Who Should Participate In an Inclusive Setting and How Does the Process Work?

Answered by Audrey Meissner, MEd, BCBA
New Haven Learning Centre, Toronto, Canada

Including a child with autism into a regular education classroom is the hope of many parents and professionals alike. Early intensive intervention based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) permits some children to participate successfully in regular education settings. Why do certain children benefit from these settings, and others not? Using readiness criteria as an assessment tool can help determine who should participate in the inclusive setting. Specifically, knowing what the child is expected to be familiar with in the regular education classroom and ensuring that those skills (or a portion of them) have been acquired, will increase the likelihood of success. Observation of the less-restrictive environment is critical for determining the skills the child with autism will need to have in order to benefit from that setting. Observing the inclusive setting will also aid in the selection of individualized goals to add to the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), to help prepare the student for the new classroom. Teaching necessary skills in advance of the classroom placement will give the student an advantage and will help ensure a smooth transition.

Evaluating skills students should possess in order to benefit from less restrictive settings can help professionals make educated decisions when placing students with autism in regular education classrooms. These readiness criteria can be developed by directly observing the potential classroom setting, as well as by reviewing the provincial or state curriculum requirements, and can help predict whether or not the child will learn and play an active role in that classroom.

Readiness criteria should include several domains:

  • Receptive language – e.g., follows two-step and other complex instructions, responds to generalized instructions and is able to learn from novel instructors
  • Expressive language – e.g., asks simple questions to obtain information from adults and peers; recalls experiences
  • Academic – e.g., completes or shows potential to complete grade level curriculum; retains information taught during group instruction
  • Social skills – e.g., engages in simple exchanges of conversation with peers and teachers; responds to and initiates peer play activities
  • General behavior – e.g., engages in low to zero rates of stereotypic and disruptive behavior

However, readiness criteria are not yet research-based and should not necessarily preclude a student from enrolling in a regular education classroom. Consequently, these criteria should only be used as a guide. Relevant data (e.g., group instruction, academic skills, social skills, inappropriate behavior, etc.) from the child’s current educational placement can also be used to help predict whether or not a student has the necessary skills to successfully participate and benefit from an inclusive setting. These criteria can also be used as a monitoring tool in the inclusive setting to assess whether the child is acquiring new skills.

Once it has been determined that a child is a good candidate for an inclusive placement, then an appropriate school needs to be selected, preferably in the child’s neighborhood, so that he/she can be close to new friends and other community activities. An appropriate school is one that:

  • accepts children with autism
  • is open to the principles of applied behavior analysis
  • has school staff who are amenable to having a trained support person in the classroom
  • has a suitable teacher (e.g., uses structured lessons, is able to provide subtle prompts if needed, encourages problem solving, follows through on demands, communicates openly with shadow both to give and receive recommendations, has the ability to effectively adapt or modify curriculum to meet the students’ needs, etc).

It is important to meet with school staff to discuss the student’s strengths, areas where the child will need support, educational goals selected for student, the role of the support person versus the role of teacher and to review data sheets as well as data collection.


Once inclusion has begun, an individual with ABA expertise can provide ongoing collaboration, training and support for the teacher and school staff, as well as support for the student. Data collection occurs daily at the inclusion site to ensure the student is acquiring pre-selected goals, and it will help determine when to systematically fade support, based on student performance.

When goals are selected, a data sheet is created for the shadow and/or teacher to use within the inclusion classroom. Data are graphed and analyzed daily. Data analysis focuses on areas that can help determine if the child is benefiting from the placement. Specifically, it is important to assess if the child is following teacher directions, responding to peers, learning the information presented to the group, following classroom routines, as well as measuring the child’s level of independent functioning versus how often the child requires prompting.

Realistically, not all students are able to transition to a regular elementary classroom, due in part to the challenging academic curriculum, as well as the social demands. In light of this, inclusion in less restrictive settings need not only involve general education classrooms, but can also include special education classrooms or private schools. Transition to private schools for children with learning disabilities can also be very successful, given that the curriculum may be modified and tailored to the needs of the student and more time may be spent with each subject. In addition, the student-teacher ratio is usually smaller, which allows more individualized attention.

In the end, there is no exact formula to assess who should participate in an inclusive setting; however, taking the time to assess the child and the placement can make the transition as smooth as possible. Setting realistic expectations can help students (and parents) avoid frustrations that any child can encounter when faced with change. Using readiness criteria and data-based decisions can help make a student’s experience in an inclusive setting successful.

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