We, as parents, are the experts on our children and the constant in their lives. But navigating the schools years and ensuring that our children gain access to the general education classroom, receive the appropriate supports and stay on the path to an inclusive future, can be challenging and confusing. Access to quality information can make all the difference.
In this Schools For All Guide you will find an overview of what families need to know in pursuing an inclusive education experience for their child – about the law and rights to education, academic and social strategies and supports, IEP goals to help support inclusion and tips on how to proceed in case of difficulties with a school. This Guide also provides links to further reading and relevant resources.
With this Guide – written for parents with All Means All – The Alliance for Inclusive Education and leading inclusive education experts – you can be better prepared to support your child’s inclusive education journey – Use it!
- What is inclusion in education?
- Why include?
- Inclusion and the law
- Developing an inclusive vision and setting goals
- Collaborating with your school to support your child
- Asking the right questions
- The role of families in building an inclusive school
1. What is inclusion in education?
Let’s start with what we all know – ALL children are learners and ALL children are unique.
Inclusive education is not a passing “fad” or the latest educational philosophy. It is a legally-supported, evidence-based way of delivering education that recognises the individual characteristics of all students, offers pedagogic alternatives that cater for the diverse educational needs of each child and respects the fundamental human rights of every child to be a part of their communities.
To achieve success in your child’s inclusion at school, it is important to understand what it is and what it isn’t.
When it comes to the word “inclusion” – you may find the people you are talking to don’t have the same level of understanding about what this means. Put simply, inclusion is much more that just physically “being there” – it’s what happens when you make sure that someone isn’t left out – of the classroom, the learning and curriculum, the playing, the relationships and every other aspect of school life. Children with disability or diverse learning needs are at greater risk of being excluded – so inclusion is all about making sure this doesn’t happen.
- all students included in the general education classroom all day, every day;
- all students working in naturally supportive, flexible structures and groupings with other students regardless of individual ability;
- all students presumed competent;
- students are supported (where needed, such as through curriculum adaptations and differentiated teaching) to access the core curriculum; and
- all students known and valued as full members of the school community, developing meaningful social relationships with peers and able to participate in all aspects of the life of the school.
Inclusion is NOT:
- students only being allowed to participate in the class if they are “keeping up” academically – this includes:
- frequent “pull-outs”;
- working separately in a corner of the classroom with the education assistant while the teacher instructs the rest of the class; or
- students being given a separate “special curriculum” or “program” (as opposed to being supported where needed, including through curricular adjustments, to access the same core curriculum); or
- demonstrating independence or self-sufficiency as a condition of entry.
The United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities has now defined inclusive education to help governments make sure that they are complying with their obligations under Article 24 of the Convention.
This handy chart by The Inclusive Class also helps you understand what inclusion is and isn’t!
Myths about inclusive education
- Myth #1: The general education classrooms won’t provide the support that students with disability need. REAL DEAL: Our laws provide for supports in regular schools and good inclusive practices happen in schools in Australia and elsewhere (eg Italy has been educating ALL students together since the 1970s!).
- Myth #2: Students with disability do better when they are educated in separate schools or classrooms. REAL DEAL: 40 years of research emphatically disproves this myth.
- Myth #3: Students with disability in the general classroom have a negative impact on the learning of other students. REAL DEAL: Research shows no academic detriments and some academic benefits plus socio-emotional gains for ALL students.
- Myth #4: A student can’t be included unless they can keep up with the pace of the general education curriculum. REAL DEAL: Universal design for learning and adapted teaching are about making the general curriculum and learning in a regular classroom accessible to ALL learners!
- Myth #5: Schools include students with disability as a favour, to help them feel part of society. REAL DEAL: Inclusion is a fundamental right, enshrined in international, Commonwealth and State legislation and instruments.
Schools that have inclusive school cultures and adopt structures, systems and methodologies that are aimed at responding to the diverse needs of ALL its students – like “universal design for learning” and differentiated teaching – generally don’t need to make as many adjustments to accomodate students with disability or diverse learning needs because they have already done the work to establish a school climate, premises and processes that assume their participation.
Sometimes it is hard for parents, who probably did not grow up in inclusive learning environments themselves, to imagine how their child can be included in a regular school – this is where speaking to other families and finding out about how they are making it happen for their child is invaluable. Some real stories illustrating good inclusive practice can also be found in this document – “Exemplars of Practice” – released by the Australian Government.
2. Why Include?
School is the gateway to society and inclusive communities start with inclusive neighbourhood schools that value diversity and respect the right of ALL students to be welcomed and to belong – they benefit not only students with disabilities but ALL students.
An inclusive school …
- Welcomes ALL children, regardless of background ability or other “difference”
- Recognizes that ALL children are capable of learning
- Respects the diversity among children: age, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, social status, health
- Adopts structures, systems and methodologies for education that respond to the diverse needs of ALL children
- Embraces its role in promoting an inclusive society
- Understands that education is a dynamic process that continues to evolve to respond to the needs of today’s children – tomorrow’s citizens
Inclusion matters because …
- Inclusion is a right.
- Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the right to an inclusive education as a human right of people with disability. The General Comment No. 4 issued by the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities on 26 August 2016, gives guidance to governments, including the Australian government, about what is meant by “inclusive education” and what they need to do under Article 24. It is an important document that every parent, educator and school administrator should read.
- In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 ensures equal access by people with a disability to education by making it against the law for an educational authority to discriminate because of disability.
- State Equal Opportunity Laws also offer discrimination protections.
- Inclusion is a right.
- Inclusion is best evidence practice for students with disability.
- The case for inclusive education over “special education” models (“special schools” or “education support units”) is overwhelming. Over 40 years of research shows that when students with disability are included, all students learn and achieve more. A comprehensive review of all studies over a 40-year period that compared education outcomes for students with disability in segregated “special” versus regular education environments found that NO study supported better outcomes in “special” settings.
- Research also shows that when they are included, students with disability have:
- greater access to the general education curriculum
- more time “on task”
- more academic gains
- more progress on literacy skills
- increased communication skills
- improved social skills
- more friendships.
- Inclusion is better for ALL students.
- A systematic review of 280 studies from 25 countries established clearly and consistently that inclusive educational settings can “confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities.”
- This includes research that shows consistently that children who share inclusive schools with children with disabilities have more positive attitudes towards difference, better social skills and awareness, less disruptive behaviours and more developed personal values and ethics.
- Inclusive learning environments have also been shown to have a positive impact, on the academic performance of regular students.
- Inclusion is best evidence practice for students with disability.
- REAL FUTURES!
- Inclusion at school is the foundation of inclusive futures and welcoming communities. In inclusive schools, ALL students of ALL abilities, learn the skills they need to live full lives as part of their communities and to build the communities of the future.
Inclusion is happening EVERYWHERE! All over the world, there are schools practising excellence in inclusive education. Countries like Canada have been implementing inclusive education for several decades and in Italy 99% of students with disabilities have been educated in regular schools since the late 1970s. Most developing countries are also on the path to inclusive education.
Want to know more?
“A summary of the Evidence in Inclusive Education“, in depth review of research wordwide, by Dr. Thomas Hehir, Silvana and Christopher Pascucci Professor of Practice in Learning Differences at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Abt Associates.
“Inclusion Works! Inclusive education, research and practice“, Xuan Bui, Carol Quirk, Selene Almazan, Michele Valenti.
3. Inclusion and the law
“We didn’t know about our rights. The school told us that they didn’t think they could provide for our child’s educational needs and that she would be better off somewhere else. We started to feel that it was wrong of us to expect our child to attend our local neighbourhood school.”
The right of children with disability to attend their local government schools is a right protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 established under it) which reflects Australia’s international law obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (see Article 24) and the priorities of the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 which states “The shared vision is for an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens”.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 a school or other education authority is not permitted to discriminate on the grounds of disability:
- in deciding an application for admission;
- in the terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit a student (e.g. by requiring higher fees or accepting payment of the cost of an education assistant or aide);
- by denying or limiting a student’s access to any benefit provided by the school (e.g. excursions, sports or extra curricular activities and areas of the school);
- by expelling a student;
- by developing curriculum content that will exclude a student from participation; or
- by subjecting a student to any other detriment.
Although the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 makes an exception where the adjustment will cause “unjustifiable hardship”, it is up to the school or other relevant educational authority to prove this. As a matter of law, it can be difficult for schools to prove “unjustifiable hardship” even where accommodating a student with disability involves substantial costs.
Equal opportunity/anti-discrimination legislation in each State also applies in the area of education and complains may be made to the relevant boards or commissions.
What schools can’t say
- … we are not prepared to receive a student with disability.
- … we can only accept your child if you help to pay for an education assistant.
- … your child will have a separate curriculum because they won’t keep up with their peers.
- … your child will sit at the back of the classroom, far away from everyone not to disrupt the other students.
- … our “quota” for students with disability has been met.
You can read more about your child’s rights to be included at their local school here.
If you are concerned about a school’s decision, your first step should be to discuss the matter with the school’s principal and ensure that they are aware of your child’s rights. We recommend you check out out the Education Department of WA’s brochure “Talking With My School“.
4. Developing an inclusive vision and setting goals
One of the most important things you can do to steer the course for a successful inclusive school experience and ensure you stay on it, is to make sure you are very clear about what you want for your own child and articulate your vision in writing.
You can then share it with your child’s teachers, email it to relevant school staff at the start of each year and bring it along to every IEP meeting. This is a positive way to start important dialogue with your child’s school – on a note of hope and aspirations.
Your vision should set out your dreams for your child’s future beyond the school years, as well as your aspirations for their schooling experience.
Example: Our vision for our child as an adult is that they will live and work as a member of their community. They will live a life of their choosing and be as independent as possible. They will have developed skills to make and maintain lasting, successful friendships and relationships. They will have a sense of self-worth and value their contribution as a community member.
To support our vision for the future, we would like our child to be educated alongside their peers, to have authentic friendships and relationships and to be included in every aspect of schooling. This means they are with their peers for all classes and for lunch and recess, with the appropriate supports. We would like our child to be seen as a valued and important member of their school.
One of the best ways to imagine your child’s positive schooling experience is to talk to them (and their friends) about what they value about going to school. Asking yourself the following questions may also help you to develop a vision for your child.
- What is my child’s history?
- What are my dreams for my child?
- What are my nightmares about my child?
- Who is my child?
- What are my child’s strengths, gifts and abilities?
- What are my child’s individual needs?
- What would my child’s ideal day at school look like?
- What must we do to make that day a reality?
- What would I like my child to be able to do when they leave the school system?
Your vision for your child should guide the development of the goals agreed in your child’s IEP.
For more information on how to build a vision, you can use “The McGill Action Planning System (MAPS): A Strategy for Building the Vision“.
5. Collaborating with your school to support your child
Effective school-parent collaboration is vital in supporting your child’s inclusion.
Teachers are the experts in the classroom but parents are the expert on their child – working together and regularly sharing information and feedback makes inclusion happen! Teachers and parents say that a collaborative relationship is the most important factor in successfully including a student with disability.
Unfortunately, too often policies, and constraints that schools face make the need for efficiency a priority over true collaboration.
You can help build positive relationships to foster collaboration with your child’s teacher and education assistants by:
- establishing and maintaining healthy and regular communication, both formal and informal;
- providing positive feedback in recognising all successes, and where challenges arise be constructive in your discussions;
- building trust and rapport with your child’s teachers, such as by showing interest in your teacher as a person and seeking out opportunities to help them in the classroom;
- recognising that teachers have your child’s best interests at heart even if you are concerned that they could be doing things differently for your child;
- let teachers know you appreciate their efforts, even if you didn’t get quite the result you hoped for; and
- avoid overloading teachers with reading or requests – highlight the important sections of anything you want them to read or notice.
6. Asking the right questions
You don’t need to know all the answers – but it’s important to know the right questions to ask.
How is my child being supported academically?
Teachers are the experts in the classroom. However, as a parent it is important to ensure, not only that schools are providing academic supports (flexible pacing and grouping, reading and literacy accomodations and support, tutoring, etc -see Inclusive Schooling‘s “Checklist of Sample Supplemental Supports, Aids and Services“) for your child to access the SAME curriculum within the framework of the general classroom but that those supports are based on “best evidence”.
The starting point of providing academic support is “presuming competence” and having “high expectations” of all students. This means approaching every child as as wanting to be fully included, wanting acceptance and appreciation, wanting to learn, wanting to be heard, wanting to contribute – these things are innate to every child but sometimes barriers, such as communication or learning delay, may make it harder for teachers to see this.
Teachers who presume competence place the burden on themselves to come up with more creative, innovative ways for students to learn. The question is no longer WHO can be included or who can learn, but HOW can we remove educational barriers to achieve inclusive education for every child.
If it is determined that a student needs additional academic support, then the nature of the support given should be the least intrusive and provided in the most natural context of the classroom.
If an approach that differs substantially from what the rest of the classroom is doing is proposed for your child, you should raise the matter with the teacher by asking why this specific approach has been selected and make a request to “show me the evidence” (i.e. is the effectiveness of the approach supported by the research?).
It’s also important to ask your child’s teacher whether “pull-out” strategies are being adopted. This is not uncommon – sometimes teachers who are unsure of how to meet a student’s individual learning needs may resort to pulling students out of the classroom at various times of the day. However, research has shown that there are many problem with this approach. For example, it disconnects the student from their classroom and the content that is being delivered and sets them apart even more – in their mind and those of their peers. Another aspect of pull-outs is that it involves making students “transition” to a different setting and back again, which some students may find challenging.
“[Using a pull-out approach] creates a caste system – of students who are capable and students who are not capable”, Dr Julie Causton in “Inclusive schooling”.
It is important to find out whether “pull-outs” are happening and to discuss whether it is possible to give your child the individualised support in their regular classroom setting, including using other methods such as small group instruction and peer tutoring (i.e. class members teaching and working with your child).
Your can find out more in the following articles:
How is my child being supported to develop friendships and peer connections?
One of the main benefits of your child being educated in a general education setting is the capacity for your child to develop social skills and relationships within an environment representative of your local community – the same community within which you will envisage your child one day working, loving and living.
Some children need more help than others to develop and maintain meaningful connections with their peers – connections that are critical to their sense of belonging, enjoyment of school, their social development and ultimately their mental well-being.
Helping children develop meaningful and healthy relationships with their peers is increasingly being recognised as a key role of teachers and education assistants.
If you are concerned as to whether your child is independently forming and maintaining satisfying friendships with other students, regularly ask your teacher about their observations. Talking to other parents as to their observations in and around the classroom is also valuable information to supplement your own observations as your child may not give you a true impression when you are in or near the classroom, by focussing on your presence .
If your child needs assistance to build peer connections, discuss with your child’s teacher what deliberate strategies can be used (e.g. small group tasks or peer tutoring in the classroom and identifying common interests to engage in the playground with class members – because children who learn together play together). It is all about maximising the potential for peers to connect with your child at the level of the individual, for who they are. You can find out more in this article about “Supporting Peer Connection in the Inclusive Class – Practical Tips for Teachers“.
What behaviour strategies are being used to support my child?
Children whose behaviour is characterised by schools as “challenging” need appropriate support. Many teachers are finding that for all students regardless of ability, traditional strategies around punishment/exclusion and reward are not effective or have limited effect and there is also significant concern about the social and emotional consequences of adopting those sorts of approaches (e.g. they can be stigmatising in the eyes of peers, decrease a student’s motivation and connection to the classroom and their teachers and contribute to self-esteem issues and even trauma). Increasingly, research is also finding that these approaches have limited value (see this research and this recent article).
Alternative strategies that seek to minimize the negative impacts of more traditional approaches while supporting individual students and the classroom community and fostering social and emotional learning are often called “positive behaviour supports“. They generally emphasize being empathetic, calming and respectful and recognising the additional barriers and challenges that some students face in school environments.
Positive behaviour supports usually involve acknowledging that at a fundamental level all behaviour is a form of communication and that the beginning of any support strategy should be trying to identify what may be causing or “triggering” a student’s “behavioural” response in the classroom or school context. In particular, it is important to identify what unmet needs or other factors may at the root of this – e.g. look to the functional needs of the student having regard to their environment, the curriculum, the nature of instruction, and the social landscape such as whether the student needs more support in expressing their needs and wants and may be feeling socially isolated – and adopting a “problem solving” approach.
For example, for a student who is receiving a lot of “prompting” from adults throughout the day, they may feel that they have no control and start to “push back” against this, so trying to build in greater “choice” in the classroom to alleviate that student’s need for more autonomy may assist. Some students may have a need to move a lot so trying to provide more opportunity to move within the class setting may be a helpful strategy. Other students may have sensory needs that can be met by having a break, using fidget toys, or changing to a different activity.
As for any type of individualised support that a student may need, it is important to try to provide that support in the least intrusive way and in the most natural context of the classroom.
If your child has challenging behaviour at school and you would like to speak to their teacher about positive behaviour supports, we recommend reading this short article “Calm in A Crisis” by Paula Kluth and “Beyond treats and timeouts: Humanistic behavior supports in inclusive classrooms” by Julie Causton, C.P. Tracy-Bronson and K. MacLeod.
How is the education assistant used to support my child in and out of the classroom?
Some children will need the additional support of an education or teaching assistant and an education assistant can be critical to an inclusive class. However, the research indicates that the manner in which that support is given is important – it can be beneficial or detrimental to the student they are supporting. Most parents naturally assume that dedicated “one-on-one” support from an education assistant for as much of the school day as possible is desirable and what they should be asking for – indeed many parents understand this to be their main role in advocating for their child at school. However, academic and social development support from an education assistant should be given:
- under the considered instruction of the teacher;
- without displacing the primary relationship between your child and their teacher and you and the teacher;
- with a view to nurturing rather than compromising the opportunities for your child to connect with their peers; and
- with the goal of building your child’s independence by reducing “one-on-one” support and maximising “adult space” around your child over time.
This does not mean not giving support or giving less support, but looking at how support can be given and “fading” support as may be appropriate.
Your can find out more in the following articles: “‘Less is More’: The Education Assistant – Practical Tips for Teachers” and also in “Be Careful What You Wish for …”: Five Reasons to Be Concerned About the Assignment of Individual Paraprofessionals“. There is also recent research from the UK about the use of education assistants.
Where does my child sit?
If a child is frequently seated at the back or to the side of the classroom or in a side room or partitioned area, accompanied by the education assistant or for therapy services and in a different arrangement to the rest of the classroom, the message to that child and to their peers is unmistakable – it says “you don’t belong”. It is important to raise this issue with your child’s teacher as soon as possible and discuss inclusive seating arrangements.
Of course if a child is spending substantial amounts of time outside their classroom, for whatever reason, you should also raise the matter immediately.
What about participation in curricular and extra curricular activities?
Being part of extracurricular and non-academic activities with peers is a very important part of the school experience and it can provide excellent opportunities for the development of friendships. It is important for these opportunities to be available to all children and to talk to your teacher about making this happen. If necessary, ask for this to be part of your child’s IEP as a way of formalizing the provision of services or supports that may be necessary to support you child’s participation.
Helping to build the capacity of the education team
Sharing articles, websites, or videos on inclusion with relevant school staff can help build the capacity of the team to achieve best practice, as well as illustrating how goals can be achieved consistent with your vision for your child.
The Australian Government has released a document “Exemplars of Practice” that contains examples of good inclusive practice – each a real story – in developing reasonable adjustments for students with disability in line with the Disability Standards for Education 2005.
Want to know more?
Some good lists of articles have been compiled by The Inclusive Class and by Inclusive Schooling. We also recommend the parent advocacy web video course “Inspire Inclusion” by Dr Julie Causton (USA legal framework but still helpful in the Australian context).
7. The role of families in building an inclusive school
Inclusion requires “… a focus on all policies and processes within an education system, and indeed, all pupils who may experience exclusionary pressures” (Ainscow, Farrell & Tweddle, 2000)
Schools for ALL!
Inclusion is a whole-of-school issue concerned with student diversity and equitable access to education. It is particularly important as a means of ensuring access and participation for students with disability and diverse learning needs given the history of their exclusion from education and society, but it is actually about how schools create or respond to students for whom participation in a school setting becomes an issue, whether arising from disability, gender, behaviour, poverty, culture, refugee status or any other reason.
Is my school inclusive?
School level inclusive practice should be reflected in the school’s leadership, culture, policies and practices, development of support structures, regimes of funding support and provision of and access to equitable learning opportunities.
While every inclusive school may have its own different “look and feel”, the following are common indicators of inclusive schools:
- All students belong as of right – inclusion is not something that needs to be “earned” or for which a student has to prove “readiness”. All students are readily seen learning the SAME curriculum (with differentiate instruction and appropriate support for those who need it), sharing the same classrooms and school spaces, having the same school day (length of day, time of arrival and departure) and having the same opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities.
- Positive attitude to difference – the school environment is friendly and human differences are accepted by staff and student as as natural and valuable and are not denied or stigmatised.
- A climate of student cooperation and effort, not competition and ranking – the school is committed to maximizing learning outcomes of ALL its students regardless of background or ability and students are encouraged to work together and support each other, individual progress is celebrated and students are not privileged or shamed depending on their grades or comparative skills.
- A moral commitment to being inclusive is reflected at every level – in the school’s vision, beliefs, policies, practices and culture, and in strong and engaged leadership.
- School openly embraces its role in promoting an inclusive society.
- School welcomes working collaboratively with families and community to share “learnings” and support students.
Parents helping to improve their schools
While we, as parents acting in isolation, tend to focus on our child, as a collective group through one-on-one conversations, group dialogue, reflection and developing a strong sense of community around the most vulnerable students, we are more readily able to identify common problems and work together to improve our local schools.
The role of parents in raising and bringing attention to systemic issues is particularly important given that the standard of accountability on inclusive practices and on outcomes for students with disability is often substantially less than for other students (for example, students with disability tend to be significantly under-represented in national and State testing and accountability measures and no formal inclusion index or other similar tool has been formally adopted to track how well individual schools are doing).
Want to know more?
See “Leading Inclusive Reform for Students With Disabilities: A School- and Systemwide Approach“, George Theoharis & Julie Causton