The Art of Inclusion in the Classroom

Inclusion classrooms are centered around making sure all students are given the richest educational experience possible, but teachers must be mindful to overcome the unique challenges they can present.

History of Academic Inclusion

There are many online support groups for teachers of inclusion classrooms.

The term “inclusion classroom” is pretty self-explanatory: it refers to a classroom where students of all abilities are included and instructed in a meaningful way.  Individuals with disabilities are not removed to be taught in “special” classes the way they might have been in past years; instead, all students are given equal billing in one neurodiverse setting.  All students, in essence, are included.

The concept, however, is relatively new.  For many years, children with disabilities were considered a source of shame or pity.  They were often kept at home or sent away to institutions, and were forced to live on the margins of society throughout their lives.


The Anti-Defamation League summed it up by saying, “In the 1800s, people with disabilities were considered meager, tragic, pitiful individuals unfit and unable to contribute to society, except to serve as ridiculed objects of entertainment in circuses and exhibitions.” 


Though this stigma has changed in recent years, the integration of those with exceptional needs has been a long and somewhat messy process.

Indeed, well into the late twentieth century, almost two million students with disabilities were still excluded from the educational system entirely.  Despite a 1975 federal act called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, many kids still slipped through the cracks.

Sending children with special needs away to institutions like this one was a common practice in past decades.

The act demanded that all students with disabilities be granted an appropriate education, but created little guidance on what, exactly, that should look like.  Many educators and families were hesitant to embrace these students, worrying they would make it too difficult to teach the rest of the class effectively.

Modern Progress…

The ADA was a groundbreaking step towards more inclusive treatment.

It took almost a decade of protesting these murky guidelines to yield results.  The Americans with Disabilities Act was initially passed in 1990, and evolved over the next two decades to become more specific and inclusive.

The legislation, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, demands that every student’s education be accessible,  free, appropriate, timely, nondiscriminatory, meaningful, measurable, and provided in the least-restrictive setting.


According to recent statistics, more than 90% of students with disabilities now receive education in the mainstream classroom, and more than 50%  remain in the mainstream classroom for the majority of the day.  Clearly, a great deal of progress has been made since the days of bundling students with disabilities off to institutions or “special schools.”


Today’s inclusive classrooms welcome students with a variety of differences, including attention deficit disorder, traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, autism, impairment of hearing or vision, and a wide range of other medical, mobility, or learning disabilities.

But just as African Americans and other people of color continued to face racist exclusion long after segregation was officially deemed unconstitutional, so students with disabilities are often left to struggle in classrooms that may not be optimizing their educational experience, while teachers may be baffled about how to provide meaningful education for all.

…and Modern Problems

Inclusion classrooms can be brilliant hives of learning, where students shine not despite their differences, but because of them.  But they don’t just happen that way on their own.  

Teaching an inclusion class presents special challenges to the teacher that require planning, patience, knowledge, and passion to overcome.

Pursuing online resources to help manage teacher stress can also be helpful.

Many teachers feel overwhelmed when tasked with teaching an inclusion class.  They worry that they won’t be able to effectively reach both the students with special needs and the neurotypical students.  Some might feel uncomfortable accommodating certain abilities, or awkward when faced with having other teachers or aides present in the classroom while they are teaching.

However, there are simple steps I’ve found in my own teaching experience to make the whole process run smoothly.

Inclusion Solutions

A key concept in running a successful inclusion class is often to stop framing it as one.  Students with disabilities aren’t the “inclusion kids,” nor are the exceptional education teachers “inclusion teachers.”  Every kid in the classroom is a student, and every adult is a teacher.  This creates a baseline of mutual respect and makes potential barriers less noticeable.

To the extent that it’s possible, I like to include exceptional education teachers as part of the whole group and make sure that they have a rapport with the entire class, not just the children on their caseload.  To do this, I encourage the exceptional education teachers to take part in class discussions and games, teach a whole-group lesson, or run a station that includes everyone in the class.  I also like to pair students with disabilities with other classmates whenever I can, so that they are not constantly part of a small “other” group.

Implementing strategies and scaffolds that aid the entire group is also essential.  By adhering to the Universal Design for Learning, teachers can create an environment that works for all kids, rather than tailoring to just one subset of the class.

Studying UDL principles makes it easier to run a successful inclusion class.

The Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is a framework aimed at making learning environments more accessible for all students.  UDL is driven by the goal of creating a challenging but manageable setting for learners of all different backgrounds and strengths.  The overarching goal is to help educators create a place where every student can thrive. 


“When environments are intentionally designed to reduce barriers,” state UDL guidelines, “all learners can engage in rigorous, meaningful learning.”


There are many ways to incorporate UDL guidelines into your classroom to make it an optimal set-up for everyone.

This could be as easy as making sure the classroom isn’t visually overwhelming; making sure written text is visible for everyone; or making sure whole-class games and activities are accessible for all.  These simple steps can go a long way towards making the classroom a safe and instructive space for every child involved.

Another important facet in teaching an inclusion class is instilling the concept of equity in students early on.  While teachers often grapple with the concept of “equity versus equality” (see earlier One-Room post here), equity is necessary in a room where kids’ needs vary so vastly.

Only when the teacher and the students can all accept that education might look different for different people – and that the difference is okay – can real education in an inclusion classroom take place.

Personal Experiences in Inclusion

This was something that intimidated me when I first began teaching an inclusion class.  Surely, I thought, kids would react negatively when they noticed differences.

After all, how could a fourth grader accept that his buddy with cerebral palsy might need to lie down and take a nap after math class?  How could they accept that a classmate with limited motor skills might use assistive technology to record a paper while they have to tough it out in their best handwriting?  How could they understand that a friend with autism might take a break to go read his favorite book while they continue to complete a social studies activity?


I underestimated how adaptive kids are.


Tips for How I Run a Successful Inclusion Classroom

A straightforward discussion about equity at the beginning of the year helps kids understand that every classmate’s needs are different.

The key, for me, is to discuss these differences openly and calmly at the beginning of the year.  There’s no need to get into the specifics of where every student falls on the scale of neurodiversity.  Instead, a simple explanation that some students learn differently than others and have different strengths and needs typically does the trick.  I encourage them to ask questions, but always remind them to do so in a way that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. 


The students – all of them – have always risen to the challenge.


Part of this, of course, involves good planning on the teacher’s part.  It’s essential that all kids feel engaged in meaningful activities; if a child is bored with their work or is overwhelmed by an assignment that feels too hard, they’re much more likely to envy that classmate who is receiving needed accommodations.  

It’s also essential that all kids feel heard and respected.  It can be easy to prioritize a child with special needs simply because their needs might feel more urgent, but a wise teacher makes sure every child has a chance to communicate so that no one feels overlooked.  

Letting kids express themselves through writing helps give everyone a chance to share.

In my own classroom, this is as simple as daily journal time in which students write and draw about what’s on their mind.  They have the option to share with the class or just with me.  This can be a great way to give equal attention to all kids, whether they’re excitedly discussing an upcoming vacation or privately confessing something going on at home.  Sharing everyone’s voice is an important part of keeping everything harmonious in the classroom.


Another key is flexibility.  Teachers like to be in control: we’d better, or else chaos would ensue.  In order to teach an inclusive classroom, though, a teacher needs to be open to change.


One year, I taught a student with autism who was intensely fixated on airplanes.  During our unit on animal defense mechanisms, he frequently balked during research time because he only wanted to learn about planes, not animals.

I could have stuck to my guns and forced him to write an essay about how a gazelle defends itself, but instead I asked him to come up with ways fighter planes defend themselves and compare it to the defense mechanisms of certain birds.

Embracing the strengths of neurodivergent students can help everyone in the class shine.

He not only became engaged with the essay, but he created detailed illustrations to go with it.  When other neurotypical kids noticed, several asked if they could also take their research essays in a different direction.

A small part of me thought, This is supposed to just be about animal defenses.  Then I thought, I have a classroom of fourth graders begging me to let them research and write more.  That’s a victory.

For me, that’s often what it comes down to: finding and accepting the victories, and helping students do the same.  An inclusion classroom, in that respect, is not so different from any other.

Have you ever taught or participated in an inclusion classroom?  Do you have any additional tips or insights on how to make them work? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

girl in old fashioned dress standing in library holding books

References:

  • “Part 303 (Part C)- Early Intervention Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities.” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 3 Oct. 2018, https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/c.
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