Inclusive Education can and does work. It benefits all students more than it doesn't. Inclusive Education builds communities of respect, belonging, connections, and individuality. Ideally school communities will mirror the greater society in that inclusion is a 'principled approach to society'. I tend to keep my posts about the positiveness of building and supporting inclusive classrooms. However, there is another side to Inclusive Education- one that is hard to ignore...
So, why does negative conversation weave its way into discussions about inclusion? I am sure there are many many reasons why, but I firmly believe that many current systems touting themselves as inclusive are not practicing inclusion. Inclusion is not a policy that falls under a department or within another policy (like special ed). Rather, inclusion is the driving force that shapes all decisions, all actions, all school purchases, and all policies. Inclusion is an approach, an open mindset. Inclusion is not a single policy or an add-on to the school system.
Many of the challenges are systemic: woven throughout policies at all level and challenges presented in our values and society. BUT, I do believe we, as teachers, can change the course for inclusive education FROM inclusion to include the excluded TO inclusion as an approach to society. Inclusion is about all and everyone as individuals and as a group. It is about making a community that values difference by providing opportunities for everyone.
Here is a list of some of the reasons I think inclusive education is not so inclusive BUT these are also some of the little things we can change in our day-to-day practice to support a more inclusive classroom.
ACCESSIBLE TECH INSTEAD OF ASSISTIVE TECH
- It drives me nuts that I have to put in a referral in order to the supports some of my students need to be successful in school. It is time-consuming, time wasting, and just a messed up system. Inclusive classrooms want to break down barriers that restrict students from easily accessing the curricula and school activities, additional pleading and paperwork should not be a step in increasing access. Assistive technology is technology that is designed to support someone in doing a specific task. I do acknowledge that certain specialists (PT, OT, SLPs, et cetera) should be part of the team in deciding on a plan to implement assistive tech. However, it should be a simple and streamlined process. What I do think is an important component of an inclusive environment is accessible technology or technology that is available and designed to support the needs of many different users. Inclusive classrooms provide supports to students necessary to their learning success. Inclusive classrooms do not make teachers, students, and parents jump through loops to access supports. All students need supports at different times and for varying lengths of time, lets provide those supports without contingency. In your class, you can offer a variety of supports and activities for your students. Think about all of your students. What are their strengths? What are their challenges? Where do they need additional support? Is there any commonality between your students? Maybe, maybe not. When planning your lessons, offer choices and options so all of your kiddos can participate in that particular lesson.
FAIR INSTEAD OF ONE-SIZE
- This is fairly obvious- inclusive environments require choice, understanding, and the opportunity for all individuals to participate in a way that is authentic and meaningful for them. Opening up a building to all students, but not changing the educational approach, does not make it inclusive. It is a start, but after over two decades, we should be much further along in our journey. Inclusive classrooms aim to increase access & reduce barriers to education through differentiation. In other words, schools should stop thinking in grade level expectations as the norm and start thinking about how can we meet each child at their levels in order to pull them forward. A traditional classroom setting or day works for some kiddos, not all. In inclusive classrooms and settings there is flexibility. It is okay if not all your activities and components of your day are not appropriate for all students: remember it is not one-size school, it is fair and appropriate schooling- WHAT IS BEST FOR EACH STUDENT IS NOT BEST FOR ALL STUDENTS. Unfortunately, supporting each child's individual education journey takes infrastructure and staff reform WHICH MEANS......we need collaboration of stokeholds and $$$$$. In your class, offer choices and opportunity! All students are expected to learn and grow throughout the year- but they are different and their growth will look different. Fair does not mean same, but it does mean just. Your goal is to make sure you know where your students are academically so that you can pull them forward from that spot.
STUDENTS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM
- There is a common notion that floats around schools about 'fixing' students or 'training' students to be more like their peers. If we allow ourselves to think about students as problems that we need to fix, we remove the humanity and individuality of the child. Students are not problems, they may have problematic moments or challenging behaviours, but they are not problems. As teachers we do not fix or train, we teach and shape. In an inclusive environment there is no normal, there is a quilt of individuality. In your class, connect with your students and get to know them for their unique personalities.
IT IS NOT PERFECT BUT WE TRY
- We will make mistakes. Our students will be shaped by our implicit bias. Our attempts will fail. However, these are all opportunities that allow us to dig a little deeper, reflect a little differently, and build our experience bank. If we do not take risks and allow ourselves to fail, our students, particularly those who push our boundaries and take us out of our comfort zone, will suffer. Do not let your insecurities or your fears pull you back- let them push you forward. Have you ever stood on the end of a dock willing yourself to jump into a cold fall lake? You count to 3 and count again, but eventually you turn around and walk away or you jump. You feel bothered when you don't jump, but you feel invigorated when you do jump into the cold cold water. It is the same thing with growing: if you overthink it, you can find every reason why you should not try something different or outside of the box. But, take the chance- you are a professional, you will be fine. Worst case, it does not work and you move on! In your class, do not be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and just try.
These are just a few things to think about- among so much! Again, you do not need to be perfect- you cannot do it all, especially all at once. Keep these 4 things in mind & reflect on them periodically. I promise they will help you in planning and prepping for a more inclusive class.
In sum, Does inclusion work? ABSOLUTELY!!! However, when the negative discussions come up rather than 'blaming inclusion' we need to unpack the comments. We need to ask the questions surrounding negative sentiments- why is not working? why is it so challenging? what is happening to make me think this way? The truth is inclusion is not working because we have not set up the right structures in our system....and we have not even started to create inclusive systems in many cases.
Teachers- you cannot control all the big items: the policies, the structures, the pilot projects, and the operational approaches, BUT you can control your classroom...and better yet, your approach and your thinking. In your class, I challenge you to to think about the my list of 4 above. See how you can make small changes in your actions, in your words, and in your set up to reflect your continued dedication and growth to building inclusive classrooms.