Mainstreaming and Inclusion: How Are They Different?

By Keren Perles

Mainstreaming and inclusion can seem very similar to each other, and are in fact often used interchangeably. Surprisingly, there are some major differences between these two terms. Learn a little bit about the debate on mainstreaming and inclusion in special education.

Underlying Differences

Although the terms “mainstreaming" and “inclusion" may be used interchangeably at times, they are in fact two very different Mainstreaming and Inclusion movements. The controversy of mainstreaming vs. inclusion stems from a difference in understanding why a student with disabilities should join a general education classroom when possible.

The concept of mainstreaming is based on the fact that a student with disabilities may benefit from being in a general education classroom, both academically and socially. A mainstreamed student may have slight adjustments in how she is assessed, but she learns mostly the same material and must show that she is gaining from her classroom placement.

The concept of inclusion is based on the idea that students with disabilities should not be segregated, but should be included in a classroom with their typically developing peers. A student in an inclusion classroom usually needs only to show that she is not losing out from being included in the classroom, even if she is not necessarily making any significant gains. This blanket statement does not apply to all inclusion settings, but proponents of inclusion tend to put more of an emphasis on life preparation and social skills than on the acquisition of level-appropriate academic skills.

Curriculum and Assessment Changes

Based on these underlying differences between mainstreaming and inclusion, the technical aspects of instruction and assessment differ depending on which one is being used. A mainstreamed child is usually expected to keep up with the classroom instruction, although some accommodations are allowed. For example, if the class is learning about the names and capitals of the US States, a mainstreamed student may need to know only the names of the states, in addition to his own state capital. In an inclusion environment, a severely disabled student may only need to know the name of his own state and of the country. He also may receive one-on-one instruction by a paraprofessional in order to accomplish this assessment goal. The curriculum is often completely rewritten for the included student so that he will have the capability to pass the assessments and gain confidence in his skills, even if he is not performing anywhere near the level of his peers.

Teaching Support

Another difference between mainstreaming and inclusion is the fact that a mainstreamed child often has little or no additional classroom support, aside from the regular education teacher. A student in an inclusion classroom often has an entire support team helping her to adjust to the classroom and supporting the general education teacher to be able to provide an individualized for the special education student.

In short, the main difference between mainstreaming vs. inclusion is the level of support and expectations that the student encounters. Students who are mainstreamed need to be able to handle the adjustment to a general education classroom on their own, whereas students in an inclusion setting often have support groups, in addition to expectations and assessments that are tailored to their own development.