Perceptions of Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in the Middle School

Over the last several decades, discussion regarding the most appropriate methods for educating children with disabilities has abounded (Itkonen, 2007). The term inclusion arose as a result of this discussion, but, until recently, its definition had been left open to the discretion of individual schools and educators (Itkonen, 2007; Ryndak, Jackson, & Billingsley, 2000).

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Comprehensive guidance and support services meet the needs of young adolescents.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002) and the reissuance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) required that the definition of inclusion become more concrete and evident in the daily school environment (Itkonen, 2007; Wehmeyer, Lattin, Lapp-Rincker, & Agran, 2003; Matzen, Ryndak, & Nakao, 2010; Ryndak et al., 2000). So, what is inclusion, and how has it affected the stakeholders in education? We begin by examining the major components of inclusion in a well-established program, and then, provide parents, educators, and students’ perceptions of inclusion in the middle school setting.

Defining Inclusion

Strengthened by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002), the purpose of the reissued Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) is to ensure that all students are given an equal education in the least restrictive environment regardless of intellectual, physical, or emotional exceptionality. Inclusion occurs at various levels and in various contexts throughout the school day based on the individual needs of the learners and the availability of school resources. York operationally defined inclusion as:

… involving students’ attending the same schools as siblings and neighbors, being members in general education classrooms with chronological age-appropriate classmates, having individualized and relevant learning objectives, and being provided with the support necessary to learn (e.g., special education and related services). (As cited in King, 2003, p. 152)

Ryndak, Jackson, and Billingsley (2000) surveyed educational experts (n = 47) to gather definitions of inclusion for students with disabilities. In their study, experts in the field of school inclusion were considered authors of relevant articles in peer-reviewed journals or scholarly books. These educational experts included university faculty, teachers, specialists, consultants, and a doctoral student. They identified seven components in the definitions of inclusion. Of these seven, five components related to the inclusion of individual students with moderate to severe disabilities in the general education setting, and two addressed the “systemic concept or philosophy” of inclusion (p.108). The five components specific to students in general education included: (a) placement in natural general education settings; (b) all students together for instruction and learning; (c) supports and modifications within general education to meet appropriate learner outcomes; (d) belongingness, equal membership, acceptance, and being valued; and (e) collaborative integrated services by education teams.

Ryndak and colleagues (2000) found that these experts believed inclusion students should be placed in general education settings surrounded by general education students of approximately the same age. They stated that inclusion should occur on a regular basis for the majority of the school day as if the inclusion students did not have a disability. The experts indicated that students with disabilities should be included in both academic and non-academic settings to maximize experiences interacting with students without disabilities.

Ryndak and colleagues (2000) also reported that experts expressed concern regarding the support services, modifications to curriculum, and individualized instruction students with disabilities should receive in the general education classroom. Their findings revealed that educators wanted students with disabilities to possess a sense of belonging to a group so that they would feel “accepted and valued” in the general education setting (p. 110). Experts surveyed in the study indicated that general and special education teachers should collaborate to support inclusion students in reaching their full potential. Other researchers agreed that collaboration is needed to support students with disabilities in general education settings (Wehmeyer et al., 2003).

The penultimate proponents of inclusion, according to the experts in Ryndak and colleagues (2000) study, discussed the pervasive nature of inclusion. The experts reported that inclusion must be established throughout the entire school system, not just in individual classrooms or schools. These expert educators also purported that inclusion was a complete integration of general and special education to meet the specific educational, physical, and emotional needs of each child. Other researchers concurred that inclusion needs to be integrated school wide (Matzen et al., 2010; Wehmeyer et al., 2003). Because middle school students are experiencing upheaval of their in socio-emotional, physical, and academic lives, educators must accept responsibility to meet all of these needs for all children (National Middle School Association, 2010).

Parent Perceptions of Inclusion

Peck, Staub, Gallucci, and Schwartz (2004) conducted a study consisting of 389 participating parents of non-disabled students in six elementary schools (including fourth through sixth grades) representing four districts in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. These researchers found that the majority of parents (87% of respondents) were supportive of a classroom environment in which disabled children were included in general education classrooms with their children. The parents who were not supportive expressed concerns in two areas: (a) the perception that the teacher focused more on the children with disabilities than on the children without disabilities, and (b) behavioral disruptions by the children with disabilities.

In this same study, Peck and his colleagues (2004) also asked parents about the academic performance of their children without disabilities in classrooms that included children with disabilities. Peck and his colleagues concluded, “The present results add to a body of research that suggests being in a classroom that includes a peer with severe disabilities is unlikely to negatively affect the academic progress of nondisabled children” (p.141). Additionally, even the parents who expressed concerns about academic matters were generally pleased with the social progress that their children made as a result of being in an inclusive classroom. As Peck and his colleagues noted, “A number of parent comments reflected the belief that their child had benefitted ‘socially’ from the experience of having a classmate with severe disabilities but not ‘educationally'” ( p. 141).

In another study, Downing and Peckham-Hardin (2007) interviewed parents of students with moderate to severe disabilities. The parents claimed that their students were “happier, more independent, and more motivated to go to school [and] participate in class” when included in the general education classroom (p. 21). Parents expressed concern that students with moderate to severe disabilities need to observe general education students as role models for social and academic behaviors. Parents also mentioned that although they expected their students with disabilities to be exposed to high expectations and the general curriculum, mastery of the general curriculum was not necessarily the ultimate goal of including their child in the general education classroom.

Leyser and Kirk (2004) surveyed parents of children with disabilities regarding their attitudes toward inclusion. Parents in the study expressed concern that while they support inclusion or mainstreaming of students with disabilities into general education classrooms, they feared possible isolation socially because their children are different from the general education students. The parents also worried that their children would not receive as much instruction in the general education classroom as they would with more individualized instruction in a special education classroom. Some parents believed general education teachers are unable to make adequate accommodations in the general education curriculum for their children. Many parents of inclusion students even feared stigmatization from general education teachers and parents of general education students. Ultimately, some groups of parents supported partial inclusion where students receive special education support for part of the day and general education for the rest of the school day.

Educator Perceptions of Inclusion

Santoli, Sachs, Romey, and McClurg (2008) conducted research among educators in the Southeastern U.S. regarding their attitudes toward inclusion. They found that despite the fact that almost all teachers interviewed (98.2%) were willing to make necessary accommodations for students with disabilities, the majority of those teachers (76.8%) felt that students with disabilities should not be educated in general classrooms no matter what the simplicity or severity of the disability, especially students with behavioral disorders and/or mental retardation. Overwhelmingly, the teachers had a positive attitude toward inclusion, and believed that, with enough training and administrative support, the additional burden of the adaptations and the extra classroom time needed for special education students was feasible.

On the other hand, research revealed that some teachers in inclusive classrooms recognized the positive social benefits for both special and general education students (Downing & Peckham-Hardin, 2007; Fisher & Meyer, 2002; Matzen et al., 2010). General education teachers expressed concern, however, over the limited amount of time students with disabilities spend in the general classroom. Various issues, such as throwing tantrums and “aggressive behaviors…[like]…hitting, biting, and spitting” result in student removal from the classroom “limiting their exposure and opportunity to be engaged in the curriculum” (Downing & Peckham-Hardin, p. 21). Hence, general educators felt unsure about the amount of core curriculum students with disabilities were actually mastering and how to assess what students with disabilities are learning.

Both general and special educators expressed frustration over the lack of time to collaborate with special education teachers regarding appropriate interventions and modifications that could grant further exposure to the general education curriculum. A common complaint for general educators was a feeling that they had little to no input on the instructional activities and content that students with disabilities should participate in while in the general education classroom. General education teachers believed that students with disabilities would master a greater amount of general curriculum content if the general education teachers had more direct input into the instructional methods used with and content taught to special needs students (Downing & Peckham-Hardin, 2007; Matzen et al., 2010).

Student Perceptions of Inclusion

According to Siperstein, Parker, Bardon, and Widaman (2007), the perception of middle school children without disabilities (general education students) is largely that students with disabilities should be included, and are indeed welcome, in nonacademic classrooms such as art and physical education. Researchers found overwhelmingly, however, that general education students prefer not to have students with disabilities in their academic classrooms, specifically mathematics and English (Nowicki & Sandieson, 2002; Siperstein et al., 2007). The main concerns of these students were that the teacher would spend more time with the students with disabilities and that the students with disabilities would be a distraction to the general education students.

In Siperstein and associates’ (2007) national study of more than 5,800 middle school students, students reported being happy to befriend handicapped students within the school setting, yet very few are willing to participate in social activities outside of school, such as going to the movies or having them over to their houses. Similar to Peck and colleagues’ research, Siperstein and associates (2007) discovered that students and parents share concerns that the practice of inclusion will impact general education students’ grades negatively. Nevertheless, both students and parents felt that inclusion has a positive social impact, enriching the school experience overall by providing diversity and giving them the opportunity to learn about people who face challenges different from their own.

In their research of student attitudes toward peers with disabilities, Bunch and Valeo (2004) found that the social interactions between general education students and special education students were much better in schools with a full inclusion model than in schools with a special education model. In particular, in the schools with special education models, general education peers were much more likely to abuse their special education peers—and much less likely to defend them against bullies—than in schools with inclusion models. Additionally, in schools with inclusion model, general education students were more likely to have friends with students with disabilities than their counterparts in schools with special education models.

Knesting, Hokanson, and Waldron (2008) interviewed students with disabilities, some who participated in special education services, and some who did not. These researchers found that students’ perceptions differed about how frequently they were willing to seek special education services based on whether they had more positive relationships with their teachers or with their peers. Students who had positive relationships with both teachers and peers viewed special education services as a necessary part of receiving their education. However, those students who felt embarrassed by receiving special education services primarily depended on relationships with their peers for their sense of belonging in their school environment.

Interestingly, in another study, Miller (2008) found that students with and without disabilities felt their opinions about inclusion or being a part of the inclusion process were highly overlooked. Students interviewed considered having special education students in the general education classes as “right and natural” (Miller, 2008, p. 391). During the interviews, students revealed their feelings that they should have more opportunity to express their opinions regarding inclusive education practices.

Implications for Middle School Education

Not only are the voices of students affected by inclusion rarely being heard in research, but there also seems to be an overwhelming lack of research regarding students with mild disabilities and how they are best served. The research indicated that parents, educators and students recognize benefits of inclusive education; however, a number of concerns have been raised that warrant attention. Specific concerns include use and refinement of the inclusion process in the middle school environment.

Implications for middle grades teacher education include the need for additional focus in teacher preparation classes to help teacher candidates acquire teaching skills and dispositions necessary for serving students with disabilities well. Similarly, teachers need continuing professional development to hone their skills in appropriately accommodating students with disabilities.


Bunch, G., & Valeo, A. (2004). Student attitudes toward peers with disabilities in inclusion and special education schools. Disability & Society, 19(1), 61–75.

Downing, J. E., & Peckham-Hardin, K. D. (2007). Inclusive education: What makes it a good education for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32(1), 16–30.

Fisher, M., & Meyer, L. H. (2002). Development and social competence after two years for students enrolled in inclusive and self-contained educational programs. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 27(3), 165–174.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Public Law 101-476 Stat. 1142 (2004).

Itkonen, T. (2007). P.L. 94–142: Policy, evolution, and landscape shift. Issues in Teacher Education, 16(2), 7–17.

King, I. (2003). Examining middle school inclusion classrooms through the lens of learner-centered principles. Theory into Practice, 42(2), 151–158.

Knesting, K., Hokanson, C., & Waldron, N. (2008). Settling in: Facilitating the transition to an inclusive middle school for students with mild disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 55(3), 265–276.

Leyser, Y., & Kirk, R. (2004). Evaluating inclusion: An examination of parent views and factors influencing their perspectives. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 51(3), 271–285.

Matzen, K., Ryndak, D., & Nakao, T. (2010). Middle school teams increasing access to general education for students with significant disabilities: Issues encountered and observations across contexts. Remedial and Special Education, 31(4), 287–304.

Miller, M. (2008). What do students think about inclusion. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(5), 389–391.

National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Public Law 107–110, 115 Stat. 1425 (2002).

Nowicki, E. A., & Sandieson, R. (2002). A meta-analysis of school-age children’s attitudes towards persons with physical or intellectual disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 49(3), 243–265.

Peck, C. A., Staub, D., Gallucci, C., & Schwartz, I. (2004). Parent perception of the impacts of inclusion on their nondisabled child. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 29(2), 135–143.

Ryndak, D. L., Jackson, L., & Billingsley, F. (2000). Defining school inclusion for students with moderate to severe disabilities: What do experts say. Exceptionality, 8(2), 101–116.

Santoli, S. P., Sachs, J., Romey, E. A., & McClurg, S. (2008). A successful formula for middle school inclusion: Collaboration, time, and administrative support. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 32(2), 1–13.

Siperstein, G., Parker, C; Bardon, J., & Widaman, K (2007). A national study of youth attitudes toward the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities. Exceptional Children, 73(4), 435–455.

Wehmeyer, M. L., Lattin, D. L., Lapp-Rincker, G., & Agran, M. (2003). Access to the general curriculum of middle school students with mental retardation: An observational study. Remedial and Special Education, 24(5), 262–272.

Annotated References

Matzen, K., Ryndak, D., & Nakao, T. (2010). Middle school teams increasing access to general education for students with significant disabilities: Issues encountered and observations cross contexts. Remedial and Special Education, 31(4), 287–304.

Matzen, Ryndak, and Nakao observed three students with significant disabilities for one academic year. They also interviewed general and special education teachers and parents of students with significant disabilities regarding their expectations for including these students in the general education setting. The parents and general educators were informed that students with disabilities would be included in the classroom environment, but special education teachers would develop their academic assignments.

The student participants displayed improvements in their social behaviors required for full participation in society. The general education teachers in the study desired greater input into academic content for inclusion students. These teachers believed inclusion students would have demonstrated greater improvement had they been directly involved with general education students academically. Many parents agreed. Matzen and colleagues also reported that the general and special educators lacked time to collaborate on instructional practice and content modifications for inclusion students’ benefit.

Siperstein, G., Parker, C., Bardon, J., & Widaman, K. (2007). A national study of youth attitudes toward the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities. Exceptional Children, 73(4), 435–455.

The goal for this national study was to examine the exposure and attitudes of middle school youth toward students with intellectual disabilities (ID). The researchers surveyed a random sample of 5,837 middle school students using a survey instrument with three scales: (a) perceived abilities, (b) impact of inclusion, and (c) behavioral intentions.

The researchers found that while most youth are supportive of including students with ID in mainstream nonacademic classrooms, many middle school students admitted uncertainty about including them in academic classes such as English and mathematics. Students were afraid that the teacher would spend more time with students with ID. General education students also expressed concern that the students with ID would be a distraction to learning. The researchers also found that while many students are willing to interact socially with students with ID in the school setting, very few are willing to do so outside of school such as going to the movies or inviting them to their houses after school.

Leyser, Y., & Kirk, R. (2004). Evaluating inclusion: An examination of parent views and factors influencing their perspectives. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 51(3), 271–285.

In this study, Leyser and Kirk (2004) surveyed parents who have a child with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities regarding issues with inclusive education. More than 400 parents completed an adapted version of the Opinions Related to Mainstreaming scale and provided additional written comments. Overall, parents supported the inclusion model from a legal and philosophical stance.

While the researchers discovered that parents supported inclusion, many disclosed concerns and misgivings about how their children would be serviced specifically. Parents indicated that they recognized both social and academic benefits for some special education students. However, those same parents also expressed concern about (a) the amount of individualized instruction time their children would receive, (b) how their child would be received by general education students and teachers, and (c) general education teachers’ ability to provide adequate accommodations for their child in the general education classroom. Parents’ perceptions of inclusion were influenced by the severity of their children’s disability, their child’s age, the extent of inclusion in the general classroom environment, the number of years in the special education system, and the parents’ education level and occupation.

List of Recommended Resources

Aune, B., Burt, B., & Gennaro, P. (2010). Behavior solutions for the inclusive classroom: A handy reference guide that explains behaviors associated with autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and other special needs. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.

Bowers, E. M. (2004). Practical strategies for middle school inclusion. Verona, WI: IEP Resources.

Brownell, M. T., Smith, S. J., Crockett, J. B., & Griffin, C. C. (2012). Inclusive instruction: Evidence-based practices for teaching students with disabilities (What works for special-needs learners). New York, NY: Guilford.

Downing, J. E. (2010). Academic instruction for students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gore, M. C., (2003). Successful inclusion strategies for secondary and middle school teachers: Keys to help struggling learners access the curriculum. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Karten, T. J. (2009). Inclusion strategies that work for adolescent learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Kennedy, C. H., & Fisher, D. (2001). Inclusive middle schools. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Khalsa, S. S. (2006). Inclusive classroom: A practical guide for educators. Tucson, AZ: Good Year Books.

Lenz, K., & Deshler, D. D. (with Kissam, B. R.). (2003). Teaching content to all: Evidence-based inclusive practices in middle and secondary schools. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (2009). The inclusive classroom: Strategies for effective differentiated instruction (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rathvon, N. (2008). Effective school interventions: Evidence-based strategies for improving student outcomes. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford.

Reif, S. F., & Heimburge, J. A. (2006). How to reach and teach all children in the inclusive classroom: Practical strategies, lessons, and activities (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, P. (2010). Whatever happened to inclusion: The place of students with intellectual disabilities in education. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Stride, J. (2006). Briefcase one: Inclusion essentials for middle and high school. Thousand Oaks, CA: IEP Resources.


Rebecca Kimbrough, a former elementary and middle school teacher, is a graduate student at Mississippi State University pursuing a master’s degree in elementary education and an education specialist degree in school counseling with a license for professional counseling.

Kate Mellen is a graduate student at Mississippi State University pursuing a master’s degree in secondary English education and accounting.


Kimbrough, R., & Mellen, K. (2012). Research summary: Perceptions of inclusion of students with disabilities in the middle school. Retrieved [date] from

This research summary was approved by the AMLE Board of Trustees, February 2012.