The Italian model for the inclusion and integration of students with special needs: some issues Dario Ianes

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The Italian model for the inclusion and integration of students with special needs: some issues
Dario Ianes

University of Bolzano, Erickson Research Center – Trento, Italy


In the metacognitive instruction the teacher’s attention is focused on improving the student’s awareness of his/her actions, how thinking occurs, how strategies are used, and the effectiveness of one’s cognitive processes. This approach has produced very relevant changes – and results – in teaching-learning processes.

In this conceptual framework, a model of cooperative learning, problem-based teaching and role play has been developed, according to the principles of Edgar Morin’s thought. This model, based on a series of concrete teaching strategies, has demonstrated a big success for improving the inclusion of children with special needs and learning disabilities and, in general, for the development of metacognitive principles in all students.

The teaching formula is definitely original: a role playing game with four actors (the explorer, the strategist, the critic and the wise man), develops along two lines –cognitive and metacognitive – that constantly interact.

The cognitive line includes two different approaches to problem solving: holistic and intuitive for the explorer, and analytic and systematic for the strategist.

The metacognitive line presents two fundamental aspects of human thinking: the intellectual one, manifested by the critic, and the emotional one, manifested by the wise man.

Because of the difference between these two lines of development, different materials are used for each approach: maps and cards for the cognitive levels, and the “Charts of Morin’s principles” for the metacognitive level.

The latter promote the systemic and cybernetic approach to problem solving that is typical of Morin.

The unfolding of the set of activities stimulates the development of the four types of intelligence: cognitive, social, emotional and practical.

In the present lecture I am going to examine and discuss several major issues concerning the current situation of integration and inclusion of students with disabilities and special educational needs (SEN) in Italy.

After more than three decades of school and health policies aiming at the full inclusion, we have built up a rich corpus of experiences and observations, though not yet complete of a sufficient corpus of empirical studies – and this is a problem we are growing aware of. However, these experiences were and are lived with a deep positive involvement by the thousands of teachers, parents and health professionals who have built the history of inclusion in the past thirty years.

Two major issues emerge out of general observations and consensus in Italy: the first concerns the knowledge and assessment of the students with disabilities/SEN and the second refers to school inclusion strategies that work better.

As to the first issue, there is an increasing attention on two needs:

1. making an accurate assessment of the disabled student’s strengths and weaknesses and, on this basis, building an educational plan that really meets his/her actual characteristics and needs;

2. recognizing and supporting all children who, though not having a proper disability, present different special education needs.

The first one is what our state regulations, including both school and health systems, refer to as ‘functional diagnosis’, as opposed to clinical, nosographic and aetiological diagnoses. Health service is primarily responsible of this diagnosis, which should identify and describe in detail the subject’s cognitive, educational and psychological functioning. In the law-maker’s purposes, this diagnosis was meant to involve and engage all the school’s educational and psychological components, including teachers in their everyday inclusion practice. However, many problems have emerged and have been discussed to this regard, especially after 1994, when the law assigning the task of making the functional diagnosis to public healthcare was issued. More specifically, the problems that emerged, and still do, related to the different cultural and professional perspectives of health professionals on the one hand and school professionals on the other. The strict medical model has often collided with the educational model, too much has been devolved on public healthcare, with the school expecting diagnoses which would miraculously enlighten teachers in their daily practice. Many teachers have used this expectation as a pretext to avoid engaging and spending effort, and many health professionals are not capable of making an adequate assessment. Additional difficulties relate to staff shortages and the families not being involved in the evaluation process. Furthermore, still today functional diagnosis is confused with the diagnostic certificate identifying the child as belonging to the group of pupils with disabilities who are entitled to having a special education teacher. But I’ll talk about this later on.

So, functional diagnosis – as a specific evaluation of the child aiming at his/her full school inclusion – is faced with some difficulties in Italy. However, things are currently changing for the better, and this positive change is mainly due to the introduction of World Health Organization’s ICF, the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, occured in 2002. This system, specifically designed to comprehend, interpret, describe and share the person’s functioning, was welcomed by the school professionals and those health professionals more sensitive to a comprehensive bio-psycho-social conceptualization of health and functioning. ICF has given stimulus to evolve and improve functional diagnosis, building it on the basis of the ICF anthropological model and on its codes and qualifiers, making it actually more functional and directly relevant to school inclusion processes. Having to consider and examine relationships among bodily, structural and functional dimensions, personal activity areas, environmental and personal (psychological, motivational, emotional, etc.) factors, in order to enhance social participation in both school and community roles, health professionals cannot avoid involving and engaging teachers and families in the functional diagnosis process. We give a warm welcome to ICF in Italy!

Increasingly spreading as a shared ground between public healthcare and school systems, this model provides a good basis to other significant improvements of inclusion in Italy. I am referring to the development of the individualized educational plan into a life project, in a life-long learning perspective looking to professional and social inclusion. The definition of learning and development goals related to adult life, in order to provide all the skills needed in adulthood, is increasingly common in Italy.

According to this trend, Italian school designs its inclusion and individualized education programs considering three main focuses of attention:

1. the child’s basic need to develop competence in the areas that ICF labels as ‘personal activities’ (learning, communication, interactions, self-help), as well as in the areas of cognition and metacognition, as far as possibile;

2. the need to design individualized objectives, considering the child’s social participation in terms of his/her being a pupil who, together with peers, takes part to shared activities in an active and significant manner. This second focus of attention aims at identifying curricular goals which are appropriate with respect to the child’s abilities and deficits and to the specific regular instruction courses. As we’ll see further on, this is a major component of full and good-quality school inclusion;

3. the need of a wide and far-sighted perspective on the pupil’s life project, defining significant objectives in the areas of adult competence (economic roles, pre-working skills, emotional and sexual life, etc.) that are deeply interwoven with objectives related to the development of adult identity, including motivation, goals, self-efficacy, self-esteem, etc. To this respect, as we will see, another critical component is the involvement of peers in the inclusion process.

So we are witnessing a very important evolution of the individualized educational plan, that otherwise was exposed to the risk of being limited to an individualized only-academic plan. Conversely, it widens significantly its scope both in sincronic and diacronic terms. As already mentioned, a major contribution to this important step forward was given by ICF and its emphasis on the person’s social participation in a range of roles.

Diagnostic practices are also changing with respect to acknowledging children with special education needs. This change is slowly been recognized by law-making and rule-making, both at the State Department for Education level and the local government level. In Italy, there is growing awareness about the presence, along with a percentage of children with disabilities of about the 2-3% of school population, of another 15-20% of children with different learning challenges and disorders. By means of a diagnosis and a medical certification, children with disabilities are granted the right to have a special education teacher. Conversely, the pupils with special education needs – who do not get officially recognized by the school system as having learning difficulties – are not entitled to the same rights of inclusion and individualized supports. Just to make an example referring to another country, the English school system recognizes children with special education needs and implements several inclusion arrangements – as the so-called school action and school action plus – regardless of the official certification, the statutory assessment.

Several screening and assessment methods for SEN, based on the ICF model and content, are currently being tested in Italy. Thereby teachers, supported by health professionals, may better evaluate and get a more precise profile of all the children who show some sort of challenge. The concept bringing together all the different difficulties is the concept of ‘learning and educational functioning’, irrespective of the various aetiologies or the challenge being temporary or permanent.

The significant changes that the practices of recognition of the needs to a full right to full inclusive arragements are currently undergoing make increasingly urgent and lively the debate on the resources to use in order to provide good inclusive practices. Obviously, this debate takes different forms depending on the different contexts where it occurs – the reduced assets allocated to school in the national budget laws, the decisions made by local educational authorities on the number of special education teachers, the debate on the instructional and methological strategies for inclusion, the families’ perspective, and so on.

As to resources for inclusion, the special education teacher is still regarded as the most important one in Italy. The number of these teachers is constantly increasing (they are currently about eighty thousand), but the number of students with disabilities is growing faster. Too much is still asked of the sole special education teacher, whose action — if performed in isolation — is often ineffective, as many of them lack a specific training and are managed inadequately by school and local authorities. I will try to run through the major issues of the debate on resources, examining it in an educational perspective.

In Italy there is currently general agreement in identifying five large areas where effective inclusion strategies may work better, and they are the following:

1. the link between individualized programming and the class curriculum;

2. classmates and schoolmates involvement;

3. integrating behavioural strategies into the regular learning activities and educational relationships;

4. metacognitive teaching and learning;

5. information communication technology.

Before examining these five areas, a common denominator must be emphasized. In and through all these areas, we are trying to enrich and improve ‘normality’ in the school by means of technical interventions that have proved to be effective. The goal is building a ‘special normality’ encompassing the advantages of both specific strategies and comfortable normality. Thereby, we are trying to get over the dichotomy that opposes what is normal to what is special. We believe that this is the main road to reach an actual good-quality school inclusion.

As to the first area, we are increasingly positive that a major component of a good-quality inclusion lies in a close link between the individualized learning plan and the general curriculum of the whole classroom. There is growing awareness about the need to define objectives, in the different subjects and fields of competence, that are appropriate to the disabled child, that are within his/her zone of proximal development and that, in this way, make significant his/her being and participating with peers to classroom activities. On the basis of our experience of the past decades, we have designed a flow-chart that may help teachers and students in adapting curriculum objectives to the needs of a specific child. It includes five levels of adaptation, starting from the surface and going increasingly in depth. The model is used by many teachers working together with the students, and this constitutes an important part of process in a cooperative and constructivistic sense.

First level of adaptation: changing the input/output codes

Access to tasks and contents is made easier by changing the codes (e.g. listening to a tape recorded text instead of reading; typewriting instead of handwriting; using Italian sign language/Braille materials, and so on)

Second level of adaptation: changing the teaching/learning contexts

Access to tasks and contents is made easier by adapting/enriching the teaching/learning activities and contexts (e.g. teaching/learning spelling by means of a motivating instructional software instead of traditional pencil-and-paper; teaching/learning arithmetical facts by role-playing shopkeeper-customer interactions), time (giving more time to teach, learn, complete tasks), space (providing a quiet place, an adequate light) and suports (prompts, extra stimulus cues, and so on)

Third level of adaptation: changing the content – simplification

Access to tasks and contents is made easier by their simplification (e.g. providing short and explicit texts to read; allowing the use of calculator in mathematical problem solving)
Fourth level of adaptation: changing the content – identifying basics

Access to tasks and contents is made easier by identifying and presenting their basics (e.g. in history class, the child may learn that events depend on interrelated causes by exploring his/her own personal life)

Fifth level of adaptation: participating to the task culture

Opportunities are sought in order to involve the child in the classroom activities, was it even only – so to speak – as an observer

The second area where we believe that precious resources may be found is peer involvement, both classmates and schoolmates. We feel strongly that the importance of educating all children to accepting and valuing individual differences cannot be overemphasized. There is no other way to develop a supporting community, that very community where children, with and without disabilities, will grow up and live. As I mentioned, we must keep a far-sighted perspective on the disabled child’s adult life, and if we want – and we do – to build a supporting social network of adult people, we need to start with children. Anyone of us met at least some of his/her present friends attending school, so we need to provide that same opportunity to children with disabilities. Many strategies are available to this purpose.

Cooperative learning methods have been welcomed in Italy, though they pose many operative challenges. Their success may be partly due to a ground made ready and fertile by active pedagogics, and Freinet especially. Different cooperative learning methods are being applied in our country, and their implementation is enhanced by a methodological awareness. Before introducing cooperative learning activities, we try to build, both in the classroom and outside of it, a climate and some networks of sharing, mutual help, mutual support, closeness and prosociality. In some respects, we need to weave the relationships texture that will hold the delicate and complex embroidery of cooperative groups. To this purpose, different strategies are implemented, borrowed from group animation, social psychology and community psychology. By applying these strategies, we build a basis of shared prosocial acceptance and solidarity. Several forms of cooperative learning groups are experimented, with a special attention to role definition and positive interdependence, in order to engage even children with severe disabilities. In this context, we have experimented for three years a cooperative group model derived from Edgar Morin’s idea of human and intellectual understanding, where four roles are used – the explorer, the strategist, the critic, and the sage. Each of these roles performs cognitive and metacognitive tasks, as well as tasks requiring emotional and interpersonal intelligence. All the tasks can be graduated in difficulty so they may be adapted to different kinds of difficulties.


Tasks: gathers ideas provided by the group through a brainstorming; defines problems; encourages new directions of research, and so on


Tasks: analyzes characters; finds information; explains facts; plans solutions and anticipates consequences


Tasks: reviews critically the explorer’s and the strategist’s hypotheses; distinguishes facts from opinions; challenges the degree of certainty of information; evaluates suggestions, anticipations, and products


Tasks: helps the group in respecting roles; examines possible causes of the group’s failure and provides suggestions; encourages self-reflection and mediates conflicts creatively

Cognitive axis

Metacognitive axis

Another form of peer engagement widely used in our country is tutoring, both within the classroom and outside of it. In the secondary school especially, many students – and former students too – support peers or younger students with disabilities in learning academic and social skills and help them in their integration process. This is most important for their psychological development.

The third very important area where school inclusion is developing and improving is the increasing use of applied behavior analysis and metacognitive teaching strategies in the regular classroom activities. For many years Italian pedagogical and psychological culture has actively resisted the introduction of these approaches, coming mainly from USA, regarding them as too strict and deterministic. Things have dramatically changed in the past decade and this change is partly due to the decline of psychoanalytic approach and to the evolution of the cognitive-behavioural approach, which has grown more sensitive to relational dynamics, to systemic theories, to humanistic psychology and to emotional aspects. On this basis, many schools are bringing several components of TEACCH approach into che classrooms, including psychoeducational techniques as for example the strong structuring of working times and spaces, which benefits all pupils – and not only those with autistic spectrum disorders – in developing self-regulation skills. The same happens with the different behaviour modification strategies, which have been updated and made more person-sensitive; thus, they have become suitable to be implemented in the inclusive classrooms, to the purpose of managing severe behaviour problems (aggression, self-injury, stereotypies) or enhancing motivation by means of positive reinforcement. In this case, the strategies are addressed to the whole classroom and not only to the pupil with disabilities.

The introduction of psychoeducational techniques in the regular classroom relationships and activities is demanded by an increasing number of teachers and professionals (who are also increasingly more informed and trained: begininning from the Nineties, all teacher, including those of kindergartens and nursery schools, get to work after a four-years university course, that will soon increase to five years), scholars and professionals who are gradually discarding prejudice against behavioral approaches (SINPIA, for example, the Italian Society of Neuropsychiatry for Childhood and Adolescence), family associations of people with different disabilities who defend their children’s right to receive – in school, too – an educational and instructional treatment shown to be effective by years of empirical research in special education. This is a request for special normality that more and more often is posed to school and that school, in its different components, tries to respond to.

The fourth area of support to inclusion processes is metacognitive instruction, mostly implemented for children with special education needs or specific learning challenges. During the past fifteen years, a group of academics, researchers and teachers, led by professor Cesare Cornoldi of Padua University, have designed and developed about twenty different teaching curricula that schools can directly administer for the intervention on critical aspects of special instruction and support to cognitive, metacognitive and academic skills. These curricula include programs on study skills, memory skills, attention, attribution styles, reading skills, metaphonological skills, history and geography, spatial orientation and visuo-spatial skills, mathematics. The group of Padua provides a most precious and unique case, in our country, of fertile cooperation between academics and school teachers, the latter working on the field and most in need of operative and scientifically-based tools and materials.

The last resource area, strongly supported by our government and by business interests in the hardware field, relates to information communication technology, where instructional software specifically designed for learners with special education needs and disabilities are developed. In this case the traditional Italian creativity is beginning to give its best, building, for example, a new specific software for the psychoeducational intervention on the theory of mind deficits typical of the autistic spectrum disorders, a field that so far has received little attention by information communication technology.

Concluding, I think I can say that after thirtyfive years of full school inclusion experience – that in many respects has been challenging, hesitating at times, full of lights and shadows – the balance is definitely and most largely positive. The huge effort that teachers put into inclusion shows how much it is considered a critical enhancement of the school for all children. For the future, we have many challenges and opportunities – building a strong basis of empirical data on the positive effects of full school inclusion, implementing the ICF model on a large scale, and making increasingly special our schools’ normality that accomodates for all Italian children.

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