Contradictory Findings on Peer Outcomes in Inclusive Settings Indicate Need for Common Definition of Inclusion in Special Education

Prevailing research on the experiences and learning outcomes of typically developing peers in inclusive settings present more questions than answers.

Key Takeaway: Prevailing research on the experiences and learning outcomes of typically developing peers in inclusive settings present more questions than answers. Lack of agreement regarding the definition of inclusion, as well as poor methodological rigor, can be said to account for at-times contradictory findings. There is an acute need for empirical data collection, based on a common understanding of inclusive education, in order for this area of study to yield findings that would be valuable to decision-makers in the international educational community. —Akane Yoshida

Dell’Anna et al. conducted a systematic review of studies published within the last 12 years as part of a wider project aiming to determine the impact of inclusive education and to “foster a constructive dialogue at the international level and offer a foundation for future directions in implementation and research.” Specifically, the authors sought to explore the “attitudes, perspectives, behaviors, academic achievements and noncognitive outcomes” of students without special educational needs (SEN) in inclusive educational settings.

Once eligibility criteria were accounted for, the research team identified 37 studies that met the conditions for inclusion in the review. Of these, 23 used quantitative methods, eight used mixed methods, and six used qualitative methods. Study locations were primarily North America and Europe, with a minority conducted in Asia and the Middle East, and the age ranges of the students spanned from early childhood through to the secondary years. The disabilities of the classmates with SEN involved in the studies included cognitive disabilities or learning differences, developmental disabilities, sensory differences, and physical disabilities.

The research team’s analysis found the following:

  • Gender and age are the most important individual covariables in influencing typically developing peers’ attitudes and behaviors towards their classmates with SEN.
  • Attitudes and behaviors are more positive towards students with physical disabilities than those with intellectual disabilities and are positively correlated with severity of disability.
  • Peers who have had previous experiences with persons with disability are more likely to have positive attitudes and behaviors towards classmates with SEN.
  • Peers expressed concerns about the possibility that the behaviors and difficulties of their classmates with SEN could negatively impact their own learning.
  • Academic and noncognitive outcomes were, in some cases, adversely affected by the presence of peers with SEN. In other cases, there were no reported effects.

While these findings were the initial objective of the review process, the research team stresses that “other epistemological issues emerged as much more compelling.” Specifically, they state that the dearth of experimental studies on the effects of inclusion in a controlled environment meant that they could not “infer a causal relationship between the use of inclusive practices and peers’ attitudes and achievement . . . it was not possible to obtain an accurate portrait of the phenomenon of inclusion in different countries from the perspective of peers.”

The researchers identify the lack of a common definition for what inclusion means in practice as being one of the most significant barriers to the implementation and evaluation of inclusion. With a “narrow and ambiguous view of the concept of school inclusion” and no agreement on the qualities that define success, the team argues that it is impossible to say whether other contextual variables may or may not be impacting results.

Dell’Anna et al. concludes thus: "[due to the] importance of research for policy-making, there is a need to increase the number of experimental studies that can inform on the impact of inclusion, and establish the criteria for methodological quality for both quantitative and qualitative research in inclusive research . . . within the discussed barriers, the risk is to give misinforming and misleading information to stakeholders.”

Summarized Article: Dell’Anna, S., Pellegrini, M., & Ianes, D. (2021). Experiences and learning outcomes of students without special educational needs in inclusive settings: a systematic review. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 25(8), 944-959.

Summary by: Akane Yoshida — Akane believes that developing supportive and nurturing relationships with students is key to helping them to attain their personal benchmarks for success. She loves how the MARIO Framework operationalizes this process, and utilizes systematic measurement of student learning and teacher effectiveness to guide interventions.

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We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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