Social Thinking Articles


Thoughtful Inclusion

Michelle Garcia Winner

Updated: May, 2015
© 2020 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

I was recently asked to write about what social skills are needed in order to get the most benefit from an integrated setting. While this is a huge question, here are some thoughts on this concept.

Many of you who are familiar with my work know that I talk about the social complexities of the classroom environment. While we often only teach social skills for the context of playing or conversing, the reality is that students use social thinking and related social skills every moment they are around people - including more structured environments like classrooms. While I know our political education plan advocates for the inclusion of all kids into “integrated” settings as much as possible, I encourage “thoughtful inclusion” rather than making blanket statements that all kids must be included. I think kids with social learning challenges have extraordinary problems with processing social information when in a large group setting. These challenges are far beyond the challenges of students with more typical learning disabilities. Much of the research on inclusion fails to take a deeper look at the inclusion of kids with social learning challenges. Many in this group - NOT all - are learning more of a functional manner of participating given the amount of cueing and support (paraprofessionals helping to complete work, etc.) needed in this environment. Our collective goal should be to think about the individual student and figure out what and how to teach in order for them to function as more independent, self-regulated student.

I do think “inclusion” is much more realistic for many in elementary school and becomes increasingly unrealistic for many of our more socially challenged learners in middle school and high school. This is not only due to the social complexities of this age group, but also the social abstractions taught through the curriculum.

As we discuss inclusive or integrated settings, it is important to make sure we define the terms in order to be on the same page in IEP meetings. I have seen many kids “integrated” or “included” who have their own curriculum and spend little time with the larger group. Instead, they are in another area of the room receiving instruction from a paraprofessional. While I actually have no problem with this, it is not what a parent thinks “inclusion” means for his or her child. Let’s be honest about what we can really do to help children learn. We can’t make all kids good group learners just because public law says we should. Deep neurological issues are at the root of many learning problems. We are not and should not be in the business of healing or curing. Even “highly qualified teachers” cannot teach some of our higher-functioning kids to learn effectively in a group of 30. In fact, some of our kids cannot attend to people talking in a group of 3 (and these can be some “high functioning” kids!).

On the other hand, there is real value in having students in a school become mentors to our students with social learning challenges. The mentor's role is to help guide social interactions and teach the hidden social rules. I am careful to distinguish between a mentor and a model. Mentors are trained and are given explicit instruction on how to help guide our more socially challenged peers. I do not agree that for the most part our students learn social skills simply from being around “neurotypical peer models.” Most of our students have plenty of exposure to neurotypical peers, but it's too simple and naive to say the skills will transfer just by having everyone in the same area.  If this were the case, we wouldn't need specialized teaching - just inclusion.

This list details a few of the many aspects that need to be considered when mainstreaming or integrating a child into the general education classroom. There is an assumption that the child has:

  • Basic joint attention- Group education requires that students are able to focus on what the teacher or group is attending to at any given time during the school day. Joint attention develops within the first year of life and there is an assumption that kindergartners already have this skill and can follow the intentions and thoughts of one teacher. It is common to see paraprofessionals assigned to assist students who can't naturally do this. The question is how much is that child is actually learning as part of a group.


  • At the very least, a basic functional communication system is needed for expression of basic wants and needs. Putting non-verbal or minimally verbal students who lack the ability to effectively process and respond to language in a classroom isn't always in the child's best interest. While the school statistics may look good for the number of students integrated into the mainstream, kids in groups need to have a way to communicate with each other.


  • Recognition that when you communicate in a class you need to track if someone is listening to you. Those who talk without tracking how people are responding to them (reading some basic non-verbal cues are actually not communicating, they are just simply talking or downloading facts and stories). Group education is dependent on having students track not only the teacher but also others students in the class.


  • It is helpful to try and teach all our students that everyone in a classroom is to “share the same thought.” Some of our students (even with very high IQ) do not realize the teacher is teaching everyone the same lesson.


  • Ask for help. A paraprofessional or teacher should not anticipate a child’s every move. If adults do this, they actually enable the student to become less independent rather than teach strategies to learn to cope on their own.


  • Have basic ability to attend in a group. Assess the student’s functional attention span for learning tasks he is motivated by and those not motivating. Make decisions about mainstreaming students based on how long they can attend to a topic being addressed in a classroom. Some of our kids can attend to basic math for 30 minutes, but struggle to attend in language for one minute. Realize that there are differences in the amount of social thinking required in these different subjects. One subject may be much harder, so move away from assuming inclusion for everything makes sense - especially if they are showing signs of stress or lack of ability to attend!


  • Persistence. If a child is having consistent meltdowns in a classroom and attempts have been made to help the student acquire a routine as well as strategies for learning lessons in a more abstract way, the team may have to realize that the function of the behavior is to try and escape a complex environment. Some of our “brighter” kids are very fragile as they don’t have coping strategies for moving at the pace of a larger group...and having a paraprofessional nearby makes them feel really “stupid,” so they escape the environment through behavior.


  • For more advanced kids we also want to assess and then possibly teach skills related to: Blurting 

What is it and how to avoid it by tracking and thinking about whom the teacher is directing their attention?

What does it mean to raise your hand in class? Should you expect the teacher to call on your every time you raise your hand? Why not? 


Does a teacher notice that you are participating when you raise your hand even if she doesn't call on you (yes!)?

How do you work with peers in a group (center based activities or peer work groups)? 


Can you take over the group? Should you tell people their ideas are “stupid?" 


Should you allow everyone else to do the talking and you just sit there quietly?


This is a difficult topic that could go on and on. There are NO EASY answers. Every kid is not easily summarized by his or her eligibility category. There are also phases of development, levels of cognition that allow some learning to be very easy or incredibly difficult, and mental health problems (e.g., extreme anxiety) that add to the complexity.

Please understand I am not making a blanket statement about inclusion being “good” or “bad”! My point is that it is not as easy as it sounds and many (not all) of our kids are not benefiting as much as we might think they are from learning in an environment that their brains cannot easily process. For instance, expecting him to work as part of a larger group when he struggles to understand perspective taking and requiring him to demonstrate learning a curriculum not user-friendly to his brains while on the clock! The academic curriculum is on a clock! Teachers know all the lessons they have to teach to prepare for the states high-stakes testing and they cannot slow down the learning clock because students have IEP goals!

Bottom line - does the inclusion of this child in the curriculum help her learn social information (e.g., work well with others, problem solving, group participation, etc.,) AND academic information to develop functional skills for transitioning into the adult world?  Because at the end of the day or the end of a student's time in public education, what really counts is whether she has developed skills to help her be more successful as an adult.

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