Tips on Creating an Inclusive School and Why It Matters

Creating an inclusive environment for all students can change the culture and success of your school. Here's how you can get started.

By Team XQ

Inclusion in education has traditionally meant making sure students with disabilities are integrated into general education classrooms to the greatest possible extent. It was a big deal and a big change when our country implemented the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

The law ensured all children with disabilities would have access to free and appropriate education. It offered special education students specialized accommodations and services as outlined in their individualized education plans (IEPs) and a chance to learn alongside their peers.

Today, inclusion in schools means so much more than this. It means ensuring students from all backgrounds—regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, gender, household income, or ZIP code—have equal access to education and services.

Creating a school that is truly inclusive starts in each classroom, but it must also be wider in scope. It requires specific strategies and a shift in culture that is shared and encouraged by the school administration, teachers, and students.

Understanding Inclusion—and Exclusion—in Education

Although the implementation of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was a step in the right direction, the law didn’t go far enough. It left the question of defining “appropriate” open-ended. Lawmakers have since updated and changed the law. The most recent version, known as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, outlines an “appropriate” education in a bit more detail here.


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Most importantly, for inclusion, current federal laws require that students receive their education in a setting that’s least restrictive. In other words, general education classes must include all students as much and as often as possible.

Just as general education long excluded students with disabilities, other groups of students have faced their own forms of exclusion and discrimination. The system once forced black students to be “separate but equal” in education, for instance.

While the laws have changed and are the foundation for ensuring inclusion at all levels of education, exclusion persists. Teachers and schools still struggle to find ways to balance classrooms and instruct and manage in ways that include all types of students. To create more inclusive schools, it is essential to understand what inclusion looks like, especially as compared to practices that are traditionally exclusionary.

  • Inclusivity is a shared responsibility.An inclusive environment is one of shared responsibility between all stakeholders. Schools with an exclusionary culture divide responsibilities between general education teachers, special education teachers, counselors, ESL teachers, and others. Inclusion requires that all staff take responsibility for all students.
  • Teacher collaboration is a must.
    In an exclusionary setting, teachers and other staff remain isolated from each other. They work independently and don’t share information or experiences. When they begin to share responsibility for all students, teachers collaborate. The school environment in an inclusive school supports teachers spending time together, developing lesson plans, co-teaching, and sharing resources.
  • Behavior management should be a school-wide initiative, not individual.Traditionally, each individual teacher is responsible for management of the classroom. The teacher sets the rules and expectations for the room and for student groups. Inclusion requires consistent, school-wide use of management strategies. A school-wide plan, developed with input from all stakeholders, leaves no room for exclusionary tactics by individual teachers.
  • Reaching all families starts with strong communication.Inclusion is not possible if families are not involved. There are barriers to reaching some family members, and to break through them requires a variety of strategies. For instance, parents who do not speak English or who work long hours may require a translator or meetings at times that work with their schedules.

True inclusion involves all adults in the school community, from families and teachers to everyone in-between. This includes support staff like counselors, therapists, aides, psychologists, and social workers.

Why Is Creating an Inclusive School Important?

The legal imperative to provide all students with a free, appropriate, and least-restrictive education is only the official reason to make inclusion an important part of any school community. When schools focus on inclusivity, there are several significant benefits for students that also extend to the community at large.

  • Students gain social and community skills.
    Isolating students in special education classrooms limits their full range of educational opportunities, including learning and practicing important social skills. Additionally, inclusion promotes diverse friendships and interactions, enriching the lives of all students.
  • Inclusive schools experience fewer absences and behavioral issues.Students included in the general education classroom develop better self-esteem. The social skills and behavior they build around their peers help to minimize behavioral challenges and disruptions. When students from all walks of life feel included and that they are important members of the school community, they are more invested in their own education.
  • Inclusive schools lead to greater overall acceptance and tolerance.Students not traditionally excluded in education also benefit from inclusion. They learn valuable lessons about tolerance, patience, and the benefits of diversity.
  • All students (and teachers) benefit from a great support system.
    This creates an opportunity for teachers to get to know their students with lesson plans tailored to students’ needs.

Inclusive practices in schools make learning and academic performance more accessible for everyone.

Collaboration Is the Key to Creating an Inclusive School

Collaboration that includes students, support staff, families, and community members ensures all students are considered and included. Teacher collaboration creates an environment in which learning and instruction are consistent for all students. When teachers have time to work with each other, they can identify gaps in teaching and inclusion and intervene sooner to correct them.

How can teachers collaborate? Take advantage of all opportunities and available times but also build collaboration into the teaching schedule:

  • Make time for collaboration.
    Strategically schedule teachers to share planning hours so they can meet regularly to work together.
  • Break out into teams.
    Create professional learning communities (PLCs), or teams made up of teachers and other staff members to collaborate.
  • Schedule time in everyone’s calendars.
    Mandate regular meeting times for PLCs.
  • Make professional development a priority.
    Plan professional development sessions that allow for collaboration, within and across existing PLCs.
  • Encourage teachers to talk about students they share.
    Teachers can share insights about students they share with one another. This can help them find ways to better support each student.

Include Support Staff, Families, and the Community

Therapists, counselors, social workers, coaches, and community liaisons, and others have unique skills and different perspectives on students who can be useful in assuring greater inclusion.

Parents and families are assets and allies.They provide an important perspective on their student’s needs, strengths, and abilities. When schools collaborate with families, they get to know students better and are therefore more able to meet their educational needs. Being in communication with families helps to maintain consistency in the use of interventions and accommodations and to keep students more engaged in homework and learning.

Here are some tips on how to collaborate with families:

  • Begin the school year by getting to know students and their families.Aim to make contact within the first two weeks, whether it’s through email, by phone, or in person.
  • Use the type of communication the family prefers.
    Try to communicate with families in their native language whenever possible. That means any written documentation, including flyers, reading materials, etc.
  • Ask parents and family members to get involved in school and classroom activities.Encourage them to actually visit the classroom, especially during special events or classroom activities.
  • Offer a chance for families to share their ideas.
    Encourage families to communicate as much as possible. Ask them to provide feedback about their student and discuss areas of strength, as well as areas in need of improvement.

Community collaboration is also important for creating an inclusive school. Students spend many hours outside of school in their communities, working, playing, attending religious services, and benefiting from social services.

Students feel more included at school when their communities are involved. For example, engaging local business owners and professionals to speak at career day provides representation for students who might otherwise see only white professionals. Here are some more important ideas for engaging the community.

Including Everyone at RISE High

Da Vinci RISE High School in Los Angeles serves a diverse community of students and their families. Many students here experience numerous destabilizing factors in their lives: homelessness, foster care, poverty, teenage parenthood, and more.

Teachers and administrators at RISE embrace these challenges rather than see them as deficits. They realize that these students have unique skills and experiences they can tap into that will help foster learning and success.

RISE students benefit from consistent mentorship. The school uses Advocate Counselors, adults dedicated solely to mentoring young people. They support mentee students through crisis intervention, mediation, family communications, and academic issues.

The creation of “arenas” at RISE helps students develop strong relationships with one teacher and a close-knit group of peers. Students meet in their arenas for independent study and peer tutoring. They also meet with their arena teacher, a generalist teacher who can assist students on any academic topic.

Arenas also allow the school to differentiate instruction and study time as needed. Students needing more help in one subject can break away from the rest of the group. The teacher also has the flexibility to bring the arena together as a whole for instruction.

With a focus on meeting diverse needs, mentorship, and flexible arena grouping, RISE High has been able to include all of its diverse and at-risk students in learning.

The Path to Creating an Inclusive School Culture

school culture defines the values, expectations, beliefs, and assumptions of everyone from administrators to students. Inclusion requires a cultural shift in many schools. Here are some elements of an inclusive school culture:

  • Inclusion requires a strong commitment to and belief in involving everyone.
  • Diversity must be considered a positive attribute and resource, rather than a challenge or detriment.
  • All stakeholders collaborate with all students’ best interests in mind.
  • Inclusive schools maintain a solid connection to the community.
  • There is zero-tolerance for bullying or exclusion.
  • Inclusive schools are willing to innovate and take risks with new ideas.

Drafting a Mission Statement

In order to create a strong culture for inclusion, everyone must be on the same page. A clear, concise school mission statement can help ensure that everyone involved understands the school culture and what it means.

Changing Attitudes Through Modeling

Leaders in a school can actively help to change a non-inclusive culture by modeling expected behaviors, attitudes, and reactions. Rewarding school members at every level for positive attitudes and behaviors will also help foster change.

A strong culture grows through repeated positive behavior patterns. By modeling and rewarding expectations, school leaders begin to build that change. Being tolerant and compassionate, including everyone, and not standing for bullying begin to be the norm with repetition.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Addressing cultural diversity in students is important in building more inclusion in a school. Culturally responsive teaching is a tool and style of pedagogy that takes into account the different perspectives and references in each student’s own culture. Culturally responsive teaching includes many of these elements:

  1. Inclusive teachers express a positive attitude toward students’ families.
  2. A welcoming environment promotes getting to know students and their backgrounds.
  3. Curriculum materials must represent a diverse array of cultures.
  4. Instructional strategies allow for a student’s first language but also promote development of English language skills.
  5. Inclusive instruction allows for some student choice in topics and content.
  6. Teachers must take time to reflect on their implicit biases.

XQ school, Brooklyn LAB, provides a good example for culturally responsive teaching with a diverse student body. Eighty percent of the students here come from other countries. And many of the teachers are immigrants.

The school uses several strategies to create a positive, inclusive environment, such as calling a handful of immigrant parents every weekend to check in and ask what they need. Students and their families can attend regular movie nights and potluck dinners. The culture of the school is one of welcoming newcomers. Everyone is made to feel a part of the community with something unique to contribute from their own backgrounds and experiences.

A Focus on Universal Design

Universal design is a concept of creating spaces, objects, and environments that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities. For instance, playgrounds based on universal design have play structures that children with physical disabilities can use and areas that engage those on the autism spectrum.

The idea expands to universal design in learning, a set of principles that improves inclusion by making sure instruction takes all types of students into consideration. For example, instruction is authentic and relevant in universal design so that it engages a range of students. Teachers provide information in a variety of ways, such as visually, verbally, or in writing, so that all types of learners benefit.

Expectations and Positive Behavior Strategies

Teachers may perceive student behaviors as problematic when in reality they reflect their personal experiences. Positive behavior strategies are based on the idea that a student’s behaviors are types of communication.

It is the job of an inclusive school to listen to these communications to try to determine what students need. This allows teachers to adjust instruction, the environment, and other factors to encourage more positive behaviors.

Using Data to Group Students by Abilities and Needs

Education is both a science and an art. There is a place for data in a school community in order to promote outcomes. Using data can help provide more inclusive and productive learning environments for students with diverse needs and abilities.

Flexible grouping is an inclusion strategy that uses data to constantly change student groups. Only grouping by ability level becomes exclusionary and stigmatizing. By changing small groups regularly, inclusion thrives and students have opportunities to learn from and instruct each other.

For example, in a science classroom the teacher may notice from testing information that some students excel at science process and thought, completing lab assignments easily, while others struggle. The teacher may group some of the struggling students with those who excel to complete a lab exercise.

Students who grasp the concepts gain a deeper understanding by helping others. Those having a hard time with the scientific process learn from their peers. Students get support from and benefit each other when grouped in ways that match the data. Data may come from testing, curriculum assessments, or teacher observation and show how student ability levels vary by skill, content area, and interests. Students are more included when groups shift to accommodate these differences.

Here’s how to implement flexible grouping in your classroom:

1Define the learning objective for your lessons as clearly as possible.Giving students a clear understanding of what needs to be mastered by the end of the lesson will help you be more intentional about the groups you create.
2Identify what type of group you need to meet the objective.With flexible grouping, groups of students only convene for the amount of time necessary to develop and identify a specific skill, master a specific concept, or complete a specific task. This allows you to create groups according to need, not level.
3Pinpoint the grouping strategies specific students might need.There are several different grouping strategies and sizes you can implement. But it’s less about which students are in what group and more about students working toward the same learning goal. The group setting encourages students to work together while addressing varying learning needs.
4Plan to debrief with the entire classIt’s important for students to reflect about what worked and what didn’t so they can make adjustments that will help them improve their performance the next time around.

What Teachers Can Do Immediately to Create Inclusive Classrooms

School-wide strategies for creating inclusive classrooms are important. But individual teachers can get started immediately on developing inclusion. Not all schools support culture change or collaboration, but each teacher can take steps within their own classroom to start making a difference now.

Get to Know Each Student and Their Families

The foundation of inclusion is knowing your students and their backgrounds. Take time right from the beginning of the school year to talk with each student and to contact their families. Find out their preferred name, any other languages they speak, their favorite hobbies and activities, and other relevant information.

For students with IEPs, get to know their accommodations and meet with their special education teachers. Push to collaborate with those teachers so you can provide better instruction.

Use Inclusive Language

Language can be exclusionary, even if you don’t mean it to be. Everyone has implicit biases and their own cultural perspective. To be more inclusive with language requires conscious and consistent effort. Consider the perspectives of students and use words and phrases that avoid exclusion.

For example, if you have a student on the autism spectrum who struggles to understand sarcasm and jokes, speak with clarity and avoid double meanings like metaphors and puns. With students who speak English as a second language, watch your American idioms to avoid confusion.

Exclusive vs. Inclusive Language

The guiding principle of using more inclusive language is to always consider the person first, not their attributes, diagnoses, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Guys, ladies, gentlemen, girls, boysEveryone, all, friends
Christmas/Easter breakWinter/Spring break
DisabledPeople with disabilities
FreshmanNinth grader
MinoritySpecific group descriptors
Biological genderAssigned gender
Homeless or poorPerson experiencing homelessness or poverty; economically disadvantaged

Vary Examples for Diversity and Representation

For the diverse cultural, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds of your students, it is important to embrace a variety of examples in lessons. When talking about famous scientists, for instance, include women, people of color, and scientists from other countries.

Establish Rules for Respect and Inclusion

As the teacher, it is your role to set the tone in your classroom, regardless of what is happening in the rest of the school. Set rules and expectations from day one that maintain inclusion and respect diversity and differences. Take a strong stance against bullying, which often arises when certain students are excluded. Rules should be specific and have consequences.

Apply Universal Design

Whether or not the entire school culture has embraced universal design for learning, your classroom can be welcoming and accessible for all students. By getting to know them, you’ll better understand each student’s needs. For instance, maybe you have a student who needs new glasses but can’t afford them. Seat this student closer to the front of the classroom as a first step, while you work to connect the students with the resources she needs. Any changes you can make to ensure accessibility can make your classroom more inclusive.

Inclusive classrooms and schools encompass so much more than special education students and accommodations. To promote success and inclusion for all students, create a culture and specific strategies that represent and take into account every single student’s unique needs, abilities, and backgrounds.

Check out XQ schools to see how teachers, administrators, students, and their families are working together to create better, more inclusive schools in practical ways.