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Why Mainstreaming Kids With Special Needs Is Good for Everyone

Photograph by Twenty20

Now that my son is in third grade, we’re pretty clear about what Down syndrome means for his academic development. To put it simply, he learns more slowly than typical children. That being said, he does learn, and he has the aptitude to grasp concepts, understand emotions, socialize well and think critically.

Since he entered kindergarten, our son has been in a class with children who have moderate to severe academic challenges. It’s called a "Special Day" class. I’d like to say we placed him there because it was suitable, but the truth is that the public funding in our area does not support a classroom for children who fit into a middle ground of learning, which my son does. We thought we’d remedy this by introducing him into a mainstream program with a variety of subjects several days each week. One thing I’ve learned from parenting and educating a child with special needs is that consistency is the foundation of any progress. And moving a child from classroom to classroom does not provide a consistent experience.

I am not an educator, so I haven’t fully appreciated the vast amount of learning that occurs in the classroom environment. To think that it’s as simple as learning math, reading and writing is oversimplifying it. School is a place where social skills with peers and adults are learned, independence is forged and learning your place in the community is seeded. Armed with this knowledge, my son’s father and I have set out to place our son into the general student, or mainstream, body of his elementary school.

MORE: The Most Loaded Question I Get About My Son With Down Syndrome

Every child is different, and any parent whose child has an IEP (Individual Education Program) understands this intimately. Not all children with special needs can or should be mainstreamed, but if it’s possible and supported, it’s definitely the way to go. Why? Mainstreaming creates an environment of inclusion. Placing special-needs kids among typical children influences their future—their potential career choices, community involvement and social development.

School is a place where social skills with peers and adults are learned, independence is forged and learning your place in the community is seeded.

While the disruption of moving in and out of different classes is not simple for our son to manage, there are a number of benefits to mainstreaming. The most important, as far as I’m concerned, is what he learns from his peers. If a child sees his classmates excelling in one way or another, it’s more likely he will try to pattern that success. Before mainstreaming, my son was in a class in which only one other student had language skills. Out of 10 students, only two could speak. This environment was not supportive of our son and created low expectations for him.

Mainstreaming is hard work for children with learning disabilities, but if we don’t have a vision of what is possible for our children and push them toward those possibilities, we are not doing our part as educators and parents. Sadly, the limits to much of children’s education are set by finances and budgets. The bottom line is more important than the individual needs of the kids who need the most support. If the help your child needs isn't cost effective, you can be certain that you will meet resistance from your school district. You must advocate for your child with passion and commitment. If you do not, there’s a strong chance he or she will be overlooked.

You must advocate for your child with passion and commitment. If you do not, there’s a strong chance he or she will be overlooked.

This year, we’ve finally taken the leap toward a more academically focused (rather than a socially focused) classroom for our son. Over the last year, we’ve seen so much progress in his intellectual processing, language development and social skills that we believe he’s ready to make this transition, and we’re going to do our part to help him succeed. We believe in our child’s ability to live a fulfilling and happy life, and mainstreaming is our next step in preparing him for the world.

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