P.L. 108-446 (2004), 20 U.S.C. 1400–1487.
  4. Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007).Exceptional lives: Special education in today’s schools(5th ed.).
  5. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. Vaughn, S., Bos, C. S., & Schumm, J. S. (2005). Teaching exceptional, diverse, and at-risk students in the general education classroom. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn &Bacon.

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