The terms mainstreaming (integration) and inclusion are often used interchangeably. The careful implementation of these contrasting teaching approaches, however, can have a profound impact on the academic outcomes of students with disabilities. Knowing the difference between inclusion and mainstreaming can help you better reach students with and without disabilities, so we encourage you to join us on this exploration.

What is mainstreaming in education? Essentially, mainstreaming requires that exceptional learners adapt to the rigors of the general education classroom, whereas an inclusive classroom adapts to the needs of individual students, including those with disabilities.

As we discuss the purpose of mainstreaming, consider how students’ lives are shaped by the efforts of general and special educators. Their dedication, compassion, and knowledge help ensure that there will always be a place for exceptional learners in the classroom, regardless of setbacks or limitations.


Mainstreaming consists of integrating students with disabilities into general education classrooms during specific times of the day. Students study subjects like reading, writing, or math with their nondisabled peers if their skills indicate that they can benefit from the lesson. Otherwise, they are taught by a special educator in a separate classroom. Detractors assert that mainstreaming assumes a child’s limitations must be addressed before they can be integrated into a general education classroom.


Inclusion involves systemic reform and altering teaching methods to ensure that all students are able to engage with learning materials. Rather than remove students with disabilities from the general classroom, special and general educators work collaboratively to provide them with individualized instruction. Research has shown that students with disabilities experience substantial short- and long-term cognitive and social development when taught in a general education classroom. 

Determining Whether a Student Is Included or Integrated 

7.1 million public school students received special education services during the 2018-2019 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). During the same school year, 64% of students with disabilities spent the vast majority of their school day in general education classrooms. Unfortunately, that leaves millions of students who are unable to take full advantage of an inclusive classroom, which brings us to the topic of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Least Restrictive Environment

Enacted in 1975, IDEA entitles students with disabilities—regardless of their severity—to speech-language pathology, physical therapy, psychological services, and other special education and related services. Under section 300.224 of IDEA, students with disabilities have a right to be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) available. The LRE for a student with disabilities is the environment that will, to the maximum extent appropriate, allow them to interact with and learn alongside nondisabled students. Students are to be removed from the traditional classroom if and only if their disability is severe enough to warrant special schooling or placement in a special education classroom.

Who determines whether a student is mainstreamed or placed in an inclusive classroom? A team comprised of parents, general education teachers, special education teachers, and other parties with an understanding of the services the child needs. Along with the student (when appropriate), this team will develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP): a unique document that, among other determinations, outlines to what extent a child can participate in a regular classroom.

Deciding What’s Best for Students  

In an inclusive learning environment, students with disabilities experience improved academic outcomes, have fewer absences, and receive better instruction. Furthermore, they are more likely to complete secondary school, enroll in post-secondary education, obtain employment, and live independently. Individualized instruction provided in an inclusive classroom also benefits nondisabled students, and exposure to their disabled peers can help them grow more accepting of others.

The benefits of an inclusive classroom are manifold. However, students with severe disabilities may spend far less time in general education classrooms, where they are integrated only when appropriate. The purpose of mainstreaming students isn’t to isolate students from their peers. Rather, it’s to help ensure that they are receiving the individualized attention they deserve. The extent to which a child is mainstreamed is dependent on their IEP team, including their special education teachers. 

Enrich the Lives of Students With Disabilities

One of the few criticisms of an inclusive classroom is that it requires general education teachers to possess the necessary skills and qualifications to effectively teach students with disabilities. To foster inclusivity, teachers must be able to meet the challenges presented by diversity, inadequate support, and barriers to learning opportunities as well as students’ emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders. At UT Permian Basin, teachers can learn how to overcome these challenges and cater to the needs of students with and without disabilities.

Entirely online and featuring asynchronous elements, our master’s degree programs can help you expand your teaching skill set without having to leave your current teaching position. As a graduate student, you’ll learn to diagnose learning difficulties, provide classroom interventions, and prescribe IEP plans, among other learning outcomes. Lessons taught in our online classrooms are immediately applicable to your career, helping you become a more effective, well-rounded educator.

UT Permian Basin’s College of Education offers the following online special education programs:

Earning a master’s degree in special education can help you not only reach a broader range of students but also transition into a career as a special educator, if you so desire. Moreover, a master’s degree in special education will empower you to take a more active role in deciding to what extent an exceptional learner can be taught alongside their nondisabled peers.

Interested in helping exceptional learners realize their academic potential? Apply to one of UT Permian Basin’s online special education programs and become an advocate for each and every one of your students.