Changed living conditions
The goal of inclusion is ambitious. According to Andreas Hinz, inclusion means that all people have “the same full right of individual development and social participation, irrespective of their personal support needs […], unrestricted access to and unconditional membership of general kindergartens and schools in the social environment”. Nevertheless, our life has become much faster and performance-oriented.
Protected spaces are disappearing. Pupils can quickly become the targets of bullying or intimidation if they are different from their class mates.
What distinguishes regular Waldorf education from special needs Waldorf education?
The educational support of pupils with special needs in the class community of mainstream schools is the foundation of inclusion. This requires that the school has a special needs orientation which makes particular demands. Teachers in so-called mainstream Waldorf classes – alongside their immensely important personal presence – communicate the subject matter to the pupils in an appropriate way for their age group. The pupils develop their skills through the subject matter.
Children with special needs have less need of the subject matter and more of the teacher, above all as a supporting companion. The subjects must be age-appropriate. Thus the inner experience, the emotional feeling, for example in a zoology main lesson, forms a major focus in Waldorf schools. School learning, in contrast, takes second place.
Some pupils for example need until middle school to be able to securely distinguish quantities such as 23 in comparison to 45. The purely intellectual demands must be considerably lower for many special needs pupils. The first task of special needs education is often to balance out extremes, for example reducing pathological impetuousness or extreme physical or emotional oversensitivity which can end in a depressive withdrawal.
Some children have compulsively enhanced memory, in others it can be extremely porous, which can both lead to social problems. Some do not become active at all, others remain stuck in stereotypical behavioural patterns. The developmental inhibitions must be dealt with first in order for the child to be able to develop. This is accommodated by the Waldorf curriculum because it is adapted to the emotional needs of the different age and developmental stages. It integrates the different goals of normal and special needs education. But the way that the subjects in the curriculum are dealt with is different in each.
Educational differentiation in the class community is difficult
Physical disabilities which do not inhibit apprehension and intelligence have little effect on lessons, including the subjects involving movement. In eurythmy in particular it is possible to address the whole human being also if they are sitting in a wheelchair. In sports lessons there is decades of experience regarding the inclusion of pupils with physical disabilities.
It becomes more difficult when there are serious learning differences in a class. The learning goals in special needs and general education partially have a different focus. Here it has to be ensured that both groups are addressed in a way which accords with their abilities and needs.
Despite the attempt to differentiate in performance, the different pace of work can turn into a problem. The slower pupils are constantly made aware of their disability through the faster speed and better apprehension of their class mates. On the other hand too great a demand can be placed on the patience of the so-called normal children. Quite apart from the fact that they might get bored and thus become more difficult to support educationally. When the teacher expresses praise and appreciation of the children with disabilities for the progress they have made, this has to be made transparent for their class mates.
Another moment is the constitutional oversensitivity of many children with disabilities who overreact to normal stimuli. That applies particularly to children with autism spectrum disorders. If they do not have sufficient opportunities to withdraw, they live in a permanent state of tension and mental overload.
Another challenge is posed by children with serious emotional disorders. Children and adolescents with problems arising from neglect or the slide into criminality need a much firmer social framework which gives them support and orientation.
That presents a great challenge to an inclusion class run on more flexible lines. The school also has to examine whether it has a carer available for its inclusion children at all times. The concept lives off the fact that additional teachers for the children to be included are constantly present in the classroom.
It should be expressly stated that inclusion can be very successful. It is, for example, great progress that inclusion has made the German school system, one-sidedly focused on intellectual performance, more porous. But there are high expectations in an inclusion class of children with severe emotional and behavioural problems and children with intellectual disabilities.
Inclusion does not remove social exclusion
Despite all the best efforts, inclusion does not provide an assurance that the included pupils will also be included socially. On the one hand there is the risk that they feel unable to cope intellectually in the class community. On the other hand they can painfully feel the discrepancy if a lower workload and less intellectual performance are consistently expected of them.
This could lead to the worst possible “way out” that they completely lose the will to learn and can no longer be reached educationally. The necessary special support can also become a problem. The included pupils can begin to rely too much on the support of the carer and lose their independence to the extent of being “over indulged”. That can prevent them from learning to cope with the difficulties they face in the world. School transport by taxi can in itself already become a motivation for dependence.
A reef of a special kind is represented by the healthy egoism which develops in the course of childhood. From the age of 12, and particularly during puberty, it is not just our causal logical thinking which awakens. In order to find our own personality, we isolate ourselves from and compare ourselves with others and want to test and measure our powers in all fields.
The individual abilities of so-called mainstream pupils – what they do in their lives and their goals – develop in different ways. The balancing act to be performed by the teacher grows harder. The pupils must then be streamed at least in the learning subjects. If there is too great a discrepancy in the individual speed of reaction and performance in sports lessons, we do not want our slower fellow pupil on our football team. Automatically putting the weaker pupils in the B group can be experienced as exclusion.
The sheltered school as the basis for developmental support
An experience from a long way back made a lasting impression on the author: he was able to witness in a Camphill community how a young man with Down’s syndrome showed some visitors his work and explained how he made a concrete block.
Here spoke a socially accepted and self-confident person who happily performed his life’s task and experienced his value for the community. The sheltered work environment played a crucial role in this. But it is quite possible to transfer this extreme example to borderline situations in which the disability of a pupil is not as serious as with Down’s syndrome.
Being able to function in a socially equal way can under some circumstances work much better in a more sheltered environment than a mainstream school; under some circumstances this can also be a special school community. For many people this is the way to fully valid “social integration” and security. It is only under these circumstances that their human dignity is safeguarded. It is precisely the apparent exclusion in sheltered areas which provides the basis for a successful social existence.
Seeking individual solutions
In terms of education policy, we have to correct a misapprehension: seriously intended inclusion cannot be “cost neutral”. It assumes a level of quality in education provided by well-trained teachers who can cope with the difficult balancing act of a diverging class situation.
Inclusion also assumes intensive early intervention and other education policy measures. Finland is often cited as an example. That country not only spends more on education, it also focuses its efforts on the early grades and early intervention. Teachers’ online forums reporting on inclusion in Germany are, in contrast, rather more sobering.
The concept of inclusion has opened up new opportunities which should be used. Above all, diversity has grown and the possibility of individual solutions. But that does not necessarily mean that old-style special schools as a whole have had their day.
The concept of inclusion is undoubtedly one possible way of doing justice to children with special needs. But this path will only be successful if there are sufficient numbers of teachers who as class teachers possess educational skills to such an extent that they can do justice to the whole class. And they need adequate support through special needs teachers and one-to-one assistants trained in special needs education.
About the author: Karl-Reinhard Kummer is a paediatrician and school doctor and lives in Berlin.