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Redefining Inclusive Education

Frances Stetson offers guidance to improve the educational experience for all at-risk students

Providing at-risk students and students with special needs with an inclusive learning environment—one in which students receive equitable opportunities for effective educational services—is a moral imperative. However, despite all of the effort districts and schools have put into implementing inclusive practices and improving behavioral strategies and learning environments in schools, the educational community still has much to accomplish in this area, especially for minority students.
During a recent webinar, I addressed the changes we (teachers, administrators, and the educational community as a whole) need to make to our delivery systems and even our basic belief systems. Changes must be made in the instructional strategies we use, in the processes for determining appropriate staffing, and in the models we use to increase adult skills in achieving stronger educational outcomes. Perhaps the most challenging of the changes that must be undertaken are those related to our own attitudes and the attitudes and behaviors of our colleagues that make up the culture of our schools. Why are some of our recent decisions about educational settings for at-risk students leading to more separation and exclusion? What are the challenges that slow our progress for students with disabilities, for students who struggle to learn the English language, for students whose race, culture, or customs differ from the “traditional” template of a successful student?
I argue that until we begin to make fundamental changes in our beliefs about the rights of all children to equitable opportunities in an education environment that provides a safe and accepting place for all to learn, we are missing the true meaning of “inclusive education.” A seat in a general education classroom is only the first step toward inclusion; it must be seen as only one aspect of a rich process of social and academic inclusion. This article will delve into the basis for inclusion and will offer challenging discussion questions and instructional delivery considerations that are the backbone of inclusive practices.
Historical Context and Today’s Difficult Questions
There are two decisions—one judicial and one legislative—that have shaped our understanding of the term inclusive education. The first is the case of Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954 by a 9–0 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the decision penned by Chief Justice Earl Warren, it was stated, “We conclude that in the field of education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
Question: When you look at your own school, do you see evidence of separate and unequal settings and services? Do you see patterns suggesting that there continues to be some form of racial, cultural, or linguistic segregation, particularly in classrooms with children with disabilities or with children who have behavioral concerns?
In a number of classrooms serving children with disabilities across the country, the racial or cultural makeup is often disproportionate to the general population, with more minority students identified than is justified on the basis of their proportion of the school-age population. This, in some instances, may not provide those students the same level of advantage or opportunity for learning. In this sense, both the letter and the spirit of the 1954 Supreme Court decision continue to elude us. For some racial groups and for some disability categories, the decisions about where services will be provided are predictably more separate from the general education classroom, the general education curriculum, and typical peers.
The second major influence is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed by President Ford in 1975, which guarantees students with disabilities a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). With the passage of IDEA and the LRE provision, there has been a strong and continuous focus on inclusion that emerged from the concept of least restrictive environment and requires that children with disabilities shall be educated with their nondisabled peers to the greatest extent appropriate.
Question: With these judicial and legislative protections for school-age children against segregation from typical peers, is assurance of education in the least restrictive educational environment no longer a concern? Progress has been made toward more inclusive practices in public schools, but practices range from exemplary and well sustained to very early adoption and basic implementation levels. Decisions either focus on the services and supports students need in order to be successful or they focus on naming a place or a label to “fit the student into.”
Even more disturbing is the increasingly obvious and visible separation of children with disabilities by race. Data shows that not only are children of color disproportionately represented in special education but they are also subjected to higher rates of exclusionary discipline practices such as suspension and expulsion from school. When you look at inclusion versus exclusion, the whole issue of disproportionality takes the concern about equity to a new and disappointing level. Children of color are not only spending less time inside the general education classroom, they are also spending less time in school.
“Overrepresentation of Black (or minority) children in special education is a civil rights violation and a major culprit in the school-to-prison pipeline, with low teacher expectations yielding low-quality instruction, which in turn leads to low-quality education.”
– 2012 Position Paper, Association of Black School Psychologists

Addressing the Issue
To address the issues of inclusion and equity, educators must first understand why these issues continue to exist before they can implement strategies to fix them. We must ask ourselves:
What changes do we need to make in our own attitudes?
What changes do we need to make in instructional delivery in the classroom?
What changes do we need to make to ourselves as leaders and in the systems that our districts and schools have in place that would promote and protect the opportunity for children to be served in less restrictive environments?
For the first question, educators must attend to their own notions of difference, diversity, and inclusivity and place a priority on building cultural proficiency. This requires looking at their own thinking and the thoughts of fellow educators to further investigate the environments in which students are learning and the relationship between teachers and students. In order to make the necessary changes to their practice that demonstrate welcoming, acceptance, and high expectations for all, educators need to pay attention to their own attitudes and their own actions regarding diversity, as well as their perceptions of differences in race, culture, learning styles, prior experience, and other variables, and recognize their importance to students.
Cultural proficiency is the effective interaction between individuals or organizations and people who differ from them. Being culturally proficient—and engaging in professional development around cultural proficiency—is very important for educators. It is necessary for them to understand what they need to do in order to move toward cultural proficiency. Otherwise, it is likely they will make mistakes in the classroom that reflect more negative feelings toward children of color or offer them fewer opportunities for learning. Being culturally proficient can involve a lot of work on the part of the teacher and the administrative team; however, engaging in awareness sessions, 30-minute overviews on cultural proficiency, or enriching discussions on strategies to be more culturally proficient can help educators move in the right direction.
Educators must also make sure their actions, as well as their classrooms, are culturally responsive, meaning they reflect students’ backgrounds and interests. This includes:
Building authentic relationships. To foster authentic relationships with students, teachers can give the class a student-interest survey at the beginning of the year asking them about their families, home and community lives, hobbies, interests, and thoughts about career. We want to get to know all of our students on a more personal level; we want to know how our students would describe a good teacher and a comfortable learning environment. This helps teachers better understand what each student values and identify special ways to reach each student. Teachers may decide to use an informal interview approach, finding time to speak to two or three students each week. In every case in which I have been engaged with teachers who found ways to relate to their students in a manner that offered important insights for relationship building and for understanding motivations, teachers commented that this extra effort not only resulted in higher attendance and performance for their students but in more personal satisfaction for themselves in their own career choice.
“Young people, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, have sensitive antennae for authenticity.” – Gary R. Howard, the Equity Institute
Having higher expectations for all students. Teachers should examine their own attitudes about students of color and then determine any internal bias they may have. Once teachers identify their own attitudes and biases, they can work proactively to encourage all students to strive for their highest levels and can better prepare them to be college and career ready.
Sharing your own college and career preparation stories and challenges is an excellent way to communicate that you believe in your students’ abilities to achieve postsecondary success.
Increasing scaffolding and process skills. By scaffolding instruction, teachers are helping students learn and progress at their own pace. Resources that can assist with scaffolding—and ultimately a student’s comprehension of a given topic—include graphic organizers, vocabulary aids, cue cards, mind maps, sequence charts, and note-taking guides. By identifying the skills and techniques students will need at a specific grade level for organizing their work, studying, preparing for a test, writing a paper, reviewing completed work for errors, and many other basic tasks of learning, teachers are helping students develop the process skills they need to learn content and to be successful in their classes and grade levels.
It is essential for teachers to teach process skills and to continuously monitor and reinforce them. How much of our concern about our students’ ability to learn the content we are teaching is influenced by the lack of or presence of basic study and other executive-functioning skills?
Building student responsibility for learning
It is important for teachers to instill in students a sense of
responsibility for their own learning. Many students are dependent on the teacher for learning, but teachers must also focus their attention on helping students grow independently and develop a sense of self-efficacy.
Using positive behavioral supports. By reinforcing a positive school climate, students are more likely to succeed and engage in quality learning. Using resources such as a functional behavioral assessment helps educators develop a positive behavioral plan of action for the student, remove the emotion from the process, and really begin to look at changes in the classroom instruction or the environment that would benefit the student.

Instructional Delivery
There are many things that can be done to significantly improve opportunities for student learning, one of which is delivering differentiated instruction. This is one of the most frequently discussed topics in informal conversations between teachers, as keynote subjects for major conferences, and as the topic of thousands of breakout sessions for national, state, and local district professional development events. Unfortunately, there is a large gap between knowing and doing where differentiation of instruction is concerned. When I conduct structured classroom observations, as I do in hundreds of classrooms each year, I am privileged to visit wonderful examples of differentiated content, instructional delivery, and assessment, but the norm is very different. In contrast, the majority of classrooms often feature whole-group instruction, a reliance on lecture-based instruction, the same types of simple recall activities, and the same way of assessing learning for every student regardless of learning style or need. For differentiated instruction to be effective, it needs to be practiced and integrated into our daily planning and lesson execution, and students must be active and engaged learners. We must ask ourselves, “What accounts for this gap between what we know to do and what we actually do in our classrooms with regard to differentiation? How can we overcome this?”
These are changes that educators—as well as school systems as a whole—need to make in order to serve students more successfully in inclusive settings. Educators need to provide all students with equitable, quality services, offer consistent external supports, and conduct frequent debriefings about these actions. It is a non-negotiable that educators serve all students, create a culture of shared responsibility, make careful referral and IEP decisions, and recognize the need for ongoing professional development and personal learning.
Creating this type of learning environment with high expectations and effective supports requires shared responsibility across the community, family, administrators, and teachers. Individual teachers cannot be solely responsible for the system-wide changes needed to ensure success for diverse learners in shared classrooms. The meaning of inclusive schools is more obvious than it seems—inclusive education means all. We began by thinking of students with disabilities—our work together is transforming from this perception to a much broader one that demands equity for students across race, culture, language, sexual orientation, behavioral considerations, and any other characteristic against which children vary.
“Inclusive education means that all students attend and are welcomed by their neighborhood schools in age-appropriate, regular classes and are supported to learn, contribute, and participate in all aspects of the life of the school.” – Wikipedia

Dr. Frances Stetson is president of Stetson & Associates, Inc., an educational consulting firm specializing in supporting systems change in schools—with a focus on inclusive practices, closing the achievement gap, differentiated instruction, and quality standards for instruction and leadership, particularly for struggling learners. She is also the executive director and sponsor for the Inclusive Schools Network and website that offer free resources, blogs, and articles on emerging topics in education. To learn more about this topic, listen to a recording of Dr. Stetson’s PresenceLearning webinar, “Inclusion Is for Every Learner—Or Is It?” at

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