Every child strengthens the literate community
Inclusive classrooms benefit all children. In an inclusive early childhood community children with significant disabilities encourage teachers and their peers to explore novel ways of sharing thoughts and intentions. Through our research of early childhood environments we have seen several examples of situations where children and adults have gained from inclusive environments. Some of the emerging themes which illustrate ways all children benefit include:
Social Justice & Citizenship
Conversations about equity, membership and opportunity for all children are naturally occurring and common conversations in inclusive classrooms. “We all belong” is the message children in these environments hear time and time again. In one classroom, these words are a motto posted on the wall. In another classroom this message is lived by the act of a child asking her friend with a disability to join her on the rug. The idea that a classroom is a community is not unique to inclusion, but inclusive classrooms make the idea real and provide children with frequent opportunities to practice and discuss the idea.
Teachers who live this philosophy assume membership; they don’t shy away from conversing with children about issues of social justice. According to Giangreco and colleagues, "peer support programs can also create and extend 'hidden safety supports' in the schools" (2004, p.88) as one way to counteract the problem of bullying. They suggest students taught in inclusive safe learning environments become more empathetic of others. We believe children who grow up in schools where all students are valued and seen as equal members will learn to respect and advocate for diversity in the larger community.
All students come to situations where they may struggle. Children in inclusive classrooms realize that this is a natural part of learning. Asking for help is expected and encouraged. Teachers model how they handle their own challenges by using ‘think-alouds’. Children begin to embrace difficulties in a problem-solving approach. They are taught to pay attention to their own needs for support and to their own learning styles. Over time children both with and without disabilities come to recognize their differences and yet they see them as ordinary.
There is a fundamental belief in inclusive classrooms that all individuals are communicative, however communication can take on many different forms. Within inclusive classrooms individuals have the opportunity to learn how to communicate with individuals who may communicate in nontraditional ways. In addition, students have access to multiple ways of expressing themselves and understanding others.
Some children with disabilities need other forms of communication than the more common oral/aural or writing/reading literate exchanges within classrooms. Many individuals who have significant communication difficulties use alternative means of communication such as switches, sign language, Facilitated Communication, Picture Exchange Communication picture cards, sign language or Braille. Again, teachers themselves can grow in their knowledge and expertise with using these different forms of communication. For those teachers who are not familiar with these forms of communication, they can benefit from observing such interactions between those who do and they could learn to use them. Typically-developing peers can benefit from seeing the visual representation used in sign language especially when developing language. They are in essence learning a second language, which some research has shown to contribute to later language proficiency.
Literacy learning in inclusive environments is what our research is all about and thus is described in detail in other sections of our website. Literacy benefits for all children are embedded within each of the themes described on this page. Increasingly, studies are identifying academic benefits of inclusion for students with and without disability labels [Baker, E.T., Wang, M.C. and Walberg, H.J. (1994). The effects of inclusion on learning. Educational Leadership, 52(4), 33-35; Fisher, Roach & Frey (2002) Examining the general programmatic benefits of inclusive schools. Inclusive Education, 6 (1), 63-78; Staub, D. & Peck, C.A. (1994). What are the outcomes for nondisabled students? Educational Leadership, 52(4), 36-40; Waldron, N. & Cole, C. (2000). The Indiana Inclusion Study Year One Final Report. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Institute on Disability & Community].
For further reading, see our "Research" page.
Some children with disabilities may use a vast range of technology considered to be either ‘low tech.’ (e.g. color paper preference for easier reading, a tilted writing board) or ‘high tech.’ (e.g. electric wheelchair, voice recognition software, Dynavox). Some technologies provide children with the opportunities to engage in expressive and receptive communication in more sophisticated ways. Typically-developing peers who learn with these children and in these inclusive environments are given opportunities to observe such technologies in use and they, too may directly interact with or use the technologies. Thus, the unlabeled children are exposed to a plethora of opportunities to learn new vocabulary and possibly engage in hitherto unknown modes of communication.
An instrumental part of creating a successful inclusive classroom that enriches the literate lives of all children requires teachers to consider how s/he is preparing and presenting materials. This is what Carol Ann Tomlinson (2000) calls differentiated instruction. All good teaching necessitates this approach to planning, enacting and assessing the teaching and learning process. The process and practice of designing and implementing accommodations can become more evident and part of the class discourse. In other words, teachers can talk openly about the accommodations s/he uses and show how this is a skill or strategy all people use in their lives when they come upon or expect particular challenges. For further reading see Lipsky & Gartner's chapter "Technology and Inclusion" in their book Inclusion and school reform (1997).
Collaboration plays a key role in inclusive classrooms. Students are taught and encouraged to work together and support one another. In addition to students working together, teachers also must find ways to work with other professionals, and educators, to meet the needs of all children. When students with more complex needs are included in a general education classroom, teachers are often provided with the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from regional Assistive Technology experts or therapists as they make use of particular technologies that have been determined essential to a child’s learning.
Inclusive classrooms create opportunities where all students can at one point or another be given the role of a leader or supporter. Conversely, all students can and should be supported based upon specific needs to a particular situation. This reciprocal process of collaboration fosters an awareness and understanding of the diversity that exists within the classroom as well as in the broader community. In a community of learners, students are encouraged to work together and discover ways to support one another. The adults serve as role models and partners with the children in these activities and they can learn from the children as one teacher's comment illustrates: "Let go of the adult worries; the kids know what to do."