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.

What is an inclusive classroom, and what makes a classroom inclusive? Simply stated, the definition of inclusion is about ALL students belonging! As a Special Education Advocate, I help parents secure LRE (Least Restrictive Environment) for their kids all the time.

But being present in the classroom isn’t the same as being included. I see many IEP teams agree to the student remaining in the gen ed classroom, but find that the classroom often isn’t a real inclusion classroom or inclusive classroom.

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

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What Makes an Inclusive Classroom?

An inclusive classroom is one that values and respects the diversity of all students and strives to meet the needs of every learner, regardless of their abilities, backgrounds, or differences.

Here are some key characteristics of an inclusive classroom:

  1. Diverse Representation: The classroom reflects diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, language, socioeconomic status, gender, and ability. Teachers celebrate and embrace this diversity, incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences into the curriculum.
  2. Accessible Environment: The physical environment of the classroom is accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. This may involve accommodations such as wheelchair ramps, adjustable furniture, visual aids, and assistive technologies to ensure that every student can participate fully in learning activities.
  3. Differentiated Instruction: Teachers employ a variety of instructional strategies and materials to accommodate different learning styles, abilities, and interests. They differentiate instruction to meet the diverse needs of students, providing multiple pathways to learning and allowing for individualized support and enrichment.
  4. Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Teachers design lessons and activities with the principles of Universal Design for Learning in mind, which means providing multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression to optimize learning for all students. This approach ensures that every learner can access and engage with the curriculum effectively.
  5. Positive Classroom Climate: The classroom fosters a supportive and inclusive atmosphere where every student feels valued, respected, and safe. Teachers promote kindness, empathy, and acceptance among students, actively addressing and preventing instances of bullying, discrimination, or exclusion.
  6. Collaborative Learning: Students engage in collaborative learning experiences that encourage peer interaction, teamwork, and cooperation. Group work and cooperative activities provide opportunities for students to learn from each other, share perspectives, and develop social skills in an inclusive environment.
  7. Individualized Support: Teachers provide individualized support and accommodations to students who require additional assistance or modifications to succeed academically and socially. This may include personalized learning plans, one-on-one instruction, or access to support services such as special education or counseling.
  8. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Teachers incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices that honor and affirm the cultural backgrounds, identities, and experiences of all students. They create learning experiences that are relevant, relatable, and meaningful to diverse learners, fostering a sense of belonging and pride in one’s cultural heritage.
  9. Family and Community Engagement: The classroom maintains open and collaborative partnerships with families and communities, recognizing the importance of family involvement in supporting student learning and well-being. Teachers communicate regularly with parents, seeking their input and involvement in decision-making processes.
  10. Ongoing Professional Development: Teachers engage in ongoing professional development to enhance their knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to inclusive education. They stay informed about best practices, research-based interventions, and legal requirements for serving students with diverse needs, continuously striving to improve their practice.

An inclusive classroom is characterized by its commitment to equity, accessibility, and belonging for all students, creating an environment where every learner can thrive and reach their full potential.

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portrait asian disabled children(lost legs) holding tablet and sitting on a wheelchair in classroom

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.

A group of children in an inclusive classroom with a child in a wheelchair.

Examples of Inclusion in the Classroom

Here are ten examples of inclusion in the classroom:

  1. Flexible Seating Options: Providing a variety of seating options such as desks, tables, bean bags, and standing desks allows students to choose the seating arrangement that best suits their individual needs and preferences, promoting inclusivity and comfort for all learners.
  2. Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Implementing UDL principles in lesson planning and instructional design ensures that materials, activities, and assessments are accessible and adaptable to the diverse learning needs and preferences of all students, fostering inclusivity and equitable learning opportunities.
  3. Peer Tutoring and Mentoring: Pairing students with diverse abilities and backgrounds for peer tutoring or mentoring activities promotes collaboration, peer support, and positive relationships among students, fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion in the classroom community.
  4. Mixed-Ability Grouping: Incorporating mixed-ability grouping strategies for collaborative learning activities and projects allows students to work together and learn from each other’s strengths and perspectives, promoting mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion among all students.
  5. Inclusive Language and Representation: Using inclusive language and diverse representations in instructional materials, classroom discussions, and learning resources ensures that all students feel valued, respected, and represented in the curriculum, fostering a culture of inclusivity and belonging in the classroom.
  6. Accommodations and Modifications: Providing accommodations and modifications for students with diverse learning needs ensures that all students have equitable access to the curriculum and learning opportunities, promoting inclusivity and academic success for every learner.
  7. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Incorporating culturally responsive teaching practices that honor and affirm the cultural backgrounds, identities, and experiences of all students promotes cultural inclusivity, relevance, and engagement in the curriculum, fostering a sense of belonging and pride in one’s cultural heritage.
  8. Student Voice and Choice: Empowering students to have a voice in decision-making processes, classroom activities, and learning experiences allows them to express their interests, preferences, and perspectives, promoting inclusivity, autonomy, and ownership of learning in the classroom.
  9. Positive Behavior Support: Implementing positive behavior support strategies that focus on reinforcing positive behaviors, fostering a sense of belonging, and addressing individual needs promotes a supportive and inclusive classroom environment where all students feel valued, respected, and supported.
  10. Family and Community Engagement: Establishing partnerships with families and communities through open communication, collaboration, and involvement in classroom activities and decision-making processes promotes a sense of belonging, shared responsibility, and mutual support for student learning and success.
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Pretty teacher helping pupils in classroom at the elementary school

Inclusion Classroom

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

  • 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:

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  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?
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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.

What is the difference between an inclusion classroom and a regular classroom?

An inclusion classroom and a regular classroom differ primarily in their approach to educating students with diverse learning needs and abilities.

  1. Inclusion Classroom:
    • In an inclusion classroom, students with diverse abilities, including those with disabilities, learn alongside their typically developing peers in the general education setting.
    • The focus of an inclusion classroom is on providing equitable access to the curriculum, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance, and promoting the academic and social inclusion of all students.
    • Inclusion classrooms often employ strategies such as differentiated instruction, universal design for learning (UDL), and collaborative teaching to meet the diverse learning needs of students while promoting a culture of acceptance and support.
    • Special education services and supports are provided within the general education classroom environment, allowing students with disabilities to receive accommodations, modifications, and individualized instruction while remaining integrated with their peers to the greatest extent possible.
  2. Regular Classroom:
    • In a regular classroom, students typically learn in a homogeneous environment where the majority of students are typically developing and do not have significant learning or behavioral needs.
    • The focus of a regular classroom is primarily on delivering the standard curriculum to the entire class without specific accommodations or modifications for students with diverse learning needs.
    • While regular classrooms may implement some differentiation and individualization to address varying learning styles and abilities, they may not have the specialized supports and services available in an inclusion classroom to meet the needs of students with disabilities or other exceptionalities.
    • Special education services and supports, if needed, may be provided outside of the regular classroom setting through pull-out programs, resource rooms, or separate special education classrooms.

While both inclusion classrooms and regular classrooms aim to educate students and promote their learning and development, an inclusion classroom emphasizes the integration and support of students with diverse abilities within the general education setting, whereas a regular classroom typically serves a more homogeneous student population without significant adaptations or accommodations for diverse learners.

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.

Respect

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.

Relationships

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.

Responsibility

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, and March and April are Disability Awareness Months and full of Disability Awareness Activities. What better time to educate yourself and your team on inclusion, and make it happen for your child.

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