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How to Become a Socially Inclusive School

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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In its comprehensive case study report on socially inclusive schools, Special Olympics' Project UNIFY identified the common factors across schools that had created a bridge from social inclusion programs to a genuinely positive school climate. The case study findings are here, and I'm also going to share with you key lessons learned that reflect my own work in fostering inclusive settings.

What Does One See in a Truly Socially Inclusive School?

There are some schools where there is a philosophical commitment to inclusion but strategies are needed. In other schools, the commitment is not deep or well articulated, and strategies, if present, are sporadic. Most schools fall into the second category, at best, and it is with those schools in mind that the following guidance is offered:

Suggestion #1:

Start with some tangible, non-threatening activities by those who are genuinely interested in being involved.R-Word Campaign. Don't worry about starting small. Success builds from true enthusiasm.

Suggestion #2:

Be sure the efforts are student-centered. Youth empowerment-both those youth with special education classifications and those who are not so labeled- is a common factor in truly inclusive schools. This involves engaging students in developing, implementing, and sustaining a wide range of inclusive activities.

Suggestion #3:

Educate students and all staff about social inclusion and its ethical importance in formal and informal school settings. This means the classroom, the bus, and the lunchroom.

Suggestion #4:

Social inclusion is woven into the fabric of the school. At some point, a statement must be made by school leadership that social inclusion is of preeminent value and violations are not acceptable. This will provide many opportunities for constructive education, as it will take some time for the student body and many staff to understand all of the situations in which inclusion -- respectful and dignified treatment of all others -- should apply.

Suggestion #5:

Social inclusion is not about some students "helping" others and some students being "helped." It is about all students finding meaningful ways to contribute (which means all situations are not necessarily reciprocal but all students must have involvement as contributors to others, regardless of ability level).

Suggestion #6:

Leadership must be cultivated and expanded beyond a small number of devoted individuals. Reach out broadly into all aspects of the school population, including staff, and community partners. Definitely reach out to your Statewide or National Special Olympics organizations. And of course, include students of varied abilities within the leadership structure. Shared and inclusive leadership is a fundamental aspect of a truly inclusive school.

Suggestion #7:

Students, teachers, and administrators engage in ongoing reflective processes to review efforts, plan, and engage in continuous improvement. Use formal and informal methods to get a wide range of opinions.

Suggestion #8:

Administrative support must be visible and tangible at the building and district levels. This will take the form of budget allocations, time for planning and activities, regular discussion of inclusive efforts at faculty and grade level meetings, and regular updates to the Board and community newsletters about the progress being made in social inclusion and improved school climate.

Challenges Schools Face and Must Address

Moving Too Quickly

Start from where you are and, as noted earlier, do not hesitate to start small. You are building a foundation for an inclusive school for the long-term, not simply putting together a program.

Too Proud To Borrow

Never hesitate to learn from what other schools are doing, especially schools similar to yours. Originality is overrated. Besides, you will ultimately have to adapt any strategy to your own particular circumstances. Project UNIFY has many resources that can be used or adapted, including Get Into It, a set of online, downloadable resources for educators of all grade levels, for in-school or after-school settings, that focus on youth empowerment, mutual respect, understanding, and friendship.

Hesitation to Empower Students

Student engagement -- on the part of both those with special education labels and those not so labeled -- is essential. Don't be afraid to give students significant responsibility, albeit with supervision, guidance, and training to help them grow. One middle school we are aware of had a week of leadership training for all students to start the school year, making a statement that leadership was expected of everyone. Don't wait for volunteers -- encourage some students who might otherwise not come forward, to ensure a high degree of diversity.

Lack of Commitment to a Buddy Approach

Using buddy approaches is a major way to generate success. This includes staff as well as students. Moving into uncharted territory is easier with a partner. And there is no rule that says buddies must be in pairs. Buddy groups of three or four can be quite viable, as long as lines of communication and responsibility are clear.

Failure to Change Policies and Allocate Resources Needed for Success

Are there current policies that will make social inclusion strategies more difficult to implement? Is there adequate planning time for staff, students, and community partners? Is the extra work that some staff may be taking on being recognized? Is there a plan to assess the school climate, and overall progress, as plans are implemented? Are there regular opportunities for a frank review of the process, including at Faculty and Grade Level meetings? As programs are being considered, such as UNIFIED Sports or P.E. or an R-Word Campaign, what resources are needed, and by whom, to ensure true collaboration and success?

There are few challenges that have not already been overcome by a school like yours, somewhere. Special Olympics Project UNIFY resources are available to help you on the path to successfully integrate social inclusiveness in your school, for the benefit of everyone. For more information, you can contact Andrea Cahn, Senior Director, Special Olympics Project UNIFY.

How has your school promoted inclusion of students with special needs? What have been the challenges and the successes? Please share in the comment section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sheena's picture

All of the suggestions above are exactly what is necessary to merge diversity into a school or any organization, and for it be effective. When those who are truly interested in seeing inclusion are involved they can help set precedence for the cause making inclusion look attractive. With a cultivating environment, and people involved who are passionate about the topic, only then can they reach a broader spectrum of participants for the same cause. Communication and awareness of common goals are also key.

Gleflore's picture

I am a member of Generation Y and I feel the label "me generation" is true. I believe that we have been indulged by our social worlds and as a result we set ourselves apart from our peers because are so "unique" and "special." Though it is healthy to embrace our differences, it is unhealthy to allow those differences to exclude ourselves from the group. As a result, social inclusion is a normal aspect of a young person's life. At some point, a young person will exclude another from a group, or be excluded themselves. Personally, I believe lack of empathy is a reason why exclusiveness is acceptable amongst young people. If "empathy training" was emphasized in school, a sense of community could develop. Furthermore, the suggestions by the blog author would garner diversity consciousness within the environment; however, the first steps would need to include an open dialogue amongst students about our differences and similarities, as well as our strengths and weaknesses as a divided student body. A conversation leading to cultural sensitivity/awareness needs to occur. I believe after addressing these issues, then it would be the right environment for inclusiveness to occur.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

i think this is the most important part:

"Social inclusion is not about some students "helping" others and some students being "helped." It is about all students finding meaningful ways to contribute (which means all situations are not necessarily reciprocal but all students must have involvement as contributors to others, regardless of ability level)."

It's not easy finding ways for all kids to serve- but all kids need the chance to give and receive support, and all kids have the capacity to do so. That being said, figuring out how to do this in our test-is-best culture can be difficult.

One additional resource I'd recommend is the work of Kim John Payne. ( Kim has been doing Social Inclusion work for years and much of what he offers is both user-friendly AND classroom proven.

Linda Lea's picture

I agree that inclusion reaches out past the classroom door. Positive social inclusion involves everyone in the school and beyond from the minute each of our diverse learners step onto the bus in the morning. Inclusion is a mindset of way of life. It should reach out beyond the school staff. It is my hope that as children learn to celebrate differences in others, they will become models for their families and community members.

Torrie Dunlap's picture
Torrie Dunlap
CEO of Kids Included Together

I am so happy to see this topic on the edutopia site, and I share your passion for social inclusion. However, as an advocate for inclusion I have to take issue with the term "differently-abled" to describe students with disabilities. Overly-euphemistic terms such as this don't reflect socially-responsible language. For a great article on this topic see I think that as educators it is our responsibility to help our young students develop their identity, and terms like differently-abled inherently suggest that having a disability is a bad thing and that having "normal" abilities is the preferred way to be.

Liz Sadler McEntire's picture
Liz Sadler McEntire
7/8 Grade Special Education Teacher

I loved reading this today. I see a generation that is more focused on themselves than I would care to see. Being able to bring students together, and encourage them to be part of a team is brilliant. Bantz said that inclusion is a philosophy; a way of thinking, and I look forward to helping raise a generation with that mindset.

CoreyPChalk's picture

I couldn't agree more with this blog. The eight listed steps will benefit the students becoming socially inclusive. Where I am from, last year we promoted a campaign to "Spread the word to end the word". Our whole school loved it, because they were informed on why these students were they way that they were and we have to accept the facts that everyone is created differently.
This is the video we used:

alextobin's picture


I agree that the intent of inclusion is to find meaningful ways for students with disabilities to contribute in activities with their typically developing peers. I also agree that in a "test is best" environment, it can be difficult to include these students academically. However, educational framework such as Universal Design for Learning ensures that all students are benefiting from a lesson by using a "All, Most, Some"pyramid. What about the topic or concept should "all" students take away? What should most take away? For your high achievers, what should they take away from the lesson? Planning this way ensures that students with disabilities are being exposed to the rigor of the academic task without "hurting" any chid's academics or test prep. Research shows that there has been no negative "slide back" from having student's with disabilities in a general education classroom. If anything, reinforcing big ideas and skills with visual cues/organizers is a good "reteaching moment" for students who are struggling to understand.

Keep up the great progression in inclusion!

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