Impact Feature Issue on Inclusive Education for K-8 Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities

Thomas Byrne, who has been fully included school-wide since kindergarten, celebrated his school’s 2016 championship win with his peer mentor and friend, team member Jordan Genmark Heath. Jump to story

Institute on Community Integration, Research and Training Center on Community Living, and University of Minnesota wordmark

From the Editors

In the past, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities were often taught only functional skills in our K-12 schools – how to do self-care, tell time, use money, carry out routine daily tasks. Today, growing numbers of families, educators, and students are advocating for higher expectations and a more inclusive educational experience.

What does it look like when schools transition to more inclusive and rigorous education for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities? In this Impact issue inclusive K-8 education is viewed from a variety of perspectives – researchers, classroom teachers, education administrators, students with and without disabilities, and families. They explore inclusion from the classroom to the school-wide community, and beyond.

The learning curve for adults is sometimes steep when more inclusive practices are introduced in schools. However, students – both those with cognitive disabilities and their peers without – often make the shift more easily. The key is for the needed and appropriate supports to be in place for students. And for the special and general education teachers, and school administrators who support them, to have the knowledge, skills, and quality curricular resources they need to confidently instruct all students. In these pages we share examples of such knowledge, skills, and resources from across the country with the hope that they can help K-8 schools increasingly support the learning of all students in inclusive settings.


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The Hope of Lessons Learned:
Supporting the Inclusion of Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities Into General Education Classrooms


Terri Vandercook is Assistant Director of the TIES Center, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at

Harold Kleinert is Director Emeritus of the Human Development Institute, and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Kentucky, Lexington. He may be reached at

Cheryl M. Jorgensen is an inclusive education consultant in private practice based in South Acworth, New Hampshire. She is the author of It’s More Than “Just Being In:” Creating Authentic Inclusion for Students with Complex Support Needs published by Brookes. She may be reached at

Ricki Sabia is Senior Education Policy Advisor with the National Down Syndrome Congress, Roswell, Georgia. She may be reached at

Sheryl Lazarus is Director of the TIES Center. She may be reached at

The photo shows four second grade students sitting in chairs in a semi-circle in the classroom, two boys and two girls, and the three students on the left of the photo are looking at the student, Landon Lutz, on the right who’s holding his iPad-like device, which he’s using to select and play greetings for the others.

(Above photo) Using assistive technology Landon Lutz (right) greets his classmates during morning meeting circles at Allen Brook School in Williston, Vermont. More about inclusion in Vermont.

What do we know about the current participation in general education classes for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities (i.e., students who are eligible to take alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards)? We know that these students are much more likely to be placed outside of general education than any IDEA category of students with disabilities (see Figures 1 and 2).

York-Barr and Vandercook (2003) wrote, “It seems hard to believe that we are nearing 20 years since the concept of ‘inclusion’ began to take hold as a way of thinking about, designing, and putting into practice an individualized set of services and supports required by some students in order to learn alongside nondisabled peers and siblings” (p. 4). Add 15 years since that statement, and it is hard to believe that with all that we have learned – and all the legal and legislative action supporting inclusion (see Table 1) – the separate placement of students with significant cognitive disabilities still persists.

In this article, we discuss lessons learned through working toward inclusivity within the complex system of education. The systems level focus is intentional. Although progress has been made in curricular, instructional, and assessment practices, these practices must occur within a system that supports their implementation and sustainability for all students.

Figure 1: Least Restrictive Environment Data for All Students with Disabilities (2015-16)
Figure 1 graphically displays Least Restrictive Environment Data for All Students with Disabilities (2015-16). It has a pie chart showing the percents of K-12 students with disabilities in four different types of education settings: general education setting (63%), resource room placement (19%), self-contained placement (13.5%) and separate school/other (3%). The general education setting is most of the pie. The source is the National Council on Disability (2018).

Note: The LRE for a small number of students was not specified.

Note: In this figure, “general education setting” refers to students who spend 80% or more of the day in the regular class, “resource room placement” refers to students who spend 40-79% of the day in the regular class, “self-contained placement” refers students in the regular class less than 40% of the day, and “separate school/other” refers to students served in a separate school or residential facility.

Data source: National Council on Disability (2018).

Figure 2: Least Restrictive Environment Data for Students in the Alternate Assessment Based on Alternate Achievement Standards (AA-AAS)* (2009-10)
Figure 2 graphically displays Least Restrictive Environment Data for Students in the Alternate Assessment Based on Alternate Achievement Standards (AA-AAS) (2009-10). Students in the AA-AAS have the most significant cognitive disabilities. It has a pie chart showing the percents of K-12 students in the AA-AAS in four different types of education settings: general education setting (3%), resource room placement (4%), self-contained placement (79%) and separate school/other (13%). The self-contained placement is most of the pie. The source is the Kleinert et al (2015).

* Students in the AA-AAS are students with the most significant cognitive disabilities

Note: The LRE for a small number of students was not specified.

Note: In this figure, “general education setting” refers to students who spend 80% or more of the day in the regular class, “resource room placement” refers to students who spend 40-79% of the day in the regular class, “self-contained placement” refers students in the regular class less than 40% of the day, and “separate school/other” refers to students served in a separate school or residential facility.

Data source: Kleinert et al. (2015).

Table 1: Laws, Regulations, and Court Cases Related to General Education Placement and Ambitious Goals for Students with Disabilities
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 Requires that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (reauthorized as The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA 2004)

Defined LRE.

Confirmed continuum of placements.

Determined that removal from general education cannot be solely based on need for curriculum modification.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 Right to services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of individuals with disabilities and reasonable accommodations.
Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015

Alternate assessments must be based on enrolled grade-level general academic content standards with performance measured against alternate academic achievement standards.

Students who are proficient on the alternate academic achievement standards should be on track to pursue postsecondary education or competitive integrated employment.

States cannot preclude students who take alternate assessments from attempting to complete the requirements of a regular high school diploma.

PARC v. Pennsylvania (1972) “Placement in a regular public school class is preferable to placement in a special public school class… [which] is preferable to placement in any other type of program of education and training.”
Roncker v. Walter (1983) Services must be brought to the child (principle of portability).
Daniel R.R. v. State Board of Education (1989) If a student can be educated in a regular classroom with supplementary aids and services, that is the LRE.
Sacramento Unified School District v. Rachel H. (1992) Developed a four-part test for placement decisions.
Rafael Oberti v. Clementon School District (1992) “Inclusion is a right not a special privilege for a select few.”
Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2016)

For most children, FAPE will involve integration in the regular classroom.

Instruction must be reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum.

LH v. Hamilton County Board of Education (2018)

Self-contained class was not the LRE for a student with Down syndrome.

Parents reimbursed for Montessori school placement.

Contributed primarily by Cheryl M. Jorgensen and Ricki Sabia.

Lesson 1: Inclusivity is Counter-Cultural

We want inclusivity to be a value practiced in our culture, but unfortunately this is not the norm in the United States. The creation of inclusive school communities is hard because it is counter-cultural; we are trying to create a new culture that is counter to what exists in the broader community and one in which we lack experience. The hope? More people acknowledge this challenge today, which may increase their willingness to work together to support a sense of belonging, active participation, and learning for each student who walks or wheels in the front door.

Lesson 2: The Big Picture is Really Big and Really Complex

Consider for a moment the complexity of our system of education. There are values, practices, structures, licensure programs, funding mechanisms, laws, and regulations at the federal, state, district, and local levels that all impact one another. There are administrators, educators, families, and community members with many different perspectives and experiences that all have an impact on the educational system. And then there is the challenge of instituting any change. Danforth and Naraian (2015) recommend that instead of viewing inclusive education as an outcome to achieve, it be viewed as a “process that is always ongoing, continual, and by extension, unfinished” (p. 72). This is not an excuse for never achieving inclusion, but rather an acknowledgement of the complexity of the process and the fact that the outcomes of inclusion evolve as we learn. The hope? Inclusive education is an ongoing commitment. What this shift means for schools deepens as we learn and work to change the system for the benefit of all.

Lesson 3: There Are Many Meanings of Inclusion

While there are many viewpoints about the meaning of inclusion, nearly all agree that inclusion is not just about physical placement of students with disabilities into general education classrooms. Physical presence is a necessary component, but belonging, actively participating, and learning both in the classroom and the broader community are the vision. As we have noted, it may be most helpful to view inclusion as an ongoing process, rather than as an outcome to achieve. However, in reality, it is both, and the process of inclusion supports an ever-evolving picture of inclusive schools that is always expanding and improving as we learn. We offer one definition: Inclusive education is the supports and services provided within whole-school restructuring, resulting in communities in which all students are valued (Artiles & Kozleski, 2016). Specifically, in inclusive education: 1) educators share instructional responsibilities, collaborate in teaching teams, and believe that general education classes and other school contexts are most appropriate for all students (Olson, Leko, & Roberts, 2016); and 2) students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are engaged in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education classmates, but with variations in instructional components to meet the variety of learners’ needs (Quirk, Ryndak, & Taub, 2017). The hope? That individuals will not spend time debating what is meant by inclusion, but rather join together to extend a sense of value, welcome, active participation, contribution, and learning to each member of the school and broader community.

Lesson 4: If the Adults Are Separate, the Kids Are Separate

Despite many years of model demonstration projects and lawsuits intended to support the inclusion of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities into general education classrooms, that goal has not been attained. A large part of this failure stems from the fact that these efforts were focused on changing special education service delivery and practices, and in effect tinkering around the edges (the special education edges) of the education system. Rather, as Sauer and Jorgensen (2016) so eloquently argued, the focus needs to be “on designing new laws, policies, and practices that are inclusive of all students, including those with intellectual disability” (p. 68). Furthermore, the focus needs to incorporate special educators and other support personnel into the classroom. The practice of creating classroom teams of educators with different areas of expertise and training increases the likelihood that students will be more effectively supported in the general education curriculum. The hope? Practices such as inclusive service delivery models that have all educators working together in the general education classroom might yet become the norm.

Lesson 5: Fragmentation Thwarts Even Promising Initiatives

Educators often lament (and justifiably so) that the number of school improvement initiatives or accountability tasks that come their way is daunting and makes it difficult to do any of them well. The process of creating inclusive school communities aligns well with, and can be supportive of, many such initiatives (e.g., universal design for learning, multi-tiered systems of support). At the state and district levels, we must give specific attention to how these improvement initiatives can be integrated into classrooms, and how classroom teams can be supported to best implement these practices in their daily work. It is change at the classroom level that will support improved academic engagement and learning for all students (Morningstar, Shogren, Lee, & Born, 2015). The hope? Classroom teams that include general and special educators, as well as other support staff, are given the support (e.g., time and consultation as needed) to create implementation plans for a coherent package of initiatives that align with a school mission of inclusion.

Lesson 6: It’s All About the Kids, But Not Only the Kids

Yes, the goal of inclusivity is that each child (and adult) would experience a sense of belonging and value as a member of the school community where they actively participate, learn, and contribute to the common good. This, of course, does not magically occur without a lot of capacity-building professional development in the form of coaching, professional learning communities, and other ongoing support provided at the state, district, and school levels. This ongoing support needs to be coordinated, available long term, and provided to every person who is part of the effort. This focus also needs to include families and community members to ensure they have their voices heard. The hope? Adults will be supported via a capacity-building coherent system of professional development to implement inclusive communities.

Lesson 7: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

In an era of intense focus on accountability and student achievement, it is wise to remember the impact that the quality of relationships has on academic achievement. Positive and valuing relationships make inclusivity personal and concrete. We also know that evidence-based, peer-mediated strategies can promote both friendships and improved learning for students with and without disabilities. The hope? A commitment to inclusive schools will go beyond fostering academic achievement and include an intentional focus on modeling an ethic of caring and valuing of each person that expands beyond the walls of the school to the broader community.

Lesson 8: Collaboration is Not the Norm

Although there have been shifts in some school communities toward collaborative teaming, collaboration is still not the norm. Collaboration is not just a shift in mindset, but also requires structures (e.g., co-teaching, planning time), and learning a set of new skills. Collaboration means that all classroom team members (i.e., general educators, special educators, paraprofessionals, and specialized instructional support personnel) work together to support effective learning and engagement for all students in the classroom community, not just a specific subset of students. The hope? Educators will work in classroom teams tasked with the responsibility of supporting the belonging, active participation, and learning of each child.

Lesson 9: Leadership is Influence, and Influence is Everywhere

Leadership is required to further the realization of any practice, and is exerted not just due to a person’s organizational position, but also due to that leader’s integrity and commitment to the common good. Although leadership can and does originate from many parts of a system, the research has shown that principals who demonstrate a commitment to inclusive reforms are especially important to their success (Shogren, McCart, Lyon, & Sailor, 2015). The hope? That supportive leadership will converge from all levels of the system and across stakeholders, including principals as well as students with and without identified disabilities.

The Final Lesson: Focus on Progress and Possibility

Although there is much to be done, there truly is cause for hope. There was a time when individuals with significant disabilities were thought to be incapable of learning. Now, the expectation and the reality are that all individuals are capable of making progress in the general education curriculum, regardless of the intensity of their needs. There are “pockets of possibility” across the country, schools that have acted upon the promise inherent in the definitions of inclusion shared above and that have demonstrated improved outcomes for the students in those communities.

All of this brings us full circle to the beginning of the article, where we indicated that the focus of these lessons must be at the systems level, because that is where change must take place if we want to move beyond the promise of inclusion for single students, schools, or districts. The more we join hands and work together intentionally to enhance access and equity for each child, the stronger our schools and the communities they serve will be for all.



What Data Tell Us About General Education and Students with Disabilities


Harold Kleinert is Director Emeritus of the Human Development Institute, University of Kentucky, Lexington. He may be reached at

The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) collects annual placement data on all students with disabilities across every state and territory, and further analyzes these data by IDEA disability category (e.g., intellectual disability, autism, etc.). Therefore, we might get an overall idea about the extent of general class participation for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities by examining the least restrictive environment (LRE) data of students in those IDEA categories from which such students are most likely to come.

Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are much more likely to be placed outside of general education than other students with disabilities for which the USDOE collects annual placement data. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities most typically include students who have been labeled as having intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, or autism. According to USDOE data, students in these IDEA categories have commonly experienced higher rates of separate placements than have other students with disabilities. For example, 55% of students with intellectual disability, 71% of students with multiple disabilities, and 44% of students with autism were placed in primarily separate settings (self-contained classrooms; separate schools; home, hospital or residential settings) in the 2009-2010 school year compared to just 19% of all students with disabilities that same year (Kleinert et al., 2015).  

At the same time, when we consider just those students who were placed at least 80% of the time into general education classrooms, only 17% of students with intellectual disability, 13% of students with multiple disabilities, and 37% of students with autism were represented, compared to 59% of all students with disabilities (Kleinert et al., 2015).  The most recent studies have found these national data unchanged: Brock (2018) reported that only 16.9% of students with intellectual disability were placed into general education classes at least 80% of the time in 2014, and this percentage actually dropped to 16.6% in 2016 (National Council on Disability, 2018).

When we analyze students participating in the alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS), placement into separate settings is even higher than disability-specific data reported to USDOE. For the nearly 40,000 students participating in the AA-AAS across a15-state sample (also conducted in the 2009-10 school year), a total of 93% were served primarily in self-contained classrooms, separate schools, or home, hospital, or residential settings, and only 3% were served in general education classrooms at least 80% of the time (Kleinert et al., 2015).  Thus, while students in some IDEA categories are placed more frequently in separate educational settings than students with more mild disabilities, separate placements for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities occurs at a substantially greater rate than for any single IDEA category.


  • Brock, M. (2018). Trends in the educational placement of students with intellectual disability in the United States over the past 40 years. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 123, 305–314.
  • Kleinert, H., Towles-Reeves, E., Quenemoen, R., Thurlow, M., Fluegge, L., Weseman, L., & Kerbel, A. (2015).  Where students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are taught: Implications for general curriculum access. Exceptional Children, 81, 312-329.
  • National Council on Disability (2018, February). IDEA series: The segregation of students with disabilities. Retrieved from:

personal story

Wide Open Spaces:
Maggie’s Story


Erin Sheldon is CEO of Integration Action for Inclusion, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She may be reached at

In 2004, my first-born child Maggie was diagnosed with significant multiple disabilities. All I knew about disability was from glimpses of students in special education classrooms. Kids like that surely needed the most skilled expert teachers. I was wholly unprepared to apply my experience in social justice movements to raising my baby girl.

Then I met Lou Brown. I was a participant in New York State Partners in Policymaking. He spoke to us about a radical vision of inclusion for every person. I was clearly skeptical, so he asked me what my biggest fears were for my girl. That was easy: her safety. She would always be intensely vulnerable: non-verbal and unable to report abuse. Lou said that her safety would be found in wide open spaces with people who know her well but have no power over her. He told me that she would be most vulnerable in separate settings with people who had power over her and no competent witnesses. He challenged me to think about safety through this lens of power and isolation.

After that, I was an advocate for inclusion. Inclusion has many lofty goals, but at its base for me, it is about personal safety. I was a new mother grappling with complex issues. I couldn’t yet fathom “belonging” or “universal design,” but I could understand this: In every space my daughter is in, she needs competent witnesses who know her well and who have no power over her. With time, I learned that inclusion could be more than safety. It has also been about friendships, learning, communication, work, and contribution. But at its core, my family’s commitment to inclusion is a commitment to Maggie’s safety.

Two second-grade girls, Maggie and Jordyn, on a slide on the playground. Maggie, facing the camera, is seated at the top of the slide and about to start sliding down. Jordyn is halfway down the slide, her back to the camera and turned to face Maggie.

A close-up of the two girls, Maggie and Jordyn, on another occasion standing close to each other in front of the school. They are facing each other and Maggie is hugging Jordyn and they’re smiling.

As 7-year-olds, “besties” Maggie (left) and Jordyn shared their first day in second grade, as well as playground fun.

In school, the people who know you well, who have no power over you, are your classmates. Adults working in classrooms rarely encourage children to be critical outspoken witnesses. Children are the problem we solve in school, not a resource to help us do our jobs better. But I slowly realized that teaching children to be vocal critics of Maggie’s support was essential to her inclusion. What good is a silent witness? Maggie’s inclusion needs to teach her community how to support her on her own terms – how to value her contributions, come to know her, and commit to listen to her.

I also realized that as a parent, no matter how powerless I often felt, I had more power than Maggie did as a student. I was also an employee. I worked in her school one year, supporting students while their aides were at lunch. I was Maggie's support for an hour each day. I used this time to model what I considered “best inclusion practice.” One day, I carefully planned and prepared how Maggie would participate, but she shoved the materials away. Her classmate said, “That’s how she says she doesn’t want to do something.” I ignored him. I tried to use hand-over-hand to compel Maggie to participate on my terms, not hers. Maggie ripped the paper. The boy next to her again piped up: “That’s what she does when you don’t listen.” I suddenly realized I was the person with power over Maggie. I needed to listen to the competent young witness who was adding his voice to Maggie’s communication.

We noticed there is no structure in school for children to give feedback on the performance of adults. When Maggie’s friends or classmates spoke up for her, they were often scolded for their impertinence. We focused all our advocacy on implementing person-centred planning strategies that could formalize and legitimize the feedback of peers. Person-centred planning flips the question of power and authority by positioning the person, and those closest to her, as the authority over the most important problems we try to solve in our planning.

Starting in grade 4, Maggie’s friends and classmates joined her annual planning meetings. We often set aside the typical IEP focus on baseline and goals and instead used person-centred planning to ask how to support her to learn what was important for her while honouring what was important to her. While I focused on what was important for Maggie (her augmentative and alternative communication [AAC], access to the curriculum, and literacy instruction), her friends usually focused on what was important to her: time with friends, lunch, small-group work, and recess. We found that the kids were candid and observant. Even children who were not close friends could judge whether Maggie was engaged, supported, and participating.

Overwhelmingly, the girls were far more critical of Maggie’s inclusion than the adults who supported her. They identified numerous ways that adults undermined her friendships in the name of support, such as hovering too closely or prompting every child to “Say hi to Maggie!” as they entered the classroom. In grade 3, one of the girls reflected that “the adults are afraid of Maggie. They think it’s their job to stop her from doing things.” This took all the adults aback and generated self-reflection. Later that year, the same girl reported, “They trust her more now.” Her friends gave examples of trust that included giving her more space and letting her touch things and walk around.

A selfie close-up of two teenage girls, Maggie on the right and Jordyn on the left, as they look today. They’re facing the camera, looking downward. Maggie has her head on Jordyn’s shoulder, and both are smiling.

Now teenagers and still best friends, Maggie and Jordyn take a selfie on an outing to an alligator farm.

Participating in Maggie’s planning deepened her friendships. As they reflected on how she communicates what is important to her, the girls discovered how deeply they knew her. Speaking up made them more confident in their knowledge of her and of their role in her life. They would say something in a meeting like, “Maggie wants to just hang out with us at lunch and not have an aide right there” and Maggie would vocalize and rest her head on their shoulders. Or I would say something like “Evidence-based comprehensive literacy instruction is essential,” and Maggie would groan and thunk her forehead on the table. Including the kids helped me separate my priorities from Maggie’s own.

Maggie has finished her first year of high school. We are planning her transition to adult life. She will need ongoing literacy instruction and continued support to communicate with her AAC device. She will have a microenterprise in real estate home-staging, something that reflects her enthusiastic interest in going into other people’s houses. We expect she will live with friends who first learned to support her and to listen to her as fellow kindergarteners. We evaluate every classroom, course selection, and extracurricular activity based on whether it takes place in wide open spaces where Maggie is surrounded by people who know her well who have no power over her. This advice from Lou has never steered us wrong.


Myth vs. Fact:
What is True About Including Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities?


Alicia Saunders is Research Associate and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Special Education and Child Development, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She may be reached at

Shawnee Wakeman is Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Child Development, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She may be reached at

Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities (i.e., intellectual disability, autism, multiple disabilities, deaf-blindness) can learn academic content as well as social skills in general education classrooms. One of the greatest impacts on achievement for these students is maintaining high expectations and applying the criterion of the least dangerous assumption (Donnellan, 1984). In other words, without conclusive data, we should assume that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities CAN learn. The presumption of competence (rather than the perception of inability) is a fundamental tenet of inclusive education. This presumption is founded in the literature (e.g., Bambara, Koger, Burns, & Singley, 2016; Lindsey, Thousand, Jew, & Piowlski, 2018). As Jorgensen (2018) wrote, “Even if we are wrong about presuming a student’s ability to learn and to communicate in ways that are on par with his classmates without disabilities, being wrong about that isn’t as dangerous as the alternative.”

There are a number of considerations that have surfaced in the discussion surrounding inclusive education. It is important to recognize those considerations, in particular those that are misconceptions or even myths, and provide research that either supports or refutes the ideas. A recent article by Allison Gilmour (2018) in Education Next states several misconceptions or myths surrounding inclusive education, many of which are incorporated into the left column of Table 1, while highlights of the factual research refuting these misconceptions and myths appear in the right column.

Table 1: Misconceptions and Myths vs. Facts
Students are already included: 60% of all students with disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in general education. According to the latest least restrictive environment data, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities spend far less time in general education settings: 17% for ID, 14% for multiple disabilities, 26% for deaf-blindness, and ~40% for ASD (Morningstar, Kurth, & Johnson, 2017).
Peers are negatively impacted academically by having students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in their class (e.g., takes time away from general education students or they are not academically challenged). Nondisabled peers who are involved in peer support arrangements have either remained the same academically or improved. Furthermore, teachers reported these peers being out of the classroom less and more actively engaged than peers not involved in peer support arrangements (Carter et al., 2016).
Peers are negatively impacted socially and emotionally by having students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in their class. On the contrary, nondisabled peers have developed empathy, advocacy and leadership skills, as well as lasting friendships with people who may be dissimilar in some way to themselves as a result of these inclusive experiences (Carter et al., 2016).
Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities need prerequisite academic and behavior skills before they can enter a general education classroom. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are more likely to be engaged in an academic task related to standards when in a general education setting (Soukup, Wehmeyer, Bashinski, & Bovaird, 2007). Another benefit is students exhibit less problem behavior in inclusive settings (Lee, Wehmeyer, Soukup, & Palmer, 2010).
IEP goals and therapy cannot be delivered in general education settings. IEP goals, including functional skills and related services, can be met in the general education classroom (Heinrich, Collins, Knight, & Spriggs, 2016).
“Their kids” vs. “My kids”: The special education teacher or paraprofessional is in charge of the students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and these students are not the responsibility of the general education teacher. Collaboration and shared student ownership is a must for positive outcomes for all students. A positive attitude toward all students by all teachers supersedes most other factors in determining the success of the inclusion opportunities (Mackey, 2014).
General education is a dumping ground for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities if they are included. Educating students with all disabilities in a general education setting does require co-teaching and planning in order to adequately meet the needs of students. Careful consideration should be given to the number of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities being educated in one classroom at a time.
Educating students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will overload the general education teacher. Research supports the use of varying interventionists such as teachers, related service professionals, paraprofessionals, and peers. In fact, peers can increase the number of opportunities for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to practice skills and are preferred to adult aides in secondary settings (Carter et al., 2016).

Although there may be barriers or challenges to including all students in general education classrooms and activities, there are a number of ways to support teachers and students to alleviate and overcome such barriers. For example, some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities may have communication difficulties that make it a challenge for them to express their thoughts, ideas, and knowledge. Oliver was one of them. Oliver is a student with severe cerebral palsy who at one point in time had no means of communication. His teachers practiced the criterion of the least dangerous assumption and presumed competence, teaching him grade-aligned standards even though they were not sure how much of it he was understanding. Given the rapid improvement in technology, his parents and assistive technology team were able to get him a DynaVox communication device with a laser head pointer. With the support of a speech-language pathologist, Oliver was able to use his device to communicate in full conversations. It turned out that Oliver had been understanding what he was being taught. He was included in a high school algebra class with his new technology and was able to communicate his responses for the first time.

We know that placement alone does not guarantee access to the general curriculum. As is true for all students, planning and supports must be in place for them to make academic progress. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that ensures instruction, materials, and assessments are planned with multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to meet the needs of all learners in the class by reducing barriers for learning (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). This is not an approach specific to children with disabilities, but they can benefit from the application of this framework. For example, a graphic organizer is a support tool that can help students organize and understand information. This tool is an evidence-based practice for students with disabilities, but it also can help English learners, students who have difficulty with organization, or even students who prefer this type of visual structure. Inclusion can be successful when instruction incorporates UDL and other research-based and evidence-based practices for teaching students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive settings, such as systematic instruction with feedback, visual supports, positive reinforcement, and strategies for self-determination (Hudson, Browder, & Wood, 2013; Rao, Smith, & Lowrey, 2017). Additional research is needed to realize the potential of other instructional strategies and supports that have been found to be effective in special education settings, which may also be applied in general education settings.

Although academic learning is extremely important, with identifiable benefits of inclusive opportunities on academic outcomes of students with disabilities, we must think more broadly about these students. School is preparatory for adulthood and long-term success. The benefits of inclusion for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities extend beyond just academic learning and include better social and long-term outcomes, such as better employability, independent living, and leisure options, as well as higher overall quality of life (e.g., Baer, Daviso, Flexer, McMahan Queen, & Meindl, 2011). The development of IEPs that address quality-of-life goals, as well as content and supports to achieve academic goals, is of utmost importance. The use of ecological inventories in inclusive environments is research-based and best practice to support students to achieve better postschool outcomes (Hunt, McDonnell, & Crockett, 2012).

One final consideration, and perhaps the most important of all, is that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities deserve to have meaningful opportunities to learn in general education settings alongside their same-age peers. If the ultimate goal is for students to have better post-school success, then education as a whole may need rethinking. Teacher preparation programs are in great need of restructuring to a more inclusive model, where all teachers are prepared for the social, emotional, academic, and behavioral needs of all students. Professional development and coaching are needed to support inclusive efforts and collaboration among educators and paraprofessionals so they are better prepared to meet the diverse needs of students in their classrooms.


  • Baer, R., Daviso, A., Flexer, R., McMahan Queen, R., & Meindl, R. (2011). Students with intellectual disabilities: Predictors of transition outcomes. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 34, 132-141.
  • Bambara, L. M., Koger, F., Burns, R., & Singley, D. (2016). Building skills for home and community. In F. E. Brown, J. J. McDonnell, & M. E. Snell (8th Ed.). Instruction of Students with Severe Disabilities (p. 474-507). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
  • Carter, E. W., Asmus, J., Moss, C. K., Biggs, E. E., Bolt, D. M., Born, T. L., ... & Fesperman, E. (2016). Randomized evaluation of peer support arrangements to support the inclusion of high school students with severe disabilities. Exceptional Children, 82(2), 209-233.
  • Donnellan, A. M. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption. Behavioral Disorders, 9, 41-50.
  • Gilmour, A. F. (2018). Has inclusion gone too far? Weighing its effects on students with disabilities, their peers, and teachers. Education Next, 18. Retrieved from:
  • Heinrich, S., Collins, B. C., Knight, V., & Spriggs, A. D. (2016). Embedded simultaneous prompting procedure to teach STEM content to high school students with moderate disabilities in an inclusive setting. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 51, 41-54.
  • Hudson, M. E., Browder, D. M., & Wood, L. (2013). Review of experimental research on academic learning by students with moderate and severe intellectual disability in general education. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 38, 17-29.
  • Hunt, P., McDonnell, J., & Crockett, M. A. (2012). Reconciling an ecological curricular framework focusing on quality of life outcomes with the development and instruction of standards-based academic goals. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 37, 139–152.
  • Jorgensen, C.(2018). Five reasons why presuming competence is ALWAYS a good idea. SWIFT Talk Blog.
  • Lee, S. H., Wehmeyer, M. L., Soukup, J. H., & Palmer, S. B. (2010). Impact of curriculum modifications on access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 76, 213-233.
  • Lindsey, D. B., Thousand, J. S., Jew, C. L., & Piowlski, L. R. (2018). Culturally proficient inclusive schools: All means all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishers.
  • Mackey, M. (2014). Inclusive education in the United States: Middle school general education teachers’ approaches to inclusion. International Journal of Instruction, 7, 5-20.
  • Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield MA: CAST.
  • Morningstar, M. E., Kurth, J. A., & Johnson, P. E. (2017). Examining national trends in educational placements for students with significant disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 38, 3-12.
  • Rao, K., Smith, S. J., & Lowrey, K. A. (2017). UDL and intellectual disability: What do we know and where do we go? Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 55(1), 37-47.
  • Soukup, J. H., Wehmeyer, M. L., Bashinski, S. M., & Bovaird, J. A. (2007). Classroom variables and access to the general curriculum for students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 74, 101-120.


Creating Inclusive Schools:
What Does the Research Say?


Patricia McDaid is a Consultant in the Department of Special Education and Child Development, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She may be reached at

Alicia Saunders is Research Associate and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Special Education and Child Development, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She may be reached at

Shawnee Wakeman is Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Education and Child Development, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She may be reached at

Diane L. Ryndak is Professor in the Department of Specialized Education Services, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She may be reached at

Continuous inclusive placement during the K-12 period provides the optimal base for students to potentially acquire the knowledge and skills perceived by a community as important for subsequent membership in adult society (Jackson, 2018).

In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the Commissioner stated that inclusive education “focuses on the full and effective participation, accessibility, attendance, and achievement of all students, especially those who, for different reasons, are excluded or at risk of being marginalized” (United Nations, 2016, p. 3). Yet, rather than having a unified educational system where ALL school staff aim to educate ALL students, the United States continues to have a divisive educational system that continuously fails students who have different learning needs because of disabilities, the need for individualized instructional supports, poverty, trauma, or differences in language, race, or culture (Kleinhammer-Tramill, Burrello, & Sailor, 2013). Specifically, for students with extensive and pervasive support needs, inclusive education began primarily as a values-based approach to special education service delivery. This values-based practice first emerged at a time when this group of students routinely was denied access to the same activities, events, instruction, curriculum, schools, and communities as their siblings and peers without disabilities. Although inclusive opportunities for students with mild to moderate support needs have increased in the United States, approximately half of the students with intellectual disability or multiple disabilities still receive educational services in self-contained classrooms and schools, and only 17% of these students spend at least 80% of their day in general education classes (Brock, 2018). For students taking alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS), that percentage is even lower (Kleinert, 2018). Continued separate placements limit students’ access to peers without disabilities, the general education curriculum, and educators with expertise and experience in general education content and in pedagogy (Morningstar, Kurth, & Jackson, 2017). In addition, the likelihood that a student with extensive and pervasive support needs will have access to an inclusive education differs based on where the student resides (e.g., region of the country; suburban, urban, or rural setting; specific school district) (Brock & Schaefer, 2015).

The good news is that a research base exists that indicates the most effective educational environment for students with extensive and pervasive support needs is, in fact, the general education classroom. As the struggle to create and provide inclusive education for students with extensive and pervasive support needs continues, a review of some of the most relevant research findings supports the progress of inclusive education initiatives.

Essential Practices for Creating Inclusive Schools

Creating inclusive schools can be a challenging enterprise. Research tells us that there are a number of essential practices for creating inclusive schools. Downing and Peckham-Hardin (2007) outlined curricular adaptations and accommodations, appropriate use of support personnel, collaborative teaming, strong leadership, and strong family involvement as critical aspects of inclusive education and inclusive schools. These five essential practices are the framework for the discussion that follows in this section.

Adaptations and Accommodations

Although special education law mandates that all students with disabilities participate and make progress in the general education curriculum, some education teams believe that the general education curriculum is not relevant for a student with extensive and pervasive support needs (Agran, Alper, & Wehmeyer, 2002). This is possibly true when no attempt is made to adapt the general curriculum or instruction to build a bridge from the student's current understanding toward a higher level of understanding, or to ensure that curricular content can be accessed by the tools currently at a student's disposal, especially in the area of communication. Accommodations and modifications, as well as an effective communication system, are key to providing an appropriate education for students with extensive and pervasive support needs (Kearns, Towles-Reeves, Kleinert, Kleinert, & Thomas, 2011; Lee, Wehmeyer, Soukup, & Palmer, 2010). The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provide strategies to address both the time and knowledge barriers faced by education teams by encouraging the creation of general education lessons that are accessible to all students right from the start, thus decreasing the need for individualized accommodations and modifications (Lowrey, Hollingshead, Howrey, & Bishop, 2017).

Appropriate Supports

A second essential practice is providing supports that meet the highly individualized needs of students with extensive and pervasive support needs. Efforts to develop inclusive schools also must consider fiscal challenges that might be faced by schools today. The most common request from schools that are attempting to increase inclusive practices for students with extensive and pervasive support needs is, "We need more paraprofessionals" (Giangreco, Doyle, & Suter, 2012). Although providing one-to-one paraprofessional support for students with extensive and pervasive support needs is one of the most commonly used strategies for providing support, paraprofessionals might actually hinder the academic and social gains of students with disabilities (Giangreco, 2010). In fact, numerous studies indicate that peer partners are more effective than paraprofessionals, with (a) increases in the number of response opportunities of students with extensive and pervasive support needs, (b) increases in peer interactions, (c) reductions in stigma, and (d) maintenance or increases in academic engagement for both students with extensive and pervasive support needs and their peer partners (for example, see Carter, et al., 2016; Giangreco, 2010).

All the relevant research indicates that students with extensive and pervasive support needs, their general education peers, and both general and special education teachers benefit from inclusive education.

Collaborative Teaming

Collaborative teaming is a third practice that is essential to the delivery of effective special education services of any kind, but especially for services in inclusive contexts (Sharpe & Hawes, 2003). Students with extensive and pervasive support needs often have complex learning needs, as well as other specialized needs (e.g., physical, medical, and/or behavioral). Such combinations of needs require the expertise and experiences of a team comprised of educators, family members, related service providers, and other school and district personnel. Collaborative teaming is most effective when it includes positive face-to-face interactions, a problem-solving process for meeting the unique needs of each student, a structure for addressing differences of opinion, and a system of accountability to ensure the completion of tasks assigned to each team member (Hunt, Soto, Maier, & Doering, 2003).

Strong Leadership

A fourth essential component for effective inclusive education is the involvement of a strong and effective school principal. This administrator is a vital part of any school improvement effort, but especially for the creation of inclusive schools (Roberts, Ruppar, & Olson, 2018). The principal sets the tone and drives the culture of a school, while also controlling variables that are vital to the logistics of inclusive education (e.g., staffing, scheduling). A principal with a strong vision of inclusive education for all students, including those with extensive and pervasive support needs, in general education; an ability to communicate that vision clearly and practically to school personnel and district administrators; and an understanding of the individualization needed for students with extensive and pervasive support needs can set the stage more easily for the creation of and continual improvement in an inclusive school.

Family Involvement

Finally, strong family involvement benefits students both with and without disabilities, but especially students with extensive and pervasive support needs (LaRocque, Kleiman, & Darling, 2011). However, due to the complex and, at times, idiosyncratic learning needs and communication styles of students with extensive and pervasive support needs, the essential team collaboration requires ongoing family involvement and advocacy.

Benefits of Inclusive Education

All the relevant research indicates that students with extensive and pervasive support needs, their general education peers, and both general and special education teachers benefit from inclusive education. For instance, students with extensive and pervasive support needs make academic, social, and behavioral gains when they are educated in general education classes (Agran, et al., 2018). In fact, these students make more progress in inclusive contexts than in substantially separate contexts (Kurth & Mastergeorge, 2010). Although it may seem counter-intuitive, students with extensive and pervasive support needs who are educated in inclusive general education classes generally receive more instructional time and more individualized attention than those who spend their days in self-contained classrooms (Kurth & Mastergeorge, 2012).

Students without disabilities generally experience no negative effects when there is a student with extensive and pervasive support needs in their class (Idol, 2006). On the contrary, they often experience positive outcomes, such as increased understanding of human diversity, increased social skills, and increased empathy for others (Carter & Hughes, 2006). Although classrooms can be easily disrupted by students who demonstrate ongoing patterns of challenging behavior (Gilmour, 2018), these disruptions are not always created by students with special educational needs. In addition, along with special education teachers, general education teachers need expertise to address the behavioral challenges of all students, those with and without special educational needs (Beam & Mueller, 2017). This expertise can be developed through collaborative team efforts to address behaviors, leading to the professional growth of general education teachers.

General and special education teachers recognize the need for professional development and improvements in teacher education programs to provide them with the skills and strategies (i.e., collaborative lesson planning, adaptations and accommodations, addressing challenging behaviors) necessary to promote inclusive education (Zagona, Kurth, & MacFarland, 2017). In fact, there is a clear relationship between teachers' perceptions of efficacy regarding the use of inclusive education practices and their feelings about inclusive education overall. Teachers who are confident about their ability to teach in inclusive education contexts are more positive about inclusive education overall (Montgomery & Mirenda, 2014). In addition, they also report that by working together to educate students with extensive and pervasive support needs in general education classes, they become more effective teachers (Kent-Walsh & Light, 2003). These data remind us that inclusive education is a complex and challenging endeavor, one from which both general and special education teachers benefit through ongoing collaboration and professional development.


Inclusive education for students with extensive and pervasive support needs in general education classes is a complex and challenging task. However, the current research provides the rationale to develop such services, as well as a set of principles for practice that promote effective inclusive education for all students, including those with extensive and pervasive support needs. In a unified educational system, administrators and educators would work together to meet the needs of all students together in the same context with a focus on human capabilities, using a collaborative problem-solving process and effective practices embedded in general education instruction and materials (Kleinhammer-Tramill, et al., 2013).


  • Agran M., Alper, S., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2002). Access to the general curriculum for students with significant disabilities: What it means for teachers. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 37, 123-133.
  • Agran, M., Spooner, F., Brown, F., Morningstar, M., Singer, G., & Wehman, P. (2018). Perspectives on the state of the art (and science) of selected life-span services. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43(2), 67-81.
  • Beam, H., & Mueller, H. (2017). What do educators know, do, and think about behavior? An analysis of special and general educators' knowledge of evidence-based behavioral interventions. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 61(1), 1-13.
  • Brock, M. (2018). Trends in the educational placement of students with intellectual disability in the United States over the past 40 years. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 123, 305–314.
  • Brock, M., & Schaefer, J. (2015). Location matters: Geographic location and educational placement of students with developmental disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 40(2), 154-164.
  • Carter, E., Asmus, J., Moss, C., Biggs, E., Bolt, D., Born, T., ….& Weir, K. (2016). Randomized evaluation of peer support arrangements to support the inclusion of high school students with severe disabilities. Exceptional Children 82(2), 209-233.
  • Carter, E., & Hughes, C. (2006). Including high school students with severe disabilities in general education classes: Perspectives of general and special educators, paraprofessionals, and administrators. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 31(2), 174-185.
  • Downing, J. & Peckham-Hardin, K (2007). Inclusive education: What makes it a good education for students with moderate to severe disabilities? Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32(1), 16-30.
  • Giangreco, M. (2010). One-to-one paraprofessionals for students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms: Is conventional wisdom wrong? Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 48 (1), 1-13.
  • Giangreco, M., Doyle, M.B. & Suter, J. (2012). Constructively responding to requests for paraprofessionals: We keep asking the wrong questions. Remedial and Special Education, 33(6), 362-373.
  • Gilmore, A. (2018). Has inclusion gone too far? Education Next, 18(4), 1-9.
  • Hunt, P., Soto, G., Maier, J., & Doering, K. (2003). Collaborative teaming to support students at risk and students with severe disabilities in general education classrooms. Exceptional Children, 69(3), 315-332.
  • Idol, L. (2006). Toward inclusion of special education students in general education: A program evaluation of eight schools. Remedial and Special Education, 27(2), 77-94.
  • Jackson, L. (2018). We have come so far, yet we have a ways to go: Commentary on Agran et al. (2018). Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43(2), 82-89.
  • Kearns, J., Towles-Reeves, E., Kleinert, H., Kleinert, J. & Thomas, M. (2011). Characteristics of and implications for students participating in alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards. Journal of Special Education, 45(1), 3-14.
  • Kent-Walsh, J., & Light, J. (2003). General education teachers' experience with inclusion of students who use augmentative and alternative communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19(2), 104-124.
  • Kleinert, H. (2018). What data tell us about general education and students with disabilities. Impact: Feature Issue on Inclusive Education for K-8 Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities, 31(2), 5. Retrieved from
  • Kleinhammer-Tramill, J., Burrello, L. C., & Sailor, W. (2013). Special education: A critical perspective on reframing public policy for students with disabilities. In L. C. Burrello, W. Sailor, & J. Kleinhammer-Tramill (Eds.), Unifying education systems: Leadership and policy perspectives (pp. 3-20). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Kurth, J., & Mastergeorge, A. (2010). Academic and cognitive profiles of students with autism: Implications for classroom practice and placement. International Journal of Special Education, 25 (2), 8-14.
  • Kurth, J., & Mastergeorge, A. (2012). Impact of setting and instructional context for adolescents with autism. The Journal of Special Education, 46(1), 36-48.
  • LaRocque, M., Kleiman, I., & Darling, S. (2011). Parental involvement: The missing link in school achievement. Preventing School Failure, 55(3), 115-122.
  • Lee, S., Wehmeyer, M., Soukup, J., & Palmer, S. (2010). Impact of curriculum modifications on access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 76(2), 213-233.
  • Lowrey, K., Hollingshead, A., Howrey, K., & Bishop, J. (2017). More than one way: Stories of UDL and inclusive classrooms. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 42(4), 225-242.
  • Montgomery, A., & Mirenda, P. (2014). Teachers' self-efficacy, sentiments, attitudes, and concerns about the inclusion of students with developmental disabilities. Exceptionality Education International, 24(10), 18-32.
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  • Roberts, C., Ruppar, A., & Olson, A. (2018). Perceptions matter: Administrators' vision of instruction for students with severe disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 43(1), 3-19.
  • Sharpe, M., & Hawes, M. (2003). Collaboration between general and special education: Making it work. NCSET Issue Brief, 2(1). [Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition]. Retrieved from
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program profile

Who’s Missing?
The Essential Question for Catholic Schools


Beth Foraker is Founder and Director of The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, and a Lecturer in the University of California Davis School of Education Credential/Master’s Program. She may be reached at

A group shot of 16 smiling high school students in a classroom, gathered in a semi-circle and facing the camera. In the middle of the group, in the front, is a young man named Charlie who’s seated and facing the camera with a big smile.

Eighth grader Charlie (seated center) and his inclusion peer mentors at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, during his spring 2018 visit to the school in preparation for fall 2018 entry.

Who’s missing? That is the essential question we must ask. Our hearts ache for those on the margins, those whom society silences or overlooks. As Catholics we are called to be active in social justice issues, but too often we look outside of our own community instead of looking inward.

Who’s missing from our parish schools? Students with disabilities are rarely included in Catholic schools. Currently, only 2% of Catholic schools are considered inclusive. There’s a long way to go.

In November 2014, The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion was launched. Our non-profit has a two-fold purpose to its advocacy. First, we stand with families who have children with physical disabilities or families with children with significant learning needs, including cognitive disabilities, to approach their parish school and ask for admittance. We share what’s possible. We offer educational research: both the overwhelming research (40+ years’ worth) that supports inclusion for these students as well the flip side that’s rarely considered – the research that demonstrates the harmful effects of segregation. We plant the seed that inclusion is possible. The second piece to our advocacy is to stand with the school once they say yes. We offer mentors at every grade level – kindergarten through high school – that are willing to support the school as it begins. Our mentors include inclusion specialists, paraeducators, principals, and parish priests, as well as a network of mentors that have expertise in specific disabilities.

Since 2014, we’ve begun to see significant movement forward on inclusion in Catholic schools. Last year, The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), the primary professional organization for Catholic school teachers, with Dr. Mike Boyle from The Greeley Center at Loyola University of Chicago, co-authored a White Paper about inclusion entitled, One Spirit, One Body. This was ground-breaking. For the first time, the NCEA set an expectation that all students should be welcomed in Catholic schools.

Loyola of Chicago’s Greeley Center, Loyola Marymount University, and University of Notre Dame’s Program for Inclusive Education all now offer professional development for Catholic school teachers and administrators. There are advocacy organizations supporting and fundraising for specific dioceses: FIRE, FIRE of Northeast Iowa, EMBRACE, CCSE, One Classroom, and Oregon ICE). Inclusion in Catholic schools is possible.

What does it take to say yes? It takes faith. But, it takes more. It takes learning and using the best practices that are well known to educators: universal design for learning, wait time, visual supports, educational technology, accessing curriculum in alternate ways, presuming competence, and high expectations. More than any of these skills, however, is something bigger: mindset. It’s the core belief that every single student has value – something important to contribute – and that every single student deserves to learn alongside his or her peers.

Inclusion takes a Growth Mindset – what I call the Backdoor to Inclusion. If you develop a Growth Mindset as an educator, you become naturally inclusive and become willing to, as Miss Frizzle likes to say, “Get Messy!” Inclusion isn’t neat. It isn’t organized. It is difficult and energizing and fulfilling and yes, very messy. It’s full of mistakes and starts and stops.

Occasionally, there is a leap. A leap like Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, which this fall welcomed two students with Down syndrome as incoming freshmen. Why? Two years ago, Charlie’s friends asked to meet with people at the high school. They asked that the high school find a way to welcome their friend, Charlie. Charlie had been included with them since kindergarten at their parish school and they wanted him to be able to attend the same Catholic high school. Students who had been included knew what they would be missing. They knew to ask. They knew to push and nudge and, in the most compelling way possible, hold up a mirror for the adults to see what’s possible. Typical students asking for inclusion IS the way forward. When we don’t build inclusive schools, we cheat our typical students from knowing the joy of authentic friendship, connection, and collaboration with people different than themselves.

A small photo of a first grade boy with Down syndrome, Ethan, dressed in a light blue shirt and dark blue pants of his Catholic school uniform. He’s standing next to his first grade teacher, Mrs. Czalpa, who has her arm around his shoulder as they face the camera. Both are smiling.

“I cannot put into words how Ethan changed my life and our school community!” says Mrs. Czapla, first grade teacher at St. Paul’s School in Valparaiso, Indiana.

Who’s missing? Last year, Mrs. Czapla, a first grade teacher at St. Paul’s School in Valparaiso, Indiana, welcomed someone into her parish school who had been missing. Her student Ethan, who has Down syndrome, spent his year in kindergarten segregated at a public school. For Ethan’s mom, Tracy, that separateness was untenable. Her other children had attended St. Paul. The whisper of her heart told her what she knew: Ethan belonged at St. Paul. The principal and Mrs. Czapla said yes. Here’s Mrs. Czapla’s reflection on her experience:

I cannot put into words how Ethan changed my life and our school community! For me, it cemented my belief that inclusion is possible. It also brought out a side of me that had been buried for a while. This year brought back the reason I went into teaching! I wrote a letter to our superintendent asking for financial assistance so we can collaborate with Notre Dame’s PIE program [Program for Inclusive Education] this upcoming year. He said, “Yes!” As a result, our faculty will receive professional development and we can become a school where every child is welcomed and celebrated! As for Ethan, he became so independent! He learned our routine, and worked his way into everyone’s heart! He mastered his addition facts to 10, learned 32 words, read almost all of our kindergarten vocabulary readers, carried up the gifts at Mass, learned to say the rosary (also said each child’s name when it was their turn to lead the Hail Mary), cut on the dotted line...the list goes on! He was a pure joy to work with! I am so happy I said yes.

The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion logo is a dandelion fluff with a gentle breeze lifting some seeds into the air. We know inclusion ripples. We know the power of what’s possible. The time has come to make every Catholic school inclusive.

personal story

A Family’s Journey of Inclusion


Margaret Byrne and her family live in Manhattan Beach, California.

A high school freshman named Thomas Byrne and his parents Maggie and Andy. They’re in front of bleachers at a high school football field. Thomas is wearing a Homecoming court sash with the word “Homecoming” in large black letters on the white fabric. He is standing between his parents as they all face the camera and smile.

Thomas, a member of the 2016 Homecoming Court, and his parents Maggie and Andy, shared in the Cathedral High School Homecoming festivities.

Beginning with kindergarten, inclusion in American Martyrs Catholic School for our son, Thomas, brought him rare social and academic opportunities, community, contentment, flexibility, and happiness. With mutual trust and respect, we worked hand-in-hand with Thomas’ teachers, administrators, and an outside team to support his inclusion – a first for a student with intellectual disability at the school – which benefited both Thomas and the student body.

Our team creatively and honestly designed a program that reached out to Thomas and brought him into the classroom and school-wide community. We set annual goals, attended team meetings, took instruction from therapists, modified curriculum, and planned for events. It was sometimes successful and sometimes experimental, but for the most part it was working. Thomas’ brother and sister at the school knew Thomas was safe and happy. They could check on him during the school day. Thomas thrived and his inclusion changed mindsets and opened up hearts.

Thomas was quickly embraced by the entire school. A behavioral aide supported Thomas the first few years and offered support and education to the teacher and the class. Thomas’ modified curriculum did not stop him from being fully included in class – reading novels, giving oral presentations, participating in group projects, and participating in science lab and computer lab. With a little planning and creativity, Thomas went to camp on Catalina Island and in the Santa Barbara mountains with his classmates. He was on the football and basketball teams and made strong, lifelong friendships. He made his First Communion and First Penance with his classmates. He aced a science test in which he named over 30 bones by memory. Throughout his time at American Martyrs, Thomas was fully accepted as a student, just as he was.

At the same time, Thomas’ classmates and teachers were students of Thomas. They learned leadership, compassion, and patience. They learned not to judge Thomas by his label because they knew there was so much more underneath. They gently touched Thomas when he needed to focus. They understood him when his words were unclear. They were keenly aware if Thomas was planning to run and chase the birds. They encouraged Thomas to look them in the eye. They were more proud of his success than he was. They knew Thomas – his sense of humor, as well as his intelligence, kindness, and athletic ability.

A surprise outcome of Thomas’ inclusion was the wealth of knowledge shared by his team. This information made teachers and students better. It became clear that other school families had children who also needed support, whether they had speech or learning differences, or anxiety, and it was no longer taboo to talk about it. I truly believe that as a result, other children were able to get support that they otherwise may not have gotten.

Thomas graduated from American Martyrs, a K-8 school, at the end of 8th grade. When he received his diploma, his classmates and friends who stood by him since kindergarten stood up and rewarded his accomplishment with a standing ovation. You could feel the love and attachment. It was hard to imagine that we ever questioned our decision to include Thomas.

Our efforts to enroll Thomas in a local, inclusive high school were unsuccessful. Nothing existed in our town, public or private. We traveled to Bishop England High School in Charlestown, South Carolina, to see their Options program, made numerous calls to high schools around the country, read books and researched. We presented the inclusive Options program to our local schools. Nothing went forward in our area despite meeting after meeting. It was disheartening. We did not have an inclusive high school for Thomas. Shortly before school started, Dr. Megan Burton offered Thomas a spot in the Options Program at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. Thomas began his freshman year as a fully included student. In his two years of high school, Thomas has had a peer mentor for each of his general education classes. He was voted onto the Homecoming Court, he swims with the swim team, and he plays tennis. He goes to dances and works out with the baseball team from time to time. He goes out socially with his peer mentors. Thomas’ self confidence and speech have increased dramatically.

Thomas is a fully involved Cathedral Catholic High School student as he sits side-by-side with his peers in history class. No, we did not move and Thomas does not board at Cathedral Catholic. My husband and I take turns driving Thomas the 100+ miles to San Diego from Manhattan Beach each weekday. It is a sacrifice, but worth it.

personal story

“I Have Great Friends”:
Thomas Byrne


Contributed by Margaret Byrne, Thomas’ mother, who assisted him in formatting his responses here.

Thomas Byrne, a high school freshman, dressed in his gold Cathedral High School football hooded sweatshirt and huddled at the sideline of the school’s football stadium with his peer mentor and friend, Jordan Genmark Heath, who is in his red football uniform and has just finished a game. Cathedral won the 2016 championship game, and both young men are all smiles.

Because of his K-8 experience of inclusion, Thomas’ parents were committed to finding an inclusive high school where he could continue to thrive.

High school junior Thomas Byrne has been fully involved in all areas of Catholic school life since kindergarten. When he was asked about his school experiences as he prepared for the start of the fall 2018 school year, he shared these thoughts:

Thomas, when you were younger you went to American Martyrs Catholic School. What did you like about going to that school?

I liked my seeing my friends and my sister and brother at school. I liked my teachers and seeing Father John. I liked playing on the basketball team and the football team and going to church. I have very good friends from American Martyrs.

When you graduated from American Martyrs, you and your parents had to work really hard to find the right high school for you. And you did – you found Cathedral Catholic. What makes Cathedral a good school for you to be at?

My mentors are good for me. They help me in classes and are my friends. Cathedral Catholic treats me like all the other students and I can be part of fun and interesting activities and classes.

Tell me about the friends you have at Cathedral – what kinds of things do you like to do with them?

I have great friends at Cathedral Catholic. We go to the zoo, the beach, and have dinner together. We work out with the baseball team, swim with the swim team, and play tennis with the tennis team. We go to dances and football games. I was elected to be on the Homecoming Court.

What classes do you like best at Cathedral?

My favorite classes are science, art, history, reading, and religion.

As you go back to school this fall, what are you looking forward to doing this year?

I am very excited to see my friends and meet my mentors and teachers. I look forward to anatomy and history classes. I think I will work with the football team this year.


Inclusion, Friendships, and the Power of Peers


Erik W. Carter is Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Special Education, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. He may be reached at

What did you look forward to most about going to elementary or middle school each day? Although our memories will each be unique, time spent among friends is often a common theme. Whether it was eating lunch together in the cafeteria, having fun at recess, conversing in the hallways, collaborating on a group project, sitting together on the bus, enjoying a field trip, playing on the same sports team, or enjoying an extracurricular club, interactions with peers punctuate the entire school day. Both research and our own experiences converge on this critical point – our friendships matter. Their presence can be a source of great enjoyment and lead to belonging; their absence can be wounding and lead to loneliness.

Friendships are equally important for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, but far more elusive. Too many elementary and middle school students with severe disabilities have tenuous social networks, limited opportunities to meet other kids in their school who share their interests, and few others who consider them to be a friend (Biggs & Carter, 2017). Instead, many spend much of their day in the company of adults (e.g., paraprofessionals, related service providers, special educators) and in settings where chances to meet new peers are constrained. Apart from active efforts to foster friendships, too many of their peers without disabilities will miss the chance to meet, work alongside, and develop relationships with indispensable members of the school community. All will miss out on the benefits of connecting with one another (see Figure 1).

What can educators do to transform the social landscape of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities? What steps can they take to put these students in the very best position to get picked as friends? Schools can draw upon a growing number of effective interventions that hold promise for enhancing the social lives of students with significant cognitive disabilities. The best of these approaches focus on: (a) strengthening the social and communication skills of students with disabilities; (b) increasing the involvement and confidence of peers; (c) reconfiguring the ways in which adults provide support to students; and (d) expanding the opportunities students with and without disabilities have to spend time together (Biggs & Carter, 2017). Two approaches – peer support arrangements and peer networks – incorporate these four elements and show particular promise for increasing interactions and fostering friendships in schools.

Figure 1: How Students With and Without Disabilities Benefit From Connecting with Each Other

Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities…

  • Participate in more frequent social interaction
  • Learn new social and communication skills
  • Access practical and natural sources of support
  • Make more progress on their individualized goals
  • Develop new friendships that can last over time and add enjoyment
  • Participate in more inclusive school activities

Peers Without Disabilities…

  • Benefit academically from providing support in the classroom
  • Develop new friendships that can last over time and add enjoyment
  • Prepare to succeed in workplaces with diverse coworkers\customers
  • Gain new understandings of, and become advocates for, people with disabilities
  • Raise their expectations of peers with significant cognitive disabilities

Peer Support Arrangements

Peer support arrangements involve creating shared learning and interaction opportunities within general education classrooms. One or more peers without disabilities are equipped to provide some of the social, academic, and other supports their classmate with a significant cognitive disability needs to be an active member of the class (Carter, 2017). Peers are invited from the same classroom and take part in an initial orientation session to learn about their support roles. They receive direction on how to partner with the student during small-group activities, whole-group instruction, independent seatwork, and other activities that comprise the class. For example, peers might expand social opportunities by engaging in conversation at appropriate times, reinforcing the student’s communication attempts, encouraging the student to use their AAC device, and making introductions to other classmates. Likewise, they promote learning by collaborating on class activities, sharing materials or notes, providing occasional assistance, or offering encouragement. A paraprofessional or special educator typically provides ongoing guidance and facilitation to students to ensure they are successful and confident as they work together.

Peer Networks

Peer networks involve creating cohesive social groups that meet outside the classroom and across the school day (Biggs, Carter, Mazur, Barnes, & Bumble, 2018). These group-based interventions encourage regular interactions among peers through a combination of structured meetings and informal connections. Peer networks typically involve three to six peers without disabilities and a student with a significant cognitive disability. Weekly peer network meetings can take place in the cafeteria, at recess, during extracurricular blocks, before or after school, or during an advisory period. During each meeting, students participate in a mutually enjoyable activity (e.g., eating lunch, playing a game, carrying out a service project, engaging in a leisure activity). The students also compare their schedules to plan times when they can connect with each other throughout the week (e.g., walk to a class together, hang out during a break, sit together at lunch, attend an extracurricular group, get together outside of school). An educator facilitates the peer network by inviting peers to participate, organizing the initial meeting, and providing any assistance students need as they spend time together.

Getting Started

Although peer support arrangements and peer networks differ in both their contexts and configurations, their delivery involves a common series of steps described below.

Crafting a Plan

The starting point for both interventions is a clear plan addressing the student’s goals and the ways in which peers will be involved in providing support. Peer support plans describe how the student with significant cognitive disabilities will participate in various aspects of the class (e.g., lectures, discussions, small-group activities, independent seat work, non-instructional times), the ways peers will (and should not) support this participation, and the strategies paraprofessionals or special educators will use to facilitate interactions and learning. Peer network plans specify which social-related goals will be addressed within group meetings and the supports the student will need to take part in shared activities.

Preparing Facilitators

The roles of adults in each intervention should be carefully considered. Most peer support arrangements are facilitated by paraprofessionals, who will need training on how best to support the focus student and his or her peers as they work together. Peer networks, however, can be facilitated by special and general educators, paraprofessionals, or any other school staff who have good rapport with students and an interest in making their school a more inclusive community. Special educators should provide these facilitators with information on the student, strategies for supporting shared activities and encouraging interactions, and guidance on how to navigate challenges that might arise.

Identifying and Inviting Peers

The impact of these interventions will be influenced by the choice of peers without disabilities who participate. When selecting peers, educators often consider individuals who have had positive interactions with the student with significant cognitive disabilities in the past, have consistent attendance and will remain involved throughout the semester, have good interpersonal skills and a willingness to learn, have interests or experiences in common with the student, are likely to receive guidance well from the educator or paraprofessional, and are personally motivated to be involved. When a goal is fostering friendships, it is also important to consider the preferences of the focus student and the types of activities all of the students will do together.

Orienting Peers and Students

To ensure everyone is comfortable and confident in their roles, educators hold an initial orientation session. This training typically focuses on introducing the students, clarifying the goals of the peer connections, addressing the ways in which students can work together and support one another effectively, discussing effective support strategies, explaining the roles of the facilitator, and addressing any questions or concerns of students.

Supporting Shared Activities

As students work together, the facilitator provides any information and guidance they need along the way. Over time, the facilitator fades his or her direct support but encourages interactions using a variety of effective facilitation strategies (e.g., prompting interactions, highlighting strengths, sharing information, introducing accommodations or modifications, checking-in to see how the relationship is developing) (Causton-Theoharis, & Malmgren, 2005). The type and intensity of facilitator support and guidance provided depends on the needs of the student, the confidence and capabilities of peers, and the context of the interactions.

Reflecting and Responding

Throughout the semester, educators should reflect on the intervention and its impact by collecting relevant data. Are the student and peers enjoying their time together? Is the focus student strengthening his or her social, communication, and other skills? Are the students developing new friendships that extend beyond the classroom or school day? What recommendations do the focus student, peers, and educators have for improving these interventions? Such information can guide future refinements to enhance the acceptability and impact of the peer connections.

Moving Forward

Peer support arrangements and peer networks are evidence-based practices for enhancing the social lives and friendships of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities (e.g., Biggs et al., 2018; Brock, Carter, & Biggs, in press). Students with disabilities and their peers can both benefit in myriad ways from spending time together and getting to know one another. Moreover, educators consider these interventions to be feasible to implement, flexible enough to meet the individualized needs of their students, and a good fit for their classrooms or school culture. Most of all, these interventions provide powerful pathways for ensuring every student with a significant cognitive disability creates memories in school that are marked by friendships and belonging.


  • Biggs, E. E., & Carter, E. W. (2017). Supporting the social lives of students with intellectual disability. In M. L. Wehmeyer and K. A. Shogren (Eds.), Handbook of research-based practices for educating students with intellectual disability (pp. 235-254). Oxford, UK: Routledge.
  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., Mazur, E., Barnes, K., & Bumble, J. L. (2018). Embedding peer-implemented aided AAC modeling within a peer network intervention for students with complex communication needs. Exceptional Children, 85, 66-85.
  • Brock, M. E., Carter, E. W., & Biggs, E. E. (in press). Promoting social connections and peer relationships. In F. Brown, J. McDonnell, & M. E. Snell (Eds.), Instruction of students with severe disabilities (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
  • Carter, E. W. (2017). The promise and practice of peer support arrangements for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities, 52, 141-174.
  • Causton-Theoharis, J. N., & Malmgren, K. W. (2005). Increasing peer interactions for students with severe disabilities via paraprofessional training. Exceptional Children, 71, 431-444.


Together We Are Better!
Collaborative Teaming to Support Authentic Inclusion of Students with Complex Support Needs


Cheryl M. Jorgensen is an inclusive education consultant in private practice based in South Acworth, New Hampshire. She is the author of It’s More Than “Just Being In:” Creating Authentic Inclusion for Students with Complex Support Needs from Brookes. She may be reached at

John and Robbie are nine-year-old students with complex support needs who attend neighboring school districts. Both students have cerebral palsy, cortical visual impairment, and do not use natural speech to communicate. They also love Minecraft™ and the Despicable Me™ movies! Both participate in their state’s alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS). Although these boys are “developmental twins” their educational programs are starkly different.

John spends the majority of his day in a self-contained classroom. The special education bus drops him off right outside a door that leads directly into the classroom. His classmates include five other students with complex support needs and the room is staffed by a special education teacher and three paraprofessionals. A speech-language pathologist (SLP), an occupational therapist (OT), and a physical therapist (PT) come to the classroom several times a week to deliver their services as defined by John’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Throughout the day John’s teachers and therapists work on pre-academic, developmental, and self-help IEP goals such as dressing, eating, sorting, cleaning, and one-to-one correspondence. John goes out for recess with a fourth-grade class and is wheeled around the playground by a paraprofessional, having only fleeting contact with typical students. He and his classmates eat lunch at a separate table in the cafeteria.

Robbie’s day is very different from John’s. He rides a regular school bus and is wheeled into the building by a classmate. He participates in every typical classroom routine and lesson and his special education and related services are delivered within the context of those routines and lessons. For example, during the Pledge of Allegiance the OT supports Robbie to activate a Bigmack™ communication button switch that plays the Pledge as recorded by another boy in the classroom. During English language arts, his SLP supports him to answer comprehension questions by using his augmentative communication device, an iPad™ programmed with the Tobii Dynavox Compass™ app. In math, Robbie uses manipulatives, an enlarged number line, and a large-button talking calculator to do addition and subtraction problems. And in science and social studies, he participates in large and small group discussions using his augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device that has core vocabulary and light tech communication boards that depict the fringe vocabulary related to specific units in each subject area.

Core Elements of Inclusive Education

Why are these students’ educational programs so different? John’s team subscribes to a prerequisite model of learning that posits that students with complex support needs must progress through early developmental milestones before they are able to learn grade-aligned academic content (Calculator & Jorgensen, 1994). They also put great stock in the psycho-educational assessment that reported John’s IQ as 35. Thus, they do not believe that there is any benefit to John being included in a general education classroom. Aligned with 40 years of research, Robbie’s team has adopted the belief that all students can be successfully included in general education instruction in the general education classroom when key supports are provided. Their beliefs and practices are depicted by the graphic in Figure 1, the core elements of inclusive education. Two of these core elements – presuming students’ competence and team collaboration – are essential to making Robbie’s inclusion more than just his physical presence in the classroom. His inclusion also encompasses valued membership and full participation in academic instruction and typical social interactions.

Figure 1: Core Elements of Inclusive Education
Figure 1: Core Elements of Inclusive Education.” This is a graphic describing the core elements of inclusive education, which, if implemented with fidelity, lead to students with complex support needs experiencing valued membership, full participation, reciprocal social relationships, and learning of the essential  elements of the general education curriculum.Figure 1 is described further in the article under the heading “Core Elements of Inclusive Education.

Source: Adapted from Jorgensen, C. (2018). It’s more than “just being in:” Creating authentic inclusion for students with complex support needs. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. Adapted with permission. Use or distribution separate from this article requires permission from the publisher (contact

Participation in Planning Meetings

While John’s educational team meets as a group only once or twice a year at IEP time, Robbie’s team meets for one hour weekly to plan the supports that he’ll need for full participation. His general and special education teachers, paraprofessional, SLP, OT, and PT discuss the following questions during this weekly meeting:

  • What are the learning goals for typical students in the class and how will their achievement be measured?
  • What are Robbie’s individualized learning goals for the same academic content and how will his achievement be measured?
  • What are the instructional routines that will be used by the teacher?
  • What supports does Robbie need for full participation and learning?
  • Who will prepare those supports?

To assure that their discussions don’t go off topic, they follow an agenda – depicted in Figure 2 – and record the results of their discussions in templates depicted in Figures 3 and 4. The template in Figure 3 records the learning objectives of the unit for typical students and how they will be assessed, Robbie’s individualized learning objectives and how he will be assessed, the typical instructional routines that the teacher will use, and the general supports Robbie will need throughout the unit in the areas of communication, adapted materials, and vision. The template in Figure 4 records the specific supports Robbie will need in the most frequently occurring instructional routines – in this example, whole class instruction and discussion.

Each week Robbie’s team members rotate meeting process roles of facilitator, timekeeper, and recorder. Each week’s planning templates are saved using the following convention: StudentInitials_AcademicSubject_UnitName_FigureName_monthdayyear. For example, Robbie’s team planned for his participation and learning in an upcoming math unit within the domain of “operations and algebraic thinking” focused on the general standard “use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems.” Robbie’s individualized learning objective reflected an AA standard that is reduced in depth, breadth, and complexity from the general standard, that is “solve a one-step problem involving addition and subtraction.” These templates were saved as RT_math_addsubtract_LearningPlan_091018 and RT_math_addsubtract_ParticipationPlan_091018.

Figure 2: Instructional Planning Meeting Agenda

Student: Blank Date: Blank

Facilitator: Blank Notetaker: Blank Timekeeper: Blank

In attendance: Blank

  1. “Good News” Story (2 minutes)
  2. Announcements (5 minutes)
  3. Results of Last Week’s Instructional Planning (10 minutes)
    1. How did the student do last week? Look at work samples.
    2. Did we deliver supports accurately and consistently?
    3. What would we do differently next time to enhance the student’s participation and learning?
  4. Instructional Planning: (35 minutes)
  5. To Do’s: (4 minutes)
  6. Evaluate the Meeting (how well the team collaborated during the meeting): (4 minutes) - What worked? What didn’t? Ah-ha’s?

Source: Adapted from Jorgensen, C. (2018). It’s more than “just being in:” Creating authentic inclusion for students with complex support needs. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. Adapted with permission. Use or distribution separate from this article requires permission from the publisher (contact

Figure 3: Excerpts from Robbie’s Learning Plan

Student: Robbie

Subject: Math

Unit: operations and algebraic thinking - 4 operations with double digits

Week of: September 10, 2018

Part A. Learning Objectives, Homework, and Assessment (Samples)
Learning Objectives for Typical Students Learning Objectives for the Focus Student Homework & Assessments for Typical Students Homework & Assessments for Focus Student
Vocabulary: Operation, Unknown, Estimate, Rounding, Algebra Vocabulary: Add, More, Subtract, Less, Equals

Twenty multiplication facts and three word problems per night

End-of-week test: five word problems; written explanation of how student used mental computations and estimation

Three addition and subtraction problems per night

End-of-week test: five addition and five subtraction problems

Part B. Daily Instructional Routines (Samples)
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
  • Whole class instruction
  • Whole class discussion
  • Small group discussion/problem-solving
  • Individual seatwork
  • Math problem-solving
  • Whole class instruction
  • Whole class discussion
  • Small group discussion/problem-solving
  • Individual seatwork
  • Math problem-solving
  • Small group discussion/problem-solving
  • Math problemsolving
  • Whole class instruction
  • Whole class discussion
  • Small group discussion/problem-solving
  • Individual seatwork
  • Math problem-solving
  • Whole class discussion
  • Test
Part C. Vocabulary for Augmentative Communication (Samples)
Target vocabulary words Is it already on the device? Will student use this vocabulary for general communication after the unit? What existing words can be used? Should target word be programmed on to device? Sentence starters? Light tech format?
  • Add
  • More
  • Subtract
  • Less
  • Equals
  • Unknown
All are on the math page sets Yes n/a n/a The operation I need to use is… n/a
Part D. Accessible Instructional Materials (Samples)
Text Worksheets Tools/Equipment/ Technology/Software Graphic Organizers
Class Chapter 4 in math book Math problems Pencils n/a
Focus Student Digital version text-tospeech on iPadTM Scan into GoWorksheetTM and adapt to reflect addition and subtraction problems only
  • UnifixTM cubes
  • AAC device
  • Large talking calculator
  • Large number line
Math schema for solving addition and subtraction problems
Part E. Cortical Visual Impairment Supports (Samples)
1. Color Use neon UnifixTM cubes against black background on felt board.
2. Movement Use movement of teacher’s hand or pointing wand to get visual attention.
3. Latency Allow wait time between presentation of materials and response.
4. Visual fields Present material no more than 45 degrees from midline.
5. Complexity Remove extraneous objects from Robbie’s desk except for black felt board and AAC device.
6. Light Use lighted wand to draw Robbie’s attention to the UnifixTM cubes against the black felt board.
7. Distance Ensure that all math materials are within 12 inches of Robbie’s face.
8. Visual novelty Subtraction sign is new to Robbie, so it must be explicitly taught.
9. Visual motor Provide hand-under-hand support when Robbie is reaching for the UnifixTM cubes or his AAC device within his visual field.

Source: Adapted from Jorgensen, C. (2018). It’s more than “just being in:” Creating authentic inclusion for students with complex support needs. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. Adapted with permission. Use or distribution separate from this article requires permission from the publisher (contact

Collaborative Teaming

Six specific supports and practices help make the collaborative teaming that supports Robbie’s inclusion effective and efficient. They are described below.

Including Parents and Caregivers

Once a month Robbie’s parents are invited to participate in a team meeting. The planning templates are shared with them weekly and they are encouraged to preview upcoming books and topics by watching videos, going on community outings (e.g., the science museum), and discussing key vocabulary in order to provide background knowledge that enhances comprehension of material and the ability to contribute during class. Robbie’s parents share with his team short iPad™ videos of Robbie at home and in the community that become visual supports for writing and help inform the vocabulary that is programmed on his iPad™ and his light tech communication boards.

Creating Planning Time

The principal of Robbie’s school prioritizes the creation of common planning time when building the master schedule. Other principals have created or found time for planning (Causton & Tracy-Bronson, 2014) by:

  • Hiring a permanent substitute teacher for half days and holding team planning meetings on those days.
  • Asking a principal, assistant principal, or other non-teaching staff member to cover a class.
  • Holding planning meetings during recess or lunch time and assigning coverage to a paraprofessional or trained volunteer.
  • Grouping two classes together to watch a video or do a special project, relieving one of the general education teachers to attend a planning meeting.
  • Holding meetings before or after school and compensating team members for their participation.
  • Using Skype or Facetime to allow an itinerant provider (e.g., SLP, OT, or PT) to join via distance technology.
  • Lengthening the school day by 15 minutes a day for four days a week and then dismissing students early on the fifth day to provide 60 minutes of planning time for teams.
  • Using portions of staff development days to give teams time to plan.
  • Partnering with local colleges to engage their faculty to supervise interns who lead classes while their general education cooperating teachers participate in planning meetings.
  • Lengthening the school year so that all staff teach four days a week and have a fifth full day for collaborative planning and participation in professional learning communities.

Understanding Inclusive Team Member Roles

A typical IEP is comprised of goals and objectives written in isolation by individual service providers. An inclusive IEP is comprised of goals and objectives written to support the student’s learning and participation in general education instruction in a general education class. The general education and special education teacher might write math goals aligned with the appropriate AA-AAS for the student’s grade level. The general educator and SLP might write ELA goals that focus on AA-AAS and that relate to modified grade level texts for listening and reading comprehension. The SLP and OT might write goals related to participation in writing and art class. And the PT might write goals related to navigation throughout the building and the student’s participation in physical education class.

Assuring Teams Have Access to Assistive Technology and Augmentative Communication

Assistive technology and augmentative communication evaluations should answer the question, “How can these tools help the student fully participate in the academic and social routines of the general education classroom and acquire skills and knowledge from the grade-aligned AA-AAS?” If team members do not have expertise in using these tools, it is their professional and ethical responsibility to enroll in inservice workshops or credit-bearing coursework to bring their skills up to date. Administrators need to plan their annual budgets to purchase the tools that are specified on students’ IEPs.

Providing Inclusive Professional Development

Administrators can support inclusive professional development by requiring each professional in the district to write a personal professional development plan that addresses the core best practices in inclusive education. General educators, special educators, and related service providers who usually attend continuing education workshops by themselves would find it more effective if they attended as part of a student team.

Figure 4: Robbie’s Participation Plan

Student: Robbie

Subject: Math

Unit: operations and algebraic thinking - 4 operations with double digits

Routine: whole class instruction and discussion Week of: September 10, 2018

What are Typical Students Doing to Participate in this Routine? Supports for the Robbie’s Participation in Whole Class Instruction
Communication Supports Vision Supports Assistive Technology Physical Supports

Sitting in seats

Looking at SmartBoardTM

Writing on notetaking forms

Asking questions

Making comments

Model using AAC device

Ten seconds of wait time before expecting response

Teacher asks Robbie an individualized question

Teacher asks Robbie, “Do you have a question or comment?” twice during lesson

Dim classroom lights while teacher is writing on SmartBoardTM

iPadTM background is yellow

All numbers and operations signs are at least 1-inch tall, written in black, and outlined in red

SmartBoardTM is mirrored to Robbie’s iPadTM

GoWorksheetTM adapted note-taking form

BigKeysTM to enter numbers into worksheet

Prone stander for 20 minutes

Hand-under-hand support from adult for gaining access to AAC device and BigKeysTM

Source: Adapted from Jorgensen, C. (2018). It’s more than “just being in:” Creating authentic inclusion for students with complex support needs. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. Adapted with permission. Use or distribution separate from this article requires permission from the publisher (contact

Reflecting on Practice

At the end of weekly planning meetings, IEP teams should ask themselves three questions to help them reflect on team functioning: What went well during this meeting? What might we like to change next time? Did we have any “ah-ha’s” during this meeting? Research has shown that answering these questions helps improve team performance (Hunt, Soto, Maier, & Deering, 2003; McSheehan, Sonnenmeier, Jorgensen, & Turner, 2006).


Operationalizing the maxim “together we are better” not only promotes collaboration among IEP team members, but also enhances student learning and other performance outcomes. None of us alone has all of the knowledge required to teach students with complex support needs. But when teams are focused on common goals through collaborative planning and practice, everybody wins.


  • Calculator, S.N., & Jorgensen, C.M. (1994). Including students with severe disabilities in schools: Fostering communication, interaction, and participation. San Diego: Singular Publishing Group, Inc.
  • Causton, J., & Tracy-Bronson, C. (2014). The speech-language pathologist’s handbook for inclusive school practices. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Hunt, P., Soto, G., Maier, J., & Doering, K., (2003). Collaborative teaming to support students at risk and students with severe disabilities in general education classrooms. Exceptional Children, 69, 315-332.
  • Jorgensen, C.M. (2018). It’s more than “just being in:” Creating authentic inclusion for students with complex support needs. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  • McSheehan, M., Sonnenmeier, R., Jorgensen, C. M., & Turner, K. (2006). Promoting learning of the general education curriculum by students with significant disabilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 26(3), 266-290.

program profile

TIES Center:
Supporting Sustainable Change in K-8 Education


Sheryl Lazarus is Director and Principal Investigator (PI) of TIES Center, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at

Terri Vandercook is Assistant Director of TIES Center, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at

Kristin Liu is the co-PI of TIES Center, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at

TIES Center is funded through a 5-year, $10 million Cooperative Agreement from OSEP, U.S. Department of Education. To learn more visit

TIES Center logo.

TIES Center is the National Technical Assistance Center on Inclusive Practices and Policies for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Based at the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) in the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, TIES Center was launched in Fall 2017 with funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). TIES stands for Increasing Time, Instructional Effectiveness, Engagement, and State Support for Inclusive Practices. These components serve as the four pillars that provide the foundation for the work of TIES Center as it collaborates with educators, educational systems, and families nationwide.

TIES Center is a partnership of NCEO and six other organizations: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina–Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in K-8 education so that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same activities as their general education peers, and in a manner that supports increased engagement and improved learning outcomes in general education contexts.

The specific goals of TIES Center are to:

  • Improve the accessibility, efficiency, and effectiveness of existing instructional resources and create new resources for use by educational team members.
  • Support parents to become partners in the practice of inclusion for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • Improve the capacity of partner state and local education agencies to implement inclusive practices, improve instruction, and foster communicative competence.
  • Support systems change within the leadership of state and local education agencies for implementation of inclusive practices.
  • Increase the body of knowledge about inclusive policies and practices for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

In 2018, TIES Center invited states to submit applications for intensive technical assistance in implementing and sustaining inclusive educational practices. Maryland was selected as the first intensive technical assistance state, and currently TIES Center and the Maryland State Department of Education are focusing on how state and local education agencies can improve systems that support the inclusion of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. A second state for intensive technical assistance will be selected in 2019, along with a small number of other states that will receive smaller scale technical assistance.

TIES Center has published the first issue in the TIES Brief series titled, “10 Reasons to Support Inclusive School Communities for ALL Students”, as well as its first report, How States Interpret the LRE Clause of IDEA: A Policy Analysis. These documents and a collection of additional materials that will grow over time are available on the center website (

personal story

Unfiltered Truths of Co-Teaching


Jessica Stakey is an Instructional Strategist in the Extended Core program and an Extended Core Instructional Coach, Lou Henry Elementary School, Waterloo, Iowa. She may be reached at And Ms. Stakey’s Lil Hawks (the school’s mascot is the Little Hawk and students are known as “Little Hawks”) are on Twitter: @StakeyLilHawks

Melanie Distler is a First Grade Teacher at Lou Henry Elementary. She may be reached at

Jessica Stakey (right) and Melanie Distler found that through co-teaching they could open up remarkable learning and growth possibilities for their students.

Jessica Stakey and Melanie Distler co-taught first grade from 2016-18, bringing together their respective experience in special education and general education to offer their students an educational experience where they were supported by two teachers attuned to reaching each child in their exact instructional moments. As the special education teacher, Jess was in Melanie’s first grade general education classroom for the core content areas of literacy and math. However, the two also collaborated throughout the entire day to ensure the students were getting what they specifically needed. While they co-taught, they used several co-teaching models: station teaching, parallel teaching, team teaching, and one-teach-one-assist. The style of co-teaching was dependent on the content and the essential learning of the day. Jess and Melanie viewed the students in Melanie's classroom as both of their responsibilities; that meant both teachers actively worked with all students in the class and were both viewed as the teacher.

When the students with disabilities on Jess’ roster moved on to older grades, the co-teaching partnership for these two educators concluded. However, at the school co-teaching is currently happening with teachers in the lower grades in classrooms with other students who have significant needs, and Jess continues to work with other general education teachers this year. Here they reflect on the start of their co-teaching experience two years ago, and how they grew and their students benefited as it evolved.

Day One

Jess: As the 2016-17 school year was getting ready to kick-off, I walked into Melanie’s room. I was new to this district, but had big ideas for what I wanted the year to look like. Including students in Extended Core state content standards, which allow students with the most severe disabilities to access content that is aligned to the grade level curriculum, was not the norm in the building. So I knew this conversation could be a little surprising. I looked at Melanie and said, “Alan [a student with autism] is on your class list. I would like him to be in your classroom for all content areas of his day with minimal pull-out time. I will do whatever you need and am happy to support you and the students so this is successful.” I will never forget the look on Melanie’s face. It wasn’t a look of fear, but more of curiosity and a little discomfort.

Melanie: A few weeks before school started, I was working to get my classroom ready. I knew there would be some new faces in my hallway, so I was on the lookout to meet some of the new staff.  Jess showed up at my door to introduce herself and let me know that I was going to have one of her students.  I have had students with special needs in previous years, but not one that had come from an Extended Core classroom.  My first thought was one of panic. I didn’t think that I was equipped to handle a student with such high needs. She said, “Trust me, I will help you with anything that you might need. We can do this.” I spent the next few weeks feeling a little worried, but also a little excited to see what the future would hold, and how I could be a part of this little man’s success.

Instructional differences may be visible in the co-taught classroom, but the opposite is true about learning. All students benefit from an inclusive classroom.

The Unspoken Understanding

Melanie: The past two years have looked very different when planning for student success. While each year has been equally rewarding, we were continually challenged to think differently about how to provide instruction for all students, especially those with significant disabilities.

Jess: Planning time was crucial for us to feel prepared. We would map out the week, determine lessons to be taught, and address concerns before any teaching was executed.  Meetings before and after school, sometimes planned and others spontaneous, became the reality as we observed our plans in action. There was an unspoken understanding during all conversations that every student was “our” student. Each teacher was on an equal playing field while maintaining a high level of trust for the other’s expertise.

Melanie: Unlike some co-teaching relationships, it was an easy transition from a classroom with one teacher to a classroom with two. There seemed to be a natural flow of roles and responsibilities. If I began the lesson, Jess knew which part to enhance or teach, and the same was true the other way.

Classroom: Controlled Chaos

Melanie: First grade is a critical year in a student’s academic career: developing reading and writing skills, navigating basic math, and executing problem-solving strategies. As we began to plan, the expectation was that Alan would be exposed to and learn these same skills. The challenge came when determining the method by which we would teach them.

Jess: Schooling is not “one-size fits all.” Educators must acquire resources to reach all students. So, when diving into daily teaching, we seemed to scramble at times. We were prepared, but we noticed when plans did not work and changed strategies on the fly to better meet individual needs. By doing so, we reached students in their exact instructional moments. It was controlled chaos with noise and lots of movement within the classroom, but students knew expectations and all were learning alongside one another. Students supported each other. Both teachers supported all students. It was a community that accepted everyone and believed every student would achieve.

“Trust Me”

Melanie: Powerful words – “trust me.” At the beginning, Alan was assumed to be nonverbal.  He would only communicate selectively, and had access to a PODD (low tech communication system). He was presumably considerably lower than his peers academically. Alan would throw tantrums when he didn’t want to participate or complete work. He would have to be physically removed for behaviors. “Trust me,” Jess said. I was glad I listened and invested myself. Within just a few weeks, Alan was making progress. His tantrums were fewer. He refused to use the PODD. Alan simply didn’t need it to have his voice heard. He was participating in class and making friends. Alan thrived all year. After a positive co-teaching experience the previous year, I requested to have Amariyan on my roster the next year. Amariyan, a student with Optic Nerve Hyperplasia, was visually impaired and a very complex communicator. He used a version of sign language to aid his communication as well as a yes-no scanning process.

Jess: Initially, Amariyan would often throw tantrums to communicate his disdain for being in the classroom. He didn’t want to sit with other students, count, read, or feel contained. Melanie trusted and observed my interactions with Amariyan during class. Then Melanie began mirroring those interactions and statements. Soon communicating with Amariyan became second nature for her. Through our co-teaching partnership, I worked with Melanie to modify content and Amariyan was making progress. He was building relationships and participating with peers, a feat that once seemed impossible.

No Limits

Jess: Instructional differences may be visible in the co-taught classroom, but the opposite is true about learning. All students benefit from an inclusive classroom. General education students learn about collaboration, empathy, acceptance. Instruction provided in a co-taught format (parallel, team, or stations) reaches more students. In addition, a lower student-to-teacher ratio allows greater access to content and supports. Engagement and achievement increase while behaviors decrease.

Melanie: Upon reflection, philosophies and instructional methods have changed. All students have the right to learn in the way that best meets their needs. Success occurs when the right supports are in place. For success, trust and administrative support are crucial in a co-taught, inclusive setting. It is a process, but there are truly no limits.


Expert Learning is for All


Elizabeth S. Hartmann is Associate Professor of Education at Lasell College, Newton, Massachusetts, and Adjunct Lecturer on Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts. She may be reached at

Jose Blackorby is Senior Director of Research and Development at CAST, Wakefield, Massachusetts. He may be reached at

A major challenge faced by all teachers, but especially those who inclusively teach students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, is how to redesign curriculum to better meet the needs of all their learners. Consider this scenario. In a public school, a fourth grade teacher named Jackie learns from her principal that she, for the first time, will teach a class that includes a learner with a significant cognitive disability. Jackie is collaborative, innovative, and a go-getter who embraces new challenges, but she feels concerned and unprepared. She had just one class that focused on special education in her teacher preparation program. How does she best approach teaching her new student? Does this student learn the same content that she has taught for the past few years? As Jackie begins her curriculum planning she reaches out to two important colleagues – the inclusion facilitator and the student’s previous third grade teacher. They both reassure her that she already knows 85% of what she needs to be an excellent teacher to all her students. Jackie asks what she should do about her curriculum. The third grade teacher tells her to try Universal Design for Learning (UDL), because it will allow her to better plan for all students. In fact, there was a UDL approach that really helped her last year: Make your classwide instructional goal to create expert learners. Intrigued, Jackie begins to explore UDL and this idea of the expert learner.

What is UDL and How Will the Concept of Expert Learner Help?

UDL is a framework for learning that is useful for teachers wanting to incorporate more flexibility into their curriculum to allow for greater accessibility for all learners (Hall, Meyer, & Rose, 2012). UDL challenges teachers to see the unnecessary barriers to learning and respond by designing more equitable and accessible curriculum that embraces learner variability (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). For example, requiring students to read a certain chapter on indigenous people creates many barriers to learners who are still learning how to decode text. If the goal is for learners to learn about indigenous people, and not decode text to gain information, then the barrier of reading text should be removed by providing students with a variety of options, such as listening to text being read aloud, watching a documentary, visiting a museum, or interviewing an indigenous person. As you begin to add these options into your curriculum, you also need to empower students to learn how to make choices and manage having more autonomy when learning. You have to teach them how to become expert learners.

Expert learners are motivated to learn, resourceful in their learning, and skillful in how they learn. That does not mean that “expert” means the same for all learners. Some might equate the term “expert learner” with someone who has specific expertise in a content area like geography or literature, or a discrete academic skill like solving proofs. However, in UDL the concept of an expert learner is broader and focused on empowering learners to master the process of learning with the goal of becoming more self-directed and engaged in their learning. That means providing options and opportunities for choice, goal setting, review, and reflection. When our ultimate goal is to empower students to learn more independently (or even interdependently), it will help them become active members of their community and the workforce. Instead of waiting for direction, expert learners take initiative, ask for help if needed, and persist even when learning gets challenging. If we truly want our students to live better lives, we need to also design learning opportunities that encourage student ownership in decisions about what to learn, how to learn it, and how to show what they know. When they are expert learners they are able to learn content better and more efficiently.

What Can I Do?

As any teacher will attest, teaching curriculum content is important, but it is equally, if not more, important to empower students to develop expertise in how to learn. When your goal in teaching is overly focused on “covering” or teaching specific content, it is easy to lose focus on the important longer term goals we have for all our students. How do we foster expert learners through proactive curriculum design? Teachers like Jackie can look at their curriculum and ask themselves, what can I do that will make my students expert learners this year and for years into the future? All students, and teachers too, can strive to be constantly reflecting and improving.

Expert learners are motivated, knowledgeable, and strategic. These three traits help us to think about curriculum options that can empower all learners (see Table 1). Instead of focusing narrowly on covering content, Jackie asks herself several questions about her curriculum and what changes she can make to foster a classroom of expert learners:

  • Motivation: What motivates my students and how can I leverage these topics and interests to encourage them to persist in their learning, even when it is challenging? What will engage them to learn even when I am not there to support them? How can I provide options to learn different content, or in contexts that relate to students’ personal experiences or interests? Or in those instances where choice is not possible, how can I provide more support and encouragement?

  • Knowledge of Concepts: What are my students knowledgeable about and how can I design opportunities to make use of what they already know? What do they want to learn? How can I provide opportunities to learn these concepts that will increase their autonomy and decrease my direct involvement or direction?

  • Skill and Strategy: How do my students show what they know and how can I build upon their communication and organizational skills? What tools will allow them to create, communicate, and problem solve more independently?

Table 1: Supporting Expert Learners
Expert Learners are Motivated What engages your students? What topics do they like? What tools/technology do they like to use when learning? Where are their “pain points” and how can you provide more scaffolds and supports there? Use what motivates your students to design learning around those topics or as bridges to other less motivating topics. Students have a choice of what community they want to learn about rather than having no choice. If they cannot choose the community, they have a choice of what their area of focus will be.
Expert Learners are Knowledgeable What do your students know? What do they want to learn about? How do they prefer to learn new concepts? What helps them to generalize what they are learning? Design learning around the expertise of your students. Let them be the expert and lead teaching of themselves and their peers. Consider the different formats and technology that can allow for a rich understanding of concepts.

Students can choose to learn about people through various resources:

  • Texts (primary or secondary sources)
  • Videos and documentaries
  • Museum visits
  • Interviews with community members
Expert Learners are Strategic When do your students shine? What are the best ways for them to show what they know? What technology are they motivated to use? Allow students to co-design their assignments, projects, or performances. Encourage the use of technology, tools, and peer supports to encourage independence/interdependence. All students come up with, and execute, a goal that motivates them and makes sense given the resources they are using. They present their project individually or with peers. Students are empowered to ask for help and receive feedback and editing throughout (the focus is on the process and less on the product).

A New Focus for Jackie

As Jackie begins adapting and redesigning her curriculum, she realizes that all her fourth grade students need support and scaffolding to become expert learners. Although she originally thought that her new classroom goal of providing more options to foster expert learners would lend itself to being more inclusive to one student with a significant cognitive disability, she realizes it will actually benefit all her students. With this new focus, she is better able to teach content standards in a variety of ways and integrate students’ individual learning goals, preferences, interventions, and integrated therapies. Although we all can feel the pressure to cover content, what might happen if we make expert learning and empowering our students our goal?


  • Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
  • Hall, T. E., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H. (Eds.). (2012). Universal design for learning in the classroom: Practical applications. New York: Guilford Press.

program profile

Peer Networks Benefit Kentucky Students:
The Power of Communication


Harold Kleinert is Director Emeritus of the Human Development Institute, and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Kentucky, Lexington. He may be reached at

Lou-Ann Land is Technical Assistance and Alternate Assessment Specialist with ILSSA, Human Development Institute, University of Kentucky. She may be reached at

Katie Newton is a Special Education Teacher at John W. Bate Middle School, Danville Independent Schools, Danville, Kentucky. She may be reached at

Patti Logsdon is Project Coordinator with the Kentucky Peer Support Network Project, Human Development Institute, University of Kentucky, Lexington. She may be reached at

Jaimar (right) and Brady shared a moment of laughter made possible by the Peer Support Network Project and its ongoing learning about how to support connections and communication between students with and without disabilities.

We met Jaimar Fish, a young man in the 8th grade, because his middle school, John W. Bate Middle School in Danville, Kentucky (a small independent district in central Kentucky), was a pilot site school in the Kentucky Peer Support Network Project (KYPSN).  The project itself was funded by the Kentucky Commonwealth Council on Developmental Disabilities. Many of Jaimar’s classmates were part of peer networks and/or peer support arrangements, but Jaimar had not been included in those efforts. His teacher was unsure how to involve him in a peer network because Jaimar had multiple disabilities, undetermined vision, was non-verbal, and the teaching team had not yet found successful strategies to enable him to communicate with his peers.

The KYPSN staff knew that his teacher was also participating in the KY TAALC (Teaching Age-Appropriate Academic Language via Communication) Project funded by the Kentucky Department of Education, which focused on increasing communication competence for students who had not yet developed a reliable mode of expressive communication. The whole team worked to address Jaimar’s communication needs.

Launching Jaimar’s Peer Network

As a first step, the team identified the things that Jaimar most enjoyed, that would be high on his list of what he would want to communicate.  Through careful observation, with the expectation that Jaimar could respond, and with sufficient wait time to enable him to respond (in his case, up to 8 seconds), the team determined that Jaimar could follow simple directions and affirm or reject specific choices.  Jaimar taught his team a very important lesson: Sometimes we miss our students’ communications because we don’t wait with the expectation that our students will communicate.  

Jaimar likes to be around other students, but it has been difficult for him to form relationships due to his complex communication challenges. Not anymore!  His teacher and speech language pathologist taught his friends in the peer network to recognize his responses, and to use partner-assisted scanning (in which the peers sequentially presented options to Jaimar). For example, the network discussed activities for their meeting, with options of listening to music, watching a movie, or playing a video game.  Jaimar’s peers presented each of these options to Jaimar in turn, and he would confirm his response to each choice. In fact, his friends often caught the nuances of his communication before his teachers did!

Now that everyone in Jaimar’s environment recognized and acknowledged his communication, it was time to provide him with a more standardized communication option.  At that point, an augmentative/alternative communication device (AAC) was introduced. Due to Jaimar’s severe motoric challenges, he was taught to use a motion detection switch, which responds to his smallest movement.  The switch operates a rotary scanner with voice output. The scanner enables Jaimar to first get his friends’ and teachers’ attention, and then to scan to the choice he wants to indicate. He was now able to talk with his friends about his likes, dislikes, and the things they all have in common! During one of his peer network meetings, the group was overheard discussing the upcoming Eighth Grade Formal Dance.  The boys were having a typical conversation about whom they wanted to ask to the dance and asked Jaimar if he liked girls. They all laughed as he blushed and responded with “yes.” Then, when one of the boys mentioned a girl that he (the friend) wanted to ask, Jaimar was able to encourage that friend to ask her by repeating “yes” (“ask her” implied) several times.  They also wondered about the color of the dresses their dates might wear, so one peer asked Jaimar what color he preferred. Using partner-assisted scanning, that friend gave Jaimar three color options and Jaimar indicated he liked red best.

Jaimar’s teacher, Katie Newton, reported, “Jaimar enjoys spending time with his friends.  That joy and excitement, you can read it on his face when his peers come into the room. He just lights up and cannot wait for them to talk with him.”  Sharon Fish, Jaimar’s mom, in reflecting upon the changes in her son, noted, “He used to come home crying sometimes, but toward the end of this year, he was always all smiles.”  And for Jaimer himself, his joy of being with his friends is communicated perfectly through his immediate, delighted response to their presence.

Peer Network as an Important Transition Tool

The impact of peer networks can extend beyond the school in which the networks are started.  For example, Jaimar’s network did not start until the spring of his 8th grade year, preceding transition to the local district high school for all the students in the network. The mom of one of the 8th graders in the peer network noted, “My son has loved being a part of this group.  I am glad that he will get to continue this through his high school career.”

One of the friends in his network, Brady, said, “Jaimar will know all four of us next year, so that would make going to the high school a little easier.” Another peer in his network, Keegyn, simply asked: “We are doing this in high school, right?" Ms. Newton agreed, “Jaimar's life had been greatly enriched by having friends.  These four guys will make transition easier for Jaimar.”

Next year, when Jaimar transitions to high school, he will have four friends that he knows from his network. His teachers, friends, and mom are all very excited for Jaimar and the ways in which his friendships and communication will enhance his future!

Benefits to Students Participating in the Peer Network

Each of the eight students with significant cognitive disabilities at Bate Middle School who participated in peer networks have shared that they learned new things from their peer partners.  They’ve also said that peer partners enabled them to speak up more about things they needed or wanted – an important element of self-advocacy. All of the students with significant cognitive disabilities have indicated that they enjoyed school, that they regarded their peer partners as their friends, that they enjoyed spending time with their partners, and that they would like to continue hanging out with their peer partners.

The 26 peer partners in the program at Bate noted in a follow-up survey that they felt confident being in a peer network. They unanimously considered the focus students to be friends, and the vast majority indicated that other students in their class should do this and that they would do this again in the future.  Peer partners made comments such as “I want to stay in the group forever,” and how they themselves had benefited: “I am a bit shy, then I come out of my shell and so do others” and “It is a great way to make friends.”


It is clear that peer networks have benefits for all students who participate, not just the focus students.  While teachers and facilitators sometimes gravitate to asking the most popular or outgoing kids in their class to be part of peer networks, they should first consider those students who already have a relationship with or affinity for the focus student. Teachers and facilitators may also want to consider including a peer partner in the network who may themselves be somewhat shy, new to the school, or on the social margins in the general education classroom.  A peer partner who does not currently have a strong network him/herself can thereby develop new friendships as well, while still supporting the network of the student with significant disabilities. In this way, peer networks become a powerful tool for improving a sense of belonging and connection for all students!


Strategies for Supporting AAC Use in Inclusive General Education Classrooms


Jacqueline Kearns is Project Director and Principal Investigator with the Human Development Institute, University of Kentucky, Lexington. She may be reached at

Jane Kleinert is a Professor in the Division of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Kentucky. She may be reached at

Karen Erickson is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, and Professor in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She may be reached at

Supporting students who have complex communication needs and require augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) in school is challenging. In order to participate meaningfully in classroom activities and social opportunities, students must have access to understandable communication methods. This is most important in the inclusive classroom, where all students are expected to initiate, respond, and interact with adults and peers. Unfortunately, a full 30% of students with significant cognitive disabilities have no or limited use of symbolic communication (i.e., speech, signs, or symbols), and up to 10% of these students lack a clear, understandable form of intentional communication, even at the high school level (Erickson & Geist, 2016; Kearns, Towles-Reeves, Kleinert, Kleinert, & Thomas, 2011). These data do not reflect students’ inability to acquire symbolic communication, but rather a lack of access to effective communication technologies and systematic instruction to use them.

Despite the challenges, inclusive settings have proven to be the most effective for supporting AAC learning and use for at least some students with significant cognitive disabilities (Ganz, Rispoli, Mason, & Hong, 2014). Four elements appear to support successful learning and use of AAC in inclusive classrooms (Kleinert & Kearns , in development): team collaboration, peer mediated supports, modeling of aided communication, and teacher/staff training.  Based on these four elements, we present the following five evidence-based practices that can support AAC learning and use in inclusive settings.

Strategy 1 – Team Collaboration and Training

Clearly, in order to help students with significant cognitive disabilities learn to use AAC, their teams must learn to use AAC and evidence-based strategies to teach it while collaborating to ensure its use with fidelity throughout the day(Downing, 2004). Training should focus on the operation of the AAC systems and their use to communicate across partners, purposes, and contexts. Everyone – peers, professionals, paraprofessionals, and parents – must demonstrate the use of AAC for a variety of communicative purposes while collaborating to maximize implementation of teaching strategies.  

Strategy 2 – Model, Model, Model

In order for students with significant cognitive disabilities to learn AAC, they must see it modeled and used throughout the day, every day. Aided language modeling (or aided language stimulation, or aided language input), a highly effective AAC intervention approach (O’Neill, Light, & Pope, 2018), requires adults and peers to demonstrate the use of graphic symbols on the AAC system to communicate throughout the day. While talking as they normally would, adults and peers point to or otherwise select symbols on the AAC system that match at least some of the words they are speaking. This strategy is significantly different from and more effective than the “show me” or “point to” method used by some instructors.

Strategy 3 - Use of Core Vocabulary

Maximize early success by selecting vocabulary for AAC that is highly flexible, frequently occurring, and immediately useful for the AAC user. This core vocabulary includes words with flexible usage,  such as verbs, adjectives/adverbs, and pronouns. These words allow for a wide range of communication intents and purposes such as commenting (“Like”) , questioning (“Why?”), refusing (“No”), and requesting (“Want”). The fact that these words are not context or purpose dependent maximizes the opportunities for teaching and learning them across the school day. In contrast, nouns tend to be highly specific to a context or routine.

Core vocabulary became the focus of AAC intervention for students with significant cognitive disabilities in response to the need to support their successful communication during academic instruction and social interactions. Given a relatively small set of core vocabulary, students with significant cognitive disabilities can successfully initiate, respond, and interact across the school day. (For more information on core vocabulary, see the Project Core below).

Strategy 4 – Building on Core Vocabulary with “Fringe” Vocabulary

Nouns, in general, refer to specific persons, places, or things. Adding nouns, or context-dependent fringe vocabulary, to students’ AAC systems (i.e., by combining high- and light-tech displays, for example) allows them to have conversations with friends about things that are important to them and supports active participation in some classroom activities. For example, a student’s AAC system might include photographs of family members, pets, or friends, and symbols representing current topics of interest among the student and peers. These fringe words are used less frequently than core words and are generally highly unique to the user, but can be important in certain contexts.

Strategy 5 - Peers, Peers, Peers!

The inclusive classroom has the distinct advantage of the constant presence of peers who are competent communicators. Encouraging peers to use AAC with students with significant cognitive disabilities increases access to repeated, interactive, and generative language opportunities across environments. Peers can use aided language modeling, which can “substantially increase” social interactions among peers, and, in some cases, increases the use of AAC (Biggs, Carter, & Gustafson, 2017; Biggs, Carter, Mazur, Barnes, & Bumble, 2018).


Communication enhances inclusion, friendship, and life-long learning. Embedding the simple, evidence-based strategies described here will serve to increase access, opportunity, and success for students with significant cognitive disabilities and complex communication needs.


  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., & Gustafson, J. (2017). Efficacy of peer support arrangements to increase peer interaction and AAC use. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 122(1), 25-48.
  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., Mazur, E., Barnes, K., & Bumble, J. L. (2018). Embedding peer-implemented aided AAC modeling within a peer network intervention for students with complex communication needs. Exceptional Children, 85, 66-85.
  • Downing, J. (2004). Related services for students with disabilities: Introduction to the special issue. Intervention in School and Clinic, 39(4), 195-208.
  • Erickson, K., & Geist, L. (2016). The profiles of students with significant cognitive disabilities and complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 32, 187–197.
  • Ganz, J. B., Rispoli, M. J., Mason, R. A., & Hong, E. R. (2014). Moderation of effects of AAC based on setting and types of aided AAC on outcome variables: An aggregate study of single-case research with individuals with ASD. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 17(3), 184-192.
  • Kearns, J., Towles-Reeves, E., Kleinert, H., Kleinert, J., & Thomas, M. (2011). Characteristics of and implications for students participating in alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards. Journal of Special Education, 45(1), 3-14.
  • Kleinert, J., & Kearns, J. (in development). Communicative competence in the inclusive classroom setting.
  • O’Neill, T., Light, J., & Pope, L. (2018). Effects of interventions that include aided augmentative and alternative communication input on the communication of individuals with complex communication needs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61 (7), 1743-1765.

Learning More About AAC: Project Core (

Universal Core Vocabulary systems are one resource available from Project Core.

Project Core, based at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, offers training, tools, and resources designed to help classroom teachers take ownership of communication instruction for their students with significant cognitive disabilities. It emphasizes evidence-based teaching practices and uses a core vocabulary approach to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). The program is designed to build on all forms of communication – even if those forms are not conventional or even intentional. Project Core includes a specific focus on teaching students who are not yet using speech, sign language, or symbols in flexible ways, for varied purposes, across topics and partners. In addition to aided language input, Project Core has a focus on attributing meaning to all communication efforts, ensuring that students always have access to AAC, encouraging AAC use without requiring it, and providing sufficient wait time while using a set of 36 words called the Universal Core vocabulary.


Implementation Strategies for Inclusive Service Delivery


Chelsea P. Tracy-Bronson is Assistant Professor of Inclusive Special Education at Stockton University, Galloway, New Jersey. She may be reached at

Inclusive education is a philosophical framework (McLeskey, Rosenberg, & Westling, 2013) that views all learners as capable thinkers, authentic members, and valued contributors who can be educated within general education settings in their neighborhood schools, with differentiated and individualized teaching and learning strategies that match their strengths, learning styles, challenges, interests, and needs. It calls for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to have access to the same instructional and non-instructional experiences alongside peers within general education classrooms, with appropriate instructional adjustments to meet their needs (Quirk, Ryndak, & Taub, 2017). To achieve this access, there is a need for disseminating practical recommendations and strategies to deliver special education supports through inclusive service delivery – supports that ensure access, participation, learning progress, and outcomes for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who are currently marginalized through separate educational placements. In this article, I will share some of the most important strategies for making inclusive education successful.

Strategy 1: Share Classroom Space to Provide Inclusive Special Education Services

Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities have a team of professionals who provide services in their general education classroom. This means that professionals negotiate a shared space and have parity in their responsibilities within the classroom, ranging from classroom management to designing learning experiences, adjusting instruction to meet learning needs, and joint accountability for each student.

Strategy 2: Presume Competence and Start with Student Strengths

Presuming competence (Biklen & Burke, 2006) is a mindset and belief about a student with a complex disability that ensures educators assume that each student is a thinking human being who is intelligent and has thoughts about their learning and their life, especially when that student might communicate through typing, a communication device, or other non-traditional manner. Inclusive teams often create a positive, professional student profile (Causton & Tracy-Bronson, 2015) to determine the student’s strengths, interests, hobbies, dislikes, intelligences, mode of communication, behavior preferences, performance within specific subjects, and effective learning supports. Using such a profile impacts how educators think about, refer to, include, write goals, and design learning experiences for the student.

Strategy 3: Balance Classroom Curriculum Demands and Specific Learning Needs

Using the grade-level state standards and the district curriculum, inclusive educators map out units of study across the year with the range of learners in mind. They determine which big ideas, objectives, and skills are essential for all students to learn, and thoughtfully determine which would be most essential for students with cognitive disabilities. Inclusive educators are skilled in organizing these traditional classroom demands while simultaneously attending to student-specific learning needs.  This allows teachers to ensure membership, access, and learning outcomes for all students, as well as meet the cognitive demands for specific students with extensive support needs.

Strategy 4: Restructure the Classroom

Inclusive educators identify as agents of change who continually tinker with classroom elements, such as environment, lesson structure, materials, learning experiences, type of participation, classroom rules, and social relationships. Examples of ways to modify these elements follow:

Learning Environment and Culture

Inclusive educators consider the ways in which work spaces, seating, lighting, and learning tools contribute to or hinder student focus, engagement, and ease in the learning process. Are flexible seating options available? Is purposeful seating that allows for peer collaboration and intentional support considered? Instead of assigning students to one desk for all learning experiences or subjects, do students use the entire classroom space throughout the day, working in different spots for each subject area? These considerations allow inclusive educators to facilitate social relationships between students with cognitive disabilities and multiple peers.

An important rule is that students with cognitive disabilities always sit amongst peers. Oftentimes students with cognitive disabilities are sitting on the end or side of the table or in the back of the room; there might be a paraprofessional sitting directly next to them. Inclusive educators ensure that students with cognitive disabilities are sitting with two peers directly next to them. This supports multiple opportunities for informal social interaction and intentional peer support.

Another aspect of a culture that supports learning is providing students without disabilities instruction and input about strategies to purposefully support a peer with a cognitive disability. These include the following: a) facilitating a work task by asking closed-ended questions, b) creating a word bank of limited answers, c) providing a model of task completion, d) providing wait time to respond or complete a problem, e) demonstrating steps, and f) restating directions. Intentional peer support sets the expectation of interdependence during classroom learning experiences. The paraprofessional should support as needed, but should also fade support by circulating and assisting other students.  Inclusive educators provide explicit guidance to paraprofessionals about their role to provide a variety of supports and promote independence and interdependence.

Lesson Structure, Materials, Experiences 

Design lessons that include all students from the onset. What part of the lesson will then need to be modified to account for learner variability?  Will more time be needed, writing output style be adjusted, or content be paired to a student’s priority learning objectives? For example, maybe students are using multiple texts at various readability levels but studying the same theme. Perhaps the focus is on distinguishing between mathematical operations within word problems. The digits within the problems vary. Students have the option of whether to read the problem silently, with a partner, or access an audio file that reads it. Different options are available to students. Each section of the lesson is intentional and steps are analyzed to determine if specific supports or materials are needed in order to promote learning for students with extensive support needs. A range of materials is offered to support specific areas that could be problematic for students with cognitive disabilities. Inclusive educators model that fair is not that everyone gets the same thing, rather that every student gets the supports and materials needed in order to promote learning and success in understanding the most important elements of the general education curriculum.

Classroom Rules 

Traditional classroom rules often unknowingly exclude or marginalize students with disabilities. Inclusive educators critically examine and adjust every rule to ensure equitable inclusion. For example, for one student with a cognitive disability who liked to roam around the classroom, the expectation to sit in a desk was too challenging. He would run around the classroom and bump into peers during writing workshop. His teacher put a masking tape track on the floor around the classroom. His experience changed from being a student who would often get in trouble to a student who just needed to be given the opportunity to move his body during lessons. When asked about bumping into peers during writing he responded, “I wanted to get their attention.” Knowing this, his teacher built engagement strategies, such as turn and talks, inside-outside circles, and partner learning experiences, during the day to support his interest in connecting with classmates.

Strategy 5: Write IEP Goals That Can Be Infused During Naturally-Occurring Times

Inclusive educators ensure that educational placement is specified in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) within the general education classroom and that services are delivered there. All students must have access to academic content. Federal laws require that the IEP goals must be aligned with the state’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled. Additionally, there can be other goals related to social or functional skills.

For this reason, when writing the IEP goals, inclusive educators will often specifically state “with general education peers” or “within the general education environment.” The reason this statement is infused directly into the goals is so that everyone on the team understands that the goals are worked on right within the context of the classroom, all services are delivered in general education, and providers will come to the student instead of pulling students out for services in a separate classroom setting. Inclusive educators thoughtfully infuse IEP goals into the naturally-occurring school day. For example, fine motor use to pull down a zipper pull can be worked on upon arrival, before and after recess, and at the end of the school day. Pragmatics of social conversations (e.g., greeting, turn-taking) can be facilitated by a paraprofessional during cooperative learning experiences in science. Learning to use a communication device can be worked on during regular classroom routines and learning experiences.

Strategy 6: Document Progress with a Focus on Assessment Practices for All

With the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District ruling that schools must do more than provide minimal educational benefit for students with disabilities, inclusive educators understand that students with cognitive disabilities are expected to make progress on their IEP goals, including grade-level academics. To this end, it is imperative that educators record this progress using curriculum-based assessments that document learning experiences and progression toward IEP goals.


Supporting students with cognitive disabilities in inclusive classrooms requires educators to take up a change-agent stance. Implementation of these strategies, paired with asking questions about ways to increase learning opportunities, is critical to the success of inclusive service delivery. This reflective inquiry allows educators to adapt and adjust to continually include all students.


  • Biklen, D., & Burke, J. (2006). Presuming competence. Equity and Excellence in Education, 39, 166-175.
  • Causton, J., & Tracy-Bronson, C. P. (2015). The educator's handbook for inclusive school practices. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
  • Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. (2017). 15-827 U.S. Retrieved from
  • McLeskey, J., Rosenberg, M. S., & Westling, D. L. (2013). Inclusion: Effective practices for all students (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
  • Quirk, C., Ryndak, D. L., & Taub, D. (2017). Research and evidence-based practices to promote membership and learning in general education for students with extensive support needs. Inclusion, 5(2), 94-109. doi: 10.1352/2326-6988-5.2.94


Inclusive Service Delivery:
A Proactive Model for Better Educating ALL Students


Terri Vandercook is Assistant Director of the TIES Center, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at

Deborah M. Telfer is Director of the Systems Development and Improvement Center, University of Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio. She may be reached at

Diane L. Ryndak is Professor in the Specialized Education Services (SES) Department, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She may be reached at

Michael F. Giangreco is Professor in the Department of Education, University of Vermont, Burlington. He may be reached at

Districts that embrace an ethic of inclusiveness not only benefit students during their schooling years, but also prepare citizens who are more likely to expect, support, and have the skills to share this inclusive ethic within the broader community and civic life. Unfortunately, too many students with intellectual disability, particularly those with the most significant cognitive disabilities, are not educated in general education classrooms or are physically present but isolated in the back of the classroom, unnecessarily separated from their classmates. These students often receive a substantial portion of their instruction from paraprofessionals rather than from highly qualified teachers and special educators. They may also have inadequate access to the general curriculum, resulting in limited opportunities to learn and demonstrate progress in the important range of curricular content available to other students. These artificially imposed restrictions mean that these students miss out on the benefits of being included and their peers miss out on the opportunities to learn with, and from, them.

Including students with the full range of cognitive disabilities and abilities in general education classes is facilitated when educational teams use approaches like Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that take into consideration a full range of student performance and support needs – below, at, and above grade-level. Using UDL in combination with collaboration, creative problem-solving, and evidence-based strategies and approaches can benefit all students in the classroom community including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

Putting educational teams in advantageous positions to implement the most promising practices requires that we scrutinize our service delivery patterns and develop contemporary models that are more congruent with inclusive educational practices. Newer service delivery models lessen the negative outcomes associated with segregated special education and increase opportunities for every student to learn in supported general education environments.

In this article, we share how an inclusive service delivery model, based on personnel utilization data from 69 schools, can reimagine the deployment of existing school personnel in ways that better support student learning in inclusive schools and classrooms (Giangreco & Suter, 2015). Frattura and Capper’s (2006) development of Integrated Comprehensive Systems (ICS) is a second model that makes needed services and supports available as part of a child’s core instructional program. According to Frattura (NCEO, 2012, p. 10), ICS is “about building collaborative teaching and promoting the sharing of expertise among all adults in the system” (for further discussion of ICS see the Stoughton Area School District profile by NCEO, 2012). Both models challenge assumptions and support educators in rethinking structures and personnel allocation supportive of inclusive service delivery that increases involvement and progress in the general curriculum for students with all types of support needs.

Inclusive Service Delivery Model

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO, 2018) recently released an online guide for states on principal leadership to support inclusive schools for the success of each child. They defined inclusive education as follows:

Inclusive education is a schoolwide culture and practice of valuing each student as a learner across general classrooms, rather than a particular program or place. Inclusion provides students with disabilities equitable access and opportunity in the general education curriculum and ensures that each student receives the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education. In inclusive schools, educators’ roles are restructured for shared accountability and responsibility. Learners who need differentiated support and additional intervention receive it. And school leaders use schedules, teacher teams, and data to ensure the academic progress and success of each student (p. 2).

An exemplar model proposed by Giangreco and Suter (2015) reimagines the deployment and interactions among general education teachers, special educators, and paraprofessionals in order to educate all students as members of age-appropriate general education classrooms. An illustration of one exemplar model is provided in Figure 1. In the example provided, each grade level is comprised of three classrooms and is staffed (with the exception of kindergarten) by a general education teacher for each classroom, and one special educator and part-time paraprofessional support (1.5 FTE) for the grade level. Kindergarten has one paraprofessional assigned to each classroom due to the developmental needs of all the students in kindergarten. Paraprofessionals are assigned to classrooms, rather than to students, and are funded through a combination of special and general education funding. In addition to these classroom supports, three “floating” paraprofessionals work on a school-wide basis, addressing a variety of needs on a short- or longer-term basis. Additional support personnel (e.g., related service providers, behavioral specialists) work with educational team members, small groups of students or individually with students across the entire school to meet student needs within general education contexts as part of the school's use of a multi-tiered system of supports.

In Giangreco and Suter’s (2015) exemplar model, curricular and instructional planning is directed at meeting the needs of all students and all educators in the school community, rather than being focused on a specialized subset of students and educators. This school-wide focus allows education team members to work together to effectively support students, regardless of their intensity of needs. Each student is a member of a general education classroom community.  The classroom teacher’s capacity to educate each student is enhanced via the focused support of a special educator and paraprofessionals who are dedicated to support all students in the classroom in order to increase their engagement with, and opportunity to make progress in, the general curriculum. These dedicated classroom supports, along with school-wide supports, combine to provide an opportunity for every child to receive large-group, small-group, or individual instruction within the classroom community. A limited amount (e.g., < 20%) of pull-out instruction might be provided to any student if the classroom-level team thinks it is needed to meet individual student needs. Organizing personnel in this way allows all students to benefit by having access to educators with varying areas of expertise, including expertise in grade-level content, differentiating instruction, the use of UDL principles, and other evidence-based strategies delivered within inclusive contexts.

Figure 1: Whole-School Inclusive Service Delivery Model
Illustration of Whole-School Inclusive Service Delivery Model.

© 2015, Michael F. Giangreco

Less Ideal Models

A typical, but less than ideal approach, often used for students with significant cognitive disabilities, involves placing them in a program with other students with significant needs for support. When a program is not available in the student’s home school, the student and his/her family might be encouraged to attend a school that does house such a program, often located far from the student’s neighborhood. Alternatively, a paraprofessional may be hired as a primary means of support for a student in a neighborhood school – a response that is both unsustainable and ineffective.  This approach often results in many negative consequences, not the least of which is the unintended creation of barriers to interactions and relationships with typical peers and the classroom teacher. Further, and more problematic, is the all-too-common use of paraprofessionals, rather than licensed general and special educators, as the primary instructors for the student (Giangreco, 2010; Giangreco, Doyle, & Suter, 2012).

Giangreco and Suter’s (2015) exemplar demonstrates how reallocating existing resources (e.g., lessening the number of paraprofessionals and increasing the number of special educators) can be cost-neutral. Frattura and Capper (2006) reported that the more segregated students with disabilities are from their grade-level peers during instruction, the higher the financial cost of providing that instruction.


If we are serious about creating inclusive school communities that are sustainable, it is imperative that we create service delivery models that support that outcome. One such model has been described and we hope it can be used to advocate for this needed systems change.

Each child benefits from being a member of an inclusive classroom that intentionally supports a sense of belonging, values each member, and provides the opportunity for each child to establish relationships and friendships with grade-level classmates who have a wide range of strengths and needs. Inclusive school communities benefit all students during their school careers and after they graduate by contributing to the development of more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant communities. The conversations, hard work, and action-planning needed to create inclusive school communities for every student are well worth the effort.


  • Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2018). Supporting inclusive schools for the success of each child:  A guide for states on principal leadership.  Retrieved from
  • Frattura, E., & Capper, C. A. (2006).  Segregated programs versus integrated comprehensive service delivery for all learners. Remedial and Special Education, 27, 355-364.
  • Giangreco, M. F. (2010). One-to-one paraprofessionals for students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms: Is conventional wisdom wrong? Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities, 48, 1-13.
  • Giangreco, M. F., Doyle, M. B., & Suter, J. S. (2012). Constructively responding to requests for paraprofessionals: We keep asking the wrong questions. Remedial and Special Education, 33, 362-373.
  • Giangreco, M. F., & Suter, J. C.  (2015). Precarious or purposeful?  Proactively building inclusive special education service delivery on solid ground. Inclusion, 3(3), 112- 131.
  • National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO). (2012). Moving your numbers: Stoughton area school district: Achievement profile. Retrieved from


Vermont Educators Share Guiding Principles


Terri Vandercook is Assistant Director of the TIES Center, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at

Maci Brown Graduate Research Assistant at the TIES Center.

Carter Smith, retired Director of Special Education for Williston Schools in the Champlain Valley School District of Vermont, and co-principals Erica McLaughlin and Pat Miller of Randolph Elementary School in the Orange Southwest School District, led two of the 69 schools that participated in the Giangreco and Suter (2015) study of personnel deployment to better support inclusive learning (see previous article). They used data collected about their schools through the study to inform their own inclusive service delivery models. Practices embedded in principles created by Smith and colleagues in the Champlain Valley School District to guide the delivery of inclusive instruction and interventions are aligned with some of the conceptual shifts described by Giangreco and Suter (2015). These practices are highlighted below, with observations shared by Smith, McLaughlin, and Miller during a 2018 interview for this Impact article.


Left to right: Carter Smith, Erica McLaughlin, and Pat Miller.

Collaboration and Coherence involve the coordination of inclusive practices with core instruction, structured team planning time, and collaborative instructional design between general and special educators. Smith exclaims, “Classroom teachers are more involved in addressing students’ needs when special educators are embedded into the classroom. I have trouble understanding why you wouldn’t embed special educators. This helps classroom teachers accept students as their own, rather than belonging to the special education department.”

Evidence-Based Instruction and Inclusive Practices provide access to grade-level content and materials for all students, position the classroom teacher as the primary instructional planner, and focus on the integration of inclusive interventions into core curriculum. Miller and McLaughlin explain, “We have special educators assigned to every grade-level team; for example, one special educator works with the kindergarten team, another is assigned to the first and second grade team, a third special educator works with the third and fourth grade team, etc. Every August we offer co teaching training to explicitly teach educators how to work collaboratively and use data for decision making.”

Responsive Teaching and Data-Driven Decision Making involve ongoing student progress monitoring and the educator’s use of multiple data points from formative assessments, rather than one standard measurement, to refine instruction and interventions. “The idea of clustering students in disability specific programs is foreign to us. Student placement is critical, and we try to be as equitable as possible. Our team uses socio-economic status, English learner needs, and behavioral and instructional needs data to determine placement in general education classrooms,” explains Smith.  

Expertise is defined as students receiving instruction by the most qualified professional in the most integrated setting, and involves the effective training and use of all personnel including paraprofessionals (e.g., supplemental instructor, data collector, assistant to students with personal care needs, facilitator of positive peer interactions). An effective use of expertise described by Miller and McLaughlin involves the use of master-level teachers as interventionists, working in general education classrooms, meeting regularly with special and general educators, and using paraprofessionals as supplemental instructional supports in inclusive settings rather than using them to provide one-to-one student services.

Prevention is defined as students being identified for intervention at the earliest indication of need, in an environment where teachers have the knowledge, autonomy, and flexibility to adjust their instruction to deliver high-quality early education experiences for all young children. Smith shares, “It is essential to start inclusive service delivery as early as possible, in preschool.”

Smith, Miller, and McLaughlin agree there are more benefits than challenges for all students, families, and educators associated with implementing a comprehensive inclusive service delivery model. Smith explains, “Students with disabilities are more independent and interdependent with peers in fully integrated settings, and the use of one-to-one paraprofessional services should be removed immediately; instead, paraprofessionals should provide non-student-specific supports in classrooms.” According to Miller and McLaughlin, “Families now have the opportunity to know a team of teachers really well, not just the special educator and paraprofessional. It used to be seen as the special educator’s responsibility to educate students with disabilities. Now, perspectives have shifted, and all teachers take responsibility for the education of all students.”


Paraprofessional Roles and Layers of Instruction


Jennifer Sommerness is Executive Director for Inclusive Schools, Kids Included Together (KIT), San Diego, California. She may be reached at or

Gail Ghere is an educational consultant and former Interim Director of the Office of Specialized Services, St. Paul Public Schools, St. Paul, Minnesota. She can be reached at

Learning opportunities in inclusive environments abound for students with disabilities. While these opportunities are not always recognized or valued, they are present. They are broad in their scope, and are pivotal for increasing student options and growth both during their time in school, as well as lifelong.

Often the challenge is seeing and believing that the array of experiences within a school are learning opportunities, then planning how they are best accessed and maximized. The general education standards and curriculum, school-wide social-emotional supports, positive behavior expectations, and school rituals and routines are learning opportunities that comprise the educational experience for all students. They create the foundation of a framework that special educators can use to identify and implement supports students with disabilities require to access higher level learning.

The challenge of planning for and implementing inclusive education is highlighted when we consider the complexity of the learning environments along with integral roles and responsibilities that paraprofessionals have in supporting learning in these environments.  Paraprofessionals are central to the success of educating students with disabilities, particularly those with the most significant cognitive disabilities. This has been true for decades and will continue into the future. Inherent within the paraprofessional roles are nuanced skills and assumed utilization of tools supportive of inclusive classrooms and settings, including when and where they are implemented. Often they are the frontline for in-the-moment decisions, and require a repertoire of skills and tools to draw upon depending on each situation. These skills and tools for making decisions are developed and supervised by licensed special and general educators.

Using Instructional Layers to Guide Paraprofessional Roles

Instructional layers provide a framework for organizing and prioritizing student programs, all of the steps needed to implement the program, as well as a structure for clarifying paraprofessional responsibilities across multiple settings. The framework consists of three layers:

  1. Layer 1 is the core instruction for all students. For academics, this means that instruction aligns with the grade level standards for a content area. In the areas of positive behavior and social-emotional learning (SEL), the core content is the SEL curriculum and strategies for building community and solving conflicts. For functional skills, the core is the rituals and routines followed by all students.
  2. Layer 2 instruction provides greater access to the Layer 1 content by providing additional, differentiated instruction. Examples are pre-teaching, re-teaching, or focusing on smaller chunks of content allowing priority pieces of the core to be meaningfully understood by students. Often this is provided in small groups, but can also include individual student support.
  3. Layer 3 instruction is driven by the individual student priorities and needs identified in the individualized education plans (IEPs). It clarifies how and when IEP goals and objectives are specifically taught across the school day.
Table 1: Identifying Paraprofessional Responsibilities Using the Layers of Instruction Framework

General Education standards and curriculum

School-wide social/emotional learning and positive behavioral frameworks

School and classroom rituals and routines

Belief in and knowledge of how the general education environment meets the needs of all students, as well as the laws that support inclusive practices

Understanding the instructional layers and the importance of the additive perspective

Understanding the social/emotional learning and behavioral frameworks that are in place school-wide for all students

Understanding the importance of the “1,000s of teachable moments” that exist for all students so students with disabilities can be specifically taught these routines and transitions

Communicating with the general and special education teachers to know what standards or curriculum will be the focus for the identified student

Accessing the general education curriculum and having guidance from the teachers on priority learning topics

Teaching the student the regular rituals and routines of all school environments (i.e., hallways, cafeteria, bathrooms, classrooms)


Differentiating instruction and instructional resources to access and learn the priority Layer 1 concepts

Often requires “breaking down” the components of the Layer 1 concept into smaller steps, allowing them to be directly taught

Intentional grouping of students to assist peer relationships and belonging

Understanding how differentiated instruction assists all students within the general education environment

Understanding technology that is available to support students individually, so instruction can be further differentiated in the moment or on-the-fly

Understanding how paraprofessional support can be beneficial or intrusive to student learning, social relationships, and positive behavioral supports

Knowledge of the ways students acquire, maintain, and generalize skills across people, places, and settings, as well as the importance of students with disabilities having the opportunity for repeated practice

Pre-teaching and re-teaching key academic concepts, rituals, and routines

Implementing differentiated instructional strategies to the curriculum, as determined by licensed staff

Using visuals and technology to present concepts in multiple representations

Facilitating small group interactions with peers as part of natural learning opportunities


IEP focused on teaching specific skills and eliminating/minimizing gaps in knowledge and skills

Skills in the area of communication and developing relationships are identified and prioritized so they generalize across inclusive environments

Having high expectations of students with disabilities, knowing strengths, interests, and needs that exist

Knowing the specific goals and strategies that identified students have outlined in their IEPs and evaluation reports

Integrating a focus on each IEP goal at the appropriate times of the school day

Taking data on specific goals to track progress

Identifying and communicating specific needs or issues that students are having when accessing academics to general and special education/related service professionals

Using individual communication systems to support academic outcomes, fostering social relationships and natural peer supports/belonging within general education environments

When planning for instruction, all three layers are routinely addressed. A layered instructional framework is additive, meaning that when a student with a disability needs additional instruction in any area, the instruction for that area is in addition to, not in place of, the school-wide instruction that is available for all.

This framework is applicable for all students with disabilities, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Special and general educators collaborate to develop an instructional plan and determine how the full scope (academic, positive behavior, social-emotional, and functional) of the three layers of instruction will be taught. Each student’s plan, in turn, provides guidance for defining the responsibilities of a paraprofessional. Table 1 provides additional detail that links the layered instructional framework to the role of paraprofessionals for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

Identifying Areas for Paraprofessional Development

The dynamic nature of inclusive environments, paired with individual needs of identified students, requires the paraprofessional to have a unique skill set within a school. Paraprofessionals act as a bridge – or potentially a barrier – to true student engagement across the school day. Their  responsibilities in inclusive settings are based on the integration of these layers of instruction (refer to Table 1), and how it applies to the individual students they support. Robust, ongoing professional development inclusive of job-embedded coaching and low-risk feedback is essential to a paraprofessional’s success within an inclusive environment and, ultimately, that of the students they support.

Areas of professional development and skills that support the work of paraprofessionals in inclusive settings include the:

  • “Why” of inclusive education and the belief that all students are capable learners.
  • Presence of, and ability to instruct students within, the thousands of teachable moments that exist across a school day.
  • Ways students acquire, become fluent in, generalize, and maintain skills across people, places, and settings.
  • Importance and understanding of the instructional layers’ additive nature of providing a complete and robust educational program.
  • Importance of their roles and responsibilities in facilitating access to learning across the layers of instruction.
  • Nuances of their role with regard to enhancing student agency and identity through appropriate cues, corrections, leveled prompting and fading of support.
  • Critical importance of supporting peer relationships and belonging.
  • Assistive technology that is specific to individual learners’ needs and for accessing the curriculum.

Teachers and schools are challenged by how to best support and train paraprofessionals to implement their roles and maximize student learning. Districts, schools, and teams provide paraprofessional development in multiple ways, and the future of this area of need will grow in tandem as we better and more often include students with the most significant cognitive disabilities within our schools and communities. Large group sessions focused on critical topics, online training opportunities that are completed inside or outside of the school day, job-embedded mini-professional development through onsite meetings once or twice a month, and job-embedded direction to paraprofessionals about how to support individual students are all options that exist and should be utilized.


Regardless of how a district organizes paraprofessional development and direction, when the layered instructional framework is the overall organizer of students’ programs and, subsequently, paraprofessional roles, linking what is taught, why it is taught, and how it can be taught is made more explicit and meaningful. It will more easily clarify student and paraprofessional needs and ultimately enhance the quantity and quality of learning opportunities for students with and without disabilities, as well as meaningfully support paraprofessionals within their profession.

personal story

From Isolation to Inclusion:
Anne’s Journey


Gary Ellis and Diane Kozlak, Anne's parents, live in St. Paul, Minnesota.

A large photo showing close-up the faces of three young women with their heads close to one another, looking at the camera and smiling. The woman in the middle is Anne Ellis, and the women on either side of her are her staff.

Anne was born in 1984 when the primary option for people with disabilities, especially more severe disabilities, was a future with some sort of institutionalization. We struggled, as parents, envisioning that sort of future along with the many other additional challenges of raising a daughter with disabilities. Fortunately, the 80s were also a time that a counter movement of inclusion was gaining steam, promoting better access and support so people with disabilities could participate more fully in community life. Anne’s life has benefitted immensely from those changes and the awareness that continues to grow out of that movement. A direct benefit came early as she had the opportunity to be among the first students with cognitive disabilities to attend her neighborhood elementary, middle, and high schools on a full-time basis with the aid of an assistant.

During the first three years of her life, Anne received therapy and other programming services through the local day activity center. After she turned three, new legislation went into effect that required local school districts to provide programming for children with disabilities. Our school district contracted with Special District 916 to provide services to Anne at a segregated site. Although we were pleased with the programming that Anne was receiving, we found the segregated site lacking in many ways. Since none of the children in Anne’s classroom talked or were ambulatory, the only verbal communication and role models for her were her teachers.

Her life was without playmates or friends. Since her pre-school experience was outside of the neighborhood setting, she did not have opportunities to make friends with other children in her neighborhood. We decided we wanted more for Anne when she entered kindergarten and elementary school. This decision began a process that spanned over one year to convince school district officials to provide services for Anne in her neighborhood school. The process of expressing our vision for Anne resulted in a very positive team approach to beginning an inclusive education project in our district.

Our pain of watching the isolation of Anne’s life changed to the excitement of seeing her surrounded by other children who were drawn to her uniqueness and enjoyed her friendship.

Anne began kindergarten and then first grade by riding to school on the same bus as her classmates and joining them full time in the regular classroom. Our pain of watching the isolation of Anne’s life changed to the excitement of seeing her surrounded by other children who were drawn to her uniqueness and enjoyed her friendship.

The inclusive learning process benefitted all the children. For instance, since Anne uses sign language to communicate, there was great interest from her classmates to not only learn her signs, but sign language in general. Students often came up to Anne and showed her the new signs they had learned. Students also became actively involved in adapting Anne’s environment to fit her needs. One day in art, Anne was having difficulty gluing paper together; a classmate came up with the idea of using a paintbrush to apply the glue. In addition, Anne’s classmates learned the art of patience as well as tolerance. They not only waited for Anne to respond rather than answer for her, but appeared more tolerant to the differences of other peers in the class. Very seldom were negative things said about other people in the class.

Along with the interaction with her peers at school, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Anne had new friendships outside of school. She was invited to the birthday parties of her friends, boys and girls alike. When we attended school or community functions, children came over to say hello to Anne and introduce her to their families.

We were amazed to see the many changes that took place in Anne in elementary school as a result of inclusion. She became more interested in communicating her needs, both verbally and with sign language. She was also more motivated to be upright and learn to walk. We believe this increased motivation was due largely to the role models of her peers and her desire to interact with them.

These changes helped Anne, while still living at home, become part of the larger community through the programs at her elementary, middle, and high schools, and others that took her outside that environment. She had the opportunity to make acquaintances and friendships with a broad spectrum of classmates and people. These mutually beneficial relationships helped her learn, grow, and develop a strong social IQ that is one of her strengths for her ongoing community involvement as an adult.

Since finishing high school and moving out of the family home, Anne has lived with three housemates in a home operated by a residential service provider. She loves to stay active. Anne spends her days at a day program and after she gets home she always is ready to go out and about. The staff at her home support her social connections by providing one-to-one staff time for a few hours each night as she makes plans and gets together with friends. Her favorite local activities are shopping, grabbing coffee with friends at a neighborhood coffee shop where they know her by name and her favorite coffee drinks, “girls days” out with former staff who’ve now become friends, and swimming. She swims at a local fitness club at least three times a week, and other members and staff know her well. Whenever she walks into the pool area, the other swimmers wave to her and make sure her lane is open. After a long swim, Anne loves relaxing in the hot tub with others. Most of the people who are members of a gym don’t have physical or cognitive disabilities, so it’s not the most accessible place for her. However, the other members and gym staff now go out of their way to make sure she and her caregiver get any needed additional assistance.

Anne Ellis (left) in 1991, shared the excitement of success in a computer game with a first-grade classmate. Anne was one of the first students with significant cognitive disabilities included in general education in her district. Top of article: Today, Anne (center) is supported by her staff to continue her friendships and social life in her community.

We live nearby and pick her up every Sunday to come to our house for family dinner, which also frequently includes visits with her older sister Marlo and husband Terry, and their baby daughter Ellison (Anne became an aunt for the first time in November!). We all look forward to seeing Anne every week and sharing her favorite foods.

As Marlo has noted, “Anne’s inclusion in her neighborhood school was just the start of paving the way. Anne continued on to middle school and high school with the rest of the kids from the neighborhood. After graduating she moved out of her home at age 18 like most other teenagers. While living in her group home Anne has continued to surround herself with great friends that she meets for coffee at local shops, and who attend parties, concerts, and other social activities with her. Through every stage of her life Anne has had a way of connecting with people and making lasting relationships.”

In 1987, a few years after Anne was born, the Minnesota Governor’s Planning Council on Developmental Disabilities published a pamphlet entitled, A New Way of Thinking. It challenged programming for people with disabilities to move from just focusing on a person’s disability to a more holistic individual focus and the supports needed to be a successful member of the community. Those thoughts shifted our paradigm and helped us develop a clearer vision with Anne. That has played out well in the successes she has had in developing a fuller life despite a challenging cognitive disability. It is a strong reminder of our fundamental obligation to support one another in helping build a more inclusive society.


Does All Really Mean All?


Cheryl M. Jorgensen is an inclusive education consultant in private practice based in South Acworth, New Hampshire. She may be reached at

Melissa is an eighth grader with Down syndrome who participates in her state’s alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards. Her learning goals are strongly aligned with the general education standards. For example, Melissa is expected to be able to classify natural processes as generating (adding to) or breaking down (taking away) structures of the earth’s surface, describe how energy interacts in the water cycle, and identify and describe where energy is stored in the water cycle (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE], 2018, p. 28).  Most people can imagine how Melissa will participate in a general education science class and think that she will benefit by doing so. However, when some other students with the most significant cognitive disabilities whose learning goals are not “so academic” are included in general education classes, teachers often ask questions like: “What will she do when I’m teaching fractions when her IEP goals focus on early number sense?” “If he can’t read, what is he going to do when I’m teaching Romeo and Juliet?” “My job is to prepare my students to pass the Regents exam. How am I going to meet her needs at the same time?” “I can’t really visualize what he will be doing all day in my class.” This article provides a set of inclusive education indicators that define authentic inclusive education, describes a morning in the school life of a student that brings some of those indicators to life, and illustrates that all students can be successfully included in general education.

Best Practices in Inclusive Schools

The Essential Best Practices in Inclusive Schools guide (Jorgensen, McSheehan, Schuh, & Sonnenmeier, 2012) was developed by the Institute on Disability as part of the Beyond Access model demonstration project funded from 2002-2006 by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and revised 10 years later based on work on dropout prevention and school-wide systems change. The authors synthesized over 35 years of research and practice to identify inclusive educational practices that were shown to support positive school and post-school outcomes for students with significant disabilities. These practices are organized within 14 categories depicted in Table 1. The guide contains an action planning matrix that leads schools to identify areas in which their practice aligns with the best practices and areas where improvement is needed. Let’s look at how some of these practices could be implemented with a student named Ben.

Meet Ben

Ben loves playing outdoors, horseback riding, and playing video games with his friends. He is a second grader who qualifies for his state’s alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards because at the current time he presents as a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities. He has cerebral palsy and Phase 1 cortical visual impairment (CVI). He has difficulty moving his body in a coordinated and intentional way and occasionally has seizures at home and school.

When Ben’s team learned that he would be a second grader at their school, they used the Essential Best Practices guide to identify their own professional development needs and sought training in using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), assistive technology (AT), and peer supports – important supplementary aids and services on Ben’s IEP (Individualized Education Program). The likelihood of Ben becoming a symbolic communicator is increased if, and only if, Ben’s team becomes proficient in supporting his AAC use (Towles-Reeves, Kearns, Kleinert, & Kleinert, 2009). However, his current communication abilities do not preclude his meaningful inclusion in general education. His team presumes his competence and he successfully participates in many of the same instructional and social activities as his classmates, focusing on access skills and skills at the beginning entry points of the Massachusetts Alternate Assessment Standards in English language arts (ELA) and math in the PreK-Grade 2 band (DESE, 2018). Table 2 illustrates some of the writing skills that comprise Ben’s IEP, showing how he’ll use his AAC device or other AT to demonstrate the skill.

Many of the options provided on his AAC device represent “no wrong answers” because the goal for Ben’s communication is not to get the “right answer” but rather to initiate and respond to communication bids from teachers and other students. An important caveat in the present levels of performance on Ben’s IEP is “Judgements about Ben’s abilities must be made cautiously until he can communicate in ways that are commensurate with his classmates without disabilities.”

Table 1: Categories of Best Inclusive Practices
  • High expectations and least dangerous assumption
  • General education class membership and full participation
  • Quality augmentative and alternative communication
  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Supports
  • Ongoing authentic assessment and evaluation of learning
  • Family-school partnerships
  • Valuing school and community partnerships and resources
  • Team collaboration
  • Friendships and social relationships
  • Futures planning, graduation, and transition to adult life
  • Self-determination
  • School improvement
  • Professional development

Source: Jorgensen, McSheehan, Schuh, & Sonnenmeier, 2012.

Table 2: Ben’s IEP Writing Skills From the Massachusetts Alternate Assessment Standards in Grades PreK-Grade 3
  • Grasp materials related to the creation of a written product (use his AAC device to describe characters in a story)
  • Release or give materials to another person (use his AAC device to choose a peer with whom to share his work)
  • Express an opinion (use his AAC device to select from one of four possible opinions)
  • Convey information (press a Step-by-Step Communicator with Levels™ to play a peer’s pre-recorded passage from a reading book)
  • Relate a personal experience (press a hot spot on a visual display on his AAC device that describes what he did over the weekend)
  • Make a request (choose which picture he would like to use to illustrate a story from among three choices)

Ben’s Typical Day

On a typical weekday morning Ben’s day at school begins with two classmates pushing his wheelchair from the bus to their second-grade classroom. Along the way, office staff, teachers, and students call out hello and Ben reciprocates their greeting using a Step-by-Step Communicator with Levels™ programmed with one of his classmates’ voices saying “hi.” Once he has taken off his coat and moved to his desk, he and a classmate chat about what they did over the weekend. Ben pushes a hot spot on a visual scene display on his AAC device and his brother’s voice says that they went to the Patriot’s football game on Sunday. His classmate asks Ben to give his opinion about a controversial ruling during the football team. Ben says “I disagree with that” and his classmate enthusiastically agrees with Ben.

During morning meeting, the students do the typical elementary school calendar activity. Ben sits in his wheelchair during this activity, two classmates sit in chairs on either side of him, and other students sit on the floor or in bean bag seats. When it’s his turn to indicate the weather outside, a friend wheels him to the window and draws Ben’s attention to the outside conditions. When he returns to the circle he selects “raining” on his AAC device even though it’s sunny outside. The teacher says, “Gee Ben, it looks sunny out to me. Would you like to try another answer?” This time Ben chooses the sun icon on his AAC device. A classmate moves the sun icon to the calendar posted on the bulletin board. Ben’s speech-language pathologist (SLP) comes to morning meeting two times a week to coach the classroom teacher and students about how to best support Ben’s communication. She also uses this opportunity to gather language samples from Ben’s classmates’ conversations so that the messages she programs on his AAC device are age-appropriate.

During Reader’s Workshop, Ben activates the Step-by-Step Communicator with Levels™ again to share a reading passage that has been recorded by a classmate. When the students take turns discussing the passage, Ben uses his AAC device to choose several describing words for the main character in the story. Because Ben’s special education teacher and SLP come into reading class twice a week they are able to model for the general education teacher and Ben’s classmates how to support his communication using AAC.

During math, students move from station to station to do activities related to operations and algebraic thinking, number and operations in base 10, measurement and data, and geometry. Today students are walking around the room surveying one another about how they get to school (e.g., parent drives, walks, takes the bus) and then graphing the results. Ben uses a switch-activated graphing tool from the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives. His classmates support him to press the switch the correct number of times to represent the number of students who get to school by each method.

In science, Ben’s class is doing an experiment using magnets to sort common household objects into magnetized and non-magnetized categories. At the beginning of class, the teacher stands at the front of the class and demonstrates how to do the experiment. A closed-circuit television (CCTV) connected to Ben’s iPad™ enlarges the view of the experiment.  Ben works with a partner to sort their materials into the two categories. Ben’s partner helps Ben hold the magnet just above each object, and if it attracts the object, they place it in a red bin on the left side of Ben’s wheelchair tray, and if it doesn’t, they place the object in a bright blue bin on the right side of the wheelchair tray.

At recess, Ben chooses whether he wants to swing, wheel around the play yard, or play a game of soccer by selecting from among three choices on the recess page of his AAC device. He chooses soccer and is pushed up and down the field by his occupational therapist (OT), who provides support to Ben during both recess and physical education class once a week. When a teammate kicks the ball to Ben, the OT puts the ball on Ben’s lap and pushes his chair toward another teammate. Ben then pushes the ball off his lap to accomplish an adapted version of passing the ball.


When teams commit to the essential best practices of inclusion – as Ben’s did – they bring the value of “all means all” to life. For students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, inclusion means much more than just physical presence in the classroom. It means being a valued member of a general education classroom, having reciprocal social relationships and peer supports, and fully participating in general education instruction.


  • Jorgensen, C.M., McSheehan, M., Schuh, M., & Sonnenmeier, R. (2012). Essential best practices in inclusive schools. Durham, NH: Institute on Disability. Retrieved from
  • Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE] (2018). Resource guide to the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks for students with disabilities. Science and technology/engineering. Boston: Author.
  • Towles-Reeves, E., Kearns, J., Kleinert, H., & Kleinert. (2009). An analysis of the learning characteristics of students taking alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards. The Journal of Special Education, 42(4), 241-254.

program profile

“We Expect Them to Teach All Students”
Syracuse University’s Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program


Christine E. Ashby is Coordinator of the Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, she may be reached at

Cheryl M. Jorgensen is an inclusive education consultant in private practice. She may be reached at

A photo of the interviewee, Christine Ashby. It’s a professional portrait and she’s looking at the camera smiling.

“We nurture our students’ commitment to being agents of change,” says program coordinator Christine Ashby.

Our goal is that all of our graduates are inclusive education teachers,” says Christine E. Ashby, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Syracuse University’s (SU) Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program. She discusses the strategies, principles, and history behind this unique teacher preparation program in this August 2018 interview with Cheryl M. Jorgensen.

Good morning, Dr. Ashby. I appreciate your time and am excited to learn more about SU’s inclusive teacher education program. Please describe the program.

The four-year B.S. in Inclusive Elementary and Special Education program prepares graduates to fulfill the academic requirements for both New York State Childhood (elementary grades 1-6) and Students with Disabilities (special education grades 1-6) teacher certifications. In addition to a liberal arts concentration, students complete more than 70 credits of professional education courses and field experiences [see Table 1] that:

  • Begin in the first year, and are sequenced to build on the skill, theory and knowledge from previous courses.
  • Include field experiences in schools, allowing students many opportunities to work and learn in a variety of elementary environments.
  • Emphasize the teacher’s role in making a difference in children’s lives.
  • Emphasize strategies for teaching children of all abilities in all core subject areas.
  • Ask students to reflect on and explain their professional practice.
  • Promote professional collaboration skills and conduct.
  • Are aligned with New York State and professional organization teacher preparation standards.

Our goal is that all of our graduates are inclusive education teachers. We occasionally get the random student interested in teaching in a self-contained class and they are quickly disappointed. This program is required; that is, there is no option for students to only major in elementary education or to only major in special education. We expect our graduates to teach all students.

What is your role with the program?

I am the program coordinator and teach two courses, the first and last classes that students take. The first course is an introduction to inclusive schooling presented from a socio-cultural perspective grounded in Disability Studies. I love teaching that first class because everything seems very new to them. We spend a lot of time challenging the things they have believed to be true. We ask them to look critically at their own experiences and examine them from a Disability Studies framework. By the end of the course they are really fired up and then sometimes they get angry. This is inevitable because they encounter in their field experience and student teaching many imperfect and not fully inclusive schools. We talk a lot about a teacher’s locus of control – what it is that they have control over and what they don’t.  We help them figure out what they can change today, what will take five years, and the systems that they’ll be working to change for their lifetime. I tell them how to maintain a vision for the future and live in the now, be okay with that, and keep moving in a direction you feel good about.

We also deal with culturally relevant pedagogy, issues of privilege, with diversity writ large. It’s their first introduction to how SU thinks about education. I also teach the last class that addresses collaborative approaches to inclusive education. That is the course most focused on the role of the special education teacher and it is taken in conjunction with the student teaching experience.

Table 1: Examples of Coursework
  • Teaching Strategies for Inclusive Education
  • Primary Grade Literacy Methods and Curriculum
  • Block I Field Experience and Seminar
  • Primary Grade Mathematics Methods and Curriculum
  • Block II Field Experience
  • Elementary Social Studies Methods and Curriculum
  • Block II Field Seminar
  • Differentiation for Inclusive Education
  • Creative Movement for the Classroom
  • Integrating Technology into Instruction II
  • Block III Field Seminar
  • Intermediate Grade Mathematics Methods and Curriculum
  • Intermediate Grade Literacy Methods and Curriculum
  • Block III Field Experience
  • Integrating Technology into Instruction III
  • Student Teaching (12 credits required)
  • Student Teaching Seminar/Inclusive Education
  • Collaborative Teaching for Inclusive Education

How are people with disabilities and parents involved in the program?

Students are in the field from their very first semester and involved with the SU and greater Syracuse communities so they come to know parents and individuals with disabilities through many different experiences. Our students serve as peer mentors to students with labels of intellectual disability who are enrolled in SU’s Inclusive U program. We have parents and individuals with disabilities come into our classes to share their experiences. Some classes are co-taught by people with disabilities. Students get to see these folks as fonts of knowledge instead of just as recipients of supports.

I’m sure that creating the program was challenging. Can you take me back to the time when the program was created so that I can get a sense of what made that transformation successful?

Although the program was established in the early 1990s before I got here, I understand that its success was largely due to the founders’ commitment to faculty collaboration as a way to model the idea of collaboration between general and special education teachers in public schools. They intermixed faculty offices throughout the School of Education building, faculty co-taught courses, and they strove to create a truly inclusive program of coursework and fieldwork placements, not a series of add-ons to a general education program. They got rid of institutional distinctions. There is no department of special education. Another early commitment was the involvement of faculty in public school education. We spend a lot of time in schools doing research, supervising teacher candidates, and supporting the inclusion of students with disabilities. We see schools as the primary sites of knowledge production.

What are the essential dispositions and skills that you think make a successful inclusive teacher?

We really want folks to be highly collaborative. We want students who have a commitment to equity and social justice, and even if they don’t enter the program with those values, it’s what makes each cohort coalesce. We want our students to be reflective and, of course, really flexible! We nurture our students’ commitment to being agents of change, from within institutions and systems and from the outside.

What student teaching experiences does the program offer?

Our goal is that all of the students’ field experiences and the culminating student teaching experience are in inclusive schools. Certainly, all our teacher candidates have contact with students with a wide range of support needs, usually in co-taught classes. We will accept a placement where our teacher candidates work in a resource room or an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom, but we will not place a candidate in a self-contained classroom. If a field placement school has students in segregated special classes we require that our teacher candidates work to bring those students back to their age-appropriate general education classes during instruction.

What percent of graduates go on to be general education and special education teachers?

My sense is that it’s about 50/50. We have many students who go on to graduate school, many choosing to stay here at SU. Once they graduate they usually apply for both general education and special education positions and take whichever one is offered to them and more in line with their philosophy of teaching. Building on our Bridge to the City program, many of our students accept jobs in New York City in schools that are part of the Progressive Education Network.

What challenges does the program face currently?

One challenge is that all of our faculty have strong feelings about what needs to happen for their own disciplines. The math people want more math courses, the English people want more English courses, and the faculty who come from special education backgrounds want more courses in differentiation. We all want to provide the best disciplinary preparation possible. So, we all know that we need to compromise – everybody has to give up something or students will not be able to finish in four years.

The other thing is a balancing act. When you build a program on the idea that we expect everyone to teach all kids, but still be held accountable for our graduates to meet the competencies articulated by the Council for Exceptional Children and our accrediting bodies, we have to figure out a way to do that even though we don’t really believe in the idea of 13 distinct federally-defined disability categories.  So, the way we do that is to describe the traditional categorical way of labeling people with disabilities and then ask our students to think critically about them through a Disability Studies and social construction lens.

We are all struggling with the fact that much of the uniquely special education information – like developing functional behavior assessments and state requirements for writing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) – ends up in that final course that I teach and I end up teaching a class that is way more special education focused that I am comfortable with. We think this is a problem and are working to pushing those topics back earlier into the program.

Any final words?

I think the one thing that made what happened at SU possible and successful today was it really did grow out of the larger history of the work of the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies established by Burton Blatt in 1971. Issues of human rights, civil rights, and disability rights formed a deep foundation for inclusion writ large as a part of the ethos of the entire SU School of Education.

Thank you so much.

You are very welcome.

personal story

“To Truly be Inclusive is a Whole Life Process”:
Reflections of a SU Graduate


Sara Jo Soldovieri may be reached at

A photo of the article author, Sara Jo Soldovieri, seated and holding a toddler with Down syndrome. Their cheeks are pressed together and they’re looking at the camera and smiling.

“I went from being in a middle school that was fully inclusive to a high school with some of the worst segregated practices I had ever seen,” says Sara Jo.

Sara Jo Soldovieri is a graduate of the Syracuse University Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program, and Manager of Inclusive Education of the National Down Syndrome Society. Her recollections of her educational experience confirm the impact that SU’s program has on its graduates and on students with disabilities and their families.

I chose to enroll in the Syracuse University (SU) Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program because the president of our local Down syndrome organization, and the teachers I most admired, told me that if I wanted to be an inclusive educator, this was the place to be. I came to this program specifically because I saw, from my own schooling, how powerful and important an inclusive education is. I went from being in a middle school that was fully inclusive to a high school with some of the worst segregated practices I had ever seen. Consequently, I saw my friends with Down syndrome and other disabilities suffer emotionally and physically, regressing to the point where they were nearly unrecognizable.

Before coming to SU, I believed that inclusion was the right thing to do; now I can back up that belief with research and practical examples. I credit SU with everything. I remember sitting in a large lecture my freshman year in Dr. Christy Ashby’s introduction to inclusive education class, doing a project on the representation of disability in media, when I first realized that inclusion went beyond lesson planning and differentiation. It was in this class that I made the connection that to truly be inclusive is a whole life process. It has given me such a strong foundation to advocate for inclusive education.

Since leaving SU I have become the Manager of Inclusive Education of the National Down Syndrome Society, where I work across the country with schools and families to make inclusive education a reality for all students. I can say with 100% certainty that had it not been for the inclusive program at SU I would not be in the position I am today.

program profile

Shifting Paradigms for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities:
State and National Collaboration in Arizona


Audra Ahumada is Deputy Associate Superintendent of the Assessment Section, Arizona Department of Education, Phoenix. She may be reached at

Over the past 10 years the focus has shifted from “disabilities” to “abilities” in the realm of teaching students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Important conversations taking place among states are advancing a paradigm shift in teacher preparation, ongoing professional development, and the understanding of what meaningful inclusion entails for this population of students with disabilities.  Underlying this shift is the consensus among states that we must raise expectations for the academic achievement of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to improve post-school outcomes that optimize self-determination and improved quality of life.

Establishing the Foundation

Our work in Arizona began in 2010 when we joined the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC), a multi-state, multi-organizational consortium that was awarded a General Supervision Enhancement Grant by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), U.S. Department of Education. Based at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota, the purpose of the grant was to develop an alternate assessment system and related content to assess the English Language Arts and Mathematics achievement of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. As a lead state in NCSC, Arizona helped to establish a foundation built on a strong understanding of curriculum, assessment, instruction, and communicative competence that would guide the work. This collaboration was dedicated to improving outcomes for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, spending several years researching and developing standards-aligned instructional resources that illustrate how to connect instruction with grade level content. To complete the design, a complementary summative assessment was created to assess the more rigorous academic content reflected in these new alternate standards. Over the past four administrations, Arizona has carefully monitored the trajectory of assessment outcomes to evaluate the impact of the NCSC instructional resources and the greater demands of the assessment.

In 2013, the Alternate Assessment team at the Arizona Department of Education brought a group of stakeholders together to set the stage and define college and career preparedness for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The resulting document (Arizona Department of Education, 2018) became the starting point for messaging the inclusion of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in all aspects of education. For far too long this population of students was considered unable to learn challenging academic content and show what they knew and could do. This pervasive attitude extended into post-school options such as employment or attending a college or university. It was the intent of this stakeholder group to shine a light on the similarities rather than the differences of these students to their peers without disabilities, and to guide schools and families toward practices that would lead to optimal outcomes, including self-determination and personal fulfillment.

At the completion of the NCSC grant, state partners in the grant renamed the ongoing collaborative the Multi-State Alternate Assessment (MSAA), with the Arizona Department of Education as fiscal host and lead state ( In addition to ongoing refinements to the assessment, MSAA states continue to examine outcomes and support schools in raising expectations for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Critical among the supports in Arizona is training school teams, including families, in least restrictive environment considerations, examining ways that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities may participate in meaningful instruction within the general education setting.

Monitoring the Data

Using data collected through the NCSC Learning Characteristics Inventory (LCI), Arizona is designing professional development that helps educators understand the characteristics of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Data from this tool serve as a basis for conversations in ongoing communities of practice (CoPs), a venue for teachers to explore successful inclusive practice and to problem-solve with the help of knowledgeable peers. Several briefs from NCSC are shared with local education agencies to facilitate these conversations around what it means to have higher expectations (

The LCI data also pointed to additional professional development needs related to the settings in which students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are educated. LCI data on the settings in which students were receiving education (see Table 1) show that there are few clear trends in the placement of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in more restrictive settings. This finding is similar to the findings of two recent national studies (Brock, 2018; Morningstar, Kurth, & Johnson, 2017) that found no clear trends in student placement. Monitoring these data in Arizona, which showed only small increases in regular school resource room placements and greater increases in self-contained settings in regular schools, spurred Arizona to examine administrators’ and educators’ perception that the best way to focus on academic skills for students participating in the alternate assessment was to provide intensive instruction on those skills in a separate setting.

As a result of its continued monitoring of LCI data on settings, Arizona informed individual schools about their placements of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and is looking at schools that have started or are incorporating inclusive practices; by focusing on these schools, lessons learned about inclusive practices can be shared with other schools. Arizona also recognized that most of the focus on inclusion was for students with high incidence disabilities. Professional development is focusing now on inclusion for all students, including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities. It is emphasizing the importance of less restrictive settings when discussing the settings where the student’s needs will be met during the school day. In addition, Arizona is providing instructional resources so that educators can focus on supporting students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in a variety of settings. Arizona is also using its CoPs to address specific issues such as communicative competence and effective instructional practices that it thinks may impact decisions about inclusive settings. Arizona is creating opportunities for educators to come together, including general education teachers, to learn and support one another.

Table 1: NCSC Learning Characteristics Inventory – Arizona Data (Setting): 2015-17
SETTING 2015 2016 2017
1-Special School 8.2% 8.4% 8.3%
2-Regular School, Self-contained 72.2% 64.4% 65.5%
3-Regular School, Primarily self-contained 10.7% 14.8% 15.5%
4-Regular School, Resource Room 4.8% 5.5% 5.4%
5-Regular School, General Education 4.3% 3.2% 3.4%
0-Undefined or Not Entered 0% 3.6% 1.9%

The Bigger Picture

In 2018 Arizona examined the impact of the inclusion of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities on post-school outcomes in the workforce, specified in section 111(b)(1)(E) of  “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” in the newly-released Assessment Peer Review Guidance under “Critical Elements 6.3.” ( This guidance underscores the importance of inclusive settings, from the early years onward, to successful transitions as adults. Arizona’s Post-School Outcome (PSO) data for students with intellectual disabilities for the period 2013-14 to 2015-16 are displayed in Table 2. They reveal that although some progress has been made, Arizona has additional work to do to ensure that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are either enrolled in postsecondary education or training, or competitively employed.

Monitoring post-school outcomes data annually, similar to LCI setting data, has spurred Arizona to focus on professional development and the use of instructional resources as an avenue to make a difference in outcomes for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Although enrollment in postsecondary education and training has increased considerably and competitive employment somewhat less, Arizona continues to evaluate its supports and presentations in response to conversations with the field. And it continues to problem solve while maintaining the central message of higher expectations for student with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

Table 2: Arizona Post-School Outcome Data for Students with Intellectual Disability: 2013-14 to 2015-16
Engaged 50% 47% 44%
Some Other Employment 9% 8% 10%
Enrolled in Other Postsecondary Education or Training 17% 19% 23%
Competitive Employment 19% 19% 20%
Enrolled in Higher Education 4% 6% 3%

Moving Forward

The Arizona Department of Education believes it is important to continue such monitoring while messaging the importance of making solid individual decisions for students regarding their instructional setting. The vast research focused on inclusive practices points to the many positive outcomes for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, and Arizona believes that if we are successful in providing meaningful instruction in the least restrictive setting for those students, students across the spectrum will benefit from this shift in practice. Arizona continues to partner with other states in projects to stay abreast of current research and practice at the national level. The Arizona Department of Education, along with NCEO and other partners, is working with the TIES Center at the University of Minnesota to build upon current understandings of how teachers, students, and parents can be supported toward the objective of improved outcomes for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. This valuable information is then disseminated to our local education agencies for consideration in identifying needed supports. The State will continue to model and support data-driven discussions that demonstrate what students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can do when provided with opportunities to learn grade level content in well-supported least restrictive environment settings.


  • Arizona Department of Education, Assessment Division (2018, August). College and career preparedness for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • Brock, M. (2018). Trends in the educational placement of students with intellectual disability in the United States over the past 40 years. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 123, 305–314.
  • Morningstar, M. E., Kurth, J. A., & Johnson, P. E. (2017). Examining national trends in educational placements for students with significant disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 38, 3-12.

program profile

Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District:
Inclusive Practices and Lessons Learned


Michael Remus is former Director of Student Support Services, Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District, Cottonwood, Arizona. He may be reached at

For more information about inclusive practices in the district, contact current Director of Student Support Services, Trish Alley, at

School logo for the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District. It’s a brightly colored drawing of a big red apple, and within the apple is an Oak tree silhouette, sand-colored mountains in the background, purple landscape in front of the tree, and blue sky with clouds. The district’s name also appears in the apple in white letters.

Education of students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE) has been a mandate in special education since 1975. Yet after 40 years, public schools still struggle to define what this actually means and how to implement LRE. The purpose of this article is to provide readers with lessons learned in making inclusive practices work at a school district level.

Currently, the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District believes that each child, no matter what level of disability, needs to be at their neighborhood school and educated alongside of their typical peers. The mission statement of the district says, in part, that Cottonwood-Oak Creek is committed to “providing a wide range of learning methods and experiences in a safe environment.” Many school districts have similarly well-written mission and belief statements, but they do not fully endorse them when it comes to educating students with more significant support needs.

In my years as a school administrator I have learned a number of lessons related to aligning an inclusive vision with inclusive practice. Here are seven key lessons.

Lesson One: We must build a culture for all shareholders to believe in inclusive practices and that every child can learn, no matter what level of ability. 

Each audience in a school system comes from a different perspective, so one needs to niche market to each audience to obtain their support and buy in. If this does not happen, then nothing else will move the system to more inclusive practices. To address the concerns from each group, a matrix should be developed for the individual audiences with tailored learning activities for each. The audiences include: school board and superintendent, building administrators, teachers and support staff (both general and special education), parents, students, and community organizations including state agencies, higher education, and state legislators. Common definitions and language so everyone is reading from the same page are imperative. Everyone must know what inclusive practices mean to fully realize this concept.

Lesson Two: Data drive how we do our work in inclusive practices. 

Data need to be collected to determine how many students are not at their home school, what current services are operating, each building’s equipment and accessibility, what curriculum is being used, teacher certification, number of students and their disabilities, state assessment scores, and grades and attendance. In other words, a school IEP must be developed using a building inventory for each school in the district to address gaps in reaching inclusive practices. One must differentiate for each building depending on where staff are in the continuum of implementing inclusive practices.

Lesson Three: School board support and policies move system change for the entire district. 

One must ask the question: Are we a school district or a district of schools? There is a huge difference in these statements. The school board must pass policies that mandate each student, no matter what level of disability, will attend the neighborhood school. It is better if the board puts a system in place to make this happen over time, rather than overnight. It must be planful and purposeful, so that each school has time to plan, prepare, and implement instruction and supports to meet each child’s needs.

The most important thing to remember is that changing culture and beliefs is necessary to make authentic inclusion a reality.

Lesson Four: Develop a three- to five-year plan depending on where the school district is in the process of providing inclusive practices. 

The plan is not something that is written and then sits on a shelf, but rather is a living document that guides the school district to move in a positive direction to support all students.

Lesson Five: Keep all audiences in the loop to provide up-to-date and accurate information because everyone in the district will be affected as changes occur. 

Most people think that special education is making the changes when, in fact, it is every person in the district who is making changes. This means meeting regularly with all the audiences listed in Lesson One.

Lesson Six: Students with disabilities should be the first ones to be scheduled when creating master schedules. 

Schedules drive everything and everybody. Scheduling is one of the most difficult activities when providing good support to students with more significant needs. If schedules are created  with everyone’s input and the process is meaningful to all involved, this is half the battle of making inclusive practices successful. Energy and resources should be emphasized in this part of the process.

Lesson Seven: Provide tools for all involved.

Specific tools must be developed whenever school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, classified staff, or other have a “yes-but” response or question, and these tools can help them through the process. There is a solution for every “yes-but.” Once we have the solution and all audiences can see the solution, this calms the fears and gives everyone the attitude that system change can work.  Tools we have developed include Language Sheet; Definitions; Toolkit for Principals and Schools; Disability Awareness Packet; Board, Staff and Community Questions; Bridging Manual; Master Building  Inventory; Norms for Meetings; and Mapping Process (see Figure 1 for samples).  These are a few of the tools developed for the “yes-buts” that we’ve encountered.

Figure 1: Sample Tools to Address Questions and Concerns
Thumbnail images of: “Disability Awareness Activity Packet,” “Parent/Staff Questions/Answers,” and “Building Inventory.”


The most important thing to remember is that changing culture and beliefs is necessary to make authentic inclusion a reality. I hope this article has piqued your interest in moving your district to more inclusive practices.

program profile

Achievement for All:
Henderson K-12 Inclusion School


Patricia Lampron is Principal of Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, Dorchester, Massachusetts. She may be reached at

Logo for Henderson K-12 Inclusion School.

Located in the diverse neighborhood of Dorchester in Boston, Henderson K-12 Inclusion School is a community where all students learn together and from one another. The school currently serves 900 students on two campuses; 35% of students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The students and staff are from a variety of ethnic, linguistic and ability backgrounds. Since 2010, Henderson student scores in reading and math have steadily increased. In 2012, after years of watching students of all abilities who soared at the Henderson leave the school and head to partially inclusive or substantially separate settings, the staff and families wrote an Innovation Plan to expand the school from its original K-5 grade configuration to a fully inclusive K-12 school.

As part of the inclusive culture of the school, teachers and staff are committed to providing support and accommodations that are necessary for some students to learn, but also available and beneficial to ALL students. The job of all staff  is to minimize barriers – any barriers – and maximize the opportunities for learning and participation for all our students. We want to enable the curriculum to allow access for all students. We’re empowering our learners to discover how they learn best and to advocate for themselves as learners. This includes students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

In 2009, I became principal of Henderson, following the legacy of retired principal Dr. William Henderson who championed inclusive education for his entire career. Dr. Henderson and his colleagues built a strong school culture at Henderson that supported inclusion through respect and acceptance. Teachers, families, and students have historically worked well together to support student growth and learning in many ways.

Still, in the wake of Common Core Standards and testing we found that more work was needed to push average student performance for students of all abilities higher. Building on the solid foundation of hard work and inclusive culture inherited from Dr. Henderson, our staff worked together to simultaneously shift the school culture to focus more on academic achievement and create more effective instructional practices, systems, and processes to improve the learning and achievement of ALL students.

While it’s difficult to capture every practice that is used in every classroom, I’d like to focus on the development and implementation of current key practices at Henderson that have resulted in greater learning and achievement for all students. These practices are:

  • Transforming the school culture to support academic achievement and strengthening instruction. Henderson pursued a simultaneous process of shifting the school culture and improving outcomes related to academic achievement.
  • Strengthening specialized and individualized instructional practices based on principles of universal design, using a thoughtful instructional model and technology to enable greater learning.
  • Creating mechanisms, tools, and processes to enable adult collaboration, communication, and joint problem solving. These mechanisms include six week data cycles and use of an online shared planbook.

These key approaches are linked with improved  learning and success for students of all abilities, as measured by internal assessments (i.e., teacher designed assessments), paced interim assessments. and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams. All learning goals, activities, and assessments are explicitly connected with Common Core Learning Standards.

School Culture

The teachers, staff, and other adults in the building consciously model respectful, responsible, determined, and inclusive behavior with each other and the students. The leadership roles of adults are clear, defined, and often shared, which demonstrates for students what responsibility, effective teamwork, and leadership look like. There is an expectation that all staff – including cafeteria and custodial staff – play a positive role in creating an inclusive environment. This consistent modeling of positive behavior sets a tone at Henderson that students of all ages and abilities emulate.

Students have the opportunity to demonstrate the hallmark traits of respect, responsibility, determination, and inclusivity in a number of ways. There are monthly community meetings facilitated by students to recognize students for demonstrating core values. Students value and respect one another and celebrate together. Students of all abilities work together to staff the school store located in the cafeteria where students can buy snacks and other items. There is an intramural athletic program where students of all abilities play together. These mechanisms are a few examples where students of various abilities can work together and get to know one another in supportive and friendly ways. This weakens the stigma associated with various levels of ability and strengthens the social norm of acceptance.

Henderson has a strong culture of engaging and including families that grew out of the mission of serving children with disabilities. The overarching goal of our family engagement program is to show families what their children are learning through activities that include everyone. All school-wide family engagement activities provide multiple means for action and expression, a core principle of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Our goal is to highlight and celebrate what students can do for our families. Families should feel like valued members of the community – just like all the students.

Specialized and Individualized Instruction

The instructional model at Henderson is different from the typical model used to support students with disabilities in many public schools. Instead of substantially separating students from teachers and the classroom, our model keeps the most qualified personnel (i.e., certified teachers) and effective supports closest to students in the classroom. The teaching team believes this is particularly important for students with disabilities. The school does not have resource rooms – instead students receive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Physical and Occupational Therapies, and Speech services in their classrooms. We have also moved from whole group instruction to station and center-based teaching to individualize instruction.  The current instructional model operating at Henderson includes:

  • Two teachers are in every classroom: One general educator and one special educator.
  • Average class size is 24-25 students.
  • Each class has five students with significant disabilities (including cognitive disabilities), some students with mild/moderate disabilities, and four or five students who might be gifted and talented.
  • Therapists provide the majority of services in classrooms to small groups of students.

In a typical classroom, there are about 19 general education students (including some students with mild/moderate disabilities and others who are gifted) and five students who require significant time and accommodations for inclusion. The five places saved in each classroom are for students with IEPs that require them to receive more than 2.5 hours a day of special education services.

Universal Design Learning (UDL) principles are a major influence on all aspects of instruction and school culture at Henderson. UDL is based on a set of three principles created from neuroscience research on how people learn. These principles guide curriculum development and strive to provide all individuals equal opportunities to learn. The principles offer a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone: not a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs. The three guiding UDL principles are:

  • Provide multiple means of representation (the “what” of learning).
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression (the “how” of learning).
  • Provide multiple means of engagement (the “why” of learning).

Some of the UDL elements at Henderson include small group station-based teaching, using technology as a learning tool, students accessing curriculum at their instructional level, and student ownership of learning. Using the principles of UDL as curriculum is designed helps to ensure that planning happens for every student, based on individual goals and needs. Through various online and software programs, teachers provide highly individualized instruction to students who work through the lessons at their own pace. The teaching team first looks at all students’ strengths and what barriers exist that prevent them from accessing the curriculum. The teachers then try to minimize the barriers for all students. Teachers monitor student performance and assist students directly based on need. Students with certain disabilities – as well as those without – use web-based non-fiction reading programs, text-to-speech software applications, prompting software, and other adaptive technologies to continue developing literacy and math skills.

Collaboration and Problem Solving

Our staff have worked together to create mechanisms and systems for teachers and other service providers to collaborate and problem solve on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Key tools and systems that are critical to collaboration, problem solving, and helping to improve and support student learning and growth include:

  • Scheduled time for teacher teams to meet together in grade and content areas.
  • Six-week data cycles that include data meetings and reflection and focus on every student’s learning.
  • School-wide use of an online planbook.
  • Monthly professional development meetings, Instructional Leadership Team meetings, and consults with service providers.
  • Daily co-planning period.

The main focus of collaboration and problem solving is on individual student learning, behavior, and social growth. The performance of students with significant disabilities is always on the agenda, including progress on IEP goals, barriers to access, and behavior.


Learning at Henderson may look very different from student to student in one classroom. However, all of the students are still working on standards and skills. They just might be doing it in different ways – through assistive technology or direct reading – depending on their individual needs. Inclusion isn’t a place at the Henderson, it isn’t a concept. It is not even a point of view. Inclusion is more about making all people – students, staff, and families – authentic members of our school community.

Inclusive Education: Additional Resources of Interest

Resources from National Centers

National Center on Accessible Educational Materials
Accessible educational materials or AEM are specialized formats of curricular content that can be used by and with students who are unable to read or use standard print materials. The AEM Center provides resources, training, and technical assistance for educators, parents, students, and others interested in learning more about and implementing AEM and the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). In addition to the large collection of resources and information on its website, the center invites K-12 educators (especially those in their first three years of teaching) to participate in a free professional development course delivered online to improve the accessibility of the materials their students use for learning (for more information see XBwfVi2ZPMU). The AEM Center is based at CAST, Inc. (

SWIFT Education Center
SWIFT is a national technical assistance center that builds whole system – state, district, school, and community – capacity to provide academic and behavioral support to improve outcomes for all students. Its website has extensive resources for education, including assessments, podcasts, guides and tools, and more to help transform education systems. It’s based at the University of Kansas Life Span Institute.

The ALTELLA Project
The Alternate English Language Learner Assessment (ALTELLA) project at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison, applies lessons learned from research on successful instructional practices, accommodations, and assessments for English learners (ELs) and students with cognitive disabilities to inform alternate English language proficiency assessments. On its website are reports, briefs, and conference presentations for educators, including the recently-released briefs, Individualized Education Programs for English Learners with Significant Cognitive Disabilities and Nonverbal Communication in Diverse Classrooms: Intercultural Competence Considerations for Supporting English Learners with Significant Cognitive Disabilities.

National Center on Educational Outcomes
This technical assistance center at the University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, publishes over 200 resources online for educators, policymakers, and families focusing on assessments and accommodations. Among its reports, briefs, presentations, and tools are the recent report, Alternate Assessments for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities: Participation Guidelines and Definitions (Report #406) and the White Paper, Developing an Alternate ELPA21 for English Learners with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities.

Resources for Families

PrAACtical AAC
This organization supports families and professionals who seek to improve the communication and literacy abilities of individuals with significant communication difficulties, and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) services available to them. The website offers a range of helpful resources in categories including “Strategy of the Month”, “Video of the Week”, “PrAACtical Thinking,” and “AAC e-Tool Box.”

PEAL Center
The Parent Education & Advocacy Leadership (PEAL) Center offers extensive online resources useful to families of children with disabilities and special health care needs, as well as professionals. Among topic areas under the “Resources” section is inclusion, and free materials featured there include, Achieving Inclusion: What Every Parent Should Know When Advocating for Their Child, and the Middle School Inclusion Series of solutionoriented webinar workshops.

PACER Center
Among the wealth of online and in-person resources of this parent training and information center for families of children and youth with all disabilities are free online workshops. Recent workshops include, “Special Education and the Important Role You Play for Your Child,” “Assistive Technology (AT) in the Schools: Considerations, IEPs and More,” and “Tips and Tools for Talking with School Staff.”

Resources for Schools, Districts, States

The Inclusive Class: Strategies for Full Inclusion Blog
The Inclusive Class blog was created by Nicole Eredics, an educator who advocates for the inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education classroom. It is designed to give teachers practical information and tips for including ALL learners.

Supporting Inclusive Schools for the Success of Each Child: A Guide for States on Principal Leadership
Principal development is a critical lever to drive school improvement efforts, achieve states’ equity goals, and ultimately improve outcomes for each student, especially those with disabilities. The Council of Chief State School Officers has developed this online guide to help states establish a vision for, and advance policies and practices that support principals to lead, inclusive schools where each student excels and feels safe, supported, and valued

Tar Heel Reader
The Tar Heel Reader is a library of free, accessible, beginning level digital books on a wide range of topics authored and posted by interested children, youth, and adults. Each book can be speech-enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces, including touch screens, the IntelliKeys with custom overlays, and 1 to 3 switches. Tar Heel Reader is a project of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the center’s website offer additional resources addressing literacy learning needs of persons with disabilities of all ages (

UDL in 15 Minutes – The Podcast
This series of talks on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation is hosted by Dr. Loui Lord Nelson, and features interviews with educators from around the country who discuss their experiences with implementing UDL in a range of K-12 clases. It is built around the UDL Guidelines from CAST (see

Kentucky Peer Support Network
Making friends can be especially hard for students with significant disabilities. Peer support arrangements and peer networks can help foster relationships by bringing students together. The University of Kentucky Human Development Institute has trained educators to set-up peer support and peer network programs in Kentucky schools, and this website features resources from that work that can be of use to educators around the country.They include how-to modules, vision and planning documents, webinars, videos, and more.

Volume 31 • Number 2
Winter 2018/19

Managing Editor: Vicki Gaylord

Issue Editors:

Terri Vandercook, Assistant Director, TIES Center, Institute on Community Integration (ICI), University of Minnesota (UMN)

Harold Kleinert, Director Emeritus, Human Development Institute, University of Kentucky, Lexington

Cheryl M. Jorgensen, Inclusive Education Consultant, South Acworth, New Hampshire

Sheryl Lazarus, Director, TIES Center, ICI, UMN

Kristin Liu, Co-Principal Investigator, TIES Center, ICI, UMN

Martha Thurlow, Director, National Center on Educational Outcomes, ICI, UMN

Graphic Designers: Sarah Hollerich

Web Developers: Shawn Lawler, Jonathon Walz

Impact is published by the Institute on Community Integration (UCEDD), and the Research and Training Center on Community Living and Employment (RTC), College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. It is supported, in part, by Grant #90DDUC0070 from the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to the Institute; and Grant #90RTCP0003 from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), HHS, to the RTC. Additional support for this issue was provided by the TIES Center through Cooperative Agreement #H326Y170004 from the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education; and by Grant #T73MC12835 from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, HHS, to the Minnesota LEND.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute, Centers or University. The content does not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Health and Human Services, or Department of Education, and endorsement by the Federal Government should not be assumed.

For print copies contact: Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, 109 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Dr. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455 • 612/624-4512 •

Impact is available in alternate formats upon request. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.