“Inclusive education allows students of all backgrounds to learn and grow side by side, to the benefit of all,” according to UNICEF. Inclusive learning environments are increasingly recognized around the world as not only addressing a basic human right but also transforming the face of education.
In U.S. schools, the trend toward inclusive education is clear: The percentage of students educated in inclusive learning environments has moved steadily upward in the last decade, increasing from 57 percent in 2012 to 63 percent by 2023, according to Diversity for Social Impact.
Teachers who believe educational opportunities should be accessible to every student can explore how earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Education in Instruction, can equip instructors with the skills they need to contribute to the global inclusive learning movement.
The Importance of Inclusive Learning
Why does inclusive learning matter?
In essence, inclusive learning gives each student a chance to succeed while participating in a community that marginalizes no one and welcomes all. Recent studies show that teaching students with differing abilities together, in regular classrooms and for most or all of each school day, benefits all of them in a host of ways. For example, inclusive classrooms had a 6 percent higher graduation rate overall than noninclusive classrooms, according to a 2023 Diversity for Social Impact report.
When inclusive education succeeds, each student has equal access to a quality education that will prepare them for success in an increasingly interconnected and diverse global society. Some students excel at traditional academic learning, while others may have different abilities that make succeeding in a traditional learning environment a challenge.
Examples of types of differences among students include:
- Cognitive: Autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), giftedness
- Physical: Cerebral palsy, blindness, kinesthetic learner
- Social: Social anxiety, oppositional defiance, variations in leadership skills
- Emotional: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, variations in emotional intelligence
Inclusive learning environments create accessible, welcoming, shared educational spaces that work for all students. In any classroom, inclusivity means:
- Accepting and including all students in the classroom
- Understanding and responding to differences in ability among students
- Challenging every student equally without limitations
The Benefits of Inclusive Learning
Studies show high-inclusion schools benefit both students with disabilities or learning challenges and their peers in significant ways that support academic, social and emotional growth. (High-inclusion schools are schools where students with disabilities stay in general education classrooms at least 80 percent of the time rather than being segregated for instruction.)
For example, students with disabilities who participated for most of their school day in inclusive classrooms scored better in math and reading than their peers who spent most of their school day in special education classrooms, according to a July 2022 Journal of Special Education article.
Benefits of these inclusive learning environments include the following.
Boosting Students’ Self-Esteem Through a Compassionate Culture
Inclusive learning environments welcome all students and strive to show them that they are valued and valuable, regardless of any differing abilities. When a high-inclusion classroom’s culture is compassionate — one of empathy and mutual respect — students’ self-esteem soars.
In turn, students learn to extend an accepting attitude toward others. Thus their confidence in their role as a supportive contributor to society increases.
Helping Students Reach Their Potential
Inclusive learning ensures academic support is available for all students, regardless of differences in their cognition or physical ability or any other differences that might limit their participation in a less nurturing environment. Academic support can come in the form of any of a variety of teaching techniques and tools, depending on the learning differences of each student. Such techniques and tools allow each student to access the same curriculum as their peers, giving them an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.
Improving Academic Outcomes
A recent study found that inclusive learning environments foster better academic outcomes. High school students with disabilities in high-inclusion classrooms scored higher on state math and reading exams than similar students in low-inclusion classrooms, according to a 2022 Indiana University study. The study also found that students in high-inclusion classrooms were better prepared for college and for the workplace than students in low-inclusion classrooms.
Why? Part of the reason seems to be the higher expectations that come with greater inclusion.
“Changing and elevating our expectations of what students with disabilities are capable of lies at the heart of people with disabilities contributing to and benefiting from being a part of our community experience, beyond K-12 education,” wrote study co-author Hardy Murphy.
According to Murphy, inclusive learning environments inspire all students to excel.
Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment
Teachers with advanced training can use their expertise to devise inclusive classroom strategies that apply the latest educational theories and instructional technologies. The following two strategies — establish a safe classroom culture and make learning accessible — are the bedrock of planning and creating inclusive learning environments.
Establish a Safe Classroom Culture
A teacher’s highest priority when creating an inclusive learning environment should be to establish a safe classroom culture at the outset. In a setting where students feel free to share their interests, goals and setbacks with the teacher and with each other, they can also feel comfortable discovering their own paths, challenging themselves and striving for their personal best.
Additionally, encouraging students to form personal connections paves the way for empathy and teamwork. Students who feel a sense of camaraderie are better collaborators, able to work well together to reach shared learning goals. For students who perceive themselves as outsiders, a safe classroom culture allows them to begin to feel free to try, struggle and make mistakes along the way.
Teachers can take a proactive role in establishing a safe classroom culture that fosters respect by:
- Setting clear classroom rules
- Assigning defined student roles
- Recognizing teachable moments and pointing out the lessons to be learned
- Establishing guidelines for equitable and respectful interaction
- Performing regular teacher self-assessments to ensure they’re keeping classroom culture safe
Make Learning Accessible
The cornerstone of an inclusive learning environment is accessibility. Accessibility in education means making lessons and materials available for use by all types of students. In this way, everyone can explore the same content at the same time.
Ways to make lesson content accessible include:
- Giving all students any accommodations and tools they need to physically, intellectually and emotionally access lesson content
- Working to create lesson content that is accessible to all students, such as audio content for visually impaired learners or auditory learners
- Arranging for modifications and accommodations (such as fewer test items for some students) to meet individual needs
- Collaborating with a co-teacher in the classroom, such as a special education teacher, who can help apply specific teaching techniques for differentiated instruction
- Consulting with colleagues — such as speech therapists, school psychologists, educational consultants, or other classroom teachers at the same grade level
- When teachers focus on the core strategies of safety and accessibility, they can ensure that their inclusive learning environment gets off to a smooth and engaging start.
5 Tips for Building Inclusive Classrooms
Teachers can build inclusive classrooms in countless ways, from changing up the physical space—lowering the lights, moving the desks around, painting a mural, for example—to including every student in a shared experience, such as a field trip with accommodations for accessibility.
Here are five targeted tips for building an inclusive classroom.
- Assign group activities that encourage students to imagine a situation from another person’s viewpoint, such as using the cues “I see, I think, I wonder” to initiate sharing of personal opinions about a topic.
- Use differentiated instruction, customizing lesson content to fit individual students’ differing needs and strengths.
- Leverage ed tech. Examples include assistive technologies, such as smart pens for note taking; digital games, such as Reader Rabbit; or software platforms, such as Google Classroom or TeachTown for individualized instruction or remote participation.
- Follow individualized instruction plans (IEPs) for students who have them while maintaining a learning environment that engages all students.
- Collaborate with paraprofessionals who provide students with physical therapy, speech therapy or other services so that meetings are scheduled sensitively. Consider asking for “push in” (the paraprofessional comes to the student’s classroom) rather than “pull out” (the student has to leave the classroom to go to the paraprofessional) services.
Empower Every Student to Thrive
We live in a diverse world. Students in inclusive learning environments deepen their understanding of others who are different from themselves. Their teachers foster empathy and respect while supporting accessible academic achievement for all.
If you are inspired to apply your expertise and passion as an instructor to an inclusive classroom setting, discover how Augusta University Online’s Master of Education in Instruction program can equip you with the cutting-edge expertise you need to succeed, in areas that range from incorporating instructional technology into your curriculum to applying recent research to your teaching practice. AU Online helps passionate educators empower student success.
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ACUE, “Ensure Course Media Are Accessible”
Diversity for Social Impact, Diversity Resources, Diversity for Social Impact, “The Unseen Power of Inclusive Classrooms — A Complete Overview”
The Edvocate, “Inclusive Education: Definition, Examples, and Classroom Strategies”
Everfi, “5 Inclusive Classroom Strategies to Build a Safe Community”
The Hill, “Students With Disabilities Fare Better When Integrated Into Gen-Ed Classrooms”
Journal of Special Education, “The Relationship Between Special Education Placement and High School Outcomes”
Kids Included Together, “A Better Way to Back to School Part 1: 5 Ways to Create an Inclusive Classroom”
News Medical, “Study Finds Better Academic Outcomes Among High School Students With Disabilities in Inclusive Settings”
PlanBee, “How to Create an Inclusive Classroom: 12 Tips for Teachers”
Reading Rockets, Inclusive Classrooms: A Primer for Teachers
TeacherPH, “Benefits of Inclusive Education for All Students”
Texthelp, Inclusive Education: A Guide for Educators
UNICEF, “Inclusive Education”