The Actionable Guide to Inclusive Classrooms

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC August 12, 2021

The Actionable Guide to Inclusive Classrooms


What is inclusion?

Merriam-Webster defines inclusion as:

  • the act of including; the state of being included
  • the act or practice of including students with disabilities with the general student population
  • the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)
Inclusive classroom

With that in mind, think back to your education as a child - elementary, middle/junior high, and high school. Do you recall if your school, your classroom, was considered “inclusive”? Was there a special education or resource room? If so, did the students who went to those classrooms also join you in your “regular” classrooms? Was there access to the school building for students with physical disabilities?

Now take a look at classrooms today. One study from 2018 showed that “more than 60 percent of all students with disabilities (SWDs) spend 80 percent or more of their school day in regular classrooms, alongside their non-disabled peers.”

This is a pretty significant jump over the past ten years! Why?

There are many factors for this increase, including awareness, public education on special needs and physical disabilities, and the law - specifically the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that children with special needs/disabilities will be provided with free, appropriate public education. It also protects the rights of these children and their families. This provides the child with rights to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and requires the child to be educated in the least restrictive environment - meaning they will be in a classroom with their peers, children without special needs/disabilities. Of course, a child has to meet certain criteria to qualify.

So let’s break this down a bit.

Free, appropriate public education means attending a public school that does not require the family to pay tuition. It also means that the school and education provided for the child is appropriate for their age/level of understanding. The school will provide services that meet their unique needs and “prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” Additionally, it requires that the child is provided with a general education curriculum.

Unless there is a strong, compelling reason, children should be in a general education classroom; in the least restrictive environment. A child with an IEP, according to the law, should be with kids in general education to the “maximum extent that is appropriate." However, there may be times when the general education classroom is not appropriate for a child, in which case that child may leave to receive special education services in a different classroom to continue with their education.

Let’s also not forget about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”

While this article focuses mostly on students with special needs and cognitive disabilities, inclusion covers EVERYONE, so we must take into account students with physical disabilities as well.

 

Inclusive classrooms

So what does it mean to have an inclusive classroom? Does it mean that all children are in the general classroom for the entire school day?

Not necessarily.

When we talk about inclusive classrooms, we are talking about a classroom that has supports for children of all abilities to be successful and where students can learn together, despite differences in sensory processing, diagnoses, or physical disabilities.

This does NOT mean having all children in the classroom and teaching according to a curriculum without considering the variety of sensory needs and learning styles.

Let’s take a look at some of the features of an inclusive classroom:

  • All students are seated in the classroom, with no one student excluded or sitting away from others.
  • All students have access to the same curriculum with modifications provided to meet individual needs.
  • All students can participate in extracurricular activities, including recess, field trips, assemblies, sporting events, etc.
  • A student is provided with special education services as needed, without disruption to the general education classroom.
  • Students can work together in different groups with peers, despite differences in learning styles and/or overall physical and cognitive abilities.

Often, an inclusive classroom may have extra supports such as:

  • A speech therapist or other provider who comes into the classroom instead of pulling a student out of the classroom.
  • Extra visuals are provided in the classroom to help students with sequencing and understanding the structure of the day.
  • Sensory products and tools are available for the entire class, not just specific students.
  • Specific accommodations for students on IEPs.
    • These accommodations are meant to support the student without providing an unfair advantage over other students.
    • See a list of common accommodations here.

 

Benefits of an inclusive classroom

The benefits of an inclusive classroom are many! Most research has shown that “inclusive classrooms have a positive impact on disabled students' social outcomes.” This includes academic and social benefits. Let’s take a look at both of those.

Academic benefits:

  • Receiving access to the same curriculum as same-aged peers.
  • Peer modeling and peer interaction during classroom teaching.
  • A multi-sensory approach to teaching and learning.
  • Sensory strategies for improved attention and behavior.
  • Increased achievement of IEP goals.
  • Higher expectations from teachers, peers, and parents.
  • Opportunities for inclusion later in life.

Social benefits:

  • Peer modeling and peer interaction during classroom teaching.
  • Learning about social-emotional intelligence.
  • More social interactions with peers of all abilities.
  • Opportunities for friendships.
  • Opportunities for outside interactions, including sporting events and social “dates.”
  • Self-confidence.

There have also been benefits shown for students without disabilities.

  • More diverse group of friends.
  • Acceptance and appreciation of diversity.
  • Preparing for entering the adult world with a better understanding of inclusivity.
  • Opportunities for peer mentoring to build leadership skills.
  • Empathy.

Then, there are the benefits for the school staff.

  • Acceptance and appreciation of diversity.
  • Opportunities for improving teaching methods.
  • Opportunities to learn about different learning styles.
  • Opportunities for collaboration between different educators and professionals.

And lastly, the benefits can even reach beyond the classroom and into the community. When a student is part of an inclusive classroom or school, they develop a better understanding of diversity, becoming more inclusive in their life outside of school.

 

How to create an inclusive classroom

inclusive classroom

The first step is for the educator to become aware of whether their classroom is inclusive or not. If the classroom already has inclusive components, there are likely some areas that can be improved upon - no one is perfect!

Identifying the different students within the classroom - learning styles, communication styles, and sensory needs. All of these factors play into creating an inclusive classroom.

Next, changes can be made, and new strategies and ideas can be implemented into the classroom. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Change the environment
    • This includes colors on the walls - we often associate anger with red, calm with blue or green, so changing up the color scheme may impact students' (and teacher’s!) emotions throughout the day.
    • The amount of visual input within the classroom can also affect students' ability to stay focused. If the environment is too visually stimulating or “busy,” it may be more challenging to maintain focus on a task.
    • One study from 2019determined that “students displayed more engaged behaviors under the LED lighting condition,” as compared to fluorescent lighting conditions. Simply changing the type of lighting in the classroom can affect behavior and mood.
    • If possible, have some classes or lectures outside. We’ve all heard about the research behind nature and how it can be calming - so, if possible, get the students outside to a grassy, perhaps shaded area, to teach a class or subject. Even just being in a different setting than the regular classroom can help engage the students.
  • Multi-sensory approach
    • Add movement to the classroom. This can be as simple as letting the students stand during class time. It can be as complex as incorporating jumping jacks or full-body yoga movements into different lectures.
    • Add music. Rhythm is within us all, and adding a musical or rhythmic element to teaching can help improve retention of new ideas. Plus, it can be fun and motivating - even for students with little to no musical background.
    • Add new scents and tastes. If possible, create experiments that include the olfactory and gustatory systems - smell and taste. We often associate smells and tastes with memory, so incorporating these into the classroom may help improve many areas of learning.
    • Add tactile and more hands-on components. This can include messy play for young children (or even older children!), using clay or playdough, science experiments, etc. The more tactile experiences and hands-on learning provided, the better!
  • Change how information is presented. After learning style is determined, include modifications and accommodations for those on IEPs and those who may struggle but are “under the radar”.
    • More visuals - many students struggle with processing auditory information so incorporating more visuals into the day can help with sequencing, processing, and overall learning.
    • Written lists - this is a great way to help students who struggle with auditory processing. Instead of simply providing assignments verbally, also provide written instructions for the students who need it.
    • Provide more time - if a student struggles with processing speed, handwriting, or other areas that include time management, allow more time for completion. This can include (but is not limited to) more time before the next instruction (so the student can fully process and understand the first instruction), more time between handwriting tasks and/or more time to finish a handwriting task, and more time to finish a project.

These ideas are not the end-all. There are many ways to make a classroom more inclusive, depending on the students who are there. It will vary depending on age/grade level. It will vary depending on the different learning styles. It will also vary depending on the school district and supplies available.

For more resources and ideas, check out the book Inclusion in Action: Practical Strategies to Modify Your Curriculum, by Ms. Nicole Eredics B.Ed.

 

Sensory strategies for an inclusive classroom

Inclusive classrooms should also incorporate sensory strategies. An article from 2020 defined sensory strategies as “any equipment or technique that increases or decreases sensory input to help a student to focus and learn.”

Sensory input is the stimuli that is perceived through our senses. We all know about 5 of the senses - touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. But there are 3 other senses that are not talked about enough - proprioception, vestibular, and interoception.

Proprioception

Proprioception is the awareness and movement of the body in space. This includes the muscles and joints in our body, which send signals to our brain to help us understand where our body is and what it is doing. This also coordinates with our sense of touch - tactile system - in regards to heavy work and deep pressure, such as a hug.

Vestibular

Vestibular is our sense of balance. Our vestibular system is located in our inner ear, which means that it is activated with head movement and head position changes (think of a roller coaster - moving fast and even going upside down). This sense coordinates with our sense of sight - visual system - in regards to understanding where our body is with or without the use of our vision and maintaining balance when our head (and therefore our eyes!) moves.

Interoception

Interoception is our sense of understanding how we feel. This includes physical feelings such as hunger, needing to use the bathroom, and illness.

By incorporating all 8 senses into the inclusive classroom, we not only engage all students in new and different ways, but we also provide specific sensory strategies for the students who struggle with sensory processing.

Learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder here.

 

How can you incorporate all 8 senses into an inclusive classroom? 

Touch (Tactile)

  • Messy play. Using different tactile mediums such as shaving cream or pureed foods (always keeping in mind food allergies and sensitivities) to practice fine motor and handwriting skills.
  • Playdough and clay. These are great tactile mediums to promote creativity and a better understanding of abstract concepts.
  • Small manipulatives. These are also great to include in math concepts.

Taste (Gustatory)

This one can prove to be more challenging, especially when taking into consideration different food allergies, sensitivities, and family food preferences. However, with permission from students families, you can try some of these ideas:

  • Sour food / candy. Intense flavors, like sour, can help increase attention and focus by “waking up” the mouth and, therefore, the brain!
  • Chewing gum can be a great way to help some students focus and attend - do you have students who chew on their shirts or their writing utensils? Try some gum instead.

Smell (Olfactory)

Similar to taste, this one can also prove more challenging due to the wide range of preferences for different smells.

  • Essential oil diffuser. If appropriate, try using alerting smells like citrus or peppermint, or calming smells like lavender, for different times of the day.
  • Change your location. If you’re able to teach a subject outside, this will then bring about some new smells!

Sight (Visual)

  • Decrease the number of visual stimuli in the classroom.
  • Provide visuals for the day - include pictures to match the clock, pictures for transitions, etc.
  • Use different emotional intelligence programs such as The Zones of Regulation to help students better understand their emotions and how it affects their learning and social engagement.
  • Visual timers. These are great for students who struggle to understand the concept of time or who struggle to stay focused on a task. This provides a concrete, visual cue that can help reduce anxiety and increase attention.

Hearing (Auditory)

  • Try different types of music during transitions and various times of the day. If you need your students to be more alert, try fast-paced music. If you need your students to be calmer and more focused, try slow music. Be sure to check out The Listening Program from Advanced Brain Technologies.
  • Add a metronome into memorization tasks. You can download a free metronome app on your phone. Start by setting it to 60 beats per minute (bpm) and coordinate a spelling word or math problem to the beat. This may be challenging for students who are unfamiliar with a metronome or who struggle with auditory processing and processing speed, but with practice it will become easier and can be a great tool to help facilitate memory.
    • An alternative would be to add clapping and/or jumping to memorization tasks.
    • You can also combine the two ideas.

Proprioception

Adding movement into classroom time is an effective way to improve attention and focus.

  • Regular brain breaks that include some physical movement - jumping jacks, yoga stretching, or simply walking down the hallway.

Adding proprioceptive input in the form of deep pressure and heavy work can be beneficial for students who struggle with anxiety and self-regulation. Proprioception is calming to the nervous system - learn more here.

  • Weighted items while seated during class time, such as a lap pad.
  • A weighted vest that can be worn during times of transition or activities that require focus.
  • Add specific classroom “jobs” that include proprioceptive input, such as carrying books to/from the library, erasing the white/chalk board, stacking chairs at the end of the day, etc.
  • Chair push-ups are a great way to provide students with calming proprioceptive input while seated at their desks.

Vestibular

Adding vestibular input into the day can help promote a more alert state. This is specifically for students who are showing signs of fatigue and/or distraction. However, there are some precautions when it comes to vestibular input.

Everyone processes sensory input differently, and this is especially true with vestibular input. Some crave it - meaning they seek out as much movement as possible and never seem to get dizzy or experience motion sickness. Others avoid it - they dislike movement and may become ill with even a little bit. Some process vestibular input “normally” - they enjoy movement, they can tolerate it, and they even know when “enough is enough.”

Some ways to add vestibular input into the classroom are:

  • Yoga sequences. This will typically get the students’ heads in different positions, activating the vestibular system.
  • Jumping activities such as jump rope and jumping jacks.
  • Bouncing and/or rolling on a therapy/yoga ball.
  • Indoor sensory swing 

For students who seek out vestibular input, you can also have them take more brain breaks that include movement and head position changes. Providing them with the input they seek can help their body feel regulated and they can then return to their seat to continue learning.

Interoception

  • Visual schedules for breaks. This is especially helpful for students who struggle with understanding when they are hungry, thirsty and when to use the bathroom.

Conclusion

It can seem daunting to try adding in all of these new strategies in order to create an inclusive classroom. But you don’t have to do them all at once. The important thing is to identify how your students learn and communicate and tailor your teaching to them. Add modifications and accommodations when necessary to provide your students with the opportunity to grow and learn.

If you are a parent, be sure to chat with your child’s teacher to discuss the strategies and accommodations that are implemented in the classroom. It takes a team approach to help your child learn successfully.

 

Additional resources

All Things Sensory by Harkla podcast

The Trend Towards Inclusive Classrooms, YouTube video

Inclusive Learning: Everyone’s In - YouTube video series

Peer Support and Social Inclusion

 

 

 

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L both Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Rachel and Jessica specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Rachel and Jessica are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Rachel and Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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