Mainstreaming , in the context of education, is the practice of educating students with special needs in regular classes during specific time periods based on their skills. This means regular education classes are combined with special education classes. Schools that practice mainstreaming believe that students with special needs who cannot function in a regular classroom to a certain extent "belong" to the special education environment.
Access to a special education classroom, often called a "self-contained classroom or resource room", is valuable to the student with a disability. Students have the ability to work one-on-one with special education teachers, addressing any need for remediation during the school day. Many researchers, educators and parents have advocated the importance of these classrooms amongst political environments that favor their elimination.
Proponents of both mainstreaming and the related philosophy of educational inclusion assert that educating children with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers fosters understanding and tolerance, better preparing students of all abilities to function in the world beyond school.
Benefits to students with disabilities: It is believed that educating children with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers, facilitates access to the general curriculum for children with disabilities. Studies show that students with disabilities who are mainstreamed have:
- Higher academic achievement: Mainstreaming has shown to be more academically effective than exclusion practices. For instance, The National Research Center on Learning Disabilities found that graduation rates of all students with disabilities in the U.S. increased by 14% from 1984 to 1997, although this report does not differentiate between students enrolled in mainstreaming, inclusive, or segregated programs. Access to a resource room for direct instruction has shown to be effective in increasing students academic skills and thus increasing the abilities applied by students in a general education setting. Compared to full-time placement in a special education class or special school, both part-time and full-time placement in the regular classroom have been shown to improve academic achievement in students with mild academic disabilities, as well as to improve their long-term behavior.
- Higher self-esteem: By being included in a regular-paced education setting, students with disabilities have shown to be more confident and display qualities of raised self-efficacy. All students in California who went to a different school prior to attending a mainstreaming program were asked to fill out an assessment of their old school as compared to inclusion program. The assessments showed that out of all students with disabilities 96% felt they were more confident, 3% thought they had the same experience as an excluded student, and 1% felt they had less self-esteem. Overall, students felt that they were equal to their peers and felt that they should not be treated any differently.
- Better social skills: Any kind of inclusion practice, including mainstreaming, allows students with disabilities to learn social skills through observation, gain a better understanding of the world around them, and become a part of the “regular” community. Mainstreaming is particularly beneficial for children with autism and ADHD. By interacting with same-aged non-disabled children, children with autism were observed to be six times more likely to engage in social relations outside of the classroom. Because children with autism spectrum disorders have severely restricted interests and abnormalities in communication and social interaction, the increased interaction with typical children may be beneficial to them. The same 1999 study showed that students with Down’s syndrome were three times more likely to communicate with other people.
Mainstreaming also benefits other children. It opens the lines of communication between those students with disabilities and their peers. If they are included into classroom activities, all students become more sensitive to the fact that these students may need extra assistance.
Benefits to non-disabled students: Many people believe that educating non-disabled students and students with disabilities together creates an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance that better prepares students of all abilities to function in the world beyond school. Students without disabilities who engaged in an inclusive physical education program reported increases in self-concept, tolerance, self-worth, and a better understanding of other people. The students also reported that the inclusion program was important because it prepared them to deal with disability in their own lives. Positive aspects that come from inclusion are often attributed to contact theory. Contact theory asserts that frequent, meaningful, and pleasant interactions between people with differences tend to produce changes in attitude.
Although mainstreaming in education has been shown to provide benefits, there are also disadvantages to the system.
Tradeoff with non-disabled students' academic education: One potentially serious disadvantage to mainstreaming is that a mainstreamed student may require much more attention from the teacher than non-disabled students in a general class. Time and attention may thus be taken away from the rest of the class to meet the needs of a single student with special needs. The effect that a mainstreamed student has on the whole class depends strongly on the particular disabilities in question and the resources available for support. In many cases, this problem can be mitigated by placing an aide in the classroom to assist the student with special needs, although this raises the costs associated with educating this child.
Harm to students with disabilities' academic education: Parents fear that general education teachers do not have the training and skills to accommodate special needs students in a general education classroom setting. However, professional training and supportive services can usually address these concerns. Some research has suggested teachers who are not aware of—and later may choose not to adopt—modifications needed for students with special needs are also more resistant to having these students in class. This can lead to regression of the students with disabilites as well as overall decreased classroom productivity.
Social issues: Compared to fully included students with disabilities, those who are mainstreamed for only certain classes or certain times may feel conspicuous or socially rejected by their classmates. They may become targets for bullying. Mainstreamed students may feel embarrassed by the additional services they receive in a regular classroom, such as an aide to help with written work or to help the student manage behaviors. Some students with disabilities may feel more comfortable in an environment where most students are working at the same level or with the same supports. Students with autism spectrum disorders are more frequently the target of bullying than non-autistic students, especially when their educational program brings them into regular contact with non-autistic students.
Costs: Schools are required to provide special education services but may not be given additional financial resources. The per-student cost of special education is high. The U.S.'s 2005 Special Education Expenditures Program (SEEP) indicates that the cost per student in special education ranges from a low of $10,558 for students with learning disabilities to a high of $20,095 for students with multiple disabilities. The average cost per pupil for a regular education with no special education services is $6,556. Therefore, the average expenditure for students with learning disabilities is 1.6 times that of a general education student.
Careful attention must be given as well to combinations of students with disabilities in a mainstreamed classroom. For example, a student with conduct disorder may not combine well with a student with autism, while putting many children with dyslexia in the same class may prove to be particularly efficient.
Special consequences for deaf students: Deafness is a low-incidence disability, which means that a deaf child will often be the only student in the classroom with hearing loss. This leads to a special set of issues in the mainstream classroom. While students with other disabilities may experience isolation and bullying by their non-disabled peers, they often share a common language. This is not the case for deaf students. Very few people in the mainstream academic setting know sign language, which means the communication barrier is large and can have negative effects on both academic achievement and social development.
- Social skills are key to a child’s healthy development and later success as an adult. Although many studies find good academic results for deaf children placed in a mainstream classroom, research also shows that mainstreamed deaf children experience higher degrees of isolation and psychological problems in comparison to deaf students who associate with other deaf peers. In order for friendships to form, communication is a necessity. For deaf children unable to use effective communication methods with the people around them, the difficulty in acquiring new friendships typically leads to isolation and a decrease in self-esteem. A study of preschool children showed that hearing preschoolers did not appear to adjust how they communicated with deaf children. Instead, they continued to use simple speech, which was effective with hearing, but not deaf, partners. This shows the isolation of the deaf child, and discredits the idea that the hearing and deaf child's communication skills will be enhanced by interaction with one another. In many cases, hearing children do not understand what it means when another child is deaf. This leads to frustration when a deaf child’s speech is not clear or when the deaf child asks for continuous repetition. Communication strategies that are culturally acceptable to the deaf child, such as banging on a table or physically touching another person, can also cause the deaf child to be rejected by his or her peers because such behaviors are not always considered acceptable in mainstreaming hearing culture. Research has suggested that the placement of a deaf child in special schools or classes may be more desirable for deaf students than for those with other disabilities. This is primarily because of the greater social benefits for the students.
- The residual knowledge that hearing children can access is often lost on deaf children. A hearing child can listen in on adult conversations, TV, radio and the news to learn things that are not specifically taught or told to them. This is not the case with the deaf child, who, in a hearing environment, can only learn what is directly communicated to them. This often leads to gaps in general knowledge, which can be both harmful to academic success and social interactions.
- The effect of mainstreaming on Deaf culture is also a key issue for Deaf culture advocates. The rate of children enrolled in residential schools for the deaf is declining, as many hearing parents send their child to a mainstream school in hopes of preparing their child for life in the hearing world. In the past, Deaf schools and clubs served as the center for Deaf culture. Traditions, stories, and values developed and were fostered in these settings, but because of the low incidence of deafness, this same environment cannot be duplicated in the mainstream setting. Aside from the decreased socialization of a deaf child in a hearing school, Deaf community advocates also worry that the disappearance of residential Deaf schools will lead to a weakening of Deaf culture and of the community.
Alternatives: What mainstreaming is not 
The alternatives to mainstreaming for special needs students are separation, inclusion, and excluding the student from school. Normally, the student's individual needs are the driving force behind selecting mainstreaming or another style of education.
Mainstreaming does not involve putting a child full-time in a special school.
Mainstreaming does not involve placing a child full-time in a regular classroom. A student who spends the entire day in a regular classroom with non-disabled peers is considered fully included. Most students with mild levels of disabilities such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, or with non-cognitive disabilities such as diabetes are fully included.
Mainstreaming does not involve teaching the child outside of school. A student who is taught in an institution (such as a hospital) or at home (such as while recovering from a serious illness) is excluded. Such a student may receive one-on-one instruction or may attend small group instruction. A student who is excluded from school may or may not have been expelled from the school.
History of mainstreaming in US schools 
Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted in 1975, U.S. public schools educated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities. Approximately 200,000 children with disabilities such as deafness or mental retardation lived in state institutions that provided limited or no educational or rehabilitation services, and more than one million children were excluded from school. Another 3.5 million children with disabilities attended school but did not receive the educational services they needed. Many of these children were segregated in special buildings or programs that neither allowed them to interact with non-disabled students nor provided them with even basic academic skills.
The EHA, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), required schools to provide specialized educational services to children with disabilities. The ultimate goal was to help these students live more independent lives in their communities, primarily by mandating access to the general education standards of the public school system.
Initially, children with disabilities were often placed in heterogeneous "special education" classrooms, making it difficult for any of their difficulties to be addressed appropriately. In the 1980s, the mainstreaming model began to be used more often as a result of the requirement to place children in the least restrictive environment (Clearinghouse, E. 2003). Students with relatively minor disabilities were integrated into regular classrooms, while students with major disabilities remained in segregated special classrooms, with the opportunity to be among normal students for up to a few hours each day. Many parents and educators favored allowing students with disabilities to be in classrooms along with their nondisabled peers.
In 1997, IDEA was modified to strengthen requirements for properly integrating students with disabilities. The IEPs must more clearly relate to the general-education curriculum, children with disabilities must be included in most state and local assessments, such as high school exit exams, and regular progress reports must be made to parents. All public schools in the U.S. are responsible for the costs of providing a Free Appropriate Public Education as required by federal law. Mainstreaming or inclusion in the regular education classrooms, with supplementary aids and services if needed, are now the preferred placement for all children. Children with disabilities may be placed in a more restricted environment only if the nature or severity of the disability makes it impossible to provide an appropriate education in the regular classroom.
See also 
- Inclusive classroom
- Special Assistance Program (Australian education)
- Least Restrictive Environment
- Resource room
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