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Inclusion Facilitators: The Unicorns of Special Education

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Twenty years ago, I was privileged to begin my career as an inclusion facilitator at a public middle school in Massachusetts. Let that sink in for a minute…twenty years ago I was an inclusion facilitator. While this role remains a new concept for many school systems, it is one that has been well-established in others. Inclusion facilitators are invaluable resources that support the authentic membership, participation, and learning of students with significant disabilities in general education.


So what exactly are inclusion facilitators?


Inclusion facilitators are special educators who coordinate services for students with disabilities to allow for their meaningful inclusion in general education classrooms. Inclusion facilitators work with teams to design accessible lessons, create accommodations and modifications, and provide support with positive behavioral strategies.


Inclusion facilitators are not direct service providers. This means that they are not scheduled to deliver in-class instruction or interventions. Instead, inclusion facilitators have open schedules so that they can provide job-embedded coaching and support to their colleagues on inclusive practices. Such support may involve regularly planning with grade-level teams or content-specific departments, developing accommodations and modifications for students with more significant disabilities to access the curriculum, and serving as a resource for teachers to problem-solve.


Inclusion facilitators also act as important participants in school leadership and problem-solving teams. They may regularly attend child study, instructional support, or MTSS team meetings to offer strategies for supporting struggling students. Their presence at these meetings also helps to reduce inappropriate referrals to special education.



Why inclusion facilitation?


Decades of research have shown that students with disabilities experience stronger outcomes in general education classrooms than in segregated, self-contained settings. Students who are included have better academic achievement, greater social engagement, and more positive post-school outcomes (Morningstar et al., 2016).


Unfortunately, a narrow and overly simplistic view of including students with disabilities in general education is often taken. This may be akin to the concept of “mainstreaming,” when students with disabilities are simply placed in the “main stream” of education with minimal supports.


Another oversimplified view of inclusion is that students with disabilities always require additional adult support in the general education classroom. Not all students with learning differences require extra human resources, and in some cases, additional adult presence can create a learned helplessness in students. In other instances, a paraprofessional or co-teacher may be viewed as a panacea for inclusion, when in reality, a different approach may be necessary, particularly for students with the most complex needs. This is where the inclusion facilitator comes in.


Schools with full-time, dedicated inclusion facilitators recognize that students with the most significant disabilities and complex needs matter. Through inclusion facilitation, schools are better able to provide increased access to quality inclusive experiences. It is well-documented that students with intellectual disabilities, who are included in general education at abysmally low rates, and students with emotional disturbance have some of the worst post-school outcomes of any group (Sanford et al., 2011). This underscores the importance of a coordinated approach to inclusion for these vulnerable populations.



The inclusion facilitator as change agent


“In shifting from a self-contained model of special education to an inclusive environment, there will likely be inertia, resistance, fear, or all of the above. An inclusion facilitator must recognize this important truth and be skilled enough in their interpersonal relationships to navigate these challenges.


“They must acknowledge that educators are being asked to change not only longstanding practices that are engrained in the culture of the school, but they are also challenging their very belief systems - systems that tell them which students are or are not capable. The inclusion facilitator recognizes that inclusive education is a social justice issue that requires relentless courage and passion.


“Inclusion facilitators are the ‘unicorns’ of special education. They possess a rare and magical combination of leadership skills, knowledge of best inclusive practices, the ability to build trust and gain social capital, and an uncompromising belief in inclusion as a moral imperative.” Sustainability of inclusive change is often dependent on individuals such as inclusion facilitators who are ambassadors for the movement on the ground level. Unfortunately, like unicorns, the role remains elusive in many systems.

(Excerpt from Reimagining Special Education by Rufo & Causton, 2022, p. 79).



Inclusion facilitation - why now?


Schools have always served students on the margins of what has been considered “average” or “typical.” For a very long time, these students have been pushed aside. Families are told that their children will receive more individualized education in smaller settings that will “give them what they need.” Yet, the outcomes and data show otherwise.


Now, in a pandemic world where students are still suffering from the impact of interrupted education over the past few years, there are more and more students with diverse learning needs. Our systems are entirely capable of providing authentic and meaningful supports to these students within the context of general education, yet, to do so requires change.


We can choose to cling to outdated, ineffective practices of removal and segregation, or we can recognize that the unfulfilled promises of special education will never be realized should we continue down this path. Embracing creative and flexible ways of meeting the needs of all learners is necessary. Inclusion facilitators can help us to usher in a redesigned system of education where ALL students, not just those who are easy to include, are valued members of our school communities.



Want to learn more about inclusion facilitation? Check out Reimagining Special Education: Using Inclusion As A Framework To Build Equity and Support All Students. You can also reach out to me at jenna@empoweredschool.org if you'd like to work with empowerED to implement this role in your system!



An image of a warrior princess atop a bucking unicorn.  She is silhouetted against a dark forest background with the sun peeking through.

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