What is an Inclusive Learning Environment?

Misty Hance
Misty Hance
Assistant Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in School Leadership, Carson-Newman University, TN

It is the goal of educators to provide instruction for all students in their least restrictive environment. In fact, this is a requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.). This law was written to ensure that all students with disabilities receive an education that meets their needs while allowing them opportunities to interact and engage with non-disabled peers as much as possible.

In the past, students with disabilities were mainstreamed into the general education setting, expected to learn at the same pace and level. Although the intention was good, students often lacked the support to progress successfully. In an attempt to provide a more equal education to all students, teachers are turning to an inclusive learning environment.

What is an Inclusive Learning Environment?

What makes an inclusive learning environment different from the previous mainstreaming is the ability to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of every learner, whether it is those who learn at a slower rate or those gifted students who benefit from enrichment activities. Even in a typical general education classroom, students progress on many different learning levels. In order to meet the needs of every learner, the teacher must provide activities and lessons which meet the same standards with varied strategies and methods.

Inclusive instruction not only reaches students who learn at different rates, it also addresses the variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds found in American schools. It infuses the entire gamut of learners and ensures progress for each student.

The Importance of Inclusive Learning

Because every child has the ability to learn and the right to reach their highest potential, an inclusive learning environment is vital. An inclusive learning environment is less focused on the teacher and formal instruction and more focused on the learning that is taking place. It is student-centered.

This is important because research has shown that children do not all learn the same way. Some learn through the use of pictures, graphs, and images, while others learn best through auditory means. Some students need hands-on activities that allow them to manipulate and grasp materials for better processing of new skills. We are learning more about sensory needs of students, and the need for sensory input while learning is crucial for these students. This on-going research discloses the importance of continually learning about student needs and implementing instructional strategies to help each child learn.

Being open to finding what works best for each child and adjusting the instruction so that everyone has a chance to meet their needs is a primary focus in the inclusive learning environment. It is a way of finding different ways of teaching so that each child is engaged in rigorous activities by which they can grow and understand new skills and concepts.

Finally, an inclusive learning environment is a winning solution for all students. It helps to shape one’s tolerance and acceptance of those different from oneself. Children learn to accept their own strengths and work to improve their weaknesses.

How to Create an Inclusive Classroom

While the goal of an inclusive classroom is to find what works for the students within the instructional setting, there are a few general accommodations which can be made to prepare the teacher and ensure an inclusive environment exists.

  • Build Relationships – One of the most important ways to guarantee the inclusive classroom will be successful is to get to know the students and build positive relationships with each child. This may come in the form of informal surveys to find out how students learn best, observations of classroom interactions, or one-on-one conversations to get to know the students’ needs.
  • Provide Rigorous Activities for Each Level – Long gone are the days that we sat a child to the side with a coloring sheet while everyone else worked on reading because they child struggled to hear, see, or comprehend. As educators, we must embrace the fact that each child can learn, and we must provide high expectations for all. This does not mean that all students will be able to work at the same level. It is more about meeting the needs of the child and helping them reach farther in their academic journey.
  • Provide Opportunities for Collaborative Learning – One of the best ways to reach a variety of learners is through small group, interactive centers. These can be grouped by ability so students with like-abilities have the chance to grow at their own rate, or mixed-ability grouped so that students can learn from one another. The skill and activity will help determine which is best for each situation. The goal is to allow students time to collaborate and share ideas.
  • Allow Support – What makes inclusive classrooms different from mainstreamed is the allowance of support staff who come into the room to work with small groups of children. It is a fact that students learn more in lower teacher-to-student ratios. When teachers team-teach or allow assistants to work with small clusters, group size is reduced and everyone benefits.
  • Allow Mistakes – All students within the classroom must understand and accept that mistakes are for learning and will be tolerated as long as the child makes an attempt to learn from the mistake.

Inclusive learning classrooms provide support for students’ individual learning needs. When teachers recognize that all students are capable of learning and understand the importance of providing a quality education for all learners, then they are able to implement accommodations that helps each child find academic success.

graduate program favicon

Looking for a graduate program?