Written by Dr. Jacqueline Specht, Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education
The foundation of inclusive education is a belief that all students belong and are valued members of their neighbourhood school communities (Porter & Towell, 2017); inclusive education promotes equity through respect for diversity. The belief that students identified with special education needs are better served in special education classrooms persists today (Parekh, 2022) despite decades of research that states otherwise. Recent reviews highlight the fact that inclusive education is good for students with and without disabilities. Krämer et al (2021) analyzed research comparing outcomes for segregated vs. inclusive schools, noting that students with intellectual disabilities did better cognitively in inclusive classrooms and that inclusion did not affect their psychosocial functioning negatively, nor did it impact their classmates negatively. Szumski et al (2017) showed that students without disabilities who were taught in schools with inclusive classrooms did better academically than those who were taught in schools with segregated classrooms.
Despite research showing that inclusion benefits all students, significant concerns remain about the capacity for schools to effectively support the diversity of learners present in schools (Graham, 2020). Many educators lack knowledge of instructional approaches and classroom management strategies that support inclusion. Educators are often not supported by school administrators with the requisite time to collaborate, and there is a perceived general lack of resources for inclusive education (Somma, 2020; Whitley, Klan et al., 2020). As a result, many students with disabilities remain segregated; they experience negative classroom climates; they are alienated and bullied; and they fail to reach their academic potential (Reid et al., 2018). This effective separation of special education students from the "regular education system" perpetuates inequity by marginalizing students with LDs and providing them with an education that is not as good as that provided to their peers.
It is imperative that we support the positive academic and social development of students with learning disabilities (LDs) in school (Grigorenko et al., 2020). However, our job as educators is not to fix children. They are not broken. People with disabilities need supports to navigate a disabling environment. We tend to understand these issues more when they are of a physical or sensory nature. Mobility aids like canes and wheelchairs are understood as necessary, as are glasses and hearing aids. Learning supports are what a student with LDs needs in the disabling environment of the classroom. As educators, we can provide those supports by building inclusive classrooms.
First, it is necessary to believe that all students are capable, that they belong in the inclusive classroom, and that we can support them in their learning. Inclusive teachers have a particular set of beliefs related to teaching and learning (Jordan, 2018). They tend to believe that challenges associated with disability are the result of the student’s interaction with the environment and associated expectations. Not surprisingly, these beliefs are related to teachers’ preferred practices in the classroom. Their instruction is more cognitively engaging and leads to better outcomes for all students. This line of research supports the important distinction to be made between providing exposure to general education curriculum and providing access; simply placing students in an inclusive classroom (i.e., exposure) does not guarantee access (Gilmour et al., 2018). Just as placing a person in a wheelchair in front of stairs does not help them get to the next level, placing a student in a classroom without supports from a teacher does not enable them to get to the next level in their learning.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
If we want to build inclusive classrooms and support all students, our instruction needs to reflect that ideal. Using UDL allows us to think of the barriers that our curriculum can pose to students and to design our lessons as barrier-free as possible, rather than planning a lesson and then wondering how the different students in our class are going to be engaged. There will always be diversity in your class, and it is not necessary to wait until you know exactly who is there in order to plan. If we think about students with LDs, for example, we know that they may face barriers when completing tasks that require reading, math, or organization. Many other students also will benefit from these supports, and we can design our lessons in advance to create supports for students who will struggle with these learning issues. It is important for us to remember that inclusive classrooms mean creating spaces where all feel welcomed and valued.
CAST (udlguidelines.cast.org), points to many barriers and asks us to think about how we help students access, build, and internalize their strategies to help them develop into learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal directed. Cooke and Rao (2018) show good concrete examples of how educators can implement UDL in the classroom and how to break down barriers using the guidelines provided by CAST. Cook and Rao (2018) remind us that the premise of UDL is that it is the curriculum, not the student, that is disabled. Visit the website and read Cooke and Rao for a more in-depth analysis of UDL.
Sayeski (2018) reports on a project undertaken by the Council for Exceptional Children that sought to identify the most effective teaching strategies for students with disabilities. Upon inspection, these strategies are useful for all students, reminding us that good teaching practices are necessary for some and good for all. Effective teaching strategies are beneficial for all and we need to stop thinking that certain strategies are only for certain students.
Education can feel lonely and isolating at times for teachers. It is so important that we are connected to our colleagues. We can learn from them, and collaboration is key to success. We must also connect with the families of our students. They are the first teachers of our students and know them best. Collaboration can often take a “school-centric” approach, where school staff are viewed as experts and parents as having limited knowledge (Baxter & Kilderry, 2022). This type of approach is damaging to family-school relationships. Remember that parents have a lot of knowledge of what works for their children that they can bring to the conversation with the teacher, the curriculum expert.
Instruction and Assessment
Good teaching practice dictates the use of assessment to guide instruction. It is the same for students with LDs. Using many different types of assessment is necessary to determine if students are learning. To capitalize on the various student strengths, make sure you are asking for written as well as oral assessments or tests as well as projects. If there are gaps in their knowledge and skills, it is imperative to change the teaching. For students with learning disabilities, one strategy that has been found particularly useful is explicit instruction (Hughes et al., 2017).
In a thorough review of the research literature, Hughes et al., (2017) found 5 key concepts that exist in explicit instruction. They note that when teachers are clear about the process, students are more engaged in their learning. The literature suggests that teachers:
- Segment Complex Skills – when multiple steps are involved, teachers are encouraged to teach the sequence of steps, ensuring that student master one step before moving on to the next.
- Draw Student Attention to Important Features of the Content through Modeling/Think-Alouds – teachers can model internal thought processes and external behaviours clearer to students by showing them what to do while telling them the inner thoughts of how to achieve the desired outcome.
- Promote Successful Engagement by Using Systematically Faded Supports/Prompts – after modelling the skill, teachers provide the level of prompting (visual, verbal, and physical) needed to ensure success for the student. As students learn what is required, the teacher can remove prompts until they can do it by themselves.
- Provide Opportunities for Students to Respond and Receive Feedback – the monitoring of a learned skill allows the teacher to see if the student can do it by themselves or if they need some reminders for the process.
- Create Purposeful Practice Opportunities – maintaining and generalizing the new skill is important, and teachers can provide the opportunity for individual work to ensure that the skill has been learned.
The process for acquiring knowledge and skills using explicit instruction is the same for all students. Some may require more time than others to move through the steps, or require more prompts to learn the skill. The key idea to keep in mind is that moving forward is success.
Increasingly, there have been calls for school leaders and teachers to focus on social-emotional learning to create more inclusive classrooms that support the mental health of all students (e.g., Law, 2017; Whitley, 2020). Highly effective educators do engage in social and behavioural practices that establish respectful and organized learning environments, teach social skills, and provide positive and constructive feedback to guide student behaviour (Sayeski, 2018).
Relationships are viewed by students and teachers as one of the most important aspects of their experience at school (Duong et al., 2019). How teachers respond to students is key to how the rest of the class perceives the students. Teachers can foster the perception that students with LDs are valued classmates, and can teach so that everyone experiences the benefits of being included. Kennedy and Haydon (2021) provide strategies for teachers to use to foster positive teacher-student relationships. These strategies will help ensure that students are viewed by their classmates as respected members of the class.
- Greet students individually when they enter the class
- Ask students about their interests
- Be specific about rules and routines and reteach as necessary
- Avoid power struggles
- Provide genuine compliments
- Provide more praise and positive feedback compared to corrections (suggest 5:1 ratio)
- Share positive feedback with the student’s parents
- Check-in with students about struggles to show you care
Building inclusive classrooms calls on the professional expertise of teachers to be welcoming and understanding leaders in the classroom. For too long, we have been led to believe that children with disabilities need something completely different when what they really need is to be treated like everyone else. Disability is not binary; there is a range within the human condition. As teachers, our goal is to develop autonomy in students and the more we keep that in mind, the better our inclusive classrooms will be. Treat everyone fairly and with respect and the benefits will emerge.
About the Author
Dr. Jacqueline Specht is a professor and the director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada (https://www.inclusiveeducationresearch.ca/). Collectively, the centre aims to empower educators with the knowledge they need to be effective with all students in the K-12 schooling system. Dr. Specht’s research expertise is located in the areas of: inclusive education; teacher development; and psychosocial aspects of individuals with disabilities. She has worked with schools nationally and internationally to support their transition to inclusive education. Her recent book with Dr. Nancy Hutchinson “Inclusion of learners with exceptionalities in Canadian schools” is a textbook that is used in initial teacher education programs across Canada.
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