Mainstreaming vs Inclusion In Special Education: What’s the difference?

Last Updated on October 4, 2023 by Editorial Team

Children with learning difficulties require special attention and effort according to their needs. In an attempt to do the same, modifications are made to classroom experiences. Some children might find regular classrooms overwhelming and they may turn out to be inappropriate for their developmental needs.

On the other hand, it is possible that some children excel academically or socially while being placed in a general classroom because they feel that they are a part of the learning process and are not being overlooked or excluded. This leads to two main approaches to education plans for children with special needs- mainstreaming and inclusion. 

Mainstreaming is when a child with learning difficulties is placed in a general education classroom with an underlying expectation that the student will be able to learn and efficiently apply the skills at a similar rate as other students. 

Inclusion is also the placement of a child with special needs in a general classroom. However, in a classroom that follows an inclusive approach, children with disabilities are often provided with extra assistance from a special education teacher. Also, assignments are modified according to their aptitude. 

Let’s dive into this post for details about both approaches.

Mainstreaming vs. Inclusion in special education: Key differences explored

1. Mainstreaming


Mainstreaming is an educational approach that refers to placing children with learning difficulties in a regular classroom to improve their social and educational skills. For these students, the curriculum is the same for all students, with or without any learning disabilities. Children in this set-up do not receive any other special support except from the teacher. They are expected to make adjustments and adapt according to a regular classroom. The assignments they are provided with are the same as those provided to other children in the same classroom. 

The main purpose of mainstreaming is that all children receive the same education as per the curriculum across the classroom. All children in a mainstream classroom setup will be exposed to students with special needs which would promote tolerance towards them that is essential for them to carry with them into their adult lives. Moreover, there will be more room for being considered an equal amongst peers and feeling at the same level as others.

However, there are some shortcomings associated with mainstreaming. Some children with special needs with extreme difficulties will need from time to time exclusive attention or address of the same in the classroom. This will not only disrupt the flow of the classroom but also may do harm to the self-esteem of the child. 

Although students with learning disabilities will have access to the same curricula as other students, it is possible that in some situations they are not able to keep up with the assignments or level of the syllabi. In this case, they might not feel good enough or less competent. 

2. Inclusion


Inclusion is an approach in special education where children with learning disabilities are placed in a general classroom but are provided with a modified curriculum and assignments according to their needs and level of understanding. The material is individualized and they are not expected to perform the same as those without learning difficulties. 

The purpose of inclusion is to expose children with disabilities to students of their age and have the opportunity to be in the same learning environment. In a setup of an inclusion classroom, students are provided with special support. The regular teacher is trained on how to help children with special needs and oftentimes a special educator is also a part of the team. 

Having said that, inclusion has some disadvantages. One is for those teachers teaching an inclusion classroom, it will become quite overwhelming to ensure equal learning across all students. While handling a classroom is already a task, tackling children with special needs might become cumbersome and overburdening for them. 

Apart from that, students with special needs may feel the pressure to perform at the same level as those without any difficulties. They may find themselves comparing themself with their peers. 

Mainstreaming vs Inclusion: Similarities & Differences

Similar to mainstreaming, students in an inclusion classroom benefit from being socially exposed and interacting with children of the same age group and forming bonds and friendships. It enhances their social skills. In addition to that, peers will grow to be accepting of individual differences and uniqueness. In addition to that, they will be provided the same education, knowledge, and skills as other children only with certain modifications

Mainstreaming requires children with learning disorders to attend a regular classroom and they are expected to show improvement in social skills and academic performance; whereas, inclusion requires children with learning disorders to attend regular classrooms for their own benefit not necessarily showing any improvement. In addition to that, Mainstreaming requires a child to deal with and adjust to the class on his own; inclusion classrooms have a team of specialists supporting the child.

Mainstreaming vs. Inclusion: What does the research say

Research[1] on mainstreaming and inclusion in special education has given results that favor and reject both and take us in different directions. For some, access to different forms of provisions where individual needs might be met is seen as preferable in a mainstream environment. Others have rejected this view and have sought new means in the form of inclusive education being a replacement for special needs.

There are studies[2] that have found that children with learning disorders placed in mainstream education have no greater success than children in specialist provision unless specific provisions like speech and language therapy are provided and involved in promoting success.

However, a research study conducted by Buckley[4], showed that there were large significant gains in expressive language and literacy skills for those educated in mainstream classrooms. Teenagers educated in mainstream classrooms showed fewer behavioral difficulties.   

Another meta-analysis[5] conducted on the effectiveness of inclusive education among children with general learning disabilities suggested that in addition to students with general learning disabilities showing better performance in inclusive schools, it is noticeable that they benefit from higher participation in society as well. This advantage is reinforced by the fact that no detrimental effect on these students’ psychosocial outcomes as a result of inclusive education was found. Furthermore, no detrimental effects on cognitive and psychosocial outcomes among their peers without general learning disabilities were found. 

Table of comparison: Mainstreaming vs. Inclusion in Special education

DefinitionRefers to the placement of a child with special needs in a regular classroom without special support or a modified curriculum.Refers to the placement of a child with special needs in a regular classroom with special support and modifications in assignments and curriculum.
Expectation from childrenMake adjustments, adapt to the regular classroom, and perform on the same levelPerform differently, behave as per their own characteristics
Support from teacherNo special educator involvedSpecial educators involved along with regular teacher
Curriculum and AssignmentsNo modifications as per special needs in curriculum and assignmentsIndividualized assignments and curriculum

Mainstreaming vs. Inclusion: Verdict 

As discussed, some research studies have found inclusion and mainstreaming, to be a better method of learning and education for those with learning difficulties. There have been benefits in social and academic aspects. Children in inclusive environments have shown better performance and even higher participation in social settings.

Mainstreaming and Inclusion do benefit the children to adapt to social challenges better even if the difference in academic performance may not be significant. However, in some cases, it could backfire in the manner that children with special needs feel pressured to perform as well as those with no learning difficulties. In addition to that, children without special needs or learning difficulties placed in an inclusive classroom may experience some bias such as those with special needs getting away with assignments. 

Having said this, mainstreaming and inclusion can work efficiently if there are specific provisions involved and provided to children with disabilities. For example, for someone with a speech deficit, a weekly extra session of speech and language therapy can be provided. These modifications can further the growth of children and get them on par with their classmates without special needs. Be it mainstreaming, or inclusion, interventions targeting the specific problems and needs of children must be catered to in some manner. 


Mainstreaming and inclusive education are two approaches proposed to make education more accessible and equal for children with special needs. The key difference between the two is that in inclusive, there is special support and individual modification for children with learning difficulties. Both inclusion and mainstreaming have their benefits and shortcomings.

Research has opened both perspectives- there being To get the best of both methods, educators must aim to provide children with disabilities, and without, an environment of equality in academic and social aspects. Children with disabilities can learn efficiently in general classrooms if their shortcomings and difficulties are paid attention to. There must be plans for interventions intended to make all children learn and grow in a similar manner.


  1. Florian, L. (2008). INCLUSION: Special or inclusive education: Future trends. British Journal of Special Education, 35(4), 202-208.
  2. Waddington, E. M., & Reed, P. (2017). Comparison of the effects of mainstream and special school on National Curriculum outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorder: An archive-based analysis. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 17(2), 132-142.
  3. Buckley, S., Bird, G., Sacks, B., & Archer, T. (n.d.). A comparison of mainstream and special education for teenagers with Down syndrome: Implications for parents and teachers. Down Syndrome Research and Practice9(3), 54–67.
  4. Krämer, S., Möller, J., & Zimmermann, F. (2021). Inclusive Education of Students With General Learning Difficulties: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research.

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