College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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Department/Program Conferring Degree



Inclusion, Disability, Belonging, Community, Mixed methods


School inclusion is the process of educating students with disabilities in general education settings with appropriate support. It is also an attempt to develop schools into supportive learning communities where all students feel they belong. The nationalization of school inclusion (i.e. IDEA) represents a sweeping, second-order change altering how students are taught, how teachers are trained, and the policies and priorities of schools. Prior research indicates that while students and teachers approve of inclusion, both groups face a variety of obstacles when it is put into practice. Additionally, research suggests that the transitions that often take place as a part of inclusion may threaten the belonging that inclusion is intended to create. This study examines the obstacles to school inclusion among 163 students with disabilities and 110 of their teachers in 23 public schools in a large urban school district in the Midwest. Students and teachers were asked what issues they faced during a district-wide process to increase inclusion. Additionally, they completed quantitative scales to assess school belonging and supportive and stressful social interactions. A data transformational mixed-method approach was used to analyze both qualitative and quantitative data from teachers and students. Questions of interest focused on what obstacles to inclusion emerged, how they effected school belonging, and how these issues were (or were not) resolved. Qualitative and quantitative data and student/teacher perspectives were also compared and contrasted. Results suggest that there are five overall areas in which issues arise: academic, social, accessibility, school climate and school system/community issues. Results show that both students and teachers are keenly aware of students’ sense of community in their schools, and that the obstacles faced in the transition to school inclusion do have a negative impact on school belonging. Mixed agreement and disagreement was found between student and teacher perspectives. While teacher and student ratings of school belonging and social support were correlated, ratings of social stressors were not. Comparison of qualitative and quantitative data showed a great deal of correspondence between the data types, in particular, transformed qualitative data indicating negative experiences negatively predicted school belonging. It was found that actions were taken to address each of the five issues that arose during the transition to inclusion, but that the actions were not of a single type. Rather actions taken to address issues came from multiple actors in the school and involved a variety of strategies, from one-on-one tutoring to collaborating with bus drivers. The results suggest five overall findings. First, it appears that there are specific issues that do arise when making the transition to school inclusion (academics, social, accessibility, school climate and school system/community issues). Second, it appears that school inclusion is an ecological phenomenon. The issues and actions taken to address them occurred at multiple levels within an ecological system rather than just in the classroom between the student and teacher. Third, the actions taken to address the issues that came up in the transition and students’ descriptions of their transition experience suggest that student/teacher relationships are key to a successful transition to inclusion. Fourth, social issues are of vital interest to students in their transition to inclusion and are therefore critical to understand. Finally, the results suggest that school belonging, which has received a great deal of attention in the inclusion and education literature, is a critical component of inclusion and warrants the attention that it has received in the literature. A strength of this study it the multiple perspective mixed method approach taken in the research design. This approach allowed for a deeper understanding of the transition to inclusion, particularly as it occurred for both teachers and students in the same classroom. Additionally, this study mixed data types in unique ways that have not been attempted in prior research, allowing for a richer understanding of the perspectives and constructs of interest. A weakness of this study was a lack of longitudinal data, which would have aided in establishing cause and effect relationships. Additionally, there is a lack of academic data and parent perspectives in this study, which the literature suggests are important aspects of school belonging and school inclusion more generally. The findings of this study have several implications of theory and practice. The results affirm the ecological conception of school inclusion and emphasize the importance of understanding inclusion from both student and teacher perspectives. The mixed method approach adds to the literature on school inclusion, which includes calls for more mixed method studies. In terms of practice, the findings of this study suggest that when planning for a transition to inclusion there are specific issues that can be planned for, and that because these issues are ecological in nature, planning should be ecological as well. Additionally, the findings of this study suggest that transitions should include teacher trainings that focus on forming supportive student/teacher relationships that encourage belonging.