Inclusive education has changed the learning experience for students with and without special education needs. When K-12 schools follow this framework, special education and general education students learn in classrooms together, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.

To implement an inclusive education plan, teachers craft lessons and assignments to fit individual learning needs. They also develop ways for students with varying abilities to collaborate in the classroom. As a result, special education students get more opportunities to learn alongside and from their peers — and vice versa.

Data shows that many U.S. schools have shifted considerably toward inclusion in education models in recent years. In 2017, 63.4% of special education students spent most of their school days in general education classes, up from 46.5% in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

As more educators engage in inclusive education, they don’t need to follow a one-size-fits-all approach. There are multiple models, techniques and technologies that empower students with and without special education needs to thrive together in an inclusive classroom.

In 2017, about 63.4% of special education students spent most of their school days in general education classes, up from nearly 46.5% in 2000.

Inclusive Education Is More Than a One-Teacher Job

Building a successful inclusive classroom environment is a team effort. General and special education teachers work together to identify student needs and adjust instruction to meet them, according to Understood, an education advocacy organization. These classrooms often follow one of two models:

Model 1: Collaborative Instruction

With this model, the inclusive classroom is co-taught by a general education teacher and a special education inclusion teacher. Students do not leave general classes for special education courses. Instead, they remain with their peers throughout the school day. This format allows all students to follow the same curriculum with lessons personalized for learning needs.

Model 2: Push-In Instruction

With this model, special education instructors are not present in the inclusion classroom for the entire day. They come to class at scheduled times to share lessons with their students. This approach allows for a large team of educators to practice their specialties within each inclusive classroom environment.

Like with the collaborative model, push-in instruction lets students study in the same environment as their peers. This model contrasts with divided instruction, where students take part in special education in a separate classroom.

Collaborative Instruction
A general education teacher partners with a special education teacher, who remains in the class throughout the school day.

Push-In Instruction
Special education teachers join classes throughout the day to work with individual students.

3 Principles for Designing an Inclusive Classroom

No matter the model that educators choose, accessing the benefits of inclusive education requires careful design. Advancement Courses, a K-12 professional development company, suggests following Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework created by the Center for Applied Special Technology. When educators follow UDL, they customize lessons to include various forms of:

1. Representation

Varying lesson formats can promote inclusion because students learn in different ways. For example, although visual coursework may work well for some students, this format is ineffective for students who are blind or visually impaired. Other students may learn best through activities involving movement or touch. EdTech: Focus on K-12 outlines assistive technologies that teachers use to empower students, such as:

  • Text-to-speech plug-ins that read on-screen content aloud for students with visual impairments.
  • Wi-Fi-enabled microphones and other audio technologies that sync directly with hearing aids. These tools help students with hearing impairments take part in lectures. It’s also vital to select video platforms with built-in closed-captioning.
  • Virtual reality (VR) platforms that allow students to explore geographic locations and historical events discussed in class. These immersive technologies are especially helpful for students with cognitive disabilities that limit their engagement with lectures.

VR tools offer another benefit: Students can use them to explore virtual environments together. This co-learning provides valuable opportunities for socialization in an inclusive classroom.

2. Action and Expression

Much like how lessons should support a variety of learning styles, inclusion education teachers should develop adaptive ways for students to demonstrate what they learn. For instance, speech-to-text software enables students with visual or physical impairments to complete written assignments. And the education blog Special Ed Tech points to graphic organizers as a way for students with learning disabilities to visualize class concepts.

Checking a student’s individualized education plan, or IEP, is the starting point for tailoring assignments. That said, educators can refine their approach to activities as the school year progresses through observation, interactions with students and performance metric reviews.

3. Engagement

What motivates students to learn is often personal. Therefore, educators who diversify the structures of lessons may identify opportunities to inspire students on their terms.

Some students crave collaboration, whereas others work best alone. Adhering to a schedule works well for some learners, while changes of pace empower others. By providing multiple pathways, teachers can elevate engagement for students throughout the inclusive education environment.

In an inclusion classroom that follows UDL, instructors provide different methods of:

  1. Representation
    Tailor lessons for individual learning needs.
  2. Action and Expression
    Let students demonstrate knowledge on their terms.
  3. Engagement
    Motivate students through a varied class structure.

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Examples of Inclusion in the Classroom

The ways an inclusion teacher applies the UDL framework depends on the needs of students within the class. Meeting those needs necessitates extensive collaboration between general education teachers, special education teachers and specialists. Consider the following scenarios for how teams can foster success through inclusive education.

A Roadmap for Students With Learning Disabilities

Adapting lessons for students with learning disabilities isn’t a short-term exercise. Instead, educators should map an educational journey that spans an extended period, according to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Include milestones for students to target and flexibility for changing course if the schedule is too rigorous. Students may further their understanding of lessons through coursework variations, such as supplemental videos, VR exercises and hands-on activities.

Supportive Spaces to Promote Emotional Health

According to an Edutopia article by Lori Desautels of Butler University, establishing routines supports students who have experienced emotional trauma. Educators can help students calm strong emotions by providing stations where students can choose to sit by themselves. But these stations shouldn’t be isolating. Instructors need to maintain their presence for students whose emotions affect behavior. Students may not want to talk during these times, so Desautels suggests passing short notes to remind students the teacher is available for support. Teachers can write or record these notes to meet individual communication needs.

Promoting Accessibility Throughout the Classroom

To build a truly inclusive classroom environment, educators must ensure accessibility for students with physical disabilities. We Are Teachers, an education media organization, proposes classroom layouts that provide ample pathways for movement. Consider arranging desks or tables in a semi-circle instead of rows to avoid having narrow lanes. Teachers should also place learning tools and reading materials in spots that all students can reach without assistance.

Empower Students Through Inclusive Education and Beyond

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Enroll in this program to learn directly from one of Alabama’s leading education professors. What’s more, you will pursue a degree from one of the state’s most prestigious universities. Most of your education will take place online, providing the flexibility to continue working as you prepare to advance your career. You will also work one-on-one with a mentor to develop classroom-ready skills and a valuable professional network.