Inclusion is the educational practice of educating children with disabilities in classrooms with children without disabilities.
Prior to the PL 94-142, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, promised all children a public education for the first time. Prior to the law, enacted in 1975, only large districts provided any programming for special education children, and often the SPED kids were relegated to a room down near the boiler room, out of the way and out of sight.
The Education of All Handicapped Children Act established two important legal concepts based upon the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, FAPE, or Free and Appropriate Public Education, and LRE or Least Restrictive Environment. FAPE insured that the district was providing a free education that was appropriate for the child's need. Public insured that it was provided in a public school. LRE insured that the least restrictive placement was always sought. The first "default position" was meant to be in the child's neighborhood school in a classroom with typically developing "general education" students.
There has been a broad range of practices from state to state and district to district. Because of lawsuits and due process actions, there is increasing pressure on states to put special education students in general education classrooms for part or all of their day. Among the most noteworthy is Gaskins Vs. the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which forced the department to insure that districts place as many children with disabilities in general education classrooms for all or part of the day. That means more inclusive classrooms.
There are generally two models for inclusion: push in or full inclusion.
"Push In" has the special education teacher enter the classroom to provide instruction and support to children. The push in teacher will bring materials into the classroom. The teacher may work with the child on math during the math period, or perhaps reading during the literacy block. The push in teacher also often provides instructional support to the general education teacher, perhaps helping with differentiation of instruction.
"Full Inclusion" places a special education teacher as a full partner in a classroom with a general education teacher. The general education teacher is the teacher of record, and is responsible for the child, even though the child may have an IEP. There are strategies to help children with IEPs succeed, but there are also many challenges. No doubt not all teachers are well suited to partner in full inclusion, but skills for collaboration can be learned.
Differentiation is an incredibly important tool to help children with disabilities succeed in an inclusive classroom. Differentiation involves providing a range of activities and using a variety of strategies for children with different abilities, from learning disabled to gifted, to successfully learn in the same classroom.
A child receiving special education services may participate fully in the same program as the general education children with supports from the special education teacher, or may participate in a limited way, as they are able. In some rare occasions, a child may work exclusively on goals in their IEP in a general education classroom alongside typically developing peers. For inclusion to truly succeed, special educators and general educators need to work closely together and compromise. It definitely requires that teachers have training and support to overcome the challenges they must meet together.