By *Dr Robert Jackson and Catia Malaquias
This is the first article in a series of short articles aimed at providing practical tips for teachers to improve the inclusiveness of their general education classrooms. You can read the next articles in the series at SWJ IncludED and their respective titles and weblinks are also listed at the end of this article.
All around Australia, in regular mainstream classrooms, teachers spend considerable time and effort preparing teaching materials for their students, including differentiated curricula materials for students with disability allocated to their class.
But just as important as applying universal design and differentiated instruction is creating and maintaining an inclusive culture for the class … a culture in which every student feels welcomed and included both as a learner and as a valued peer. The research demonstrates that an inclusive class culture is conducive to maximising academic, independence and social outcomes for students with and without disability.
Here are some practical tips for teachers trying to create or improve the inclusiveness of their classroom.
- DON’T UNDERESTIMATE YOUR STUDENT. Don’t assume a student with disability won’t be able to “do it” so that it is “not worth the effort”. Students with intellectual or cognitive disability might learn it in a different way or it may take them longer … They might not learn it this time but learning is incremental and something will always be learnt. Sending the message to your student and their classmates that you think they “can do it” is the most important and “inclusive” message you can send. Discouragement is a self-fulfilling prophesy, but encouragement nurtures and realises potential.
- DON’T UNDERESTIMATE YOURSELF. Inclusion is not rocket-science. A big part of it is common-sense. No one expects you to “overcome” your student’s disability – diversity is a natural part of life and that goes for the way that each of us learns as well. Recognize that your student has strengths as well as challenges. Your goal is to help each student learn as much as they can and in a way that will help them to exercise their right to be full and equal members of the same future community as their classmates.
- You are the TEACHING PROFESSIONAL and you know your student and the class. Just because an administrator or senior teacher gives you advice or a health professional says something might help your student in some way (like a bright vest to highlight them in the playground, an incline bench for writing or a special support cushion for sitting) that does not mean it is in the best interests of that student. It is often a cost/benefit decision – the impact of “exceptionalising” the student is a relevant consideration. Ask yourself, “Will this advice help this student feel part of this class and school?”
- You are THE TEACHER and your student with disability is PART OF YOUR CLASS. The education assistant is not their teacher. The education assistant may be experienced and trying to help, but you need to instruct them on how to help without always hovering over and shadowing the student. Their role for your student with a disability is to help carry out academic instruction, build independence and nurture social relationships. Classmates will naturally see a “mothered” student as a “baby” and that perception will impact upon broader acceptance as a peer. An overactive aide can have a detrimental effect by teaching the child to be “helpless” rather than fostering independence. The appropriate relationship between the teacher, a student with disability and the education assistant is often overlooked but it is a crucial part of creating an inclusive environment.
- Look to always include your student with a disability IN THE SAME LESSON MATERIAL. If the material needs to be adapted, think “what do I want every student to know at the end of the lesson?” “What do I want most students to know at the end of the lesson?” ” What do I hope some students will know at the end of the lesson?” Asking these questions will help to point you to material that the student with a disability should learn. If your student shares learning with peers, this shared-experience is more likely to continue into the playground.
- You set the CULTURE of the class. You decide how welcome, included and respected your student with disability will be. How you talk to and act towards them will influence how everyone treats them as well. Students, other teachers and even parents of other students will take their lead from you.
- LISTEN TO and UNDERSTAND your student. Their views matter. If a student is having trouble following instructions, don’t assume them to be “naughty” or “defiant”– it is probably their way of expressing that they are having a tough time. Ask yourself what is happening. Talk to them. Look around them – is there something you can do to help? The way you respond can either add to your student’s distress or help them move beyond it in a positive way. And their classmates will be learning from you about how to respond to a friend who is having a difficult time.
- Don’t let your student be excluded or “SINGLED OUT”. They should be given the same opportunities as their classmates, including the opportunity to learn together with and amongst them, sitting with them and not on their own.
- Don’t let your student become the “CLASS MASCOT”. Look at the nature of the relationships that they are forming with their classmates – help classmates include the student in their play rather than use them for their play.
- COMMUNICATE and COLLABORATE with your student’s PARENTS. The parents are an important source of “real-time” information and they will want to be “included” in the school community too. They are probably a bit anxious and will want to know more than most parents about how their child is going. Teachers experienced in inclusion report that a collaborative relationship with the parents of a student with disability is more important than an education assistant – parents should be consulted on all decisions concerning their child.
- COMMUNICATE and COLLABORATE with OTHER TEACHERS. There are decades of experience to call upon in every staff room. You don’t have to be alone.
- Look to the REAL EXPERTS IN INCLUSION – the STUDENTS IN YOUR CLASS. They will have great ideas on how to better include their fellow student with a disability and peer tutoring has been shown to have significant benefits for all students – to teach you have to know.
These “tips” are intended as stepping stones to an inclusive classroom culture – a culture that is hard to describe but which is one which you will recognise and appreciate when you create it.
Creating an inclusive class culture is fundamental to the long-term outcomes of all your students, in particular your students with disability.
Other articles in this series:
Summary of General Comment No 4 by the the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:
*Dr Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at Curtin University in Western Australia, a registered Psychologist and a Director of Include. You can connect with Dr Jackson on Twitter @include108 or through include.com.au
[Cover photo © Phil Roeder]