Many families and educators strongly advocate mainstreaming students with intellectual disabilities (ID, formerly mental retardation). Mainstreaming refers to placing children with disabilities into regular classrooms. They usually have additional supports as well. Mainstreaming allows children with ID to receive education alongside their non-disabled peers. However, the majority of students with IDs are not mainstreamed. Most attend schools for children with special needs. A minority are home schooled.
Mainstreaming is an appealing, inclusive approach. It has both advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage of mainstreaming is that it provides a natural, real-world environment. In such an environment, important life skills are learned.
A regular classroom has several real-world learning advantages. First, mainstreaming offers many rewarding opportunities for socialization. Many children with ID have inadequate social skills. These social limitations ultimately hinder their success in life. Quite logically, social skills can only be learned and acquired in a social environment. A regular classroom provides the ideal social climate. For instance, students who have disorders such as Prader-Willie syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and Down syndrome can develop excellent social skills through social imitation. These students truly benefit by observing and imitating their peers in a regular classroom.
Second, mainstreaming exposes all children to diversity. Such diversity is naturally encountered in the real world. Whether or not a child has an ID, children will eventually encounter many different people throughout their lives. Some people will be from similar cultures and backgrounds. Other people will not. A school setting is the ideal environment to notice and adjust to these differences. This real-world preparation is advantageous. It promotes the ability to embrace human diversity. These skills are critical for getting along with co-workers and neighbors.
Third, mainstreaming in a regular classroom may inspire and challenge students with intellectual disabilities to excel. Without sufficient challenge, people do not develop and strengthen their abilities. A traditional classroom provides more opportunities for these challenging experiences.
However, mainstreaming is more a philosophy of inclusion. It is intended to promote the greater good. Whether or not this ideal is realized is another matter entirely. As school budget cuts deepen, teachers are asked to do more with less. Public schools struggle to provide adequate education to those without specialized needs. Budgetary restrictions make it unrealistic to expect students with ID will receive the attention they need and deserve within a regular classroom. Moreover, many teachers in regular classrooms have not received training in specialized educational techniques.
Some people also argue that mainstreaming is unfair to average students. This is because the teachers' time and attention is spent with the children who require more individualized instruction. This leaves the rest of the students to fend for themselves. Conversely, others argue that average students benefit from the inclusion of special needs children. It provides teaching and coaching opportunities to these more advanced students. This simulates a more natural environment for everyone.
In summary, the best educational setting is the one that best helps a child to achieve the goals of their IEP. Each child has different goals, abilities, and needs. There is no one best setting for all children. Parents and educators must realistically appraise the learning environments and resources available in their communities. Then, they can make a wise selection that best matches the child's needs and circumstances. Placement decisions should be reevaluated periodically. Children's needs and circumstances change over time.