What does an inclusive classroom look like, and how can schools embrace an inclusive learning culture?
What is inclusion?
The aim of inclusion is to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities and other differences in learning, experience an equitable access to education. This means a commitment to remove any obstacles that may prevent the student from thriving and reaching their full potential. Inclusion is based on the principles of respect, equity and recognition of diversity in society.
All students benefit when an inclusive environment is fostered in the classroom. This involves creating a safe and supportive learning space where differences are valued, respected, and celebrated.
This includes using teaching methods and materials that appeal to different ways of learning, recognizing that all students have the potential to succeed regardless of their physical or mental capabilities. An inclusive environment allows everyone to feel welcomed and accepted regardless of their background or differences.
True inclusion centres on conquering barriers in the system that inhibit it from meeting the student's needs. The emphasis is on the adaptation and modification of support systems available in the classroom.
Inclusive education is the most efficacious way to give all children a fair opportunity to go to school, acquire knowledge and obtain the skills that they need to flourish. Thus, it refers to all children being in the same classrooms in the same schools, irrespective of their barriers. It means real learning opportunities for groups who have traditionally been excluded – not only children with disabilities, but speakers of minority languages too.
Inclusive systems value the unique contributions students of all backgrounds bring to the classroom and allow diverse groups to grow side by side, to the benefit of all. Inclusive systems require changes at all levels of society.
At the school level, teachers must be trained, buildings must be refurbished and students must receive accessible learning materials. At the community level, stigma and discrimination must be tackled and individuals need to be educated on the benefit of inclusive education (UNICEF for every child, n. d).
Successful inclusive education happens primarily through accepting, understanding, and attending to student differences and diversity, which can includes the holistic development of a child (physical, cognitive, academic, social, and emotional).
For students with disabilities (SWD), this includes academic gains in literacy (reading and writing), math, and social studies — both in grades and on standardised tests — better communication skills and improved social skills and more friendships. As teachers take into greater consideration their diverse SWD students, they provide instruction in a wider range of learning modes (visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic), which benefits other students as well (McManis, n.d).
Inclusive education is carried out in a common learning environment which may include classrooms, libraries, gym, performance theatres, music rooms, cafeterias, playgrounds, and the local community (Inclusive Education Canada, 2020). Effective common learning environments promote inclusion as they:
- Enable each student to fully participate in the learning environment that is designed for all students and is shared with peers in the chosen educational setting;
- Provide a positive climate, promote a sense of belonging and ensure student progress toward appropriate personal, social, emotional, and academic goals;
- Are responsive to individual learning needs by providing sufficient levels of support and applying student-centred teaching practices and principles (Inclusive Education Canada,2020).
Distinguishing between mainstream and inclusion
Mainstream refers to the majority of schools where traditionally they would have been considered as ‘normal’ and made provision for typically developing children.
With the present educational inclusion drive, every child has the right to attend mainstream school, and children may receive help from learning support and resource teachers as well as from special needs assistants (Citizens Information Board 2012 in Ferguson, 2014:10) and inclusion refers to the meeting of children’s special educational needs within the mainstream, where children are socialised and educated alongside their peers (Nurse 2001 in Ferguson, 2014:10).
An example would be a student who communicates using sign language. Instead of separating the student from their peers and isolating them from the classroom by conducting an individual lesson with a sign language teacher, their teacher and peers could learn sign language and communicate with them.
According to the (Department of Education, 2001:17), mainstreaming and inclusion can be distinguished in the following manner:
Firstly, mainstreaming is about getting students to ‘fit into’ a specific kind of system or integrating them into this existing system whereas inclusion focuses on recognising and respecting the differences among all students and building on the similarities.
Students are assessed by specialists who diagnose and prescribe interventions. Inclusion on the other hand, refers to supporting all students, educators, and the system as a whole so that the full range of learning needs can be attained. The attention is on the teaching and learning, with the emphasis on the development of good teaching strategies that will be of value to all students.
Thirdly, mainstreaming and integration focus on adjustments that need to take place in students in order for them to ‘fit in’. Here the spotlight is on the student.
Comparatively, inclusion centres on overcoming barriers in the system that prevent it from meeting the full range of learning needs. The focal point is on the adaptation of and support systems available in the classroom.
How does the Social Model of disability influence inclusion in the classroom?
Social model of Disability
The social model of disability states that disability is caused by the way society is structured, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It examines ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people.
When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives (Social Model vs Medical Model of disability, n.d). The social model of disability sees the issue of "disability" as a socially created problem and a matter of full integration of individuals into society.
In this model, disability is not an attribute of an individual, but rather a complex collection of conditions, many of which are created by the social environment. Hence, the management of the problem requires social action and is the collective responsibility of society at large to make the environmental modifications necessary for the full participation of people with disabilities in all areas of social life to allow for an inclusive society (Models of Disability: Types and Definition, 2022).
Example of the Social model of disability
A child with a visual impairment wants to read the latest best-selling book to chat about with their sighted friends. Under the medical model, there are very few solutions, but a social model solution ensures full text audio-recordings are available when the book is first published.
This means children with visual impairments can join in with cultural activities on an equal basis with everyone else (Social Model vs Medical Model of disability, n.d).
How does the Medical Model of disability influence inclusion strategies?
The medical model of disability is presented as viewing disability as a problem of the person, directly caused by disease, trauma, or other health condition which therefore requires sustained medical care provided in the form of individual treatment by professionals (Models of Disability: Types and Definitions, 2022).
Using this model students are sometimes referred to professionals for a diagnosis when learning barriers are presented in the classroom. Educators should be exploring methods of how to accommodate students in the learning environment and modify learning and teaching material and the classroom environment.
The following links provides access to videos on the Social Model:
Developing an inclusion strategy: Accommodations and modifications
Accommodations remove learning barriers in the classroom to provide every child with equal access to learning. An example is offering an audio version of classroom text for a student with dyslexia or visual supports for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Modifications are changes to what a child is taught and expected to do in class. For example, a student who struggles with spelling may be tested on a different set of words than his peers (Reading Rockets, 2022).
The links below provide information on visual supports in the classroom and the difference between accommodation and modifications.
How can active inclusion be promoted within a school?
1. Use a variety of instructional formats
Start with whole-group instruction and transition to flexible groupings which could be small groups, stations/centres, and paired learning. With regard to the whole group, high student engagement is related to using technology such as interactive whiteboards.
In terms of flexible groupings: for younger students, these are often teacher-led but for older students, they can be student-led with teacher monitoring. Peer-supported learning can be very effective and engaging and take the form of pair-work, cooperative grouping, peer tutoring, and student-led demonstrations (McManis, n.d).
2. Ensure access to academic curricular content
All students need the opportunity to have learning experiences in line with the same learning goals. This will necessitate thinking about what supports individual students with disabilities need, but overall strategies are making sure all students hear instructions, that they do definitely start activities, that all students participate in large group instruction, and that students transition in and out of the classroom at the same time.
For this latter point, not only will it keep students on track with the lessons, their non-SWD peers do not see them leaving or entering in the middle of lessons, which can really highlight their differences (McManis, n.d).
3. Apply universal design for learning
These are methods that are varied and that support many students’ needs. They include multiple ways of representing content to students and for students to represent learning back, such as modelling, images, objectives and manipulatives, graphic organisers, oral and written responses, and technology.
These can also be adapted as modifications for SWDs where they have large print, use headphones, are allowed to have a peer write their dictated response, draw a picture instead, use calculators, or just have extra time. Project-based and inquiry learning can be implemented where students individually or collectively investigate an experience (McManis, n.d).
The following link provides access to a video on ‘Learning Barriers’
What does an inclusive classroom actually look like?
- Desks placed strategically in groups in the classroom as this fosters socialisation between students and their peers. The benefits are co-operative learning and peer learning. The positives that can be drawn from this method is that it improves the socio-emotional well-being of students as they engage with their peers and builds self-confidence.
- Visual learning aids such as timers, posters, and flip charts assist in teaching students who are visual learners.
- Learning materials that are developmentally appropriate such as levelled books, concrete apparatus, manipulatives, and centres with practical activities are available in the classroom. This range of materials are suited for learners at different levels of abilities including kinaesthetic learners as these students learn through ‘doing’ and ‘moving’ to retain and recall information (Learning Styles, 2020).
- All visual learning aids and learning material reflects the multi-cultural component of the classroom.
- The foundation of a classroom inculcates respect for every student irrespective of their ability and promotes a productive learning setting. Therefore, a classroom’s social skills program is one of importance.
- A teacher’s task is to direct students in the development of their social skills where teachers can encourage communication between students, the growth of their confidence and support culturally responsive behaviour. A value-based curriculum is vital in this respect as well as it leads to the empowerment of children where they can become socially responsible independent adults and learn to become community and global citizens.
- Items such as adaptive pencil grips, iPads, apps, augmentative communication and colour overlays are examples of assistive technology that is available to students to support their individual interests, styles and educational needs thereby making the curriculum accessible.
For inclusive education to be implemented in the classroom in the following must be considered:
- Specialised training
- ive classroom environment, it is imperative that teachers have the relevant qualifications and acquire additional training as teachers can improve student inclusion. For this reason, it is essential that teachers are equipped with the necessary tools and training (Future Learn, 2021).
- As teachers are lifelong learners, professional staff development is key and teachers should be attending courses and training related to inclusion or student diversity as it is beneficial for acquiring guidelines, techniques, and strategies (Future Learn, 2021).
- Such courses and training will equip teachers with the knowledge of how to deal with difficulties that present as educational road blocks for students (Future Learn, 2021). This in turn provides teachers with the means to support students in the classroom.
- Adapted lessons and tasks
- Inclusive education is fully based on the model that ‘one size does not fit all.’ The curriculum should be altered to accommodate these students and make lessons more versatile that ‘speaks’ to their ability for them to achieve their true potential (Future Learn, 2021).
One of the cornerstones of teaching is building relationships with students. Hence, it is vital that teachers know their students, thereby considering their specific needs when providing educational material (Future Learn, 2021). The following quote by Rita Pierson is significant in this context “Every child deserves a champion—an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”
Below is a clip from Rita Pierson's TED Talk " Every child deserves a champion’.
The benefits of inclusion in the playground
Play is fundamental to a child’s development and wellbeing, and playgrounds facilitate this. Through play a child can: learn, explore, stay active, make friends, and socialise (Let’s Play Fair: Inclusive playgrounds. n.d). As important as inclusion is within the classroom, as children are recognised as unique, have different needs and abilities, the same criteria should be employed when designing playgrounds.
Furthermore, it is an engaging place that provides the optimal level of challenge and offers opportunities to succeed and is a place that goes beyond minimum accessibility to create play experiences that meet diverse needs and interests (INCLUSIVE PLAYGROUNDS, 2019).
The links below provides examples of inclusive playgrounds.
Building a culture of inclusion in your school
In conclusion, inclusive education means that all students attend and are welcomed by their neighbourhood schools in age-appropriate, regular classes and are supported to learn, contribute, and participate in all aspects of the life of the school.
Hence both the indoor and outdoor learning environment must support inclusive education as inclusive education is about ensuring access to quality education for all students by effectively meeting their diverse needs in a way that is responsive, accepting, respectful and supportive (Inclusive Education Canada, 2020).
As educators, we have a significant role in shaping students and the classroom environment and learning that we provide is the determining factor to students achieving their true potential. Therefore, it is vital that every child have equal access to inclusive education.