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Mainstreaming in the context of education is a term that refers to the practice of educating students with special needs in regular classes during specific time periods based on their skills.[1] This means special education is delivered outside the regular classroom, where the student with the special need leaves the regular classroom to attend smaller, and more intensive instructional sessions. Schools that practice mainstreaming believe that special needs students "belong" to the special education environment.[2]

Proponents of both mainstreaming and inclusion assert that educating children with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers fosters understanding and tolerance, better preparing students of all abilities to function in the world beyond school.[3]


Benefits to students with disabilities: It is believed that educating children with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers facilitates access to the general curriculum for children with disabilities. Studies show that students with disabilities who are mainstreamed have:

  • Higher academic achievement: Mainstreaming has shown to be more academically effective than exclusion practices.[4] For instance, The National Research Center on Learning Disabilities found that graduation rates of all disabled students in the U.S. increased by 14% from 1984 to 1997, although this report does not differentiate between students enrolled in mainstreaming, inclusive, or segregated programs.[5]
  • Higher self-esteem: By being included in a regular-paced education setting, disabled students have shown to be more confident and display qualities of raised self-efficacy. All students in California who went to a different school prior to attending a mainstreaming program were asked to fill out an assessment of their old school as compared to inclusion program. The assessments showed that out of all disabled students 96% felt they were more confident, 3% thought they had the same experience as an excluded student, and 1% felt they had less self-esteem. Overall, students felt that they were equal to their peers and felt that they should not be treated any differently.[6]
  • Better social skills: Any kind of inclusion practice, including mainstreaming, allows disabled students to learn social skills through observation, gain a better understanding of the world around them, and become a part of the “regular” community. Mainstreaming is particularly beneficial for children with autism. By interacting with same-aged “normal” children, children with autism were observed to be six times more likely to engage in social relations outside of the classroom.[7] Because children with autism spectrum disorders have severely restricted interests and abnormalities in communication and social interaction,[8] the increased interaction with typical children may be beneficial to them. The same 1999 study showed that students with Down’s syndrome were three times more likely to communicate with other people.

Benefits to non-disabled students: Many people believe that educating both disabled and non-disabled children together creates an atmoshpere of understanding and tolerance that better prepares students of all abilities to function in the world beyond school. Non-disabled students who engaged in an inclusive physical education program reported increases in self-concept, tolerance, self worth, and a better understanding of other people.[9] The students also reported that the inclusion program was important because it prepared them to deal with disability in their own lives.[10] Positive aspects that come from inclusion are often attributed to contact theory.[11] Contact theory asserts that frequent, meaningful, and pleasant interactions between people with differences tend to produce changes in attitude.[12]


Although mainstreaming in education has been shown to provide benefits, there are also disadvantages to the system.

Social issues: Compared to fully included students with disabilities, those who are mainstreamed for only certain classes or certain times may feel conspicuous or socially rejected by their classmates. They may become targets for bullying. Mainstreamed students may feel embarrassed by the additional services they receive in a regular classroom, such as an aide to help with written work or to help the student manage behaviors. Some students with disabilities may feel more comfortable in an environment where most students are working at the same level or with the same supports.

Costs: Schools are required to provide special education services but may not be given additional financial resources. The per-student cost of special education is high. The U.S.'s 2005 Special Education Expenditures Program (SEEP) indicates that the cost per student in special education ranges from a low of $10,558 for students with learning disabilities to a high of $20,095 for students with multiple disabilities. The average cost per pupil for a regular education with no special education services is $6,556. Therefore, the average expenditure for students with learning disabilities is 1.6 times that of a general education student. However, the cost of mainstreaming a student is generally much less than the cost of keeping that student in a special classroom.

Harm to typical students' academic education: One potentially serious disadvantage to mainstreaming, although one that can be mitigated with proper resources, is that a mainstreamed student may require much more attention from the teacher than non-disabled students in a general class. Time and attention may thus be taken away from the rest of the class to meet the needs of a single special needs student. The effect that a mainstreamed student has on the whole class depends strongly on the particular disabilities in question and the resources available for support.

Some parents also fear that general education standards will be lowered to the level of the least able students.

Harm to advanced students' academic education: It can be difficult or even impossible to simultaneously accommodate students with significant learning disabilities while also adequately challenging very advanced students. Beyond the lost opportunities to learn advanced academic skills, gifted students are typically bored by or even angry about being subjected to the constant repetition of basic skills which the least able students require. They will also lose the opportunity to develop persistence on difficult tasks, because they are never faced with tasks which they find difficult. In some cases, this situation will lead to classroom disruption, behavioral problems, and an inflated sense of self-importance.

Harm to disabled students' academic education: Parents fear that general education teachers do not have the training and skills to accommodate special needs students in a general education classroom setting. However, professional training and supportive services can usually mitigate these concerns.

Careful attention must be given as well to combinations of disabled students in a mainstreamed classroom. For example, a student with conduct disorder may not combine well with a student with autism, while putting many children with dyslexia in the same class may prove to be particularly efficient.

Alternatives: What mainstreaming is not

The alternatives to mainstreaming for special needs students are segregation, inclusion, and excluding the student from school. Normally, the student's individual needs are the driving force behind selecting mainstreaming or another style of education.

Mainstreaming does not involve putting a child full-time in a special school or a self-contained classroom which only serves disabled students. A student which does not spend any part of the day with non-disabled students is not mainstreamed; that student is segregated.

Mainstreaming does not involve placing a child full-time in a regular classroom. A student which spends the entire day in a regular classroom with non-disabled peers is considered fully included.

Mainstreaming does not involve teaching the child outside of school. A student who is taught in an institution (such as a hospital) or at home (such as while recovering from a serious illness) is excluded. Such a student may receive one-on-one instruction or may attend small group instruction. A student who is excluded from school may or may not have been expelled from the school.

History of mainstreaming in US schools

See also: Inclusion (disability rights)

Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted in 1975, U.S. public schools educated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities.[13] Approximately 200,000[13] children with disabilities such as deafness or mental retardation lived in state institutions that provided limited or no educational or rehabilitation services,[14] and more than one million children were excluded from school.[13] Another 3.5 million children with disabilities attended school but did not receive the educational services they needed.[13] Many of these children were segregated in special buildings or programs that neither allowed them to interact with nondisabled students nor provided them with even basic academic skills.

The EHA, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), required schools to provide specialized educational services children with disabilities. The ultimate goal was to help these students live more independent lives in their communities, primarily by mandating access to the general education standards of the public school system.

Initially, children with disabilities were often placed in heterogeneous "special education" classrooms, making it difficult for any of their difficulties to be addressed appropriately. In the 1980s, the mainstreaming model began to be used more often as a result of the requirement to place children in the least restrictive environment (Clearinghouse, E. 2003). Students with relatively minor disabilities were integrated into regular classrooms, while students with major disabilities remained in segregated special classrooms, with the opportunity to be among normal students for up to a few hours each day. Many parents and educators favored allowing disabled students to be in classrooms along with their nondisabled peers.

In 1997, IDEA was modified to strengthen requirements for properly integrating disabled students. The IEPs must more clearly relate to the general-education curriculum, children with disabilities must be included in most state and local assessments, such as high school exit exams, and regular progress reports must be made to parents. All public schools in the U.S. are responsible for the costs of providing a Free Appropriate Public Education as required by federal law. Mainstreaming or inclusion in the regular education classrooms, with supplementary aids and services if needed, are now the preferred placement for all children. Children with disabilities may be placed in a more restricted environment only if the nature or severity of the disability makes it impossible to provide an appropriate education in the regular classroom.

See also


  1. [1] Definition of mainstreaming, accessed October 11, 2007
  2. [2] Mainstreaming: "Special needs students "belong" in the special classroom", accessed October 16, 2007
  3. IDEA Funding Coalition, “IDEA Funding: Time for a New Approach,” Mandatory Funding Proposal, Feb. 20 2001, p. 2.
  4. Special Education Inclusion
  5. (2006). Mainstreaming Deaf Students. Independent School, 66, 6. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from EBSCOhost database.
  6. (2007). Twenty-five years of progress in educating children with disabilities through IDEA. National Research Center on Learning Disabilities. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from
  7. Wolfberg P.J., & Schuler A.L. (1999). Fostering peer interaction, imaginative play and spontaneous language in children with autism. Child Language Teaching & Therapy, 15, 41-52. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from EBSCOhost database.
  8. Tidmarsh L., & Volkmar F. (2003). Diagnosis and epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from
  9. Suomi, J., Collier D., & Brown L. (2003). Factors affecting the social experiences of students in elementary physical education classes. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 22(2), 186. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from EBSCOhost database.
  10. Block, M. E. (1999). Are children with disabilities receiving appropriate physical education?. Teaching Exceptional Children, 31(3) 18-23. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from Metalab database.
  11. Lieberman, L., James, A., & Ludwa, N. (2004). The impact of inclusion in general physical education for all students. Journal of Physical Education, 75(5), 37-55. Retrieved December 10, 2007, from Metalab database.
  12. Chu, D., Griffey, D. (1985). The contact theory of racial integration: The case of sport. Sociology of Sport Journal, 2(4), 323-333. Retrieved December 10, 2007, from Metalab database.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 NCD - Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind. URL accessed on 2008-02-13.
  14. Schiller, Ellen, Fran O’Reilly, Tom Fiore, Marking the Progress of IDEA Implementation, published by the Office of Special Education Programs. URL: , Retrieved June 26, 2007.

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