The Psychology of Mainstreaming

Inclusion in regular society is not just a right but also the best restorative and advancing environment there can be for people with special needs.

You do not need to demand too much from the student who does not know how to read, but do not drive him away. Rather, he should sit together with the others and in due course he too will learn. (Rashi’s commentary on the above)

The issue of mainstreaming special needs children in regular classes has become one of the most important concerns of my life. Twenty-two years ago our second son Elchanan was born with Down syndrome. From that time on Elchanan has attended only regular classes in regular schools and today he is finishing 12th grade and working on his Bagrut (matriculation) exams—certainly with all the exemptions that the Israeli educational system can offer, but still, he is doing them. Elchanan’s mainstreaming has led me to research the subject as, simultaneously, my own son was undergoing inclusion in regular classes.

In my view, there are eight major questions affecting mainstreaming of special needs children in regular classes. The first question is, “What justification is there for mainstreaming?” Why is mainstreaming so vital for special needs children? The answer commonly given to this question lies in the concept of the “right to equality.” UNESCO’s Salamanca Statement of 1994 made jointly by 92 nations states that special needs students “must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child-centered pedagogy capable of meeting these needs.”

The Salamanca Statement talks about rights. It does not determine that inclusion is the best move for the child. It assumes that fulfillment of this basic right is the most appropriate thing, but is it in fact the best thing? There is a deep schism between parents, teachers and specialists regarding this question, so we do not think that inclusion can only be based on moral right but rather on the advantages to the mainstreamed child, too.

In order to explain “advantages” there is a need for a brief preamble on two theories by which we are guided: the theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability and the theory of Mediated Learning Experience, both formulated by my father, Dr. Reuven Feuerstein. The theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability postulates that the most significant property of any human being is the ability to change. Feuerstein talks about the option for change. This option is certainly conditional on the existence of adequate efforts, and at times the efforts needed are great indeed. However, even if they do not exist, the option remains. By “modifiability” what is meant is the fundamental ability of human beings to break through three barriers, usually considered impassable: the etiological barrier, the age barrier and the severity-of-the-condition barrier.

It is our claim that mainstreaming schools strengthen teachers. Mainstreaming teachers are active teachers who fight for the success of their students even when they detect a difficulty.

The theory of Mediated Learning Experience explains the source of modifiability as lying in the fact that, according to Feuerstein, intelligence is not just innate (brain, nervous system, chromosomes) but it is also acquired. In other words, when young parents hold their newborn baby and talk to it, looking straight at it and following its gaze, in actual fact they are “mediating” to the baby the ability to focus one’s gaze on the major, most important stimulus. “Mediation” or “mediated learning” are terms we apply to all interactions with an added cognitive value that teach the child to learn and to think beyond the actual content of the interactions. When a mother tells her child a story about a lion drawing a parallel between the yellow color of the lion and the yellow-colored sofa they are sitting on, she is mediating the principle of comparison to her child. Just as a particular object has a certain property, so another object has the same property. The concept of “yellow” also has a mediating content as it is a merge of numerous shades of yellow grouped under one name—“yellow.” It also groups numerous different and varied objects which are all the same color—“yellow.”

We are all products of mediation. Behind the “education” we received, “mediation” was hiding. In all innocuous children’s tales there are concepts, cause and effect principles (“because of … so…”), before and after (“first he asked and then he got…”), time concepts (“many, many years ago…”), spatial concepts (“to mislead his pursuers, he fled north…”). All everyday instructions contain mediation—for example, “Pick up the hot saucepan carefully with two hands and watch what you are doing” (mediation for planning and precision); “Don’t answer immediately, think first!” (mediation for behavior control); “When you make yourself a cup of coffee, please ask the people in the room if they want one” (mediation for sharing behavior). As we are all products of mediation, our deficiencies are products of a lack of mediation. Therefore, learning and thinking skills can be reconstructed or taught using compensatory and complementary mediation.

This leads us to the question of inclusion. To us, inclusion in regular society is not just a right but also the best restorative and advancing environment there can be for people with special needs. The reason for this is that it is the best intensively mediating environment. Mainstreamed children are exposed to live models of normative speech, normative rules of behavior, normative play, and normative learning habits. They are required to obey instructions normally, to listen to one instruction given to thirty students rather than just to a personal instruction. In a special environment they are exposed to homogenous but not normative surroundings where they receive mediation for negative content rather than normative content.

However, the difference between the special environment and the inclusion environment is not just related to the quality of mediation but also to the intensity of mediation. Mainstreamed children exist in the boisterous, noisy atmosphere of normative children, and they are besieged by so many positive stimuli. This positive onslaught has an impact on the ability of the positive content to permeate the cognitive system of mainstreamed children. Often special needs children find it difficult to open up to mediation from the environment. The parents talk to the children normatively but they find it difficult to imitate them. It’s too little and too quiet. Even speech therapy sessions, which at best are given a few times a week, are too few to bring about the desired change.

In short, in a normative environment the children’s modifiability exposes them to normative and intensive stimuli and it acts to bring about the desired change in the children’s understanding and behavior.

The second question is, even if we were to assume that mainstreaming benefits special needs children, can we still be sure that it does not impair their regular classmates? Does it not harm parents’ and teachers’ aspirations to excellence? Could inclusion of special needs children in regular classes lower the study pace and level?

The introduction in schools of the “medical model” for student evaluation has had the effect of weakening teachers. Any student with a difficulty is sent for evaluation, is labeled “learning deficient” in some way or another, receives treatment of some sort or another (in the mild cases) or is removed completely or partially from the regular class (in the more serious cases). Statistics talk of 25-30% children in regular classes as having being tagged “learning deficient.” Now, parents of “regular” children have to ask themselves which teachers they want for their children when they develop some sort of difficulty. Thinking about the fact that children can develop a difficulty for one subject and not necessarily another, we will certainly discover that there are no “regular” children, that all children at any given time and as a result of personal or family circumstances could develop a learning difficulty even if it is not evaluated and defined.

It is our claim that mainstreaming schools strengthen teachers. Mainstreaming teachers are active teachers who fight for the success of their students even when they detect a difficulty. Mainstreaming teachers (under the right and optimal conditions) are teachers who receive guidance and who become more expert in dealing with learning difficulties. They are used to mustering strength to deal with the mission, in three critical ways: they perceive their role as being primarily responsible for the success and the inclusion of all the children in the class, even those who have shown difficulty; they are able to muster the emotional strength to stand up to the complex educational tasks before them; they accumulate knowledge and experience in this field. All the children in the class benefit from the changes that come about in the teachers.

Being educated means possessing values of kindness and generosity, and this is the profound meaning of the verse “The world is built on acts of kindness” (Psalms 89:2).

The third question: Are not mainstreamed children condemned to extreme social isolation caused by other children rejecting them? The children’s inclusion is very important to the other students. After all, each one of us parents will, we hope and pray, live to an old age and find it more difficult to walk, have slow reactions, etc., and each one of us could one day have “special needs.” So what is the attitude that we would like to see from our children towards people with special needs? Being educated does not just mean accumulating knowledge. Being educated means possessing values of kindness and generosity, and this is the profound meaning of the verse “The world is built on acts of kindness” (Psalms 89:2). Kindness is not an attribute without which one can live. Every one of us needs kindness at some time so our children must acquire this trait from a very early age.

Therefore inclusion is not just “geographical”; it must comprise active steps to include the children socially. I include some examples from my own personal life. We arranged for “break-time duty” during which two classmates played with our son. His “shadow” was instructed to initiate games including other children and other social opportunities. The other children, for their own part, learned to make contact with the Down syndrome child and to consider him “one of theirs.” After all, he really was “one of theirs.” Needless to say, those situations taught our son how to act normatively and made it possible for him to fit into a youth movement and into the community as an equal.

The fourth question: What will guarantee the success of the mainstreamed child in school study? One of the important (but not sole) conditions for the success of mainstreamed children is their preparation for school study during the course of their studies. The Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem operates a large center that prepares young children for mainstreaming. The work paradigm (which we export to a great many countries) is based on the following principles:

  1. Emphasis on mediation to enhance the child’s intelligence and particularly his/her learning potential with an aim to ensuring the most possibly efficient learning process.
  2. Emphasis on receptive and mainly expressive speech skills to guarantee regular communication of the mainstreamed child with classmates.
  3. Emphasis on group learning habits including focusing on the major stimulus (the teacher) and the ability to understand that an instruction given to the entire class is aimed at him/her too.
  4. Emphasis on teaching reading and writing skills.

Our methodology puts heavy emphasis on learning and thinking. Their modification constitutes, in our opinion, the modification of a person’s overall personality as behavior and motivation and even motor abilities are influenced by a person’s thinking and learning skills.

The fifth question: How can we determine if the child is suitable for inclusion? Where? When? We use a dynamic evaluation process called the Learning Propensity Assessment Device (LPAD). This cognitive-dynamic evaluation process is aimed at appraising students’ learning potential rather than just their actual condition. This makes possible the production of a personal learning profile for individual students and gives pointers for their optimal learning methods. It also offers detailed mapping of the subjects’ deficient and normal cognitive functions and allows focusing on their specific correction with an aim to guaranteeing the efficiency of their learning and thinking processes. A great many students go astray purely because assessments hasten to tag them without considering their tremendous latent potential to change and study. This evaluation process is implemented in many countries and it shows that latent in the underachievers there is enormous potential that for varied reasons has not been brought to fruition.

The sixth question: Is there methodicalness in advancing the intelligence of people with special needs or all sorts of learning difficulties? Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment Program enhances thinking and learning skills by addressing a very wide range of cognitive operations such as understanding instructions, comparison, analysis and synthesis, categorization, logic inference, perception, time management, and precision. The method uses the technique of “mediated learning,” which gives teachers and caregivers powerful and methodical tools to teach students learning and thinking strategies.

A great many students go astray purely because assessments hasten to tag them without considering their tremendous latent potential to change and study.

This program is even taught to “regular” schoolchildren to help them acquire a command of their own learning and thinking processes, for the absurd thing is that schools in the Western world teach everything except one basic skill—learning how to learn and think. This is left to chance. We teach our students subject matter which will no longer be relevant when they leave school, but we fail to teach them how to update their knowledge efficiently in a rapidly changing world.

The seventh question: With all the interventions and the planning, could there still be a disparity between the mainstreamed child and the required level in the regular class, particularly regarding students with more severe developmental problems such as Down syndrome, autism or severe learning difficulties?

This is an entirely legitimate question and the Feuerstein method offers several answers to it in the context of advancement inclusion:

  1. The preparation and support of mainstreamed children includes pre-study in the more difficult subjects enabling the child to come to lessons relatively prepared thereby enhancing his/her assimilation of the material.
  2. In particularly challenging cases, priorities have to be selected and one or two subjects chosen for removal so the student’s course load does not become too heavy.
  3. We recommend not rushing. In particularly challenging cases, we recommend not promoting the child to the next class, sometimes even several times in his/her school career. The objective here is twofold:
    • To allow children another year to go over the material, giving them a chance to reinforce the subject matter and to acquire further learning skills without being inundated with new content. The more challenged the child, the more need there is to consider repeating a class to allow the child to catch up. Otherwise one could find children presenting a study gap that they are unable to make up, and they may need to terminate inclusion.
    • To allow the child time for further emotional and social maturing. Many parents and teachers fear that holding mainstreamed children back will harm them socially. We say that often the opposite is true—leaving children in a lower class for another year helps them to improve their emotional and social skills.
  4. The most important principle is that inclusion is not just a geographical act—it is an educational one with the purpose of improving the level of thinking and functioning of mainstreamed children. Therefore, it is very important to train and prepare teachers, teachers’ aides, administrators and social workers for inclusion.

The eighth question: What are the underlying advantages of inclusion, beyond the academic aspect? Inclusion has several goals without which success cannot be attained:

  1. Setting realistic goals for the child. In special education the children are “wrapped in cotton wool,” placed in an environment that adjusts educational goals to the child rather than adjusting the child to realistic educational goals that life demands of us. Those who wish their children to be part of the “world” must understand that adaptation to the world is not a sudden process; it is an ongoing process that begins in kindergarten.
  2. The transformation of mainstreamed children from perpetually sheltered students into people who face up to their position and even their wellbeing. Placing children in an extremely sheltered environment impairs their ability to develop an independent “immune system.” The outside world is not a safe haven; children must be helped to develop abilities to cope with harsh realities.
  3. Setting goals for parents and caregivers. The objectives facing the parents of children in special education school settings are low from the very start. There are no expectations that the children will be part of a normative milieu; normative society will have to adapt to their special behavior. By contrast, objectives facing parents of mainstreamed children include changing the children’s behavior to enable them to adapt to regular environments. The children themselves respond positively to this change in expectations. There is no substitute for such a driving force. It is true that requirements must be adapted to the child’s level and made plausible, but still, the minute child ren manage to attain one summit, before them looms yet another waiting to be conquered.

In conclusion, the challenges set before children and their parents can act as a powerful motivator, if in fact the child, the parents and the educational setting staff are all given the tools to facilitate successful inclusion. For all those who dream to see their children “there” with everyone, there is no other way. ♦

Rabbi Refael Feuerstein is Vice-Chairman of the Feuerstein Institute: The International Institute for the Enhancement of Learning Potential in Jerusalem. He can be contacted at

Refael S. Feuerstein
Special Needs
Knowledge Topics
School Policies and Procedures
Published: Spring 2011