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Creating a Positive Climate and Culture: How Inclusive Schools Promote SEL

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 a recent blog, I interviewed Dr. Brad Lerman about the Inclusive Schools Climate Initiative (ISCI), which he directs. Here, I share with you examples of some specific ways that several New Jersey schools have used SEL-related approaches to foster best practices for school-wide inclusion and the creation of norms of acceptance and support.

1. Brigantine North Middle School, Brigantine, NJ: St. Baldrick's Day is a community and school-wide event and fundraiser for childhood cancer. Considerable preparations are undertaken leading up to the event, requiring use of many SEL skills. Activities include a lip synch contest, an eating contest, and a "baldmitton" competition. Fire fighters and police join students and school staff in raising money to sponsor them having their heads shaved.

2. Thomas Sharp Elementary School, Collingswood, NJ: Climate survey data suggested students lacked Disabilities Awareness, and a program was created for that purpose. Kicked off program with an assembly. Embedded in regular class read-alouds, teachers included books about various disabilities. The author of Keep Your Ear on the Ball came to classes and discussed with students the impact of having a blind student in her classroom.

3. Memorial and Thomas Jefferson Middle Schools, Fair Lawn, NJ: Throughout the school year, students with autism and Down's Syndrome are pen pals with students who are English language learners. Their correspondence builds language skills, awareness of cultural and other differences, and culminates in a meeting in May. General education and ELL students work together with special needs students across the district on science lab projects, written pen pal letters, and reading to one another.

4. Mendham Township Middle School, Mendham, NJ: Disabilities awareness is promoted by having each grade level read a specific novel focused on a child with so-called "visible" and "invisible" disabilities. Advisory classes reinforce the messages in the novels, providing time for students to reflect on the characters' strengths and difficulties and how they coped.

5. Livingston Park Elementary and Linwood Middle Schools, North Brunswick, NJ: Livingston Park has had in place an award-winning SEL program, Project Harmony, which exposes all students to peace education, conflict resolution, and prejudice reduction skills. A Family Circles program brings cross- sections of students and teachers together throughout the year on joint projects to create a better sense of belonging in the school. There is also a strong fifth grade leadership program and Student Council that includes students with disabilities. Yoga in classrooms also helps reduce tension and provides regular opportunities for stress relief. All fifth-graders participate in a disabilities awareness program with Linwood staff and special education students involving experiences at five "stations": muscular mobile disability, visual process and learning disorders, dyslexia, blindness/visual impairment, and hearing impairment. For example, students must stack pennies and color precisely with a sock on their hand. At the end of the program, fifth-graders get a bookmark with the slogan, "Abilities Link Us Together" and share what they learned with their fifth grade teachers.

In Your Schools and Classrooms...

These examples are inspiring and should prompt similar ideas that you can adapt. It must be noted that the ISCI does not have as much traction in larger schools and in high schools. And a number of schools in the ISCI still focus on limited projects, such as a "day" or a "week" or two devoted to disabilities in some way, when we know that continuity is essential and that the cliché, "slow and steady wins the race," truly applies here. But they are aware of this and will build on these promising beginnings. And speaking of races, Project UNIFY is a growing program linked with Special Olympics that has excellent activities for all schools designed to bring youth with intellectual and other disabilities together with their peers in meaningful ways, particularly around sports. The website includes detailed information and sample materials.

Bottom line: When done properly and in ongoing ways, inclusion benefits all students including the development of SEL skills. Any school can adapt the models illustrated here without disrupting (indeed, often enhancing), usual academic and school routines.

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

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

Thank you for actual examples of successful inclusion. I once stepped into a program called Peer Friends where general ed. kids interacted with my County class (Profoundly Handicapped) in structured activities; some daily at recess, and twice a week in my Special Ed. class for music. It was one of my most amazing teaching experiences and I am grateful for the previous teacher's expertise in setting it up.

Mary Guese's picture
Mary Guese
K-2 ESL teacher from Postville, Iowa

Thank you so much for your inspiring ideas! I teach in a small, yet extremely diverse school district, and I have been looking for ways to help bring students together. There have been a few instances of "culture clash" and I would like to prevent any more.

Charmaine Thaner's picture

I usually endorse Edutopia, their resources, and the examples of good practices. Not today though. The disability awareness activities shared in their article, touted as promoting school-wide inclusion do nothing of the sort!

Having students put on a blindfold, use a wheel chair, or tie a hand behind their back in order to "experience" what it is like to have a disability creates a false sense of what life is like with a disability.

These awareness activities do not show others what it is like day in and day out to see the look of pity in others' eyes, to have to overcome environmental and attitudinal barriers, to hear the patronizing remarks, and to experience employment discrimination.

Nor do these activities highlight the commonalities we all share, the extraordinary gifts we each possess, or the skills and talents we bring to our communities.

What can well-meaning educators do instead? Value the diversity in classrooms, speak up so others may come to understand we all benefit when every child actively participates in general education classrooms, encourage ongoing conversations with students who are marginalized so we may realize the work we still have to do.

Edutopia, I have come to expect cutting edge leadership from you. Please report true examples of inclusive education. Thank you!

P.S. I know the staff at these schools have the best of intentions. As a young special education teacher I also had students participate in these type of disability awareness activities. But I have learned this is not best practice, especially after having a son who happens to have Down syndrome and advocating for his inclusion.

Mary Guese's picture
Mary Guese
K-2 ESL teacher from Postville, Iowa

Charmaine, in retrospect, your insights on diversity awareness do make some of the suggestions in the article seem rather superficial. I agree that ongoing conversations may be the best way to promote understanding about others' exceptionalities among children. You have given me some helpful ways to start and foster these conversations. Thank you!

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

The comments thus far raise several important questions. The first is about superficiality. The second is about pathways to success. And the third is about the purpose of a blog. First, on superficiality, I may not have adequately said that these were aspects/highlights of the programs in these schools and that their efforts around inclusion are ongoing in nature. The contact information, if followed up, would yield many more details. That said, these 5 were among the BEST of practices that have been found in the field in NJ. It shows us how far we have to go, in that the predominant practices around inclusion are often far less adequate than these. And that brings us to pathways to success. Success in addressing inclusion is complicated. Too many individuals have hesitations, fears, a lack of understanding, and a lack of training. These individuals will not be engaged first by comprehensiveness, and understandably so. Small steps precede being able to walk well, run, and then engage in a marathon. Progress requires confidence, and that is built by small successes. So what may appear to be superficial on the surface can be so if that is the end point, but is not so if it is the starting and learning point.
Finally, the purpose of a blog is to provide ideas and direction but it cannot, by design, be fully comprehensive. Indeed, this blog on inclusion was a follow up to a prior blog about the Inclusive Schools Climate Initiative, in part because this topic is difficult to treat in relatively few words and also provide some practice guidance. I encourage readers to look at blogs, including mine, as springboards to finding the practices discussed in detail. With a richer array of ideas in hand, we can only do more for our students. Particularly when is comes to inclusion, we do have to recognize that while much progress has been made, there is still a very long road to travel before it becomes education policy in fact. That is why I did mention Project UNIFY, which has an understanding of inclusion at a very profound level and has developed remarkable and replicable approaches to foster it.

Mady's picture

I like that the ideas that were presented are great stepping stones to create my own ways to promote a positive environment in my classroom and within my school. Our school already promotes the students to respect each other but finding ways to integrate the understanding of learning and physical differences in read alouds is a great idea. I look forward to using these ideas in my classroom.

Liz's picture

I am in my last year of college, majoring in Early Childhood and Special Education, so I am always looking for things I will be able to do in my own classroom one day. I really enjoyed reading your blog and learning about the different activities schools have done that promote inclusion. I think it is also a good idea to have students without disabilities taking part in these programs, and learning as much as they can about the various disabilities that other students may be dealing with. Did you ever think of this as an anti-bullying approach as well? I feel like as more students become aware of their peers and what they are facing, they may be more likely to stand up for them if bullying takes place.

Linda Lea's picture

I liked your idea about anti-bullying. I was also thinking about multi-age grouping where older students are models for younger students.

chance's picture

I am in my last semester of my master for special education. I am really eager to teach in a special needs setting. I always read up on new techniques to place the room to better suit the students. I feel that there are so many activities out there that students can not use seeing the teacher does not research them. While reading through I have seen so many great ideas to assist and help inclusion students.

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