Inclusion vs. Self-Contained, Why Does it Sound Like a Grudge Match?

Our son Danny was included in pre-school and kindergarten. Everything went so well; we decided to continue to include him in first grade. The year started out exceptional, but as the months progressed, Danny was having a few behavior issues, which caused some disruption to the class.

At the team meeting toward the end of the year, the school expressed some concern about him belonging in an included environment. Our district didn’t have a great reputation for including kids, so we hired a professional inclusion-consulting firm to do an observation of the classroom and give us their opinion. They felt his placement was fine, but that he needed better supports in the classroom. Despite the school’s agreement to provide those supports, we do not believe they did so.

Second grade began with the school calling us on a weekly basis about things Danny was and was not doing. Each week, it was a variation of the same tattletale: "Danny’s being disruptive," "Danny’s having vocal outbursts", "Danny’s swinging his lunchbox into the kid in front of him in the lunch line." Some of these calls didn’t seem to report anything different than what his typically functioning peers were doing. Danny just seemed to be under what we called "the microscope," so nothing went unnoticed, nor, apparently, unreported.

At the year-end meeting, the school once again expressed concern about Danny belonging in an included environment. We were not concerned, so included him in third grade. Early on, Danny was exhibiting disruptive behaviors in class and because he could not sit listening to long lessons, he was spending increasing amounts of time outside the classroom. At quarterly team meetings, it was brought up time and again that our school had a self-contained classroom and we were welcome to observe it any time we were interested. But, we weren’t interested in self-contained; we were interested in inclusion! As he started third grade, we didn’t know if we could take another year of what we saw as the school "picking on Danny." We were exasperated by the regular phone calls. Frustration was mounting for all of us, but mostly, in hindsight, for Danny.

My husband saw no harm in observing the self-contained classroom, but I continued to resist. Our son did not belong there! After a lot of painful soul searching, we finally decided to just take a look. It was not bad, but I certainly wasn’t ready to admit that it was good. The team suggested Danny spend the rest of third grade being mainstreamed – go into the self contained class for part of his day and stay included for part of the day. We agreed. We immediately noticed how excited Danny was with this change. He would return home after school, eager to rip open his backpack and show us his schoolwork. He had never done that before. After a few days in the class, he was following routines, the disruptive behaviors had stopped... and so did the phone calls. We felt as if a load had been lifted off our shoulders.

We came to the unexpected realization that the self-contained classroom was a good fit for Danny. My husband and I decided, without any prompting, to switch him to the self contained class all day and we did not want to wait until the next year; we wanted it done right away. It was an amazing transformation. Danny was making immense academic progress, he was making friends and HE was happy. Wow, what took us so long?

It was hard to make this transition, almost like being told our son had Down syndrome all over again. It seemed like everyone else was having inclusion success and we had inclusion failure. We felt like we gave up the fight to keep our son included. Maybe we were not good enough parents?

We now know that what we thought of as failure was actually true success. Our dream of having our son included came to an end but, in reality, our larger dreams were fulfilled s we watched him get an education, a social life and success. He was learning so much; he was excited to go to school. He had friends and loved to show us what he learned, and to tell us about his day. It was the first time Danny experienced true success in the school environment.

It’s hard to admit, but we’ve come to realize that the self-contained classroom is simply a better fit for Danny’s personality and learning style. He was less restricted there, more independent and more confident. Seeing the difference in him made us recognize that inclusion had more restrictions on Danny and in that environment, he was actually held back.

Danny is now in eighth grade and has become a very confident boy and a leader in his class. We are so proud of Danny…and of ourselves for getting out of his way!

Kim and Nick Orlando live in Bartlett, Illinois, where they are doing their best to stay out of the way and follow Danny’s lead as they prepare for his transition to high school.

Reprinted with permission from

This article first appeared in issue #14 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us

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