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Special Education: Promoting More Inclusion at Your 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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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Implementing a mentoring program where high school students with disabilities mentor middle school students with and without disabilities in an after-school program.
  5. 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 ( 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.

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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 (

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daykr09's picture

I am a huge advocate for developing and implementing intentional, effective inclusion in schools. I am a self-contained high school special education teacher. When Dr. Lerman stated "success of students with disabilities in more inclusive settings depends on meeting both their academic and social and emotional needs" it immediately made me think of my students. All of my students are either moderately cognitively impaired (9-12 grade working at kindergarten levels) or severely autistic, their goals consist of very functional academics (reading signs, money, calendar, etc), communication skills, social/behavioral skills, and life skills (hygiene, daily living). Even though my students don't require the same content levels as their typically developing peers I work hard to ensure they are included in general education settings for a variety of different reasons. The first is that being exposed to general education peers increases my students' exposure to typical communication skills. Second is that they are able to see typical social interactions between peers. Lastly, my students MUST gain an understanding of how to function in a "typically developing" world, because after high school the world that they will be a part of is not a "special education" world.

The ideas about how to implement or increase inclusionary practices are incredible, and I am so excited to share both the ideas and this article at my next staff meeting!! Absolutely wonderful information:)

Jessica's picture

I enjoyed reading this post. It has provided me with some strategies that I can take back to my schools. We offer inclusion classes within our schools but the students with disabilities do not feel that "connectedness" to the school and their peers. I have found that not all teachers are prepared to work with students with disabilities. Those teachers exhibit a fear of doing something wrong with the students. It is important, as was said above, that training is provided to teachers and all staff members so that everyone is comfortable in the inclusion setting.

alextobin's picture

Dr. Lerman,

I totally agree that the best way to include students with disabilities in the general education classroom is through social and academic interactions. 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.

I also agree that teachers are not always as prepared to teach this population of students as we might think. It is important to educate staff through in house professional developments (the most cost effective) and staff meetings.

Wonderful article!

Beverly Mitchell Rickards's picture

This is one of the most practical responses I just read. I totally agree that TEACHERS AND STAFF MUST BE trained first. I was at an elementary school two days ago and my heart was broken and heavy at what I saw. I am a previous prek teacher and to see an inclusioned classroom with about 10-12 students with 2-3 being special needs some severely dis functional. It broke my heart to see the lack of discipline or training for those children. Yes, they have two teachers but, those children with severe special needs were totally out of their elements. It was not fair to them nor the typical children. I am appalled that behavioral issues are considered a disability. If children are not disciplined they do develop behavioral issues and become problems in the classroom. I witnessed at this school teaches pacifying or wrestling with them trying to keep the child calm while the teacher with the typical children trying to keep their attention and carry on as unsual. They appeared to be focused on the special needs child. I am for inclusion as one who had a sister with downes as well as my oldest sister being left mentally challenged from a childhood illness. My parents trained and disciplineD them just like the rest of us. They went everywhere we went and could function very well out in public. Therefore, I believe that inclusion is to an certain extent in typical classrooms depending upon severity of disability or timing of academic studies.

JessicaD's picture

I really enjoyed this post because inclusion is key for individuals with disabilities to thrive in school and the idea of implementing disability awareness can be a very powerful tool. The buddy idea is a great one, what if I have a child with autism and they struggle with communicating with others but especially with their peers, does any one have any suggestions or strategies that they have implemented to increase communication between children with autism and typically developing peers?

Ahbez Eden's picture

Inclusive classrooms can greatly benefit both the students and teachers, offering more time to improve the quality of the interaction. Children with special needs require encouragement, love and comfort and this is exactly what such a classroom can offer.

jcchrisss's picture

I think this is great! Still, almost 4 years later, these conversations are still happening. As a special ed teacher, it is crucial for all students to be included. A lot of gen ed teachers don't see the benefits in this and that really bothers me. After reading this though, I do think that training needs to occur for the gen ed teachers! It can't be the special ed teacher telling the gen ed teacher what needs to be done or simply modifying work for the special needs student to be successful. All teachers need to understand how to meet students needs in order for inclusion to actually work.

James Trott's picture

A great read. I would like to add that while inclusive classrooms are beneficial to all students, it can be difficult for the specially-abled student to adapt with ease. This is where special schools come in, which can help prepare kids better and learn well. Inclusive classrooms can be a option following that but the foundation has to be laid down by special needs schools.

Carrie's picture

As an employee who works everyday with students with disabilities, I am an advocate for inclusion. I do however, have those times in which I ask the question of where to draw the line in having a student in class with their typical peers if their learning is being impacted because of a disruptive behavior that a student is displaying at that particular time. We are encouraged not to remove them from the room, as fear of it being positive reinforcement that if they act out they can get out of performing the task. With that in mind, I feel it isn't fair to ask the teacher and students to always be accommodating of this student if it becomes a regular occurrence. I realize this is somewhat contradictory of my claim to be an advocate of inclusion. I am unsure of how to address the issue.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

To maximize the power of inclusion for all students, an effective plan includes targeting the positive behavior with reinforces. But as you know, Carrie, this can be difficult when working fade the negative behavior in a general education setting as disruptions can impede the other students' learning environment. Fortunately, we don't make these evaluations alone, that's why there is an IEP team, including the input from general education and admin. To a certain degree, each school site will clarify what is the least restrictive environment for students, relying on the balance of needs of all the students. The best blend of general ed and special ed expertise can create a joint effort for all.

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