Inclusion Matters: Inside and Outside the Classroom

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If history has taught us anything, we know that inclusion has become a hot topic in education. In the United States, we’ve prided ourselves on being the central melting pot of the global population. All people, regardless of race, gender or religion, are said to be a part of this inclusive culture. The draw of being a place where people can receive free education and opportunity for growth is what makes it so appealing for many. With that, it should seem apparent that inclusion is a fundamental right to resources and education. Though theoretically the ideal, it has taken great lengths to achieve this particular notion and will continue to be a work in progress.

Lesson to Learn from History
People with disabilities never used to receive necessary, fair resources and access to education. Instead, they were seen as an impoverished population that needed to be placed into mental institutions. They were said to “lack” the sense to learn so they were separated from the general group. Teachers were not trained to help those who had a learning disability, nor did they want to take the time to learn. Imagine that – educators who didn’t want to take the time to differentiate instruction because it was too much of a burden on their part. Keep in mind, this was long before the times of No Child Left Behind.

Special Education
That was then. This is now. It wasn’t until the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) that the conversation about true inclusion in the classroom was born. Students with learning disabilities were then receiving proper modifications and support from Special Education. Not only were students being placed in special education classes that centered around helping them achieve academically, but some were also rostered in regular education classes depending on their level of learning.

Now, they were being immersed in general populations where they were no longer deemed as being so different from everyone else. However, it’s important to understand that not all of this is done with fidelity and that teachers should constantly reflect and assess their classrooms to ensure inclusivity.

Who Needs Inclusion?
Everyone. All races, genders, religions, heights, weights, disability or non – it’s very important to remember that teachers should never make a student feel like he or she is different from the rest. Even if a student has modifications, don’t make it obvious to the class that you are modifying the lesson to fit the needs of the said student. Every single student, especially those who are special needs, wants one thing – to be treated equally and normally. All of their lives, special education students, have been given different treatment and all they want is to have the spotlight shown elsewhere.

Another group of students who should also receive equitable attention and differentiation is that of English Language Learners. ELL students do not have a learning disability, rather they are simply trying to learn to speak another non-native language, on top of school material. Try translating classroom material in the student’s native language to show that you want to help bridge the gap of communication. As a teacher, when you take the time to understand their needs and include those needs in the classroom, you will have successfully practiced an equal, inclusive model.

Even in extracurricular activities, students may be separated based on their skills and level of participation. To try out for a team, students have to go through a series of practices and trials. Picture a student with a learning disability who may not be able to follow all of the directions for cheer team try-outs because the coach inadvertently didn’t maintain modifications. There were no visuals to help her understand the method to doing a standing back tuck. Now, this student may be excluded from a public activity simply because she wasn’t given proper directions to fit her learning needs. Not prioritizing the need for inclusion can have very negative repercussions even outside of the classroom. Be aware of all students and the way you are communicating your directions and message.

Lastly, there is also a misconception about the types of students that are of special needs. Gifted students – ones who test in a higher IQ percentile than their average peers – are ones who tend to get overlooked for their learning needs. Immediately, they are deemed as being stellar and model students and pushed to be challenged in AP and Honors courses. But, so often, teachers forget that these students still need modifications to their learning – visuals, structure in schedule, etc. Plus, these students are praised and pushed so often that they are then separated from the rest of the student population. Soon, they may soon appear to be privileged and what we meant to veer away from and that is segregation. Praising a student is fine and warranted but be wary about doing it so often to the same student in front of his or her peers.

Why it Matters
Here’s why all of this matters. In a country where civil rights for human beings have drastically changed over recent times, it’s important for those to understand that inclusion is essential to the livelihood of the human community. The fact that someone cannot be excluded from sitting at a restaurant table because of his gender has the same meaning as someone who shouldn’t be excluded from receiving an education due to his learning disability. A child who has a learning disability should be given the fundamental rights as a child without a learning disability.

Inclusion has also sparked conversation about learning and teaching as a whole. Many educators can relate to the fact that education is not a simple spoon-fed model. There isn’t a one size fits all for learning. Every child is different and needs a variety of methods to learn whether he or she is special needs or not. Especially in this current day and age, learning styles continue to develop and change where it’s very evident that instruction is geared towards engagement and effectiveness. The methods of teaching that were used 30 years ago are no longer relevant or working now.

Teachers must sustain professional development and practice effective methods geared towards student learning and achievement. Differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all learners is what makes for an impactful and effective teacher. There will continue to be advanced research and new strategies in which teachers and instructional leaders can use to fuel their decision-making and planning for inclusive instruction.

But, without awareness and understanding, all of this fancy research goes straight out the window. Without fidelity in thought and implementation, it becomes very easy for educators, whether on purpose or not, to de-prioritize inclusion in and out of the classroom. Constant and consistent practice and awareness are the key steps for teachers to follow. Doing this can ensure that they are doing what is in the best interest of every single child. Heightened awareness and empathy for their students are what will make the difference between being a faculty member, to being an influential educator in these students’ lives.

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