Jill Frias describes her first experience working in an inclusive classroom as “a little bit of a shock.” She was a new teacher, and her early childhood class included a student who was later diagnosed with autism.

“I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it,” says Frias, who now teaches an inclusive third-grade class at Forest Home Avenue School in Milwaukee.  

That kind of hesitation is common among classroom teachers. “Having a student with a disability in your classroom for the first time can be [daunting],” says Kinsey French, a special education lead teacher who helps students with Down syndrome (and their teachers) navigate inclusive classrooms at Christian Academy Rock Creek in Louisville, Kentucky. “The key is to be open-minded and welcoming of change, to work together to figure out how to make it successful for all students.”

That’s exactly what Frias did. She sought input from friends in special education and worked hard to not let preconceived notions about student ability direct her interactions. With time, her confidence—and her belief  in the benefits of inclusion—grew.

“Initially, I had the idea that I had to tread lightly with special needs students,” Frias says. “Now I know that they’re capable of a lot more than many people think.” 

Today, more than 90 percent of students with identified disabilities receive education in mainstream schools, and most of those students (about six in 10, according to the National Center for Education Statistics) spend at least 80 percent of their school day in regular classrooms. Teachers like Frias are adapting inclusive teaching strategies to reach students with dramatically different needs—and  finding that all kids benefit.

“The things you do for the exceptional learner make the learning environment so much better for all learners,” says Audrey O’Clair, a Maine-based education consultant. Consider the wheelchair ramp, originally designed for people in wheelchairs but also used by parents pushing strollers and those pulling roller bags. When it comes to education, O’Clair says, the question should be, “How can we make a metaphorical ramp?”

Here are some ideas to help you create an inclusive classroom.

1 | Create cool spaces that work for you.

Flexible seating options—couches, unconventional chairs, yoga balls—let learners choose the alternative that allows them to work most comfortably and efficiently.

One key element in a flexible environment is a safe space, or sanctuary area, that students can use if they feel overwhelmed or simply need time to reset. “We have a desk in the corner of the room that’s stocked with fidget toys and relaxation toys. If a student gets frustrated or overwhelmed, they can go to the safe space and regroup,” Frias says. “I also have hall passes available for specific students who don’t feel comfortable taking that time in the classroom, when there are other people watching.”

To underscore the idea that the sanctuary space is for everyone, Paula Kluth, a former teacher and the author of Universal Design Daily: 365 Ways to Teach, Support, & Challenge All Learners, recommends that teachers occasionally say, “I need a little time to unwind,” and go to the safe space themselves. Such role modeling normalizes the space and decreases stigma.

Be sure your classroom also includes multiple means for students to interact with curricular materials, such as audiobooks, e-readers with text-to-speech options, and print books.

Caleb Prewitt, a seventh-grade language arts teacher in Columbus, Indiana, keeps his classroom supply table (which students humorously nicknamed “Frank”) stocked with pencils, paper, headphones, e-readers, and tablet computers. When a student needs additional materials, Prewitt casually refers them to Frank. This way he avoids drawing attention to  the fact that some students need special materials or devices to help them access a lesson.

2 | Cultivate an all-for-one, one-for-all vibe.

Though the students in your classroom may have diverse needs, it’s important for them to realize that every person there is valued. You can foster respect and create an inclusive climate with a classroom motto such as “We all give, and get, support.”

Getting-to-know-you games such as Two Truths and a Lie (each student shares two true and one false factoids about themselves) or Whip (in which each child shares a few words in response to a prompt such as “Tell me something you’re celebrating”) allow students to learn about their classmates in a lighthearted way.

You can also use interactive games to include all students in discussions. For example, after reading or listening to a story, kids can each share two truths and a lie about the plot or about a character.

Another way to foster community spirit and decrease stigma is to introduce adaptive tools to all of your students. Invite learning strategists to explain the technology to your entire class, and, if possible, let students try and use it as desired. Such sharing helps to get across the message that “inclusion isn’t about what you have to give to someone who’s broken, but figuring out what we all need to function optimally,” Kluth says.

3 | Love your co-teacher as yourself.

It’s typical for teachers in inclusive classrooms to work closely with special education experts and paraprofessionals. If you have a co-teacher, “it’s important everyone understand that the teachers are equals. It’s not head teacher and assistant,” says Barbara Boroson, author of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom. Both teachers should work with all students and interact with families, and both teachers’ names should be included in school communications.

Cassie Perkins and Amy Losacker co-teach math at Fox Prairie Elementary School in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Perkins is a fifth-grade teacher; Losacker is a learning strategist with a background in special education. They take turns leading the class and providing individual and small group support. “When we first started, we would divide up parts of the lesson that Amy would lead and parts I would lead. Now we don’t specifically divide them; we both know the lessons and share the information with the kids on a daily basis,” Perkins says.

If you have a student with an assigned aide, let the aide know it’s okay to assist only as needed. Particularly in middle school, many students are self-conscious about appearing different, so explicitly tell aides that it may be better to sit nearby (rather than next to) the student, and to jump in only if the child is struggling or asks for help.

4 | Have fun with differentiation.

To get an idea of your students’ unique strengths and challenges, invite each of them to record a one-minute introduction that tells you who they are, what they like, and what their favorite ways to learn are. (They can share their videos with the class, as another way to build community.) You can use this, as well as any information gathered from IEPs and 504 plans, to begin differentiating instruction.

The easiest way to meet the needs of a diverse class of learners is to simply write down all of the accommodations listed on students’ IEPs and “adopt them as classroom commandments,” O’Clair, the education consultant, says. Instead of only offering extra time or an amplification system to certain students, make such adjustments available to all. You’ll save a ton of time and mental energy—and likely find that some students without identified special needs perform better with access to accommodations!

To effectively differentiate instruction, clarify the goal of each lesson, and give students multiple options to access info and share learning. The mnemonic MARSH can help: M = make it, A = act it, R = read about it, S = see it, H = hear it. It can seem overwhelming to provide five or more ways to access every lesson, so add options as you’re able. “I give students lots of opportunities to show me they have learned the specific skill,” Frias says.

When Jennifer Pusateri, an education consultant at the Kentucky Department of Education who specializes in differentiation and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), was teaching third grade, she worked with a student who despised writing. “He’d write maybe 10 words, maximum, but was a very gifted artist,” Pusateri says. After the class completed a unit about ecosystems, they decided to create a newspaper to share their learning.

“We talked about the different parts of a newspaper—stories, advertisements, cartoons—and I let the students each pick how they’d contribute,” she says. The boy who hated writing but loved drawing created an incredibly detailed comic strip—and one of her students who normally shied away from writing wrote a huge article about sharks because he was into sharks.

“In giving all students variety and the option to choose how to express their learning, kids had the opportunity for in-depth experiences,” says Pusateri. That’s what inclusion is all about—more opportunities for everyone to learn and succeed. 


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Illustration: James Yang