Inclusive School

Diversity, Equity, Policy, Promising Practices, Teaching

School Inclusion

Key strategies for the education system to become more inclusive

Settings that promote inclusion are more successful in achieving learning for all, the ultimate goal of education. Despite research and provincial/territorial legislation stating that inclusive education is the preferred system, a large percentage of students with exceptionalities continue to be excluded from the regular classroom. This article examines some of the barriers to inclusive education and presents key strategies for the education system to become more inclusive. By following research-based strategies we will be able to answer yes when asked if we are getting it right.

Given the recent ruling of the Supreme Court against the school board in the Jeffrey Moore case, we should ask ourselves whether we have improved in inclusive education in the last 15 years. The suit was filed in 1997 based on the tenet that Jeffrey was discriminated against, as he had a severe learning disability and was not receiving adequate literacy instruction. Jeffrey was denied a “service customarily available to the public.” According to the Canadian Association for Community Living website,1 the service that Jeffrey was entitled to was public education. This decision should make us all ask the question, “Are students with disabilities obtaining the supports they require to fully participate and be included in education services like any other students?”

Settings that promote inclusion are more successful in achieving learning for all, the ultimate goal of education. Despite research and provincial/territorial legislation stating that inclusive education is the preferred system (see “Inclusion FAQ” for more information), a large percentage of students with exceptionalities continue to be excluded from the regular classroom.2 This exclusion can take the form of placement in a segregated classroom, but it may also result from failing to address the academic and social needs of students when they are placed in the regular classroom. All students need to be provided with education that meets their learning needs.

Make no mistake, there are pockets of excellence. There are some classrooms and some schools that are doing a fantastic job of ensuring that all members of their community are valued and feel that they belong. The question is not whether inclusive education is effective, but rather why it is not done well everywhere. I believe that it begins with making the moral decision to do the right thing – to ensure that all members of your community feel welcomed and included – and you go from there. Special education exists because of a culture of believing that students with disabilities are somehow “less” than those without. It is still a popular belief that students are more or less deserving of an education based on “ability,” yet if we substituted other forms of diversity (such as First Nations students, poor students, or girls), this attitude would be unimaginable. The fact of exclusion has come to be seen as part of the order of things.3 Alternatively, there is a paternalistic attitude that we need to protect people with disabilities. I have no doubt that people working in segregated classrooms are excellent teachers who care very much for their students, but it is time to realize that people with disabilities want a life just like people without disabilities.

According to Slee,4 we need to begin to ask how we build the capacity of schools to grow with and work with difference, rather than asking how we train people to recognize difference and run to the special education teacher for support. The entire system of schooling really needs to change. However, we are stuck in a bureaucracy and we can either accept that and do the best we can within it or give up all hope. Given the moral purpose, I would prefer to do what we can within the system, while at the same time attempting to change attitudes and beliefs about exceptionality and the nature of exclusion.

A wise friend once said to me, “How many places do you have to see inclusion working in to know that it can?” The fact that inclusion is carried out effectively in some schools means that it can happen in all – the moral purpose just needs to come to the front. A recent book by Thomas Hehir and Lauren Katzman, Effective Inclusion Schools ,5 reports on three highly effective inclusive schools in the U.S. and discusses the difference between these schools and less effective schools. By highly effective, they mean schools with a range of people with disabilities whose large-scale test scores are high for students with and without disabilities. The ideas in that book mirror the model of inclusion presented by Canadian Jennifer Katz in her recent book, Teaching to Diversity.6 Her model brings together years of research in inclusive education and presents the necessary components for success in three blocks. These blocks or components together create a school system that is both socially and academically inclusive, in which all students feel a sense of belonging and competence, and are challenged to learn and grow. Block 1 develops social and emotional well-being by valuing diversity. Block 2 ensures that instructional and assessment practices are effective for all students. Block 3 addresses systemic structures and strategies for supporting inclusion. The three blocks are interrelated and together are necessary for effective inclusion. Readers are encouraged to investigate these two books for specific ideas.

It is imperative that we understand that moral purpose and goodwill alone are not enough. Research provides information on how to effectively educate students with diverse needs together in the regular classroom. We must support our education community in implementing good practice. What follows are some strategies from research and practice that help us create inclusive schools. Specifically, we must create community, engage in effective instructional practice, and provide sound leadership.

inclusive COMMUNITY

In order to create a sense of belonging in our classroom, we need to help students with their social and emotional learning. This is an aspect of teaching that is essential to create the acceptance of diversity in our classrooms. Around the world, schools recognize the critical importance of addressing the human need for connectedness with one another and with the teachings of diverse people. Teachers who meet the diverse needs of their students are more likely to have children and youth in their classrooms who perceive school, themselves, and each other favourably.

In a recent comprehensive review of the research literature,7 it was determined that programs that taught social and emotional learning to students provided many benefits, including improved emotional skills, improved attitudes about themselves and others, improved connections to the school, improved positive behaviour, and improved school achievement. The most notable outcome of this review was the identification of common practices found in all the successful programs. The reviewers use the acronym SAFE to sum up their results: 

S: use a sequenced set of activities to achieve skill objectives; 

A: use active forms of learning; 

F: include at least one program component focused on developing personal or social skills; 

E: explicitly target particular personal or social skills for development.

With so many choices available when it comes to programs that promote respect for diversity, it is useful for educators to know that if a program contains these elements, it is likely to produce the desired results.

Student engagement in learning, and in school life, is a critical link in creating schools that truly value diversity, and in connecting social and emotional learning with academic achievement.


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction (DI) are two instructional practices that are promising in terms of engaging all students.

Universal Design for Learning

UDL is a theoretical framework that guides the design of environments, materials, and instruction, to ensure that all students can access and learn from the curriculum. The Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) presents this framework based on brain research concerning the different aspects of learning. According to CAST8 we have regions of the brain that focus on:

  • gathering information and organizing it (the what of learning);
  • planning and performing tasks (the how of learning);
  • and the excitement, interest, and challenge of tasks (the why of learning).

This framework provides guidance on how to make the curriculum accessible by providing multiple means of:

  • representation – by presenting information through different modalities;
  • expression – by enabling students to express their knowledge through oral, written or other modalities; and
  • engagement – by providing multiple ways to keep student motivated.

As educators, we need to ensure that we are providing meaningful learning experiences that motivate and challenge our students. With the diversity that exists in our schools this is not an easy task, but if we continue to try to determine how to reach the students with the most need, we will reach many more students than with traditional methods of teaching. Teachers in schools that are effective (inclusive and have high academic achievement) do not see disability as a barrier; rather they see it as an opportunity to create the best learning environment for all students.

Differentiated Instruction

DI recognizes that if there is diversity in the class, all students will not be working on exactly the same task or accomplishing it at exactly the same time. DI is defined as being responsive to students’ learning with respect to variation in readiness, interests, and learning profiles. Broadly, DI focuses on how either the instruction or assessment is varied for different strengths. In a recent article, Roy, Guay, and Valois9x discuss the development of an inventory based on the research on differentiation. The items provide an excellent guideline for what DI looks like in the classroom. As educators, we can use the ideas from this inventory to ensure that we are broadening our lessons to bring all students to the learning process. Underpinning these ideas is the principle that we do not simply identify students as exceptional and forget about them. There needs to be constant monitoring to ensure that students are responding to effective instruction.

The question is not whether inclusive education is effective, but rather why it is not done well everywhere.

In classrooms where DI is used effectively, teachers:

  • adjust the amount of work required in accordance with students’ capabilities (e.g. number of pages in a story or an essay);
  • provide students with additional aids or tools (e.g. study guide);
  • evaluate the effectiveness of teaching adjustments (e.g. monitor subsequent achievement and progress);
  • frequently analyze data about students’ academic progress (e.g. check for understanding as you move through a unit);
  • use students’ data to make decisions about teaching adjustments (e.g. if reading level has improved, provide more appropriate texts);
  • use alternative materials to match students’ current level of achievement (e.g. if math facts are weak, provide more concrete materials);
  • plan different assignments to match students’ strengths (e.g. write, perform, draw, speak);
  • adapt assessment to match students’ abilities (e.g. write, perform, draw, speak);
  • vary the complexity of assignments to match students’ abilities (e.g. make judgments about a text or summarize, recognize the main themes);
  • adapt the lesson plan format (e.g. present information in a different sequence, give more explanations).

By thinking of different ways to instruct and assess all students, we will engage more learners. We need to move beyond the traditional paper and pencil measures of linguistic and mathematical abilities and determine how students can best learn and then show what they have learned. For example, if a student can tell you how to get the area of a square, but has difficulty writing it down, why does he or she need to write it? As educators, we want to ensure that students know and understand; how they demonstrate that understanding should be inconsequential.

inclusive LEADERSHIP

Without question, schools function well when they have good leaders. From the Minister of Education to the educators in the classroom, all have the responsibility to provide leadership. Policymakers need to move to a system of inclusion, not one that continues to allow for a range of placements. This range of placements allows people to continue seeing regular education and special education as separate entities. By continuing to separate some students, we undermine classroom teachers by telling them, “You cannot really teach children with exceptionalities.” Children do not need to be sent to separate classes or schools for their entire education career because they need extra help with their learning or behaviour. Merely placing children in a special classroom because of their identification labels without thinking of their educational needs is just as ludicrous as placing them in the regular classroom without thinking of their needs.

It is essential that administrators understand inclusive education and all that comes with it. In effective schools, people with specializations work as a team and collaborate to bring their strengths to the students. Occupational therapists, psychologists, resource teachers, and classroom teachers all take responsibility for the learning of the students. If some students need to have more intense reading instruction because the excellent instruction that is occurring in the classroom is not enough, that is done.

Educators cannot continue to be isolated in their own classrooms. Great steps have been made with co-teaching, collaboration and professional learning communities, which enable educators to discuss and plan how inclusion works in their schools. Professional development is no longer about sitting in a seat for a few hours and returning to the classroom. We know that educators need activity-based learning opportunities that include chances to practice and reflect, with people who teach similar subjects or grades. There are creative ways to ensure that this process happens. In larger schools, preparation periods can be coordinated to ensure that teachers who teach the same grades or subject areas can meet once or twice a week to discuss their teaching strategies. In smaller schools, classes can be doubled up and teachers can meet while the administrative staff covers the class. Teaching cannot be an isolated event and good leaders recognize the many ways to help educators work together.

Many students with exceptionalities are still segregated; they still experience negative classroom climates and peer interactions; they are still alienated and bullied; and they still fail to reach their academic potential. The challenge is to equip and empower the educational community with the competence and confidence required to teach students with exceptionalities in inclusive classrooms. This article has provided a few strategies and resources that our education system can employ to ensure that all members of our society are valued, feel that they belong, and are able to reach their full academic potential.

Inclusion FAQ

Q: My child does not have an exceptionality – how will she learn if the teacher has to spend all of his time with the kids with the exceptionalities?

A: Research shows there are no adverse effects or differences in the achievement of typically developing peers when students with exceptionalities are included in the regular classroom.10

Q: Aren’t the kids with the exceptionalities better off in smaller classes with other kids like them?

A: The inclusive classroom environment typically shows more positive (or no different) academic outcomes than segregated settings for students with learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and language impairments.11

Q: But are the kids with severe disabilities really better off in the inclusive classroom?

A: Children with exceptionalities who are educated in high-inclusive settings are in better health, enjoy going to school more, progress more quickly in school, and interact more positively with peers compared to students educated in low-inclusive settings, regardless of the severity of disability.12

Q: My child needs specialized instruction effective for her particular disability. How will she get that in an inclusive classroom?

A: This question highlights key concerns of parents and teachers alike and is the biggest roadblock to inclusion. It is a belief that specific labels can tell us how we should teach individual students. In reality, student needs are as different within a disability label as they are between. If we provide opportunities to engage in the same content in different ways, all of our students will get what they need in the inclusive classroom. The concepts of Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction mentioned in the article are key to all students getting what they need.13

The Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education

The Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at Western University ( has been established to bring together university and community partners committed to equitable education for all. Its goal is to work collaboratively to produce and mobilize research-informed knowledge that enables Canadian educators to teach all learners about including and valuing every member of our diverse Canadian society.

First published in Education Canada, March 2013

EN BREF – Les encadrements qui favorisent l’intégration permettent mieux de réussir l’apprentissage de tous les élèves, le but ultime de l’éducation. Malgré les recherches et les lois provinciales et territoriales affirmant que l’intégration scolaire constitue le système à privilégier, une importante proportion d’élèves à besoins particuliers demeure exclue des classes ordinaires. Cet article examine certains des obstacles à l’intégration scolaire et présente des stratégies clés favorisant l’inclusion au sein du système d’éducation. L’instauration de stratégies fondées sur la recherche nous permettra de répondre affirmativement lorsqu’on nous demandera si nous réussissons.


[1] Canadian Association for Community Living, “Victory at the Supreme Court of Canada on the Right to Education (Nov. 9, 2012), supreme-court-canada-right-education.

[2] Canadian Council on Learning, “Equality in the Classroom: The educational placement of children with disabilities,” Lessons in Learning (2007),

[3] R. Slee, The Irregular School: Exclusion, schooling, and inclusive education (London, UK: Routledge, 2011).

[4] R. Slee, “Revisiting the Politics of Special Educational Needs and Disability Studies in Education with Len Barton,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 31, no. 5 (2011): 561-573.

[5] T. Hehir, and L. Katzma, Effective Inclusive Schools (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

[6] J. Katz, Teaching to Diversity: The three-block model of universal design for learning (Winnipeg: Portage & Main Press, 2012).

[7] J. A. Durlak, R. P. Weissberg, A. B. Dymnicki, R. D. Taylor, and K. B. Schellinger, (2011). “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions, Child Development 82 (2011): 405-432.

[8] Center for Applied Special Technology, Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0 (Wakefield, MA: Author, 2011),

[9] A. Roy, F. Guay, and P. Valois. “Teaching to Address Diverse Learning Needs: Development and validation of a Differentiated Instruction Scale, International Journal of Inclusive Education (2012): 1-19.

[10] A. Kambouka, P. Farrell, A. Dyson, and I. Kaplan, “The Impact of Placing Pupils with Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools on the Achievement of their Peers,” Educational Research 49 (2007): 365-382.

[11] Canadian Council on Learning, “Equality in the Classroom.”

[12] V. Timmons and M. Wagner, “Inclusive Education Knowledge Exchange Initiative: An analysis of the Statistics Canada Participation and Activity Limitation Survey,” (2008),

[13] J. W. Valle, and D. J. Connor, Rethinking Disability: A disability studies approach to inclusive practices (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011).

Meet the Expert(s)

Jacqueline Specht

Professor/Director of Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education, Western University

Jacqueline Specht is a Professor and Director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education, Western University.

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