To Mainstream or not to Mainstream; That is the Question

On a whim, we’ve decided to let Noah try AWANA along with the rest of the kiddos.  I couldn’t bear to put him in with his age group, since he’s technically a kindergartener; but the sweet AWANA leaders have agreed to let him try the preschool group, the Cubbies.  They do a lot of singing and crafting – perfect for our little guy. 

Starting to integrate him in activities is opening up more than a few cans of worms. 

Let me start by saying that I know our country has come a long way with educating its youngsters with special needs.  I heartily believe that every child, because we pay taxes, deserves a public education that suits their needs and fully develops all of their innate abilities.  I believe each of them, special needs or no special needs, deserves to be educated to the maximum of their potential in a safe and appropriate environment.  The parents who have walked before us and demanded equal access to education and the right to mainstream their children have fought the good fight and won us the right to have options for our children with special needs never seen before in our nation’s history.  For those who have pursued the fight, thank you.  Please know that I know you did the best thing for your child.  I don’t know everyone’s circumstances, but this post is written from my single solitary point of view, based on my single solitary experiences.

I’ve never been a proponent of mainstreaming or full inclusion for all children with special needs.  I think as a nation we’ve been sold a bill of goods that puts the least burden on the school districts and the greatest burden on the teachers at a net loss for the students.  Mainstreaming is the cheapest way of educating students.  In a contained classroom for children with special needs, a high expense and high teacher to student ratio results in daily tailor-made lessons and learning experiences for children at a great cost to the state providing the education.  So the easiest way to get out of having to provide that is to convince the taxpayers that you’re doing them a favor by obliterating the self-contained classroom for all but the most severely learning-impaired students. 

Gasp!  There, I said it. 

Basically, in a public school setting, you are sending your neurotypical children to school every day with the understanding that their time is put to use learning the academics necessary to graduate to the next grade and build a foundation that will serve them well for the rest of their academic career.  If my child is so learning-impaired that he will require individual attention from the teacher that takes her attention unequally away from the other children in the class, my child’s presence is detrimental to your child’s education. 

Now,  I know, I know.  There’s more to school than just academics.  I’ve heard countless heartwarming stories about how children with special needs bring out the best in the other children in the school, teaching them patience, respect, consideration,  kindness, unconditional love, etc.  That’s worth a lot, I agree.  But unless I have every single parent’s blessing that those character lessons are more important than the academic instruction and attention they are promised by the school district, I don’t think I should be forcing that character curriculum upon them.  I just don’t think that every single child is going to be blessed by having a child with special needs in the classroom; and honestly, isn’t it our job to teach our kids patience, respect, consideration, kindness and unconditional love at home?  It’s not like if they don’t get it at school, they’re just not going to get it (let us hope).

So before you count me virtuous for caring so much about everybody else’s children, let me tell you the biggest reason I don’t support full inclusion for every child with special needs.  My son is amazing, let me tell you, but there is no way any time soon he is going to be able to keep up with your son in kindergarten.  While your little guy is reciting the alphabet, writing his name, and learning to read, my Noah is going to be matching a’s to a’s and b’s to b’s.  What is Noah going to be doing while the teacher is teaching the other kids to sound out letters and what letter makes what sound?  Sitting around looking at the ceiling?  Exhibiting disruptive behavior out of sheer boredom?  Being reminded that although he can do so much, he can’t do what’s expected of other kids his age?  And although his teacher will pass him at the end of the school year, and I will earn the right to declare, “Noah is staying on grade level,” what will he really have learned?  And more importantly, what will he have missed? 

I’ve seen the studies, I know the numbers, full inclusion is a smashing success.  And I do agree there is much to be gained by keeping kids with special needs among their peers.    Because I have had a child in the public school system (through first grade), I know what it’s like to know she has to pass this test to graduate, this test to move on to the next thing, etc.  Why should my child with Down syndrome get the same kudos and the same rewards when he cannot perform the same tasks?   Couldn’t he have his own kudos, his own rewards and his own tasks?

Our culture seems to say that maybe he should get same things as everybody else because he has a legitimate reason as to why he is not capable of performing the same tasks.  I don’t know – that just doesn’t sit right with me.  I don’t want him to be left out, I don’t want him to feel the sting even harder of being different; but somehow it seems dishonest to move him along with his class just because he tries really hard.   

I wish I had the answer to this dilemma, but I don’t.  The answer for our family is homeschooling, but I know that is probably not an option for everyone, nor is it desirable for everyone.   I love the idea of having aides in the classroom.  If Noah were in a public school typical classroom, he would certainly need an aide all to himself  (although he probably wouldn’t get one) who would perhaps use PECs to reinforce lessons, story time and directions.  He’d need her to know and teach him more sign language so he could participate in class discussions.  Then again, although I often say, “He understands everything you say,” this would be an exaggeration in a typical kindergarten classroom.

I know parents of kids with Down syndrome in the Texas public schools.  They are told wonderful things about their kiddos, that the best thing for them is to be mainstreamed.  They certainly don’t need to be in a special needs classroom, and they certainly don’t need their own aide.  Really?  I’d love to think that someday Noah will be able to keep up with his peers academically, but from what I’m seeing, it ain’t gonna happen.

So homeschooling takes care of most of the problem, but what about Sunday school, what about AWANA?  Our current church has a very small Sunday school class, and they all sit with the teacher at the same table, so I think Noah is in good hands. 

AWANA is going to be trickier, and there will be more, I’m sure.  I’ve thought about sitting in with Noah at AWANA – I can be his aide.  Honestly though, I do want him to feel comfortable in a group of children without me being the buffer.  I think he learns very well from other adults, and I don’t want to interfere in that.  And I want, as corny as this sounds, for him to have a chance to just be one of the gang.  But is he?  Is he just one of the gang?  Or do we aggressively and proactively address the areas that we know are going to be different for him versus other kids.

Any Sunday school teachers or AWANA leaders out there?  Any teachers who have experienced this kind of dilemma in the classroom?  What do you do; how do you handle it? More importantly, what do you wish parents would do; how do you wish they would handle it?


5 thoughts on “To Mainstream or not to Mainstream; That is the Question”

  1. Thank you! I have some of these exact same feelings! Our daughter will soon be 4 but she is not just like the typical kids her age. Her little brother who is 2 (ok~2yo in 9 days; they are 22months apart) will soon be passing up some of her accomplishments. We have 7 children so I know the progression of kids. Quite honestly when we exited out of the First Steps program and looked into the public school option some of the things they did out and out confused our daughter. For example they asked her to take a plain piece of paper and crumple it; she looked at the therapist in disbelief. The gal repeated more than once, finally I said you are confusing her, your process makes no sense to her. You have taken a perfectly good piece of paper and asked her to crumple it and trash it; we don’t do that. First paper should be used, written on then we don’t trash it or crumple paper because we recycle, to have the most room in the recycle bin you leave it flat. The physical therapist who was alternating with the OT said well I never thought of it in that aspect, I guess some of what we expect goes against what we teach. You think? That is only one example don’t even get me started on the tasks that she could not even physically do, but yet was expected to accomplish. I wish I had some words of wisdom but I’m stuck in these same areas. I feel that it is a disservice to just move her up expecting her to be able to do just like every other child her age when their are some things simply not possible. I have a few friends with adult kiddos w/Ds I hope to pick their brains about these things when we find a chance to get together. I just wanted to say KUDOS for saying what I feel!

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback. I’m glad I’m not the only one who looks at the way things are and says “really”? And I love your therapy story!!! When ECI started with Noah, the first sign they taught him was GIVE ME. It seemed pretty rediculous to teach him something we would only want to unteach him. Live and learn. . . to say “NO, not my child,” I guess. 🙂


    2. I totally agree with you. Children can be taught to sit still and pretend they understand when that amount of time could be spent actually teaching something useful. My church provides option for a separate group or inclusive group, in fact, I wrote a book about the inclusive classroom because it happens that many children with disabilities are just sent to a class. EVERY CHILD CAN BLOOM IN THE INCLUSIVE CLASSROOM was intended to create comfort zones for learning. If I thought anyone would buy it, I’d write one for separate classrooms. I was a curriculum writer for 15 years for the Methodist Church.
      See for more on this subject.

  2. I work with students of all ages with disabilities in a large church. The mainstream question is a serious one because a feeling of community is important. For mainstreaming to work, parents and leaders and teachers need to work together to decide what is best. Does the child require a mentor or buddy? Does the teacher have adequate information about the disability in case of a meltdown or other emergency? What causes a meltdown for the child, and how does the parent handle it? Does keeping the child in a mainstream class allow the child to use his gifts and learn at his pace? If the decision is to mainstream the child, does the teacher have adequate training and use teaching practices that allow the child to feel comfortable and actually socialize?

    We designed a Sunshine Room that serves children that are fragile or who are too disruptive or just need a little extra help. We provide mentors to go with a child to mainstream class, and if that child gets over stimulated or needs to be removed from the room, he is brought to the Sunshine Room. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but always the parents decide what their goals are for the child. Sunshine Room designs learning activities and provides a spiritual and safe environment. We have many graduates who go on to mainstream in the middle school years. Even then, a student often wants to participate in programs designed for kids with disabilities. Enrollment in Sunshine Room varies from year to year, month to month.

    My website has materials about teaching practices that work in both situations, and it discusses spiritual growth of children, youth and adults from a special needs perspective.

    1. Sounds like great stuff. A church plant started recently in our town from a big church in Austin, and I was pleased to see they are offering one-to-one mentors for children with special needs in order to make their Sunday School all-inclusive. Looking forward to seeing your site!


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