Inside: How do you know if your child’s inclusion classroom is truly an inclusive environment? Let’s break it down so you know what to look for.

If you are reading this blog, you probably are trying to get your IEP team to agree to educate your child in an inclusive classroom. So thank you for being an advocate for effective inclusive practice.

What is inclusion, and what does inclusion look like in classrooms? Simply stated, the definition of inclusion is about ALL students belonging!

inclusion means all disabilities
An inclusive classroom means all disabilities, not just wheelchair access.

Creating Inclusive Classrooms

Creating an inclusive classroom requires intentional effort and a commitment to valuing diversity and promoting equity. Here are some strategies to create an inclusive classroom:

  1. Build relationships and create a welcoming environment for all students.
  2. Develop a curriculum that is culturally responsive and reflects the diversity of the students.
  3. Incorporate a variety of teaching strategies and resources to accommodate different learning styles and abilities.
  4. Encourage student voice and choice in the classroom.
  5. Provide accommodations and modifications to support students with disabilities or special needs.
  6. Address bias and stereotypes by using inclusive language and challenging stereotypes when they arise.
  7. Celebrate and acknowledge the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of all students.
  8. Collaborate with families and communities to promote a positive school culture.
  9. Continuously reflect and assess the effectiveness of inclusive practices and make adjustments as needed.
  10. Seek professional development and training opportunities to increase knowledge and understanding of diversity and inclusion.

Decisions are made on the basis of student needs and not on labels and places.

  • The general education classroom at the student’s enrolled grade level is the reference point for student-specific planning.
  • Expectations are high.
  • Instruction is based on the curriculum standards adopted by the school or state. There is no separate curriculum.
  • Individualized supports are available when needed.

I like to think that effective inclusion is about names, and the uniqueness of every child, and not numbers or scores. It’s about student needs, and not the labels often attached to individual students.

And, effective inclusion is about the services provided rather than the places where those services are offered.

Inclusion Classroom

Let’s first consider the quality standards for an inclusive school and classroom by asking the following questions —

Do you know what your IEP rights are?
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  • Are students educated at the same school they would attend if they did not have a disability?
  • Is the general education classroom at their enrolled grade level the first consideration when the instructional setting is discussed?
  • Are special education instructional settings, if located outside of the general education classroom, placed throughout the school building within age, grade, or department-appropriate areas?
  • Are the facilities used by special populations students comparable to those used by general education students?
  • Is the classroom arrangement organized so as to support access for all students?
  • Is the classroom climate inviting and welcoming and supportive of all learners?
  • Are decisions about instructional settings determined on the basis of student needs rather than labels or available services?

Examples of Inclusion in the Classroom

Here are ten examples of inclusion in the classroom:

  1. Providing accommodations for students with disabilities or special needs, such as extra time for assignments or a quieter workspace.
  2. Using inclusive language that respects and acknowledges the diverse backgrounds of students.
  3. Incorporating diverse literature and materials into the curriculum that reflect the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the students.
  4. Encouraging student voice and choice by giving students opportunities to share their ideas and opinions and make decisions about their learning.
  5. Creating a welcoming and safe environment for all students to learn and thrive, regardless of their background, identity, or ability.
  6. Using differentiated instruction and a variety of teaching strategies to meet the diverse learning needs of students.
  7. Providing access to technology and assistive devices to support students’ learning and participation.
  8. Incorporating peer collaboration and cooperative learning to encourage students to work together and learn from one another.
  9. Providing opportunities for students to learn about and appreciate the different cultures and traditions represented in the classroom.
  10. Building strong relationships with students and their families to create a sense of community and support for all students.

Inclusive Classroom Profile

Ask yourself these questions regarding the atmosphere and profile of the classroom that you are considering.

  • Is there a vision of shared ownership where all students are considered “our students”?
  • Are general education and special populations teachers members of grade level/department teams, and do they regularly plan together?
  • Are all faculty members knowledgeable of each of their students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) and/or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)?

Classroom Practices for Inclusive Education

Inclusive classroom strategies to consider:

  • Do teachers use a variety of research-based instructional strategies such as multi-level instruction, cooperative learning, activity-based instruction, etc. to reach all students?
  • Is differentiated instruction the predominant instructional methodology used in classrooms rather than lecture-based instruction?
  • Do teachers understand the difference between accommodations and modifications?
  • Is there a campus-wide behavioral support system in place at the school?
  • Do teachers have a variety of rich resources, materials, and technology to support all learners?

Creating and Managing Inclusive Classrooms

In order for an inclusive classroom to be successful for all students, there should be a continuum of support for staff.

  • Are external supports provided in advance of instruction to promote student success?
  • Are there in-class support options for students with special needs such as natural or formal peer support, intermittent support from teachers or teacher assistants, or formal collaborative teaching (two teachers sharing instruction)?
  • Do service personnel such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech pathologists provide services within the general education classroom when appropriate?
  • If a student leaves the classroom, is it for targeted support only that could not be provided in the classroom?

What to Look for in an Inclusive Classroom

So what is easily seen when we walk into an effective inclusive classroom? Here are seven quick observations.

  1. All students are engaged in meaningful work that supports their instructional goals!
  2. Learner objectives, activities, and rules are positively stated and clearly posted.
  3. A variety of instructional strategies, materials, technology, and groupings are being used.
  4. Services are brought to the general education classroom where the staff works together to meet student needs.
  5. Students with special needs are not stigmatized by adult supports, and student-to-student interactions are evident.
  6. Assignments are purposeful, involve meaningful work, and maintain rigor.
  7. The classroom arrangement supports positive behavior and learning. Students can access materials with adequate room for small groups and quick transitions.

The 3 R’s of Inclusive Classrooms

Although standards and observation checklists are helpful guides to identify inclusive classrooms, sometimes it’s easier to remember what I call the “3 R’s” of effective inclusion–respect, relationships and responsibility.


Inclusive classrooms provide an environment of respect for each and every student. All students have names, gifts, talents—there’s Tanya, a talented artist, in fourth grade; Israel in middle school and a great athlete; Savannah starting Pre-K, and she loves animals. All students belong and are members of the general education classroom. They are known by their names and unique personalities and strengths—not by numbers or scores.


When students are respected and accepted as full members of their school community, relationships develop. Students are no longer isolated but are connected members of a school community.  Relationships create a safety net for students to develop a growth mindset, a belief that they can learn if they work hard and persevere. Student needs, not labels, drive instructional and support decisions.

Do you know what your IEP rights are?
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Once relationships form, teachers, students, and parents develop the capacity to better address all kinds of student diversity and share the responsibility for student success. The general education classroom becomes the starting point for all students, and services and supports are brought to that classroom as needed and appropriate. Teachers do not blame students but claim responsibility for their success.

These three R’s, respect, relationships, and responsibility, help us to remember what inclusion is all about in and out of classrooms and throughout the larger community.

About the Author

Cathy Giardina is an adjunct associate with Stetson & Associates, Inc., an educational consulting firm focused on educational excellence. She has over 40 years of experience as an educator, working in both public and private education.

Inclusive Schools Week is the first week of December. What better time to educate yourself and your team on inclusion, and make it happen for your child.