Inclusion: two sides of the same coin
For the last two decades, there has been a steady shift toward greater inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream classroom settings. At the heart of this tendency lies the fact that, if properly supported, students with Special Educational Needs enrolled in ordinary classes get better opportunities for learning and development. They attend regular classes and follow primary curriculum together with their classmates, which gives them a sense of equality and belonging.
The importance of early intervention
As can be inferred, one of the reasons for creating inclusive classrooms starting from the early grades was the recognition of the importance of preventing or, at least, minimizing learning diffi culties encountered by children with SEN. Carefully designed instruction is required to help children at risk of academic failure attain grade-level expectations (Russell and Santoro, 2006). Of course, timely intervention is not possible without early detection. The sooner a particular disorder is detected, the greater the chances of reducing potential educational diffi culties. Appropriate steps taken in advance, e.g. in the form of organized preschool services, may be eff ective in preparing children with SEN for mainstream school environment. Besides, the dual nature of EI (short for early intervention) is worth observing. Wilson (2002) notes that it can be both remedial and preventive. This means that it may help in remediating existing developmental problems as well as in preventing the occurrence of additional ones in the future. It is widely known that early years of education have a signifi cant impact on students’ later growth. First and foremost, children with SEN in the inclusive setting establish larger friendship networks and are better apt socially. As Dawn observes (2006), friendship needs of children with learning diffi culties, who similarly to their typically developing counterparts attach great importance to peer relationships, have received relatively little attention in the past. Fortunately, the benefi ts of positive child-child relations and peer acceptance on psychological health, development and identity formation are today widely recognized by educators. Thus, children should be provided with optimal learning conditions from the very start.
The role of the teacher in an inclusive primary EFL classroom
More often than not, English language teachers, unlike class teachers, enter the inclusive primary classroom completely unprepared, since during their academic training they do not usually get adequate knowledge and skills to deal with SEN children. Undoubtedly, meeting special educational needs requires a lot of commitment, energy and professional knowledge from the part of the teacher. Educators untrained in this fi eld may be facing considerable diffi culties when approaching an inclusive class. When teaching a foreign language to children with SEN, it is not enough to know their learning styles and individual preferences. Teachers should also take pupils’ psychological and physical diffi culties into account, be understanding, supportive, sympathetic and very patient (Savic, 2007).
On the other hand, there are not only the years of teaching experience and special training that matter, but also teachers’ attitudes and their ratings of self-effi cacy towards inclusion. First of all, newly qualifi ed EFL teachers are to know how to fi nd relevant information, advice and support when approaching an inclusive classroom. As their knowledge is likely to be of a more generalist nature, they are not expected to be experts in the fi eld of SEN when they start working in school. What counts is their positive outlook and willingness for further professional development during the teaching practice (Kershner, 2006).
Because individual diff erences soon become evident in day-to-day contact with pupils, EFL teachers are faced with the challenge of understanding the nature of SEN in order to create a successful learning environment. Hart (1996 in Kershner, 2006) writes persuasively about the importance of suspending judgement about children’s needs and holding back from acting until more information and resources are acquired. Thus, already before the fi rst English lesson conducted in an inclusive classroom, the EFL teacher should talk to the class teacher and classroom assistant in order to get some guidance and become acquainted with students’ disabilities.
Moreover, in Rose’s view (1999 in Groom and Rose, 2004), inclusive classroom teachers should embody a range of teaching styles and should know how to manipulate between various techniques as particular situations require. The confi dence and skills in managing an integrated class usually comes in accordance with the understanding of the learning styles preferred by individual pupils. At the same time, it has been confi rmed that strategies recommended for particular special educational needs work eff ectively with most students (Lewis and Norwich, 2000 in Wearmouth, 2009). Therefore, it might be sagacious to focus on improving the learning environment in general and on extending the range of teaching strategies rather than to adopt a stance that each and every individual has to be catered for separately (Wearmouth, 2009).
The best solutions are those that would suit the class as the whole group
Wearmouth (ibidem.) also notes that the identifi cation of and the approach to SEN of pupils who learn English as a foreign language requires particular care. The lack of competence in English and apparently slow progress cannot be directly attributed to general learning diffi culties, although these factors must not be excluded. Students may say nothing and seem to be passive for some time, but it does not necessarily mean they are not learning. Like all, English language students with SEN benefi t from high-quality learning environment and may not need individualized programmes. Nevertheless, they may experience general cognitive diffi culties. As a result, teaching English to children with special educational needs remains a very sensitive area and requires total teachers’ commitment. Apart from teaching the language, according to Cole (2003 in Groom and Rose, 2004), tutors should perform a pastoral role as supporters in whom pupils in their charge may have confi dence. It is vital for students to learn in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, as for many children with SEN, especially with EBD (emotional and behavioural diffi culties), the authoritative fi gure of the teacher may provoke a sense of anxiety.
Controversial issues in reference to inclusive education
Inclusive education still remains a topic of heated debates. It is riddled with uncertainties, disputes and contradictions. Although there are many selfevident advantages of inclusion, there are critics of full integration who maintain that placing children with SEN in general classrooms taxes the already overloaded teachers. Not surprisingly, some working teachers echo this view. According to the research done on the Polish ground, teachers’ positive attitude towards inclusion should not be taken for granted even when they work in this fi eld. Looking at the calculations, 56 % of the interrogated teachers accepted the job under persuasion, 16% had no other choice, while only 10% of them consciously took up the challenge aware of the importance of school integration (Bąbka, 1997 in Zawadzka- Bartnik, 2010). Judging from the statistics, no wonder that teachers’ experience and standpoint do not necessarily contribute to the promotion of proinclusive demeanour.
What is more, sceptics express their concern over curriculum standards, fearing that the inclusion of problematic children may result in lowering the requirements for typically achieving students whose performance may become jeopardized (Martinez and Dick, 2005). On the other hand, integrating children may lag behind because of the pace of instruction or teaching methods not tailored to their unique needs. Apart from these two-sided arguments, there are other minor issues not to be ignored.
Allowedly, the problem commonly known as ‘labelling’ constitutes one of the areas of concern which come together with the classifi cation of students with SEN according to their disabilities. As a matter of fact, many teachers still tend to “characterise particular pupils in terms of selected attributes assumed to be inhibiting their learning” (Ainscow 1997: 19). The so-called ‘pigeonholing’ brings about the danger of lowering the expectations teachers have of certain students. A frequently encountered example of bias is when the term ‘children with disabilities’ is contrasted to the epithets ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ children. This discriminatory classifi cation implies that pupils with disabilities are ‘ill’ or ‘abnormal’ and reinforces the gap between children with SEN and those without special needs.
To further muddy the waters, Ainscow (1997) points to the presence of a classroom assistant who sometimes may negatively aff ect children with SEN’s development. Although the assistants’ work is invaluable, their overzealous involvement may actually become a barrier to integration. A dedicated support teacher should be a facilitator of learning opportunities, not an obstruction standing between a particular pupil and the rest of the class. Disagreement persists about what constitutes appropriate roles for SNAs (special needs assistants). Paradoxically, though teacher aides are assigned to be of pupils’ help, their presence in the classroom can have unintended detrimental eff ects. “Excessive proximity of teacher assistants can interfere with peer interactions, stigmatize students, lead to social isolation, and in some cases provoke behaviour problems” (Giangreco and Doyle, 2006: 7).
Just to mention one more issue, the understanding of the term ‘inclusion’ is particularly troubling and defi nitely should be clarifi ed. Actually, inclusive education is not a specifi c programme that can be implemented, it is a philosophy and an ongoing process that should be adopted by the educational system (McLaughlin, 2005). From this point of view, responsive teachers are expected to embrace all students, as if saying: “Welcome, I’m glad you’re here. My job is to take you from wherever you are as a learner as far as I possibly can” (Friend and Thrasher Shamberger, 2008: 2). This very belief system should exist at a school level, be put into practice by the headmaster and aff ect all the teaching staff that would take the responsibility for fostering the success in general education of pupils. Only after the idea of inclusion is approved, a vast array of programmes, services, solutions, supports and accompanying aids can be advanced and implemented. Inclusion from this perspective is a way of thinking, integral to everything that occurs in the school. Unless teachers are deeply convinced that this multidimensional practice is the best approach to educating students, inclusion is unlikely to be eff ectual (Friend and Thrasher Shamberger, 2008).
In the face of claims and counter-claims about inclusive education it could be concluded that certain contexts point toward integration as an eff ective teaching environment, while others favour the division into mainstream and special education. Therefore, further research in the fi eld would be desirable to eventually confi rm which option proves more responsive to students’ needs.
- Ainscow, M. 1997. Special Needs in the Classroom. A Teacher Education Guide. Jessica Kingsley Publishers/ UNESCO PUBLISHING.
- Dawn, M. 2006. “The friendships and peer relationships of children and young people who experience diffi culties in learning.” The SAGE Handbook of Special Education. SAGE Publications (http://www.sage-ereference.com/hdbk_ specialedu/Article_n36.html).
- Friend, M. and C. Thrasher Shamberger. 2008. “Inclusion.” 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. SAGE Publications (http://www.sage-ereference.com/education/ Article_n64.htm l).
- Giangreco, M and M. Doyle. 2006. “Teacher assistants in inclusive schools.” The SAGE Handbook of Special Education. SAGE Publications (http://www.sageereference. com/hdbk_specialedu/Article_n33.html).
- Groom, B. and R. Rose. 2004. “Involving Students with Emotional and Behavioural Diffi culties in their Own Learning: A Transnational Perspective.” Handbook of Emotional & Behavioural Diffi culties. SAGE Publications (http://www.sage-ereference.com/hdbk_behaviour/ Article_n20.html).
- Kershner, R. 2006. “What do teachers need to know about meeting special educational needs?” The SAGE Handbook of Special Education. SAGE Publications (http://www.sageereference. com/hdbk_specialedu/Article_n38.html).
- Martinez, R.S. and A.C. Dick. 2005. “Inclusion/ Mainstreaming.” Encyclopedia of Human Development. SAGE Publications (http://www.sage-ereference.com/ humandevelopment/Article_n337.html).
- McLaughlin, M.J. 2005. «Inclusive Education.» Encyclopedia of Disability. SAGE Publications (http://www. sageereference.com/disability/Article_n437.html).
- Russell, G. and L. Santoro. 2006. “Advances in research on teaching students who experience diffi culties in learning: grappling with the issue of access to the general curriculum 1.” The SAGE Handbook of Special Education. SAGE Publications (http://www.sage-ereference.com/ hdbk_specialedu/Article_n15.html).
- Wearmouth, J. 2009. A Beginning Teacher’s Guide to Special Educational Needs. Glasgow: Open University Press. Wilson, R.A. 2002. Special Educational Needs in the Early Years. London: Routledge.
- Zawadzka-Bartnik, E. 2010. Nauczyciel języków obcych i jego niepełnosprawni uczniowie (zaburzeniami i dysfunkcjami). Kraków: Impuls.