While we will find the word “inclusion” in the dictionary, there is no universal definition as it applies to educational settings.
To include is to make something fit as part of a whole, and there is no blueprint for how to make this happen on a practical level in schools. As a result, each state, district, school, and even teacher may have a slightly different understanding of what an inclusive classroom is , let alone how to create one in practice.
There are many myths and misconceptions that have become barriers to the widespread implementation of inclusive education. In her Noodle article Building Inclusive Schools for Children of All Abilities, Nicole Eredics mentions the importance of debunking the myths commonly associated with inclusion. Below are four of the most common misunderstandings and explanations of their inaccuracies.
Myth #1: Inclusion holds back the typically-able students.
A classroom rich with activities to challenge and support children — regardless of their academic abilities — maximizes the potential for success across the board.
Students should not be compared with one another, nor should they be subjected to arbitrary levels of expected achievement. In a truly inclusive classroom, no student is held back or exposed to content that does not challenge her in some way. Instead, the goal is to give every learner an equal opportunity to grow and achieve.
Research suggests that disabled students in inclusive classrooms show greater academic progress than in segregated classrooms. One study, which tracked more than 1,300 6- to 9-year-olds with disabilities, who attended school across 180 different districts, suggests “a strong positive relationship between the number of hours students spent in general education and achievement in mathematics and reading.” Furthermore, students with intellectual disabilities who were fully included in general education classrooms made more progress in literacy skills when compared to students in special education programs.
With respect to inclusion programs and students without disabilities, research shows that their performance is not affected, and, in fact, that they reap “several social benefits” from the experience. A more recent study reinforces these findings: “[T]here is now sufficient evidence to suggest that typical peers are not harmed by or disadvantaged in inclusive classrooms.” As in the earlier study, this one showed that students without disabilities demonstrated “improved prosocial behaviors,” and that they enjoyed “the opportunity to become experts in academic areas” while helping their disabled peers.
Myth #2: Individualized expectations for a child with disabilities isn’t fair to the other students.
Fairness, as a concept, ensures that each student receives the support she needs to be academically successful. However, fairness is very often confused with equality.
Individualizing expectations does not take anything away from capable students. Rather, it demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to embrace a wide variety of needs within a school community. Children may question why another student got full credit for what they perceive as doing less, but it is up to teachers, parents, and administrators to explain and demonstrate ways to both welcome and celebrate differences.
A major goal in an inclusive classroom is for a student to show pride in her work without comparing it to the work of others.
Myth #3: One student’s negative behavior can ruin a whole class.
This is a big one in so many classrooms. And the honest answer is that negative behavior can interfere with a class dynamic if the teacher lets it. Teachers have a responsibility to get to know their students personally and build positive relationships with them in order to manage student behavior in a way that provides all students with a warm, supportive, challenging, and meaningful environment.
Managing a classroom effectively takes skill and practice. Research shows that communities implementing a strategy known as schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS or SWPBS) show “significant reductions in student suspensions and office discipline referrals.”
SWPBIS draws from principles of behavioral, social, and organizational learning, and involves targeting staff behaviors in an effort to “promote positive change in student behavior.” Such measures have been introduced in about 9,000 American schools, and while there is little existing research on its relationship to students with disabilities, its underlying theoretical basis seems sound.
Even more support comes from a 2003 book, which suggests that teachers who focus on developing interpersonal relationships with students are more effective in teaching them to demonstrate “positive, socially-appropriate behaviors.” Teachers must learn various techniques and strategies to support every student, though there is no one-size-fits-all approach to accomplish these goals.
Myth #4: Inclusion costs a lot more money.
There are inexpensive ways to be sure that a school community is inclusive. First and foremost, as I touched on in my previous point, is to model an inclusive attitude from the top down.
Leaders shape the culture of a school community, first through the way they act and treat faculty, students, parents, and support staff. Demonstrating inclusiveness is simultaneously cost-effective and priceless in the atmosphere it creates.
Other cost-effective strategies include investing in high-quality professional development for teachers and other school staff — training that teaches everyone how to welcome, accept, and embrace diversity in a school community.
For such training to be most successful, it must provide opportunities for staff to reflect together on what they have learned, and build in time for collaboration and shared planning. In an article on the importance of collaboration in professional development, Kathy Dyer explains that teachers who made “time to reflect on teaching practice and structured time for collaboration” were more successful in gaining new insights on their own teaching and “made positive sustained changes to their teaching practice.”
Building in such opportunities is an additional cost-effective way to extend the effectiveness of “one-off” training sessions. Finally, utilize the resources you already have by allowing trained special educators, paraprofessionals, and parents to work in teams with other teachers to discuss, develop, and assess inclusive practice.
Myths are perpetuated by a lack of understanding. It is the responsibility of teachers and school professionals to recognize the myths that may lead to flaws within our current structures and systems.When we join in conversation with real-life examples and hands-on experiences, attitudes can change, myths can be eliminated, and every student can find success.
Bender, W. L. (2003). Relational Discipline: Strategies for In-Your-Face Students. Boston, Massachusetts: Pearson.
Bradshaw, C.P., Mitchell, M.M., & Leaf, P.J. (2011). Examining the Effects of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Student Outcomes. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 12(3), 133-148.
Cosier, M., Causton-Theoharis, J., & Theoharis, G. (2013). Does Access Matter? Time in General Education and Achievement for Students With Disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 34(6), 323–332.
Dessemontet, Bless, G., & Morin, D. (2012). Effects of Inclusion on the Academic Achievement and Adaptive Behaviour of Children with Intellectual Disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56(6), 579–87.
Dyer, K. (2013, July 31). The Importance of Collaboration in Teacher Professional Development. Retrieved August 10, 2015.
Henninger, W., & Gupta, S. (2014). How Do Children Benefit From Inclusion? In First Steps to Preschool Inclusion: How to Jumpstart Your Programwide Plan. Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing.
Salend & Duhaney. (1999). The Impact of Inclusion on Students With and Without Disabilities and Their Educators. Remedial and Special Education, 20(2), 114-126.