The Current

Meeting all students' needs in inclusive classrooms is challenging, say teachers

"The needs are growing, and they are growing in our 'average' students as well ... We are expected to take on a far more parenting type of role."
With inclusivity being embraced more broadly by school systems across the country, teachers say they're struggling to meet the needs of all kids (Frannyanne/Shutterstock)

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Across the country, public schools are increasingly taking an approach known as "inclusion" where students with special needs — ADHD, autism; learning disabilities; giftedness; and mental or physical disabilities — are taught in the same classroom as other students.

It's an idea many people like — in theory. But in practice, schools are struggling with how to make it work.

Related: Education system failing kids with special needs, say parents

The expectations and demands on public schools is a hard challenge to meet, says Nova Scotia high school teacher Jo-Ann van Vulpen says.

"The needs are growing, and they are growing in our 'average' students as well ... We are expected to take on a far more parenting type of role," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Van Vulpen says parents of special needs students are frustrated but likewise she hears from all parents arguing their children's needs are not being met.

"I am very very fortunate to be in a school where our class sizes happen to be small ... but I still feel so often incompetent because I am not able to meet the variety of needs."

Carla Kolada has been teaching in elementary schools for 20 years. Her school in Nashwaak Valley, N.B. approaches the challenge with the mind set that every child learns differently.
A Toronto-area teachers' union launched a campaign in Sept. asking for more classroom support for special needs students. (Shutterstock)

"For us at our school it's about looking at each individual and seeing how we can then look at our curriculum and flexibility plan so that each learner can be reflected in that curriculum, she tells Tremonti.

"It's also educating the children in our class to value difference, and value that we all have a different path to understanding whatever it is we are focusing on."

It doesn't mean there aren't any challenges but Kolada says working with classroom communities, with students, specialists and getting support helps create a class environment where every child can feel they belong.

Kolada says that by seeing each child as an individual and "allowing each child to be part of a valued classroom," she has seen "amazing transformations."

There are so many types of special needs, the question in Julie Cornell's mind, who teaches Grade 6 and 7 in  Coquitlam, B.C. is what is reasonable to expect from a classroom teacher?

"Can they be a classroom teacher ... and also be an expert in ADHD, in behaviour and anxiety and threats and depression and all of the different things that you face?"

Cornell says classroom teachers may be able to help implement a good plan but needs the support of experts.

"It's a lot to ask one person to be all of those things."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith, Ines Colabrese and Yamri Taddese.