Perceptions of difference in the inclusive classroom

This is an abridged version of a piece of work I did in 2008 whilst studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Studies in Education, with a focus on Inclusive Education. This version was published in 2011 in the Spring edition of SLD Experience.

Within the broad context of the development of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision, policy makers and practitioners have repeatedly tried to resolve the questions surrounding inclusive educational provision, something which is continuing within the current coalition government and the stated removal of the bias towards mainstream education for those with special educational needs. Within the context explored in this article, inclusive opportunities are generally delivered through link programmes between the school in which the pupils are based and local mainstream schools, with the intention of overcoming a perceived socio-academic divide between the two locations (Shevlin 2003).This provides access to what has been described as ‘cautious’ or ‘responsible’ inclusive opportunities (Evans and Lunt 2002), recognizing that the learning difficulties faced by some children makes their permanent inclusion in mainstream settings prohibitively challenging.
As a research practitioner based within a school for children with severe learning difficulties aged between two and nineteen, I have been involved in the development and delivery of inclusive opportunities within both mainstream and special school locations. Frank Wise School has always considered inclusion to be at the heart of its ethos and as such has had a policy that every child should have access to a half day in mainstream education every week for over fifteen years. This is delivered through whole class collaboration with mainstream partner schools, where the pupils will work together on shared activities. Frank Wise has direct links with a total of nine mainstream schools, with some schools having more than one arrangement. These links not only provide opportunities for our students to work with their peers within mainstream schools, but also provides opportunities for mainstream pupils to come and work with their peers in a special school environment as well. The sessions are generally based around non-core subjects, where the potential for effectively differentiated learning objectives is greatest, especially when working with older groups of pupils. It is also considered essential to ensure that the groups within the sessions are fully inclusive, rather than having mainstream and special school pupils working in parallel, in order to actively foster collaboration between them. This has provided a useful insight into the dynamic created by introducing one cohort of pupils, with one range of social and academic needs, into a classroom containing a different cohort of pupils with different social and academic needs. The impact of mixing mainstream pupils with children with learning difficulties in this way has been explored in ‘“They’re gonna think we’re the dumb lot because we go to the special school” A teacher research study of how mainstream and special school pupils view each other.’ (Griffiths 2007) In this work the author recognizes the challenge created by the combination of ‘Special school pupils with low self-esteem and a group of mainstream pupils who inherently perceived themselves as the superior of the two groups’ (Pg 84), and draws attention to the tension between the child’s ‘right to inclusion and the right to personal security and self-affirmation’(Pg 85). This was considered from the point of view of a secondary inclusion link. Concerns regarding the social impact of inclusion have also been raised with the recognition that ‘there is strong international evidence that included pupils who have SEN are less socially accepted and more socially rejected than mainstream pupils’. (Frederikson et al. 2004) The purpose of this article is to look at similar considerations from the point of view of mainstream children in both the primary and secondary age phases experiencing whole class based inclusion links. The focus on the mainstream voice is not intended to negate the voice of children with learning difficulties, but rather to further explore whether mainstream pupils perceive difference within inclusive environments.
The research described here was completed with two groups of mainstream pupils and paid due consideration to the ethical guidelines as set out in BERA (2004). There were six pupils in each group (three male, three female). Group 1 were members of a Year 1 class in a maintained primary school. At the time the study was conducted, a group of nine Frank Wise School pupils of the same age had been visiting their class half a day a week for approximately six months. During the visits, pupils from Frank Wise School and the mainstream primary school had been engaged in a series of artistic activities in which the pupils worked together to produce shared pieces of work. These sessions generally lasted for about one and a half hours and also involved some elements of socially focussed interaction such as break time or cooperative play.
Group 2 were all from year seven of a maintained secondary school. The focus of the activities in these sessions were around the practical skills associated with horticulture and  placed an emphasis upon collaboratively working towards shared learning objectives. The mainstream schools were selected because they had both been involved with Frank Wise School in providing inclusive learning opportunities for a number of years. The specific year groups were selected with the intention of obtaining views and attitudes from pupils at the beginning of their primary and secondary education, to provide the opportunity for comparative analysis.
Before the interview started the context for the enquiry was set and attempts were made to deconstruct the teacher pupil dynamic. This involved requesting that I was addressed by my first name and also by explaining that they could say exactly what they wanted to as they would not be identified within the context of the research. We also spent some time talking about completely unrelated topics such as what music we liked and what football teams we supported. This was with the intention of breaking down any barriers and trying to reduce the extent to which the children may be tempted to say what they felt I may want to hear. This was something that was of particular concern given that the subject being covered is one with many layers of social expectation and complexity of attitudes and beliefs held.
The interviews were recorded, with the permission of the school, and the contents of them reviewed using a Discourse Analysis approach. The structure of the interviews followed a version of the ‘IRF Exchange’, with the interaction (Question), being followed by an individual response, which was in turn followed with an opportunity for the group to reflect on the response and give their feedback. As with the deconstruction of the teacher pupil dynamic, the intention was to try to ensure that the children did not rely too heavily on a perceived view of what response was either ‘correct’, or desired.
Having interviewed the groups it appeared that there were a number of different ways in which difference was being identified. One layer of identification was defined by institutional and locational difference rather than by any cognitive or learning based comparison:

We want to be happy because we like the Frank Wise.
(Mainstream Primary pupil 1 – Male)

Whilst this may have been a confusion derived from the fact that Frank Wise School’s name is potentially also that of a person, it was reiterated in such a way that it was clear that the differential label being ascribed to the children with SEN was not focussed on their level of ability, but rather where they were taught.

This perception was also expressed by the Secondary age pupils who made up Group 2:

When we say we’re going to see the Frank Wise….
(Mainstream Secondary pupil 1 – Male)

The idea that the pupil identity can be formed around the location in which they are taught rather than any clearly expressed perception of superiority or inferiority on a cognitive level, provides an added dimension to the findings of Griffiths (2007) whose research cohort of both mainstream and SEN pupils focussed primarily on physical and intellectual difference. However it does perhaps strengthen the argument for inclusive education as expressed by Shevlin (2003) in that inclusion works to “overcome the traditional divide between mainstream and special schools.”, with the focus in these instances being on where the children were taught, rather than how or why they were different.

The view that there was a significant difference between the levels of ability and the change in perceived role within the classroom, as addressed by Griffiths (2007) and Terpstra and Tamura (2007), was also prevalent amongst both groups of children. There was a clear tendency to view the children with SEN as needing to be cared for:

We get to help them.
(Mainstream Secondary pupil 2 – Female)

I help them when they are sad.
(Mainstream Primary pupil 2 – Female)

Through this broadly held view, it seems that the social dynamic is being changed from one of a chronological equality defined by age, to one of intellectual inequality defined by who can and cannot perform certain tasks.

This withdrawal from an age related sense of similarity is reinforced through the comment by one child that:

….the one in the green top pushed me. I didn’t do anything to her ‘cause she’s only a little kid.
(Mainstream Primary pupil 3 – Female)

In this instance the children were both of the same age, but the mainstream child perceived there to be a chronological difference because of the behaviour, and a failure to conform to preconceived classroom conventions. The difference becomes a justification for that which does not fit with expected models of behaviour and this in turn is related to age, and the possible belief that inappropriate behaviours are more acceptable in the young, rather than being related to any intellectual difference.

It was also noticeable that during these conversations that children with SEN are rarely talked of using their names, but instead are referred to in generic terms such as ‘them’ and ‘they’. This could be explained from the point of view of lack of familiarity, although these groups had been working together on a weekly basis for approximately six months. Instead it may appear to imply that children with SEN are being collectively viewed and generalised, rather than seen as individuals. Again this occurs with both sets of mainstream children, although it was more prevalent in the answers from the younger children such as:

They cry (indistinct) because when they can’t do it and they need some help they cry.
(Mainstream Primary pupil 4 – Male)

It was also apparent that the perceptions of difference became amplified when the children were discussing small group or whole class activities, rather than 1:1 interactions. The same primary age child makes the following comments, the first relating to a 1:1 interaction and the second when discussing a group situation:

I didn’t do anything to her ‘cause she’s only a little kid.
(Mainstream Primary pupil 3 – Female)

I don’t like it when they hurt my feelings……
(Mainstream Primary pupil 3 – Female)

It seemed that on an individual basis the difference, in this case perceived as chronological, was identified and used to reconcile the inappropriate behaviour. However in the group situation the difference was not explicitly identified and the outcome was that the behaviour was not excused.

It would seem, from the contributions of both groups of children, that not only do mainstream pupils clearly perceive difference in inclusive situations, but furthermore the nature and significance of that difference is a fluid construct that changes with the nature of the context in which it occurs.

As identified through the analysis of the pupil participant comments, the perceptions of difference expressed by both groups are varied and affected by external factors, such as the group dynamic at the time and the tasks being completed.
The idea that difference can be both identified and assumed based upon a pupil’s locality is an aspect that was strongly represented by both groups. This manifested itself through the description of pupils in generalised terms such as ‘them’ and ‘they’, or by using the special school’s name to describe the children, rather than the use of pupil names. This type of social interaction, with pupils individual identity being replaced by a locational identity, is commented upon by Terpestra and Tamura (2007) through the assertion that, ‘simply providing children with disabilities the opportunity to interact with typically developing peers often is not sufficient for meaningful interaction to occur’. Something which we as practitioners committed to inclusive practices are very aware of. The interactions are described by the pupil participants in a way that can be interpreted as being with representatives of an institution, as opposed to with individuals. The children themselves were perceived as being an extension of the institution they attend, a different institution to their mainstream peers. While this was not expressed negatively as identified by Griffiths (2007) it still highlights the extent to which locational difference can attach itself to the children who attend special schools. This is complementary to the comments of Lewis (2002) who identifies that children around the age of six identify peers with learning difficulties primarily in physical terms rather than cognitive ones. However in this instance the identification was focussed on locational rather than physical difference. This may be because the groups of pupils from Frank Wise involved, happened to be children without any clear physical indictor of difference. Furthermore without the intellectual capability to readily identify cognitive difference due to their age, (Lewis 2002), it could be viewed that the mainstream pupils reverted to the only conceptually concrete difference, the Frank Wise School pupils’ main educational location.

Another point of difference expressed during the interviews was that of age. Whilst the inclusive groups are made up of children the same age, it became clear that the younger children perceived there to be a chronological difference. This again is a theme explored by Lewis (2002). Here the author identifies that children below the ages of seven or eight find it difficult to understand that disability does not often change dramatically. This reflects the comments of children within the younger age group, who excused socially inappropriate behaviour because the children exhibiting the behaviour were perceived as being of a different age. This idea that difference is something that a child will grow out of or that will change significantly, is also commented upon by Messiou (2008) who relates pupil’s perceptions of special needs to an illness.

The complex relationship between the mainstream child, their own self perception, and their perception of the Frank Wise School children they work with, appears to change depending upon the various social and academic contexts experienced. This corresponds to the observation by Lewis (2002), that children ‘make different and individually referenced interpretations of why children with different degrees of difficulty in learning behave in particular ways’. This was related by the mainstream pupils to the nature of the work being undertaken, but also appeared to change in response to the social composition of the interactions. Inappropriate behaviour would be tolerated in one to one interactions and then not in group interactions. The more complex group social context appeared to make it difficult to consider the behaviour with regard to their previously expressed identification of difference.

Within inclusive contexts, one of the common themes when discussing concerns is that social fears outweigh academic ones (Frederikson et al. 2004). It is also important to acknowledge that inclusion must be viewed from the point of view of the benefits for all involved, not just the children with learning difficulties (O’Connor 2007). When discussing the things that the mainstream pupils did not like about their involvement in the inclusive work, the younger children commented primarily upon individual incidents or stated that they liked all of it. However the children from the mainstream secondary school commented that they sometimes experience a level of teasing from their own mainstream peers, as a result of their involvement in inclusive experiences. Despite this the pupils expressed strong support for their participation. Whilst within the context of this brief investigation it is difficult to look at this in depth, it is important to recognise that this is a issue that would benefit from greater exploration. If we consider that within the context of inclusive educational opportunities, the ‘interests of all pupils must be safeguarded.’ (DfES 2002), then future research into this area must be mindful of the wider and more socially complex implications of inclusive educational opportunities. It must also ensure that as the bias towards mainstream education begins to be removed, that we do not lose sight of the vital role that carefully delivered inclusive opportunities provide in breaking down barriers and challenging the perceptions of children with special educational needs.

BERA (2004) ‘Revised ethical guidelines for educational research’, Southwell, BERA
DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION AND SKILLS (2007) ‘The statistical first release – Special educational needs in England’ London, DfES
DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION AND SKILLS (2001) ‘Inclusive Schooling Children with Special Educational Needs’, London, DfES
EVANS, J. and LUNT, I. (2002) ‘Inclusive education: are there limits?’, European Journal of Special Needs Education Vol. 17 Number 1, pp. 1 – 14
FREDERIKSON, N., SIMMONDS, E., EVANS, L. and SOULSBY, C. (2007) ‘ Assessing the social and affective outcomes of inclusion’, British Journal of Special Education Vol. 34 Number 2, pp. 105 – 115
FREDERIKSON, N., DUNSMUIR, S., LANG, J. and MONSEN, J, J. (2004) ‘Mainstream – special school inclusion partnerships: pupil, parent and teacher perspectives’, International Journal of Inclusive Education Vol. 8 Number 1, pp. 37 – 57
GIBB, K., TUNBRIDGE, D., CHUA, A. AND FREDERIKSON, N. (2007) ‘Pathways to Inclusion: Moving from special school to mainstream’, Educational Psychology in Practice Vol. 23 Number 2, pp. 109 – 127
GRIFFITHS, E. (2007) ‘’They’re gonna think we’re the dumb lot because we go to the special school’ A teacher research study of how mainstream and special school pupils view each other’, Research in Education Number 78, pp. 78 – 87
HANKO, G. (2003) ‘Towards an inclusive school culture – but what happened to Elton’s ‘affective curriculum’?’, British Journal of Special Education Vol. 30 Number 3, pp. 125 – 131
LEWIS, A. (2002) ‘The development of children’s ideas about others’ difficulties in learning’, British Journal of Special Education Vol. 29 Number 2, pp. 59 – 65
MESSIOU, K. (2008) ‘’Encouraging children to think in more inclusive ways’, British Journal of Special Education Vol. 35 Number 1, pp. 26 – 32
MURPHY, E., GREY, I, M. and HONAN, R. (2005) ‘Co-operative learning for students with difficulties in learning: a description of models and guidelines for implementation’, British Journal of Special Education Vol. 32 Number 3, pp. 157 – 164
O’CONNOR, U. (2007) ‘Parental concerns on inclusion: The Northern Ireland perspective’, International Journal of Inclusive Education Vol. 11 Number 5 – 6, pp. 535 – 550
QUICKE, J. (2003) ‘Educating the pupil voice’, Support for Learning Vol. 18 Number 2, pp. 51 – 57
SHEVILN, M. (2003) ‘Preparing for contact between mainstream pupils and their counterparts who have severe and profound and multiple learning disabilities’, British Journal of Special Education Vol. 30 Number 2, pp. 93 – 99
TERPSTRA, J, E. and TAMURA, R. (2007) ‘Effective social interaction strategies for inclusive settings’, Early Childhood Education Journal Vol. 35 pp. 405 – 411
UNESCO (1994) ‘The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education’, Paris, UNESCO
WARNOCK, M. (1978) ‘Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children and Handicapped Young People’, London, HMSO


One thought on “Perceptions of difference in the inclusive classroom

  1. Pingback: Manifesto for change | SENCology

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