Much has been said about the importance of providing inclusive classrooms in today’s elementary, middle and high schools. How these classrooms should look and function, however, is up for debate. The simple presence of students from all different backgrounds with varying abilities and needs does not constitute true inclusion. Administrators and teachers who embrace the inclusive model are diligent in their effort to give all students the best learning experience possible.

The Characteristics of an Authentic Inclusive Environment

A truly inclusive classroom may not look substantially different than any other room. An inclusive classroom, however, will meet specific criteria.

  • All students in districts that embrace the total inclusion model attend their home school (i.e. the school in their local neighborhood). They are not bussed to buildings that house self-contained classrooms to accommodate disabilities.
  • An inclusive environment does not mean simply providing student “helpers” for those who work at a slower pace or easier homework for students working with learning disabilities. Schools that are truly inclusive welcome all students from the neighborhood, regardless of disability, and plan for their academic and social/emotional success.
  • In this planning process, all stakeholders — including parents or guardians, general and special education teachers, art, music, and physical education teachers, and all members of the support staff who will interact with students — have a voice. Staff members receive ongoing training, as needed, and communication is open and honest.
  • Including students in the classroom goes beyond physical placement. It does not mean that a special education teacher works separately with small groups of students at a table in the back of the room.
  • All students in an inclusive classroom are taught in small- and whole-group settings, depending on their ability and learning styles, not whether or not they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP goals for students with identified disabilities are included in the general education curriculum by providing the appropriate resources and support right in the classroom.

The Benefits for Students With Identified Disabilities

Learning for students with identified disabilities who do not attend an inclusive school looks very different. Throughout the day, they are pulled from the general education setting and spend short or extended periods of time in a small setting with a special education teacher. They work on basic reading and math skills, often with drill and practice worksheets or flash cards. This intense intervention may be necessary for the student who is functioning well below grade level, especially as students get older and the disparity between grade level and ability grows wider.

However, according to Kids Together, a nonprofit organization providing resources for children and adults with disabilities, these support services can and should be offered to students both with and without IEPs in the general education classroom.

  • When students are in an environment that includes all students, more natural opportunities arise to initiate social interaction, network with those who have like interests, and build friendships and relationships with a variety of people.
  • When students with disabilities spend substantial time in smaller groups or other classrooms, they have less time to observe peer role models in the areas of academic and social/emotional skills.
  • When students are exposed to the general curriculum, there is a greater possibility that they will transfer what they have observed and learned, as well as generalize knowledge and information into other areas of life.
  • Students in an inclusive environment have a much brighter future. This is not a new concept. In 1989, authors and educators Susan Stainback and William Stainback reported, “A 10-year follow-up in one study found that LD (Learning Disability) students who had been taught in integrated classes demonstrated more independent functioning and social adjustment.”
  • Many students with IEPs may function at a significantly lower academic level than their peers. When they are included in their grade-level content area classes, however, the natural, healthy competition of the classroom will encourage them to reach higher expectations.
  • The families of students with disabilities feel more included in both the classroom and the community when their students study in an inclusive environment. In addition, parent participation of those students increases.
  • When students with diverse abilities and learning styles spend the majority of their days in a common classroom, teachers and support staff must collaborate to provide the necessary scaffolding for everyone. All educators, including art, music and physical education teachers, as well as paraprofessionals have the same opportunities and responsibilities and must work together as a team.

The Benefit for Students Without Identified Disabilities

Parents of students without identified disabilities may be skeptical about the benefits of the inclusive model for their children. Some fear that the teacher’s time will not be fairly distributed. Some are not confident that the materials presented will sufficiently challenge their children to reach higher.

As early as 1995, however, author and professor Edward T. Baker claimed, “As schools are challenged to effectively serve an increasingly diverse student population, the concern is not whether to provide inclusive education, but how to implement inclusive education in ways that are both feasible and effective in ensuring schooling success for all children, especially those with special needs.”

  • Friendship-building goes both ways in an inclusive classroom. Students functioning at grade level are just as likely as students with disabilities to build friendships.
  • When non-disabled students have the opportunity to work side by side with students with disabilities, they often acquire an increased appreciation and level of respect for individual differences. They are more likely to accept them as classmates and peers.
  • As students work with others who have a variety of abilities and aptitudes, they are better prepared for adult life in an inclusive society.
  • By serving as peer teachers for students with disabilities, students without identified disabilities have opportunities to strengthen their own skills and understanding of key concepts and strategies, leading to their own improved academic progress.
  • When resources for students with IEPs are introduced into the inclusive classroom, all students have access to additional support systems.

Inclusion — a Responsibility, Not an Option

Leaders in education have an obligation to educate all students up to their full potential, both academically and socially. Creating an inclusive classroom environment for every student is key in that endeavor.

According to Colleen F. Tomko of Kids Together, “Through inclusive education, children with disabilities remain on a path that leads to an adult life as a participating member of society.” And board-certified neurologist Judy Willis states, “When we offer a variety of individually appropriate strategies, we enable all students to be true participants in a community of learners.”

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Learn more about the EMU online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program.


Kids Together: Components of Inclusive Education

Kids Together: Benefits of Inclusive Education

Kids Together: What Is Inclusion?

ASCD: Synthesis of Research / The Effects of Inclusion on Learning

ASCD: Success for all Students in Inclusion Classes