One of the foundations of federal special education law is that students with disabilities should be educated "to the maximum extent appropriate" with their peers who do not have disabilities.
But some researchers have recently found that young children without disabilities are negatively affected when they're educated in the same classrooms as students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
In looking at a nationally representative sample of students, researchers have found that the young children who shared a classroom with pupils who have emotional and behavioral disabilities had more absences, lower math and reading scores in kindergarten and 1st grade, and were more likely to act out in the classroom or struggle with social skills.
Those effects have not been widely explored. Some of the most recent studies have all been led by Michael A. Gottfried, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues.
Gottfried drew on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Kindergarten, also known as the ECLS-K, which tracked children from kindergarten through 8th grade.
"I knew it would be controversial because the results ... do show a direct negative effect," Gottfried said. "I don't think that kids with disabilities should be segregated as they have in the past, but that doesn't mean we should ignore what the results are saying."
Gottfried cautioned that the results are preliminary, and that future research should dig deeper into the issue, looking at factors such as the severity of a child's disability, the backgrounds of students both with and without disabilities, the level of support available for teachers, and how inclusion is actually being implemented.
If policymakers and school officials just focus on exclusion, he said, "I think that readers are missing the point. The point is, here is a situation that we have and what systems of supports can improve outcomes for everyone?"
Researchers have found that young students who do not have disabilities experience negative impacts when they are educated in the same classroom as peers who have emotional or behavioral disabilities. These studies have all used a nationally representative sample of students called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten cohort to gauge the impact of inclusion. Here's what those studies have found.
"Spillover Effects of Inclusion of Classmates with Emotional Problems on Test Scores in Early Elementary School" Author: Jason Fletcher Journal: Journal of Policy Analysis and Management Year: 2010 Findings: Having a classmate with an identified emotional disability is associated with lower test scores in reading and in math for kindergartners and 1st graders who do not have a disability, especially for African-American and Hispanic students. Students in full-inclusion classrooms are affected more than those in classrooms that practice partial inclusion. The effects themselves are not large, but Fletcher hypothesized that the aggregate effects may be substantial because nearly 10 percent of students in the sample have a classmate with an emotional or behavioral disability.
"Classmates With Disabilities and Students' Noncognitive Outcomes" Author: Michael A. Gottfried Year: 2014 Findings: Young students with a greater number of classmates with educational disabilities have higher numbers of problem behaviors and worse social skills. The effects are largest for students who have classmates with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The negative effects were less pronounced for students with high academic abilities, and for those in classes taught by an experienced teacher.
"The Effect of Having Classmates with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and the Protective Nature of Peer Gender" Author: Michael A. Gottfried and Aletha Harven Year: 2015 Findings: When it comes to academic achievement, being in a classroom with a higher percentage of girls was found to lessen the negative "spillover effect" of having a classmate with an emotional or behavioral disability. Researchers theorized that girls may exhibit greater levels of emotional support and acceptance of diversity.
"Does the Presence of a Classmate With Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities Link to Other Students' Absences in Kindergarten?" Author: Michael A. Gottfried et al. Journal: Early Childhood Research Quarterly Year: 2016 Findings: Students who had a classmate with an emotional or behavioral disability missed approximately half a day more of school than students who did not have such a classmate. The odds that a student was chronically absent were 1.42 times greater for students who had a classmate with an emotional or behavioral disability.
Inclusion has long been a fundamental tenet of special education. In the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, lawmakers made their intent clear: Students are presumed to be educated in a general education class unless their disability prevents that. While recognizing that "every decision made for a child with a disability must be made on the basis of what that individual child needs, ... when the decision is made to educate the child separately, an explanation of that decision will need, at a minimum, to be stated as part of the child's [individualized education program]," said a Senate committee tasked with rewriting the law.
For such a bedrock plank of special education, however, the effectiveness of full inclusion for all students is still debated.
One often-cited study is a 2002 paper led by Eric A. Hanushek, a leader in economic analysis of education issues. That paper found that full inclusion boosts the math achievement of special education students, particularly those with learning or emotional disabilities, without causing any academic drag to students without disabilities. That study focused on students who were in the same grade, but not necessarily in the same class.
In 2009, Jason Fletcher, currently a professor of public affairs with a specialty in the economics of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, became one of the first researchers to take a closer look at what he called the "spillover effects" of inclusion on nondisabled students in the same classrooms. At the time, he focused on students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, because integrating such students into the classroom presents unique challenges.
Using the same nationally representative sample of students that Gottfried would later use and focusing on reading and math scores, Fletcher found that the negative spillover effects were more "robust and larger for reading" and had more of an impact on African-American and Hispanic nondisabled students in low-income schools. Fletcher also reported that score gaps between Hispanic and white students were larger at the end of the school year in classrooms with students with emotional or behavioral disabilities than they were in demographically similar classrooms without such students. The same pattern held for the gaps between white and black students.
Following on Fletcher's work, Gottfried and colleagues conducted three separate investigations to test for spillover effects on nondisabled students in areas other than academics. Findings were published in 2014, 2015, and, most recently, this year in Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
They pointed to significant effects for absenteeism rates and other noncognitive outcomes among nondisabled students. The noncognitive outcomes included both externalizing behaviors—such as arguing, fighting, impulsivity, disruptive behaviors—and internalizing behaviors—anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, sadness, and self-control.
For instance, the number of absences reported among nondisabled peers of pupils with emotional and behavioral disturbances in kindergarten increased by a half day on average. (The data on absenteeism and noncognitive outcomes were all based on teacher reports during the spring of the kindergarten year.) And, like Fletcher, Gottfried and his colleagues also pointed to a potential larger cumulative effect.
"While this doesn't seem excessive, a classroom of 18 students would aggregately experience a loss of nine full instructional days in a single year of schooling," the researchers write in their 2016 study, which focused on absenteeism. Also, "the disruptive effect of these absences on the teaching and learning environment would be further exaggerated by … creating a situation in which the teacher must repeatedly revisit old content for the benefit of those who missed its introduction instead of always moving on to newer, more advanced material," they conclude.
Although actual research on the benefits of including students with such disabilities has been scarce over the past 10 years, there is general agreement that educating students with disabilities in inclusive settings results in positive academic and learning outcomes, social acceptance, consistent interactions and friendships for students with disabilities, and enhanced understanding of diversity for their peers.
Bringing up the issue of spillover effects is sensitive for advocates who fought long and hard for mainstreaming students with disabilities into regular classrooms and some note that the IDEA is civil rights legislation, which means that separating students from their peers is a form of segregation. And they point to a long line of studies and advocacy efforts that have built a case for successful inclusion of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
Researchers and advocates also note that the effects in these newer studies were small, and that it's hard to tell what behaviors might have been prompting this effect. It's fairly rare for young children to be diagnosed with an emotional or behavioral disorder, which suggests these children's behavior might have been unusually severe to be picked up in this research, said Dr. Mark Mahone, a co-director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education, based at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
Lisa Carey, an education consultant for Kennedy Krieger Institute, works directly with two pre-K-8 schools in Baltimore on practices to support inclusion of students with disabilities. She noted that many of the negative effects on students in these studies were shown to be mitigated when teachers had special education experience.
In Gottfried's 2016 study, for example, students who had both a classmate with an emotional disability and a less-experienced teacher had more absences than students who were taught by more-experienced teachers. Also, students who had a classmate with an emotional disability and whose teachers were certified in special education had fewer absences than students whose teachers were not certified in this area.
Hanushek also said that the current research did not sufficiently control for issues such as whether students who were already struggling tended to be placed in classmates with peers who had disabilities, or whether the children without disabilities had other challenges that might have affected these outcomes.
"They say they've controlled for these factors, but these are difficult things to control for," he said.
Another expert, George Sugai, the co-director of the National Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, said that, while spillover effects are "probably real," the focus should be on the larger classroom environment.
"The question becomes how significant [the negative effects] are and how effective those teaching environments are where those spillover effects are happening," he said.
At the federally funded interventions and supports center Sugai helps head, schools can partner to receive support and coaching on how to best equip their teachers to address the needs of students exhibiting disruptive behaviors, with or without disabilities. "Effective classrooms tend to have better capacity to respond to those spillover effects than noneffective classrooms," he said.
While the academic debates are resurging, the challenge of including students with emotional and behavioral issues in regular classrooms is not new to teachers.
Stacey Campbell, a general education kindergarten teacher at the Eagle Academy Public Charter School in the District of Columbia, explained that, despite taking some special education courses, the lack of practical understanding of disabilities often leaves her not knowing how to best support her students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. She acknowledges needing help because she worries about the rest of her students.
"A lot of times the specialists who come in ... are only worried about that one child but, as a general education teacher, I have to worry about that child and my other students," said Campbell. "I saw my other students quickly pick up or emulate the [disruptive] behaviors. Some of it was reaction, like, if they got hit, they were going to hit back because they can only take so much of name-calling or aggression, and that's when it quickly escalates into more aggressive behavior. It was like a fire and spark, and it kept going," she added.
Ruth Ryder, the acting director of the office of special education programs at the U.S. Department of Education echoed the need for better teacher preparation: "Training for general education teachers and school leaders is usually void of any classroom-management courses."
Her office has tried to plug that knowledge gap by releasing a guide last year that compiles resources, including best-evidence practices for children with emotional behavioral disabilities, for educators and parents to assist with understanding IDEA's provisions and their classroom applications.
Campbell said educators should continue to openly discuss the challenges involved in meeting the needs of both the students with emotional or behavioral disturbances and their classmates.
"I think that we do shy away from it and I feel like it's one of those things that it's going to keep prevailing," she said.
Not talking about it "is part of the reason why the teachers get burned out and get out of the classroom," Campbell added.