Nigel (in the car on the way to the video store):  What does ‘mainstream’ mean?

I should have known it was coming at some point. But I didn’t. And I felt like a deer in the headlights.

It’s a simple enough word, perplexingly defined by Webster as “the predominant current or tendency of a movement, discipline, etc.” But it’s the secondary definition that we special-needs parents know all too well: “v.t. put (handicapped students) in regular classes.” Yes, that’s exactly what’s printed in my desk dictionary, complete with the parenthesis. And I cringed when I checked it later, wondering if Nigel had heard or read something similar, causing him to ask. Wanting to hear it from me. Wanting to see what it meant to me, perhaps. Wanting to know what it meant for him. It’s something that we special-needs parents mention at IEP meetings and in blog posts and annual Christmas letters (well I do, anyway): Our hopes of mainstreaming. Our relief and pride when it happens successfully. Our sadness and frustration when it does not. I am unfortunately too familiar with the highs and lows of mainstreaming. Sometimes I think we give that word too much power.

Back to the car. Back to me wondering what to say in the second after he posed his question. I figured I’d keep it general, didn’t want to get too heavy. After all, we were going to the video store. The possibility hit me that perhaps he had read the word in the context of movies. So I tentatively forged ahead and said, “Um…mostly it means ‘typical.’ Like with movies and books – what most people are watching and reading. It’s the usual stuff.”

“Okay,” he said, his way of indicating that he understands something. A few minutes later we arrived at the store, and the conversation didn’t continue.

But the box had been opened, and I couldn’t just close it back up. We needed to discuss what was inside. He’s a sophomore in high school (!), he has started attending his own IEP meetings, and he should know. He should hear it from me. So a few days later (processing time for both of us), I went to talk to him in his room one evening, when I knew he would be relaxed, and I broached the subject. I asked him if he remembered asking me what ‘mainstream’ meant, and where he had heard or read it mentioned before. He confirmed that his question was in regard to movies, and then I told him that there was another meaning of the word that I wanted him to be aware of because he might hear it at his IEP meetings or read about it somewhere. I told him that when students have autism or other differences that affect their learning, “mainsteaming” them means that they are taught in the same classroom with other students, but that they often have aides for assistance. I briefly told him of his own mainstreaming history. I told him that some students have difficulty being mainstreamed and are taught in smaller classrooms or homeschooled, and that they are just as important, just as intelligent. They just have different educational needs. I told him that mainstreaming isn’t best for everyone. That sometimes it wasn’t working for him either, and that was okay. We just had to find something that worked for him. And we did, whether it was full-time homeschooling or part-time mainstreaming. It was all okay.

And gradually, over the years, that powerful word lost its influential quality.

Mainstreaming is not about the right way or the wrong way, superior if you are or inferior if you aren’t. It’s not the Holy Grail of education, as I mistakenly believed in years past. I remember the Christmas letter I wrote ten years ago, how I unwittingly glorified mainstreaming by crowing about how Nigel, age five, was finally starting to talk, and I wrote, “We hope to have Nigel mainstreamed for Kindergarten next year.” In fact, he wasn’t mainstreamed until second grade, and that was difficult at best, even with a full-time one-on-one aide. He wasn’t mainstreamed for most of middle school either. And here’s the thing – he’s a better person for it. He has not had a typical education, but he has had a well-rounded one. He has learned just as much, if not more, and he is happy. And I am just as proud of that.

29 thoughts on “Mainstream

  1. Big Daddy

    My son just started middle school this year. In elementary school he had been mainstreamed a little bit but, at least this first year in middle school, we decide it was better for him to remain in the VE class all day. Funny thing is, since many of the kids in his class come and go period after period, he thinks he is in a General Ed class. Since he is so proud we see no harm in letting him think that.

  2. Boy Wonder's Mom

    I think I wish for mainstream because in some weird place in my head it will mean that Boy Wonder has conquered his autism. I know this isn’t true.

    Thank you for making me see the point is that he gets what will work for him and that it may not be mainstreaming.

    But seriously God help me if I have to homeschool. 🙂

  3. Elise

    It truly depends on the child and what their needs are. My oldest was in a self-contained program for several years before he was mainstreamed with an aide, while my youngest was always mainstreamed. Was it the best for them, eventually yes, but it was hard going at times.

    I don’t think its such a bad thing to discuss with Nigel the differences. Its not like he doesn’t know he has aspergers and that in some way he is different than other children. In fact I think our boys think about it more than they let on.

    HSb just sat down to write his college aplication essay and the thing he was going towrite about is the fact of how he overcame his aspergers and how hard it was at times. You know I never even thought it was an issue for him, but apparently it is. Of course we told him not to write that essay. We know that even though the colleges say they are equal opportunity environments, they invariably reject those they know who have disabilities, its why the collegeboard and the ACt had to stop flagging their tests given under the ADA.

    Anyway, it is a good thing that Nigel is asking these questions. He is quite the bright youngman and it sounds like just as others of his age are looking to see where they fit into the world, so is Nigel.On that note however, I always like to tell mine, that if you don’t find a place that fits, create it yourself.

  4. Dayna Golden

    Mainsteaming- another word that parents of special needs children know well. I am so thankful that it is done even though Jeffrey is still in a life skills/special education classroom most of the day both are very beneficial to him.

  5. Tanya Savko Post author

    Big Daddy – I think having your son in that class all day is a great decision. Middle school would have been so much better for Nigel if we had done that!

    Boy Wonder’s Mom – I totally understand. I felt exactly the same way about mainstreaming.

    Elise – Thanks so much for your comment. I really like your idea about creating a place that fits! Just wanted to clarify in case anyone else was wondering, Nigel has not been diagnosed with Asperger’s. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and again at age 5, because of his significant language delay and other reasons.

    K Floortime – So glad this resonated with you.

  6. Lex Savko

    I think you’re on the right track with that perspective – it’s about finding what works, not trying to meet some pre-conceived standard or expectation. The key is that he is learning, he is growing, he is happy. By being realistic and practical, you’ve helped make that happen.

  7. Kim

    I just love this post. I know that I will refer back to it in the future as I know that the Roc’s school placement will most likely change as time goes on. I just love how you and Nigel interact.

  8. M

    i always love how careful you are with your words, you did a wonderful job explaining the term, making sure he not only understood it but could apply it to his life in a constructive way. you: great.

  9. Brenda (mamabegood)

    Tanya – it is one of the invaluable lessons I have learned from my journey, too. That ‘typical’ ain’t all that. That Harvard’s not the “best.” That a different path is just … different. Not worse. LOVE this post.

  10. Jazzygal

    I absolutely agree… mainstream is not the beginning and end of education. Once the child is happy and has reached their true potential…whatever that is for them…is a huge achievement.
    I am just about to tag you with two awards one of which you have. But you deserve the other one for your sidebar 😉

    xx Jazzy

  11. rhemashope

    you are so thoughtful with your boys. it’s no wonder Nigel understands and accepts who he is so well. i always love your calm, wise approach and perspective.

  12. Johanna

    Hi Tanya! Such a good article and I love the way you managed to handle this delicate situation.

  13. Alicia D

    We are no where near mainstreaming with my daughter, but every child is different. to me, mainstreaming her would be horrible! funny how the same word has different connotations depending on the person/situation 🙂

    im glad nigel has been happy… that is the most important thing 🙂

  14. Terri K

    my son has been mainstreamed his entire education but now that he is in High School and his future is in front of us we realize it isn’t the best thing for him at this point in his education. high school is so hard on typical kids imagine those with disabilities. This is where “independence” is stressed to the max. So this blog came as a blessing as we make this transition. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Dorrie R

    I am a mother of a beautiful daughter who has autism. She is probably on the lower end of the spectrum and requires alot of support. I am also a teacher. My daughter just turned 18. She is still in school. I do recall what it was like when she was a young student and team was trying to decide the best placement for her. My attitude through the years has been that “inclusion” needs to responsible. The responsibility is to the child involved as well as the “mainstream” students in the classroom. I have never wanted my daughter to be included just to be able to say that she was in the regular classroom. I wanted her in that setting for what it could bring to her, as well as what the other students would learn from her. If she were going to be in a mainstream setting at the cost of her dignity, I did not want her there. I have never wanted the mainstream students or teacher to resent her being present. As a teacher, I know the work that is put into teaching. Sometimes having a student who is disruptive and not actually involved in the learning takes away from the instruction. Therefore, I have insisted that the special education teacher KNOW what takes place in that setting. Another thing I have learned as a teacher, is that students who are not “mainstream” have alot to give to the mainstream students. So I have asked that the teachers explain her condition and encourage the students to “get to know” her. Usually they want to “love” her as well.

  16. Jack's mom

    This is a great post. My son is only 6 and in the first grade and is currently mainstreamed, with a one on one aide and is doing well. However, I worry about the future. I do know however, that whatever happens it will be okay. I love that you talk to your son about his autism. Some of my family have condemned me for being so open with Jack about it. I feel that if you pretend it isn’t there then there is a feeling of there is something wrong with me…..I said to them if he had MS, or diabieties or something else would it be okay to talk about??? He’s able to tell me “Mom, I’m having an autistic kind of day” and we both know what that means. I want him to be comfortable with himself and how he is different and that different is a good thing not a bad thing.

  17. terri Arrington

    I think that if they can do the work than main stream them. I think if the kids are nice in the classs than mainstream them. There is an autisic boy on trial now because he was mainstreamed and got made fun of and he killed another student. He’s being tryed as an adult. This breaks my heart.

  18. Paula

    We are having this battle now with our son’s school. He has always been maistreamed and now they are “considering other options for him.”
    Thank you for expressing a different point of view and making me think. I just want what is best for my son and maybe there are options that would be better for him and me. Then I could lower my stres level by not having as many phone calls from school.

  19. Courtney

    Mainstreaming is NOT a goal to me. It’s an OPTION out there if it is best for a child, but I am in no hurry to mainstream my autistic 4 year old… in fact, I plan to homeschool him and his younger brother & sister. He will attend half time to receive his therapies, but will receive most of his education at home. Perhaps if we had a better quality program, whereas my impression here is one of chaos and noise, which he doesn’t do well with. He tolerates it thanks to much effort put into desensitizing his auditory sensitivities, but it isn’t a good environment for him to learn in. And the other option, mainstreaming, isn’t the best option for him for kindergarten at least… maybe in the future, but not yet.

    We struggled a LOT with my oldest daughter’s ADHD and public school, I can’t imagine the struggles with autism and the school. And for the record, after homeschooling her for a brief time, her teachers saw a vast improvement in her, and her ADHD diagnosis has also been dropped! Homeschooling and 1:1 learning how to manage her time, take responsibility for her work, and stay on task was exactly what she needed. I wish I had done it before she was 15!

    It’s hard enough for a NT child to fit into the mainstream school “mould”, much less a child with any special needs.

  20. dale

    My son, Alex, had been mainstreamed since 1st grade. It has been a struggle. We have dealt with bullies, still do, yet we would not have changed a thing. It has been the best for him. The school has be exceptional. Do the mainstreaming.

  21. Sharon

    My daughter is in her 1st year of middle school. I hate it. They keep saying things like “provide other support” but not what on her IEP. They expect her to develop the ability to learn and understand conceptual thinking and to infer other information from those concepts, based on “provide other support” Up until this year, at this school, I would have said mainstreaming was the best thing ever. Now, we are trying to get the school to transfer her to a special ed only school. It’s reached the point where I have realized that she has always had a teacher that teaches her the way a typical child is taught. But she isn’t a typical child, she’s autistic. But with one teacher, we, as a family, have been able to compensate for it at home. Now, she has eight teachers and we can’t keep up. Eight teachers that want to teach her like a typical child.

    What she needs now, are eight teachers that can teach her how to make her autism work for her, and when that can’t happen, how to get done what she wants to get done anyway. This year, the IEP seems to be more to enable the school to count her as a student they taught, rather than find alternative ways for her to learn. She is failing her new co-taught classes in the same ways she was failing them when they were not co-taught, but standard. I don’t expect my daughter to need to attend a special needs school for the rest of her school career, I feel that once she learns how to learn with her disability, and not around it, she will be just fine. I just don’t think a mainstream school is capable of teaching that.

  22. Christine

    I am currently on board a project with AHRC partnering with a high schooler on the spectrum. This is such an informative post about the subject of mainstreaming and relates so well to what I’m currently learning about. If you’d like to read about my experience with AHRC I hope you’ll take a look at blog:

  23. Tanya Savko Post author

    Hi Christine,

    Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Your blog looks great and I wish you well with your AHRC partnering project!

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