A Teacher's Guide to Having an Inclusive Classroom
by Voyager Sopris Learning on September 9, 2022
In American classrooms, it's usually the teacher’s responsibility to create an environment where all students can thrive. One simple but important way to foster student success is to establish a space that is welcoming and comforting for all. Inclusive classrooms are those in which each student can equally participate in every learning experience. Studies actually show that students learn better and perform better when their personal experiences are acknowledged. As the leader and authority in the classroom, the challenge often falls to the teacher to create a truly inclusive environment.
What Does It Mean for a Classroom To Be "Inclusive"?
An inclusive classroom is an environment in which every student feels they belong, regardless of their background, sexual orientation, race, or disability. A classroom should offer students "mirrors and windows," where students are able to both see themselves reflected in the curriculum as well as gain insight into others around them. An inclusive classroom will not just bring students together who have different learning styles, but also students who have different backgrounds of economics, religion, culture, and more. That is why it is vitally important for classrooms to reflect all of the unique differences that are included in each individual student.
Inclusive classrooms help all students to interact with people that are different from them, work together, and experience different points of view. It also helps reduce stigma surrounding students with special learning circumstances. The ultimate goal of an inclusive classroom is to not only increase a child's intellectual skill, but also to foster their confidence in their place in society as well as their acceptance and respect for those who might be different from them.
A truly inclusive classroom is:
- Collaborative between students and teachers – Setting up a strong, trusting relationship between students and teachers is crucial. As the authority in the classroom, students will look to their teachers as role models and as confidants when it comes to being kind and inclusive. For example, teachers can encourage students to work together on projects and assignments as a way to facilitate working through a challenging task together with others.
- Friendly and welcoming – This can be shown in a number of ways, from the tone of a teacher’s voice to the decorations on the classroom walls. This might look like posters on the walls that display a variety of student faces, languages, and cultures. When students walk into a classroom, they should feel comfortable, calm, and embraced.
- Supportive and caring – Care and support for students means not only tending to their academic needs, but often to their behavior and social needs as well. Showing students that their teacher cares about more than just their grade or any other statistic is critical. This means that when a student acts out, the teacher addresses the situation with grace as well as firmness. Something as simple as having a one-on-one conversation with the student away from the rest of the class can often reveal the reason behind the disruptive action, making it easier to address the root of the problem rather than just react.
- Respectful – One of the best ways to earn respect is to also show respect. A level of respect should not only exist between the teacher and the student, but also between the students themselves. Sometimes this will mean setting boundaries for students as well. Rules, procedures, and boundaries are also forms of respect, and a little bit of tough love is often necessary in a classroom as well!
- Reflective – There should be layers of reflection happening in every classroom. Teachers should reflect on their own teaching practices, classes should reflect together through respectful discussion, and individual students should have the opportunity to reflect independently. Reflection is an important step for growth. One great way for people to reflect is through journal writing. Setting aside a time for students -- and teachers -- to write in a journal can be highly beneficial.
Benefits of Inclusive Classrooms
Many schools are moving towards the inclusion model since it's been shown to have many benefits, including:
- education that is focused on abilities, not disabilities
- children learning to accept those different from them
- children developing friendships with people different from them
- teachers receiving additional training
Specific Benefits for Disabled Students
There are many benefits of inclusion classrooms for disabled students:
- Students perform better academically. It's particularly beneficial for language and literacy skills for students with Down syndrome.
- Students create more formative peer relationships. The more time a disable student spends with other students, the more meaningful and deeper relationships they can form.
- Students are less lonely. When students are included in the classroom, they do not feel as isolated or alone as they might feel being pulled out of a class.
- Students exhibit a reduced number of behavioral problems. Feeling less isolated and more involved and connected can naturally have a positive effect on behavior.
Specific Benefits for Non-Disabled Students
Inclusion classrooms have a number of positive effects on students without disabilities, too. While academics is usually on the forefront of people’s minds, there are other benefits as well. Academically, the impact on non-disabled students is either neutral or positive. The attitude and training of the teacher in the classroom can influence this and make the environment more positive for all students.
Some other benefits beyond just an academic scope include:
- Reduced fear of human differences – We often fear what we do not know, so allowing non-disabled students to interact with disabled students can eliminate some of the unknown.
- Increased comfort and awareness of people who are different – Students often naturally gravitate towards people like themselves, so setting up an inclusive classroom that teaches students to learn and live alongside others who are different can teach life lessons that will carry on with them into adulthood.
- Increased tolerance for the differences of others – The more students see people who are different from themselves being treated with respect, the more they themselves will then treat others with respect.
- Improved communication skills – Learning to communicate with people who communicate differently than you can add to your arsenal of communication skills.
- Increased self-esteem and sense of belonging – As students become more welcoming to and caring for people who are different from themselves, they will see what an important role they can play in the lives of others.
- Higher responsiveness to the needs of others – Having disabled and non-disabled students sitting side by side in the classroom can naturally teach kids vital lessons in empathy.
- Less prejudice – At the end of the day, we want to teach children not only how to be academically successful, but how to be a good person as well.
What Can Teachers Do To Create an Inclusive Classroom?
A successful inclusion classroom comes about through intentional practices enforced by educators. Many of the practices below are things that teachers likely already do naturally or subconsciously, but spending a little more quality time and thought in being more intentional with these ideas can only enhance a classroom's inclusivity.
Respect, patience, and collaboration are key hallmarks of an inclusive classroom. All students should understand the expectations for working together in the classroom, and teachers should uphold these rules and intervene when necessary to ensure they're kept. Some teachers do this with their beginning-of-the-school-year paperwork, lesson plans, and activities. Oftentimes a syllabus will house specific information about rules and procedures. But it is usually the first few weeks of lesson plans and instruction that will truly set the tone for students. Show students early on what kind of environment they are a part of, and this will likely set up a pathway for success for the rest of the school year.
Tailor teaching for all students
Each student learns differently, and teachers need to accommodate the way each student learns. This could involve differentiated instruction, multisensory instruction, or using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.
Provide student support
While inclusive classrooms should involve collaboration and support from general education and special education teachers, students should understand how to obtain specific support when needed. Whether through daily verbal reminders, an open invitation for email communication, or even setting aside time in class to conference with the teacher — setting up clear methods for how students can engage in asking for help is essential.
Likewise, teachers should know students well enough to identify how to support them. Knowing that sometimes the kids who need the most help are also the most hesitant to ask for it, teachers should also set aside specific times for them to seek out students that need assistance. Maybe this is making a quick trip around the classroom to talk to each student, or maybe this is a simple statement each day of “what questions do you have” instead of “do you have any questions.”
Encourage disabled and non-disabled students to work together on projects, in discussion groups, and during lessons to help build relationships and break down barriers.
While there are some moments when letting students choose their own collaborations is appropriate, you should also take the opportunity to match students up with each other as well. Sometimes the grouping can be random, and sometimes it can be intentional. Either way, model for students the personal skills needed to collaborate well with others. Some of these skills include communicating clearly, listening to others, maintaining a positive attitude, and more.
Utilize technology to your classes' benefit
Technological tools can support students with special needs and help accommodate their needs so they can thrive in a general education classroom. Use the different technology that is available to help differentiate your lessons and activities.
You may be the teacher, and thus the classroom expert, but you don't share the same life experience of each of your students. Practice active listening to the class and to individual students to show you're willing to learn. Listening to students will let them know that they can feel comfortable discussing their experiences, inside and outside the classroom, with you.
Acknowledge differences in the classroom
By recognizing the unique identities and backgrounds of each student, you will open the door for students to share unique perspectives. Be willing to let students talk about their differences, and model what it looks like to listen to and respect others while they are sharing. If students are not quite willing to share with others around them yet, consider providing students with writing activities that allow them to write about some of their differences or experiences as a unique individual. Writing can act as a stepping stone for opening up and sharing.