It is all too rare for discussions of school culture and climate and SEL to focus explicitly on students with disabilities. A shining exception is the Inclusive Schools Climate Initiative (ISCI), a pilot project at Rutgers University, developed through a partnership with the Office of Special Education Programs at the NJ Department of Education. Eighteen schools are involved in the pilot project, and each one carries out an inclusion-focused assessment of school climate, the formulation of an ISCI leadership team, and the development and implementation of a School Climate Improvement Plan (SCIP).
SCIP's are unique to each school and include goals and a range of activities that are designed to promote changes or to sustain aspects of school climate that best support inclusion. I am pleased to be able to share what I have learned through conversations with Dr. Lerman, who is the director of ISCI.
Maurice Elias: Why was it important to develop inclusive schools?
Dr. Lerman: It is now absolutely clear that the success of students with disabilities in more inclusive settings depends on meeting both their academic and social and emotional needs. This, in turn, requires a school climate that is a psychologically inclusive space where all students better understand one another, feel safe and supported, have positive relationships, and are more respectful and accepting of each other.
How has the ISCI pilot addressed school climate, specifically to support inclusion?
A key part of improving school climate is to assess. The ISCI is piloting a school climate assessment that is unique in its focus on the dimensions that are important for included students' success. These include: supportive relationships, a strong sense of connectedness to school, the development of positive social skills and pro-social behaviors, workplace settings where teachers and staff have positive relationships and feel respected and valued, perceptions of disabilities, and perceptions of the extent to which the school is inclusive. All students, teachers, certified and non-certified staff, administrators, and parents should have input by completing surveys tailored to them.
How can SEL be used by schools to make them more inclusive?
Some practical ideas for educators include organizing homeroom periods to be inclusive.
Also, classrooms should have programs of disability awareness at the beginning of the school year, and then adapt this if new included children come in later on in the year. This involved education all students about disabilities/abilities, emphasizing everyone's strengths, having 2-3 "buddies" for students with disabilities to make sure they are included and seen as part of the mainstream, as well as to provide them with social-emotional and academic assistance.
These "buddying" responsibilities can be rotated by marking period and extend outside the classroom to all parts of the school building, the bus, and extracurricular activities. Teachers should also be prepared to ensure that the students with disabilities are not isolated. This can be accomplished through strategic seating arrangements and monitoring overall classroom interaction patterns.
Here are other ideas:
- Increasing inclusion in elective classes, such as choir and art, by increasing the number of students with disabilities involved and engaged in these activities alongside students in general education programs. Again, buddying in these specialized classes is a very effective support strategy that benefits all involved. In some schools, servicing as a buddy can be counted as part of school service.
- Creating a more inclusive UNITY Club to recognize and appreciate the differences between people. Unity Clubs usually focus on cultural and ethnic diversity. By including students with disabilities in these clubs, another area of diversity can be addressed. Schools also may wish to explore Project UNIFY, run by Special Olympics, which provides excellent materials for unified and inclusive sports and youth leadership and service programs.
- Implementing a cross-age Reading Buddies program; most often, this is designed for kindergarten and upper-level elementary students to increase their vocabulary, develop their self-esteem and social skills, and enhance their love of books and reading. Students with disabilities can be either the reader or the recipient. In some cases, older students without disabilities read to younger students with disabilities. In other cases, older students with disabilities read to younger students with and without disabilities.
- Implementing a mentoring program where high school students with disabilities mentor middle school students with and without disabilities in an after-school program.
- Developing inclusive Service-Learning Projects so that general education and special education students work together and reflect on service initiatives. Also implementing increased levels of professional development that focus on issues such as diversity and disability.
Also, faculty are often less prepared to understand and work with students with disabilities than one might expect. Use faculty meetings and professional learning communities meetings to increase knowledge regarding disabilities, improved teaching techniques, and better classroom management techniques.
Reviewing content areas and highlight literature at all age levels that focus on empathy, diversity, disability, including writing assignments related to this literature, emphasize key figures in science (e.g., Einstein) and public life (e.g., Nelson Rockefeller, Franklin Roosevelt) with learning and other disabilities, and incorporate into the physical education curriculum an understanding of Special Olympics and its rationale and international, national and state-level presence, and consider more of a focus on unified sports.
Also important: broadening school-wide recognition systems to include students with disabilities. Review and expand how to honor student achievements around civic responsibility and character, positive behavior and resilience in the face of pressures. Rewards can include lunch with the principal or community leaders or first responders or college students.
Benefits and Costs of More Inclusion
The above suggestions are only some of many that the ISCI has implemented, and Brad Lermen is available (email@example.com) to follow up on these and others, including linking interested individuals with schools implementing specific ideas.
The costs are minimal and the benefits are felt mainly in the heart and soul of students and staff alike who resonate to doing the right thing and seeing the sparkling eyes and appreciative warmth of the included students. That said, this work is not an inoculation.
Great attention must be given to the schools to which included students will be transitioning, to help those schools to also have a more inclusive climate. However, as they will soon find, being asked to be more inclusive is at least as beneficial for those providing inclusion as it is for those receiving it.