Study led by NYU researcher Leanna Stiefel looks at steps that education policymakers and practitioners can take “to make inclusion in fact feel … inclusive.”

Nationally, public schools are educating more and more students with disabilities within an inclusive, general education environment. But how do students perceive this inclusive school environment? Noting that there is little empirical evidence concerning the efficacy of inclusive practices, a New York University professor, Leanna Stiefel, along with three colleagues, examines in a new study whether New York City middle school students feel included within their schools, with teachers, and with peers – important indicators of a student’s socioemotional well-being and academic achievement. The study raises the question of whether, and what, steps can be taken by policy makers and practitioners “to make inclusion in fact feel … inclusive.”

Published today in Educational Researcher, the study is entitled “Who Feels Included in School? Examining Feelings of Inclusion Among Students With Disabilities.” It was led by Professor Stiefel, of NYU Wagner and NYU Steinhardt. Her co-authors included: Menbere Shiferaw (NYU Wagner); Amy Ellen Schwartz (Syracuse University/Maxwell), and Michael Gottfried (University of California, Santa Barbara). They seek to fill in the dearth of evidence on this question, relying on detailed, longitudinal administrative and student survey data on approximately 249,000 students in New York City middle schools.

The researchers looked in particular at how the responses to surveys differed across major disability classification of the respondent and across service delivery setting (self-contained – or exclusive – and inclusive.) Among the findings:

• Students with disabilities as a whole feel only slightly less included with their peers than their general education peers do in traditional schools. But they feel somewhat more included with their teachers and in school activities.

• Students with disabilities are quite heterogeneous, and students classified with an emotional disturbance (e.g., disruptive behaviors, academic disengagement) or other health impairment (e.g. ADHD) feel less included than other students with disabilities on all responses, reflecting what the authors of the study describe as a “newly surfaced source of risk” for an “especially vulnerable” group of students.

• There are no differences in feelings of inclusion between students with disabilities assigned inclusive or exclusive education services, except for students with low incidence disabilities, who feel more included when served by exclusive services. Thus, schools should pay attention to feelings of inclusion for students receiving services in all setting types, and not simply to students receiving the most, or least, inclusive services. Differences in exclusive and inclusive services may not always affect feelings of inclusion.
Professor Stiefel and her colleagues caution that they cannot say what outcomes would result if more students were educated in traditional schools instead of schools composed only of students with disabilities – or even what would result if more students with disabilities in traditional schools were assigned inclusive, or exclusive, services.

However, “Our focus on disparities in feelings of inclusion can support education practitioners in their efforts to identify areas that require attention to address the needs of all youth during this important life point” – the middle school years – they sum up.

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To interview Leanna Stiefel about the study, please contact the NYU press officer listed with this news release.

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