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Ask Our Expert: John Hoch — Ph.D., L.P., psychologist and Fraser Institute research scientist

In 1935, Louise Whitbeck Fraser started teaching a group of children with special needs in her Minneapolis home. At the time, most children with special needs were not eligible for school services, but through her experience with her daughter Jean, Louise learned to teach these special children. Attendance swelled over the years, and the school eventually moved to a bigger space in Richfield.

Fifty years later, the organization opened a school for children with typical needs, the Whitbeck Nursery School, which was separate from the Fraser School®. Then in September 1988, the two programs combined into an inclusive early childhood program called the Fraser-Whitbeck School, which was later renamed Fraser School®. Though the benefits of inclusive education weren't well known at the time, Fraser embraced the innovative practice for its students. Research Reflects the Benefits of Inclusive Programs.

In the '90s and early 2000s, research began to catch up to what the Fraser School® already knew. Children with disabilities benefit from spending time with their peers in inclusive settings. The more surprising discovery was that children with typical needs also benefit from these teaching environments.

In inclusive environments, children with typical needs learn skills that lead to more acceptance of differences among individuals.

Inclusive Environments Improve Social Skills

According to the National Professional Development Center on Inclusion*, inclusive environments also encourage better social development for both groups of children. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this is particularly important because social interactions are often difficult. Settings that encourage socialization can reduce loneliness and social anxiety for children with ASD. The journal The Early Childhood Research Quarterly ** states that parents of children in inclusive preschool programs are more satisfied with their children's schooling, regardless of whether their child has special needs.

Special Education Skills Help Children of All Abilities

Inclusive learning environments, like Fraser School®, also use practices developed for special education programs. Many ideas developed for special education programs have been shown to improve behavior and education for children of all ability levels. Practices like giving children choices about how they complete tasks, using positive reinforcement and making communication easier through visual strategies. Parents can also use these strategies at home.

Researchers are working to encourage schools to integrate play for children of different ability levels. The Remaking Recess project focuses on helping children with autism to engage with other children on the playground. The project includes guides and posters that both parents and teachers can use with children.

The guide teaches adults to identify levels of play, how to nudge children to engage in more interactions and how to back out and allow children to continue the play independently.