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The State and Quality of Pupils' Experiences of Integrative School Forms

Background and aims

Following an international trend, Switzerland is also seeing an increasing number of special needs children and adolescents being taught in mainstream classes. This study is based on the controversial discussions relating to the pros and cons of inclusive schooling.

A differentiated answer to the question posed regarding the benefits and disadvantages of the inclusive and segregated schooling systems must be based as much on empirical findings as it is on fundamental socio-political and ethical arguments. A review of current research literature on this subject shows that the effects of inclusive schooling are, on the whole, positive. Some research loopholes, however, still exist and give rise to the question: how do pupils subjectively experience everyday school life (during lessons) in a natural learning environment? This is a question that has to date seen no systematic empirical investigation. Although it is known through example that integrated children with learning difficulties have a lower ability concept when compared to their fellow pupils, it is still entirely unclear whether this difference has a corresponding equivalent in their emotional experience during day-today school lessons.

The aim of this study is to contribute towards determining which effects, if any, inclusive schooling has on the quality of experience in the classroom of special needs children. Children with a behavioural or low academic performance are of primary interest. The term “quality of experience” includes two aspects: on the one hand, it is measured against the absence of negative experiences such as fear, stress or vexation. On the other hand, it is related to the presence of positive experiences such as joy, interest and enthusiasm. An empirically and theoretically well-founded model corresponding to this understanding and upon which this study will be based is the circumplex model of affective states. This model allows a concise and differential description of the complete spectrum of affective states using the two (bipolar) dimensions «Positive Activation (PA)» and «Negative Activation (NA)».

The idea of investigating the quality of experience in the classroom is based upon the latest theoretical approaches and research results showing that emotional experience is closely associated with motivational and cognitive processes and thus plays a significant role in learning.


An Experience Sampling Method (ESM) was employed in order to obtain data about the affective experience of children in the classroom. Children in year 6 were asked to use a short, standardised questionnaire to record their current condition and classroom activity when a cue signal was sounded (employed over a school week period and generated several times a day by a random signal generator, such as a pager). Each class was sent a total of 14 signals. Following completion of this investigative week, the children were asked to complete a conventional questionnaire containing questions relating to the way they perceived their school situation such as general emotional and social well-being, motivational orientation and school-related self-ability concept.

The sample consisted of 719 pupils (51% male) from 40 regular inclusive learning classrooms and an average of 12.3 protocols (totalling 8800 instants) and 102 pupils (72% male) from 11 small and 11 special school classrooms with an average of 12.6 protocols (totalling almost 1300 instants).

Academic performance tests (German and mathematics) and an empirically tested screening process (indications based on teacher evaluation) were employed in order to identify low academic performance or behavioural problems in mainstream class pupils. Using limit values, almost 30% of the mainstream class pupils exhibited a need for special support (64% with low academic performance, 22% with a behavioural problem and 14% exhibited a need for support in both areas).

Academic performance tests with pupils in small and special school classes could not be carried out. In their view, and from their experience, the teaching staff considered the tests too difficult and frustrating for their pupils. It was therefore not possible to employ the same criteria as those employed with mainstream class pupils to identify low academic performance.
In order to thus compare pupils with special needs in inclusive and segregated schooling systems, somewhat different comparison groups were formed: Pupils in small classes were compared with those pupils in mainstream classes who exhibited a need for special support or who were already receiving special needs support.


The main results of comparing pupils with and without special support needs in mainstream
classes can be summarised as follows:

  • On the whole, pupils with special support needs have a less positive school-related self-image than their fellow pupils: An increased need to hide their lacking competences in school from others was something shared by all the groups of special needs children. On average, pupils with low academic performance have a much lower self-concept of academic ability while pupils with a behavioural problem describe themselves as being socially much less integrated into the class.
  • On the whole, there is a marginal difference between the motivational-emotional experience of pupils with specials support needs and those without; additionally, the qualitative differences depend upon the type of support needed: Pupils with a low academic performance are on average slightly more positively activated (PA) and generally try harder. The results also show, however, that there are huge differences between pupils with a low academic performance with respect to the quality of experience (interindividual variability). In contrast, pupils with a learning difficulty in lessons are moderately more negatively activated (NA), that is to say they experience more stress. Their experience also contains a further dynamism: their state – notably NA – fluctuates more in different situations (intraindividual variability).

The main results of comparing pupils with special needs or special educational support needs in mainstream classrooms and pupils in small or special school classes can be summarised as follows:

  • The school-related self-image of pupils in inclusive and segregated schooling systems differ in two dimensions, each with a different meaning: Children integrated into mainstream classes value social relationships in the classroom on the whole more than those in small or special school classes. The latter, however, tend to evaluate their academic abilities higher – particularly when compared to those pupils in mainstream classes who have special support needs and are receiving special education provisions.
  • The quality of experience of pupils in inclusive and segregated settings differs in various aspects, these differences, however, are marginal: Pupils with a low academic performance or behavioural problem who are integrated into mainstream classes and pupils in small and special school classes have very similar experiences of school lessons. The former are on the whole slightly more negatively activated (NA). A loss in the quality of experience in inclusive settings seems to appear where there is no special support for a child in the “learning” and “socio-emotional development” areas when a special support provision has been assigned: Such a child is generally less positively activated (PA) and more negatively activated (NA) in lessons and is less involved in classroom activities. A final difference affects features of the classroom experience: Active participation and the effort made in lessons by pupils in segregated schooling forms fluctuates significantly more than with integrated pupils.


What conclusions can now be drawn from the findings above? Firstly, with respect to the quality of experience, it can be said that special needs children learning in mainstream classes are more likely to experience stress (NA) than children in segregated school systems. This, however, is particularly true of children with a behavioural problem (children with a low academic performance experience lessons more positively when compared to their fellow pupils without special needs).
Secondly, it is evident that inclusive schooling has no effect on Positive Activation (PA). On average, special needs children feel equally motivated, concentrated and energetic during lessons. In inclusive schooling forms, the allocation of a special educational needs provision appears to harm the quality of experience (with respect to PA and NA) when special support in the areas of learning and socio-emotional development is given, but not proven necessary. Thirdly, no definitive answer can be formulated with respect to school-related self-image: A positive effect of inclusive schooling is that children integrated into mainstream classes feel socially better integrated in the class than their counterparts in small or special school classes. The «costs» of inclusive schooling can be viewed as being the less positive self-concept of ability exhibited in children integrated into mainstream classes and their increased orientation towards avoidance action.



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