The COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest upheaval in the history of modern educational systems, but with massive systemic disruptions comes the opportunity to innovate and dream of better schools for all students. When the pandemic is finally under control and students return to school, we don’t have to return to historically inequitable systems. Instead, we can finally move forward with creating inclusive and equitable learning communities where all students experience a true sense of belonging and make progress toward rigorous learning goals.
In our old systems, the students who were most likely to be excluded from the classroom were those who experienced significant cognitive or developmental differences. As a result, when we think about creating truly inclusive schools, we often think about special education teachers and related service providers. These professionals do important (sometimes heroic) work, but in order to create truly inclusive schools, we need to ensure that all members of the school community are part of the team.
Some principals we know use the phrase “100% for 100%”—meaning every adult in the school is responsible for ensuring the success of every student in the school.
But what does that look like in practice?
For most of the last decade, we have been on the journey of creating truly inclusive and excellent schools. In our district of 10,000 students in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, we have eliminated segregated, self-contained classrooms. Every student attends their neighborhood school and is part of their general education classroom community. By every student, we mean every student—including students with significant cognitive, adaptive, and orthopedic differences.
As we worked to build capacity in teachers to make this happen, we have found seven key factors that support the learning needs of all students:
- Effective Physical Spaces
When teachers set up their classrooms for students to return, they should begin by asking themselves two questions:
- “How does the physical arrangement of my classroom welcome students and promote positive peer interactions?”
- “How does the arrangement of my classroom facilitate the engagement strategies I want to use for all students?”
The answers will depend on the age of the students and the subject of the class, as well as the complex learning needs of specific students in the room. And, of course, the arrangement of the room can vary based on the lesson. Some tasks need large open spaces in the center of the room, while others may need the students to have access to the white boards or bulletin boards. The key is to be reflective and intentional about the physical arrangement of the classroom.
In addition to creating warm, welcoming classrooms, it is important to think about eliminating physical barriers and creating spaces for social-emotional regulation within the classroom.
- Teaching Common Expectations
As a society, we often assume that people know the right thing to do—and that some people just choose not to do it. While that may be true in a broad sense, we often forget that specific behavioral expectations can be context-dependent. For example, the way we behave in the bleachers at a football game is different from the way we behave in a museum. The context determines the acceptable range of behaviors and language. And that context is socially constructed.
Most people learn these unwritten rules through observing their parents and peers. But some rules are explicitly taught, like appropriate behavior at the dining room table. The same is true in the classroom. Students learn when to sit, when to line up and when to raise their hand. Mostly, they learn these things by a combination of direct instruction and peer modeling. Many teachers—especially in middle and high school—assume students already know how to participate appropriately in class. In reality, many students have not yet mastered those skills and, in some cases, genuinely don’t know the teacher’s expectations. This is particularly common in middle and high school, where students spend their day traveling between classrooms with widely varying expectations for classroom behavior.
If teachers take time to explicitly teach classroom expectations, and give students the opportunity to practice those skills, they may find that they spend less time and energy battling disruptive behavior.
- Rituals, Routines and Recognition
Rituals and routines can serve a variety of purposes in the classroom. Some routines establish a classroom culture that is predictable, welcoming and inclusive. There are also routines that help students initiate tasks, manage their social-emotional state, and transition between activities. Some teachers will greet students at the classroom door, while others will end the day with a closing circle where each student shares a compliment for a classmate or reflects on a goal from the day.
While routines have a range of purposes, they can also promote community, inclusivity, and equity. They reduce the cognitive load for students. Students know what to do, so they can focus their brain on learning. Many routines come with the expectation that all students participate and provide access points for all students to engage in the learning community. In this way, they also promote status for students who may have traditionally been isolated or alienated in the class.
- Engagement Strategies for All Students
Engagement strategies are not just about how students learn new content. They can also be powerful tools for inclusion.
To promote equitable student participation, teachers need to intentionally design engagement strategies that value a range of student voices. Actively participating and contributing ideas to the classroom community leads to richer learning opportunities. The one doing the talking is the one doing the learning.
- Teaching Social-Emotional Skills
To help students engage in highly rigorous learning, we need to help them maintain social-emotional regulation. And therefore, we need to explicitly teach social-emotional skills.
The first step for teachers and school leaders is to identify which social-emotional skills we want to teach and what resources we are going to use to teach them. This varies across grade levels. Some of the key areas to consider are (CASEL, 2017):
- Social Awareness
- Relationships Skills
- Responsible Decision-Making
Specific lessons and activities help students develop the skills to identify and regulate feelings, build and maintain healthy relationships, use productive self-talk, and engage in effective problem solving. These things need to be explicitly taught, and we need to give students the opportunity to practice these new skills.
And, of course, like any skill worth learning, it is important to recognize that students will learn social-emotional regulation skills at different rates. When a student experiences dysregulation, the solution is not to apply consequences but to teach skills.
- Restorative Practices
Restorative practices allow students to take responsibility for their actions while remaining a part of the classroom community. Taking ownership of the restorative process gives the student a degree of control over their school experience that they may not have otherwise felt. Shifting the locus of control to students is a key strategy to raise status and promote equitable outcomes, especially for students from traditionally disadvantaged groups.
In a traditional system, the students who are most often excluded from participation in general education classrooms are students with significant behavioral challenges. By focusing on repairing harm and restoring community, restorative practices allow students to reconnect with their peers, build empathy for those they have harmed, and generate strategies for managing their behavior in the future.
- Relationships with High Expectations
To help students activate their learning brains, teachers should follow Bruce Perry’s Sequence of Engagement: Regulate-Relate-Reason (Perry, 2018). First, we need to help students regulate their social-emotional or sensory state. Then we need to relate to them as individuals. Only at that point can we connect to their reasoning brain.
We need to pay attention to Achievement Gaps and Opportunity Gaps, but it is also vital to work toward eliminating Expectation Gaps. If educators don’t believe that a student is capable or deserving of engaging in rigorous learning, then we will not create opportunities for that learning, resulting in the perpetuation of predictable achievement gaps. This is true for students from historically disadvantaged racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups. It is also true for students with disabilities in segregated classrooms.
By maintaining high expectations within the context of respectful relationships, we create conditions for students to make meaningful learning progress.
In many ways, these 7 Components are just good teaching practices. Investing in professional learning related to them will help teachers and school leaders alike to create truly inclusive and excellent schools.
CASEL. (2017). Core SEL competencies. https://casel.org/core-competencies/
Perry, B. (2018). Regulate, relate, reason. https://www.bdperry.com/post/regulate-relate-reason
This blog post is adapted from Leading for All: How to Create Truly Inclusive and Excellent Schools by Jennifer Spencer-Iiams and Josh Flosi.