Mainstreaming a personal decision for parents, child

BARBARA S. ROTHSCHILD
South Jersey
Courier-Post Staff
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cherry Hill student Jordan Schmidt, 10, can't wait for fifth grade to begin.

Jordan, who has Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, has been in Woodcrest Elementary
School's model inclusion program since first grade. It places qualifying special-needs children in full-day
classes where the majority of students are nonclassified, or "typical." Each class is staffed by a regular teacher,
a resource (special education) teacher, and assistants.

In preschool, Jordan was in a self-contained, special-needs classroom at the district's early childhood center. At
Woodcrest, he had trouble adapting in a fully mainstreamed kindergarten class. The inclusion program was
what he needed.

"The self-contained option worked in preschool, but when Jordan got a little older he needed to be around
children who could be positive role models," said his mother, Debbie.

"Inclusion has given us stability and has given Jordan everything he's needed," she said. Often recommended

Parents of special-needs children often agonize about what educational setting is best. Mainstreaming into a
typical classroom is often recommended, but isn't always optimal.

"It depends on the parents' goals for the child. Some are interested in having children develop social skills and
learn to deal with the world. But it's also a question of where academic needs will best be met," Cherry Hill
school psychologist Kate Martin said.

"Most children do better if they are mainstreamed. It gives them the motivation to reach, gives them more
stimulation and helps them learn to cope. But it's a tough decision if a child is severely delayed in learning,"
Martin said. Learning life skills

Debbie Schmidt isn't worried about Jordan's grades. She hopes he learns life skills.

Schmidt remains protective of her son and wary of the mainstream world.

"You'd like to say mainstreaming is always the goal. But it has to be the right time for the child," she said. "If
mainstreaming doesn't work, you could have very real self-esteem problems."

Timing was everything for Wendy Berry's neurologically-impaired daughter, Hope, 9, who went from a
special-needs preschool to an unsuccessful attempt at mainstreaming when she began kindergarten in
Magnolia's only public school.

"That lasted around a month. She just couldn't deal with the amount of children in public school," said Berry,
who enrolled Hope at Durand Academy, a Woodbury school that serves students with learning disabilities and
behavioral challenges.

At Durand, there were two teachers for every child, a ratio Hope needed. But by the time Hope was in third
grade, another change was indicated.

"As Hope got older, she got calmer and would get upset at other children's behavior. She seemed to be
flourishing otherwise, and I decided it was time to put her back in public school. She took right to it," Berry said.
May never be right

For other children, it may never be the right time to mainstream.

Voorhees resident Jackie Pantaliano's son Steven, 12, has Asperger Syndrome. He attended public elementary
schools but couldn't function well, even in self-contained classrooms.

Steven now attends special-needs Yale Academy in Cherry Hill, where he will enter eighth grade this fall.

"Steven gave us all the clues to what he needed," Pantaliano said.

Martin noted it's important to listen to the child.

"It's a very individualized decision. We've had children beg us to be in a self-contained class because for some,
it's very overwhelming to be in a mainstream classroom with the level of processing needed to follow what the
teacher is saying," she said. Other programs

Some special-needs children may need a more intensive program than others. An autistic child who must learn
basic daily living skills cannot get what he needs in a larger classroom full of typically functioning children,
Martin pointed out.

Susan Clothier has three children in Cherry Hill public schools, including two with learning disabilities. Both are
mainstreamed.

"The most important thing for parents of a special-needs child to consider is whether he or she will have the
necessary support in a typical classroom," said Clothier, president of Cherry Hill's Special Education PTA.

Typically, parents of a child with an IEP, or individualized education plan, will review the child's progress each
year with a team that includes a school social worker, school psychologist, therapists and a case manager.
They go over the child's strengths and weaknesses and come to a decision on what is the least restrictive
environment for that particular child -- from a social standpoint as well as an academic one.

"When it comes to mainstreaming, parents should be asking, "Why not?' For some children, the least restrictive
environment may be too overwhelming or their needs may be too intensive. But if it's appropriate, why not?"
Clothier said.

Reach Barbara S. Rothschild at (856) 486-2416 or brothschild @courierpostonline.com
Published: August 27. 2006 3:10AM