By Catia Malaquias and Dr Robert Jackson
This is the second in a series of short articles aimed at providing some practical tips for teachers to improve the inclusiveness of their general education classrooms.
Teachers readily recognise the academic goals of inclusive education – and accordingly the need to apply differentiated instruction and universal design to teach a diverse classroom including students with disability. However, the life-long social and independence benefits of inclusive education are equally important but are sometimes overlooked.
Social inclusion outcomes are optimised when:
- a student’s peers accept them as a member of their group – as a valued peer; and
- peer connection is maintained through their whole schooling experience.
Academic and social benefits of inclusive education are interconnected – all students, including students with disability, are likely to achieve more academically if they are socially part of their classroom. Further, from a longer term health perspective, students who feel socially excluded and isolated are at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
Peer connection in the classroom is more likely to lead to peer connection in the playground, and ultimately social connection in workplaces, the community and life generally.
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Teachers are central to the classroom experience and in a position to influence the degree and quality of each student’s peer connection and social inclusion.
Merely having a student with disability in a mainstream classroom does not mean that the student feels “included” or is perceived as “included” by their peers. Inclusion and belonging are more about the student’s relationships within the classroom. For example, a student with disability receiving most of their instruction from an education assistant in the corner of a mainstream classroom may well feel and be seen by their peers as the “other” in the classroom. Physical presence in the classroom is necessary, but not enough. Peer connection is critical for an inclusionary “all of us” classroom outcome, rather than an exclusionary “we and the other” result.
Here are some practical tips for teachers trying to support peer connection to maximise the quality of social inclusiveness of their classroom – some of the tips are particularly relevant for students with intellectual disability.
- RECOGNISE THE DIVERSITY IN YOUR CLASS. Each of your students is different. Each student has individual strengths and challenges. Class discussions about difference can foster an appreciation of diversity. Respect for diversity underpins true inclusion.
- BRING EQUALITY TO YOUR CLASS. Each student has the same right to be in your class. Your students will more readily accept each other as equal members of the class if they see you treat each of them as equal participants, valuing each student’s unique contribution as individuals and as learners. Students take their cue from you as to each other’s “value” in your class.
- INCLUDE ALL STUDENTS IN CLASS ACTIVITIES. If a student with disability is regularly NOT being actively involved or engaged in particular class lessons or activities or is being regularly EXCLUDED from particular activities, whether because of one-on-one learning or separate programs, then peers are less likely to see that student as a “full” or “equal” peer. Asking questions that your student will be able to answer, requesting your student repeat another student’s answer or simply using teaching examples that give the student the opportunity to be involved and contribute, each represent ways of enhancing the connection of that student with the class lesson, even when they are learning at a different pace. All students should be engaged in the core class lesson.
- USE PEER TUTORING AS BOTH AN ACADEMIC AND SOCIAL CONNECTION TOOL. The students in your class can help to teach concepts to a student who may require additional learning support. Some students will relish that opportunity as part of, or after completing, their own work. Teaching another student forces a student to first understand the concepts themselves and accordingly reinforces those concepts for their own benefit. From an academic benefit perspective, peer tutoring in inclusive classrooms has been shown to be mutually beneficial to both students. From a social perspective, it also provides the opportunity to develop quality peer connection. Peer tutoring is academically beneficial, socially powerful and personally enriching.
- AVOID THE IMPACT OF A “VELCRO” EDUCATION ASSISTANT. Clearly some students will require a high degree of education assistant support, but that support must be given overtly on the basis that you, and not the education assistant, are the student’s teacher. As the class teacher, providing direct instruction to your student is critical to that student feeling and being perceived to be part of your class. Even with students needing significant support, your goal should be to progressively decrease reliance on the education assistant – whether, for example, by building up “independent learning” time (even if starting from a few seconds or minutes in each lesson) or through substituting some peer tutoring for education assistant support. These strategies also free the education assistant to support and form an assistive relationship with the broader class. Extensive international research has shown that an education assistant closely attached to a student hampers effective social and academic development of the student and sends the exclusionary message that the student “belongs” with the education assistant, rather than to the class. A “velcro” education assistant can inhibit the development of connection between a student and their teacher as well as a between a student and their peers. Further, a student who is perceived as “being mothered” by their education assistant is more at risk of not being socially accepted by their peers. Creating an appropriate relationship between the education assistant, the class teacher, the student with disability and all the other students is critical to the inclusive class.
- MINIMISE UNNECESSARILY “EXCEPTIONALISING” YOUR STUDENT. Many adjustments and accommodations are necessary and appropriate for a student with disability to realise their right to an education. However, most students, including students with disability, have a conformist inclination not to be conspicuous in the eyes of their peers and it is important for teachers to be sensitive to this. The benefit of some classroom adjustments (eg a special support cushion for sitting recommended by a health professional) may be marginal, but the “exceptionalising” cost in terms of the impact of the adjustment on the student’s perception of themselves and the effect it has on the willingness of peers to accept and connect with that student may be significant. Maintaining peer connection is a valuable objective in itself that may not always be appreciated by health professionals or parents. Always consider, including by consulting with the student themselves, whether a particular objective can be achieved in another way that minimises or avoids “exceptionalising” the student.
- FOSTER UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTANCE OF NECESSARY INDIVIDUAL ADJUSTMENTS OR ACTIVITIES. Consistent with building an appreciation of diversity in your classroom, you should facilitate acceptance of any adjustments that are necessary for your student with disability by explaining their beneficial purpose to the student’s peers. Explanations also assist other students to see adjustments as ‘fair’. Adjustments that are understood are more readily accepted. Necessary adjustments are consistent with diversity within the informed classroom.
- SHARE THE EXPERIENCE OF NECESSARY ADJUSTMENTS. When it is considered necessary or appropriate that a student with disability should undertake a particular activity or have a particular adjustment, consider whether that activity or adjustment can be delivered as an experience that is shared with other members of the class. For example, a “sensory” break or “sensory” exercises involving some physical activity may well benefit a number of other students or could be presented in a positive way as a reward for other students. Further, teaching sign language to your class can dramatically increase the inclusion of a student with hearing or speech difficulties. Sharing, by definition, makes the experience or adjustment more inclusive.
- PUT YOURSELF IN THE PLACE OF YOUR STUDENT. You should regularly ask yourself “How would I feel if I was in the place of my student? What would the other students think?” These questions will prompt considering whether your response should be to take deliberate steps to minimise “exceptionalising” the student and/or to foster understanding and acceptance in peers. Testing your class structure, practices and the impact of any adjustments from the perspective of all of your students is an important cross-check.
- LISTEN TO YOUR STUDENTS AND THEIR PARENTS. What is the mentality in your classroom? How do your students interact? How do they speak about each other? Their subconscious daily conduct and language will reveal whether the underlying mentality is “all of us” or “we and the other”.
Steps to improve peer connection and the social inclusiveness of a classroom must be taken as soon as possible – exclusionary perceptions become more entrenched with time.
These “tips” are a few more of the “stepping stones” to an inclusive classroom. They are intended to highlight the delicate concept of peer connection – so critical to maximising the benefits of inclusive education.
*Catia Malaquias is a mother of three young children, a lawyer and the Founder of Starting With Julius. You can connect with Catia on Twitter @CatiaMalaquias or on Facebook.
*Dr Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at Curtin University in Western Australia, a registered Psychologist and a Director of Include. You can connect with Dr Jackson on Twitter @include108 or through include.com.au