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Important Lessons from Inclusive Classrooms

Learning to Live in Community

Mara Sapon-Shevin


A teacher comes to me with great distress; there is considerable teasing and bullying going on in her school, but she feels like addressing it is almost a “luxury” in the current climate of high stakes testing and monitoring. She says, “I know that the administration knows that students can’t learn when they’re scared or isolated, but there’s so much pressure about the testing. We’ve had to cut out so many aspects of the school day when we got to work on being a community and conflict resolution — we’ve got no art, no music and no recess time.

There is no question that teachers and schools are under increasing pressure to make students successful and to document their progress and achievement. Unfortunately, many of the current exigencies of schooling (Annual Yearly Progress according to No Child Left Behind, constant testing and other curriculum rigidities) have resulted in very narrow definitions of what constitutes “success”; these policies have made it even more difficult to keep our focus on classroom climate and community building —- even though we know these are both essential in an of themselves and related to student achievement. 

Add to the mix requirements for inclusive education — teaching for diversity and including all learners in the general education setting — and it is easy to see why teachers report feeling overwhelmed. What if including all students and attending thoughtfully to diversity were part of the solution and not part of the task over load? What if we could put community building and the emotional climate of the classroom back in the center of our organizing values?  And, what if we realized that it was only in inclusive, diverse classrooms that we could meet our goals of creating thoughtful, engaged citizens for our democratic society?

I believe strongly that inclusion is not about disability, nor is it only about schools. Inclusion is about creating schools –– and a society — in which all children and their families feel welcomed and valued. Inclusion demands that we ask, “What kind of a world do we want to create and how should we educate students for that world?” “What kinds of skills and commitments do people need to thrive in a diverse society?

Rather than defining “inclusion” narrowly as referring to the instruction of students with “special needs” or disabilities in the regular classroom, I define inclusion broadly — one might say, “inclusively”! An inclusive definition of inclusion goes far beyond student with disabilities and looks at the myriad ways that student differ from one another: race, class, gender, ethnicity, family background, sexual orientation, language, abilities, size, religion, and on and on. Inclusion as a movement or a school policy did not create the differences in our classroom — classrooms have always been heterogeneous — but inclusion allows teachers to name the diversity, value it, and strategize and implement productive and sensitive responses. The opposite of an inclusive classroom is not a “homogeneous classroom,” but one that is still (inevitably) heterogeneous, but attempts to make the differences in the classroom invisible to students and asks professionals to teach in standard and standardized ways that ignore individual differences.

Similarly, rather than conceptualizing classroom management as an issue distinctive from issues of classroom climate, curriculum, and pedagogy, we could reconceptualize the “positive classroom” as being about everything we do throughout the day. At Syracuse University, where I teach, we have replaced a course formerly identified as “classroom management” with one called “Safe and Peaceful Schools” which deals with issues of community building, teaching for diversity, conflict resolution and social justice teaching. 

After years of struggle about the politics and practice of inclusion and multicultural education, it is time that we understand that inclusive, diverse classrooms are here to stay, and that, when implemented with on-going support and resources, inclusion will improve schooling for all children.

I believe strongly that attending thoughtfully to multiple identities and needs is not a zero-sum game in schools; being responsive to one issue does not make us less responsible or thoughtful about another, In fact, the nature of good teaching is that it is universal even while it is particular; when the social environment is welcoming and accepting of children with disabilities, establishing norms of acceptance and inclusion, this improves the classroom atmosphere for all students, including those who are overweight, come from different family backgrounds, or eat foods that classmates regard as ”different.” A reading program that allows all children to access literature that is appropriate to their reading level and their interests enriches the literacy environment for children of all reading abilities, including those who access print through computer-assisted instruction, and English language learners. 

Access can mean, “Is there a ramp?” but it can also mean, “Will letters home to parents be written in a language they can understand?” 

Differentiated instruction can mean allowing a non-reader to listen to a book on tape, but it can also mean organizing our curriculum and instruction using principles of universal design, diverse from the beginning, rather than needing to retrofit after the initial design. 

Positive behavior management can be a system of providing support to students with diagnosed emotional problems, but it can also mean on-going community building, classroom meetings, cooperative games, and a culture of appreciation and celebration.

What does it mean to think inclusively and how can this framework enhance the learning of all children? I believe that there are ten lessons to be learned from inclusive education and that some of these can only be learned in this setting (Sapon-Shevin, 2007). I will explore several of these lessons, how they connect to establishing positive classrooms,  and their importance to creating full engaged and engaging citizens for our democratic society.

Understanding Diversity: How do my students understand and discuss differences?

Inclusion benefits all children by helping them to understand and appreciate that the world is big, that people are different, and that we can work together to find solutions that work for everyone. We live in an increasingly diverse world, and all people need to be comfortable and knowledgeable with people who vary in terms of a host of characteristics. It is important to speak more than one language, to understand how to help others who are having trouble and to accept help yourself, to resolve conflicts, to work together to challenge injustice.

Inclusion teaches us to think about “We” rather than “I.” Not “Will there be anything for me to eat?” but “How can we make sure there’s a snack for everyone?” Not “Will I have friends?” but “How can I be aware of the children here who don’t have anyone to play with?” When we are surrounded by people who are different from us, we are forced to ask questions that go beyond the individual and address the community and its diversity. When we have friends who use wheelchairs, we notice that there are steep stairs and no ramps. When we have friends who wear hearing aids, we listen differently to comments like, “What are you, deaf or something?” When we have friends with different skin colors, we become more alert to racist and exclusionary comments. When we have friends from different religious backgrounds, we are more aware that the decorations in the mall are about only one religion, the songs on the radio affirming only one way of being in the world. 

It is very hard to learn to be comfortable with difference in the absence of diversity.  Studying “about” diversity is no substitute for genuine, embodied experience with others. Inclusive classrooms teach us that we want our differences talked about in accurate and respectful ways, and that we can learn to talk about these differences in spite of our initial awkwardness and lack of skill. The White college-age students I teach are often confounded about how to talk about people of color, for example: “Is the right term “African-American” or “Black”? What if the person is from Jamaica or Haiti?  How do I describe people?” Similarly, many adults are nervous about interacting with people with disabilities, unsure whether they should offer help or refrain, mention or not mention the person’s disability. 

How do we learn to be comfortable with diversity? We must carefully examine our curricular and pedagogical approaches. Long ago, I gave workshops for teachers on teaching children about differences and disabilities; while these were of some utility, (I hope); I now think they did not go far enough. Sometimes the proposed curriculum left both teachers and students feeling “sorry” for people who were perceived as “less fortunate” rather than understanding commonalities and areas of possible connection.  I have come to believe that understanding chromosomal abnormalities does not help children become friends; friendships arise when there are multiple opportunities to work and play together, to understand one another and to have fun. We must certainly understand one another’s differences, but we must also become adept at finding shared ground and mutual interests. 

The only way to gain fluency, comfort and ease is through genuine relationships in which we get to learn how to talk to and about people who we perceive or label as “different,” often learning that many of our initial assumptions or judgments were, in fact, completely erroneous! The goal is not to make differences invisible (“I don’t see color;” “It’s such a good inclusive classroom, you can’t tell who the kids with disabilities are”) but to develop language and skill in negotiating diversity. Classrooms cannot feel safe to anyone if discussions of difference are avoided, discouraged or considered inappropriate.

I am always delighted (if a bit  stunned) when I see young people easily negotiating conversations about difference that would have been impossible a decade ago and are still out of reach for many of us. I recently witnessed a discussion of family differences during which children spoke of adoption, same-sex parents, known and unknown donors, and the many ways they had come to be members of their family. These children, growing up in an inclusive, diverse community, will not need a book that explains, “There are many kind of families.” This understanding is already part of their lived experience. 

Inclusion is not a “favor” for students with disabilities, any more than a commitment to education that is multicultural is only important for students of color.  Inclusion is a gift we give ourselves, the gift of understanding, the gift of knowing that we are all members of the human race, and that true joy comes in building genuine relationships with a wide range of other people. 

Honesty About Hard Topics: Can my students talk about challenging issues?

In the same way that inclusion teaches students to be aware of and well educated about individual differences, it also provides a place to learn about challenging topics. We learn to talk —- teachers and students alike — about the uncomfortable, the unspeakable, and the painful. 

So often, as adults, we simply do not know what to do when we are confronted by people and situations that frighten, surprise, or simply confound us. Children’s willingness and eagerness to engage with the world and to find answers to their questions allows them to learn important repertoires that will provide a smoother entry and thoughtful passage through the complexities of adulthood. A positive classroom is one in which teachers help students learn to create meaning of their confusions and challenges.

In one school, a young boy who required tube feeding provided the occasion for all the students to learn about the digestive system but also about ways to help people while preserving their dignity and agency. In another school, a child whose religion kept him from celebrating birthday and holidays allowed students the opportunity to not only learn about different religions but also to brainstorm ways of keeping Jonah a valued and supported member of the classroom.  And when, after the bombing of the World Trade Center, a young Muslim child was harassed on the way home from school, the whole class was able to engage in an important discussion of racism and being allies to those experiencing prejudice and oppression. 

Most parents would probably not hope that one of their child’s classmates would die, be diagnosed with cancer, or face other personal or familial challenges; but I am certain that should these things happen, parents would want those issues addressed honestly, respectfully and kindly. In inclusive classrooms, I have seen children learn to support a classmate with cerebral palsy, become an ally in the face of homophobic bullying and help a student struggling with academic work.  All of these were possible because the teachers were willing and able to talk to the students honestly about what was going on, creating a caring, supportive community for all students, rather than marginalizing those experiencing difficulty. 

Courage to Change the World: Do my students know they can make a difference?

Inclusion also means that we pay careful attention to issues of social justice and inequity. Some of these are ones that appear at a classroom or school level, others are bigger and extend beyond the school community. For a classroom to feel “positive,” children must feel that someone “has their back,” and that they will not be abandoned in the face of noticing or experiencing individual and societal injustice.

Teasing and exclusion are (sadly) a typical part of many children’s school experience. Bullying is so common that it can become virtually invisible; we mistake typical for inevitable, believing that there is nothing we can do.

Inclusive classrooms give us many opportunities to be our best selves, reaching across our personal borders to ask, “Do you want to play?” “Can I help you with that?” “Can you explain to me why you do that?” Our lessons about how we treat one another extend beyond the specificity of “Don’t tease children with disabilities” to broader, more inclusive discussions: “How would you like to be treated?” “What do you think it feels like when you leave someone out?” “How could we change this activity so more kids could play?” “How do you want others to deal with your challenges and your triumphs and what would that look like in our classroom?”  

I have used Peggy Moss’ wonderful book Say Something (Moss, 2004) to engage students and teachers in discussions about what we do when we see someone being picked on or harassed. In the book, a young girl goes from witnessing and lamenting the mistreatment of her classmates to taking action to change the patterns she observes. This book and other similar discussions occasion opportunities to talk about the concept of courage, opportunities to be brave in both small and large moments, ways to make a difference.

In more heterogeneous settings, we are also able to interrogate closely what it means to help one another. By challenging the notion that there are two kinds of people in the world — those who need help and those who give help — we can position all children as helpers and helpees, learning to give and receive help respectfully and graciously. We can challenge rigid conceptions of “Who is smart?” so that we recognize and honor multiple forms of intelligence and many gifts. Helping is considered essential in the  inclusive classroom, and dedicated time is spent teaching students to support one another through peer mentoring, collaborative learning, and other forms of peer support The classroom becomes a more positive place for everyone (including the teacher) when multiple forms of peer support are on-going, consistent and valued. Rather than saying, “I want to know what you can do, not what your neighbor can do” we hear, “Molly, why don’t you ask Luis to show you how to do that” or “Make sure everyone at your table understands how to color the map code.”

Students who develop fluency in addressing differences, are exposed to challenging issues, and who view themselves as interconnected, can be more easily engaged in discussions about “How do we change things to make them better?” Having a personal connection profoundly shifts one’s perception about “Who has the problem?” and “Who should do something?”  A powerful way to combat the current climate of political apathy is by helping young people make connections between their lives and those of others and giving them opportunities to make a difference in whatever ways they can.

When students have a classmate who comes from Mexico and is undocumented, then discussion of immigration rights, border patrols, fair employment practices and justice become much more real. When students have learned to communicate with a classmate with autism, they understand (at a deep level) that not being able to talk is not the same as not having something to say. They no longer equate verbal fluency with intelligence or worth. When a classmate comes from a family with two mothers, then reports of gay bashing or marriage rights become very tangible; “Hey, it’s not fair that Carla’s mothers can’t get married!” 

Students who are in inclusive schools now will become adults employed in various capacities and connected through social, political and recreational communities. Those who have seen successful inclusion in action will understand that the decisions they make about where and how to live, work, and play have the potential to affect their own and others’ quality of life. It is certainly possible to teach a social justice curriculum in a fairly homogeneous school by talking and teaching about overcoming prejudice, avoiding stereotypes, building allies, and addressing inequities. Inclusive classrooms give us the opportunity to put social justice principles into action; in inclusive classrooms, students can live a social justice curriculum and not just study about it. 

Inclusive classrooms which pay careful attention to issues of fairness and justice privilege questions that have the potential to shift children’s consciousness now and in the future: “Who gets to go to the gifted program and how are they chosen?”; “How can we find a part in the school play for a classmate that doesn’t talk?”; “Why do people make fun of Brian because he likes art and doesn’t like sports?” ; and “How can we make sure everyone gets to go on the field trip that costs twenty dollars?” 

In inclusive classrooms, it matters how people treat one another. Learning to live together in a democratic society is one of the most important goals and outcomes of inclusive classrooms. How could any of us want anything else for our children?


Moss, P. (2004). Say something.  Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House.

Sapon-Shevin. M. (2007). Widening the circle: The power of inclusive classroom. Boston: Beacon Press.

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