You don’t have to be an expert in special education to be inclusive.
The last time I attended a parent-teacher conference, I took my time walking past the artwork on the hallway walls. I grabbed my camera to snap a picture for my husband, but my heart sank when I reached my son’s class.
Amid the paintings of snowmen sprinkled with glitter, his space was empty.
My twins are in second grade this year, and both of them receive special education services. Nick is autistic and fully included in the general education classroom. His services are brought to him when he needs them.
Jay is also autistic. He's mostly nonspeaking and uses an AAC (Augmentative/Alternative Communication) device to communicate. Jay has spent the majority of his elementary schooling segregated from his typically developing peers.
Sometimes I feel like I’m witnessing an unfortunate science experiment. I send two boys off to the same school, to the same grade, often in the same outfit. When they arrive home eight hours later and open their backpacks, Nick proudly shows me all of his artwork and projects, while Jay often has nothing to share.
That’s because separate is never equal. No matter how wonderful our special education teachers are and how hard they work, students suffer when they’re segregated. The purpose of special education is to provide specialized accommodations and modifications. But all too often, our disabled children are missing out on the amazing journey of learning - the creativity, the giggles, the connection.
When Sally J. Pla invited me to write this, my second article for A Novel Mind, I wanted to make the best use of an opportunity to reach an audience that includes so many teachers.
So, in the hopes of empowering my fellow educators, here’s what I want to say.
General education teachers have a huge impact on inclusive schools, whether you know it or not. The more open you are to welcoming all students in your classroom, and the more you let your colleagues know your interest in inclusion, the more often your students will be included. It’s really that simple.
So what might this look like in practice?
1. Create Space.
Many classes have students who are in the general education setting for part of the day, or only during specific subjects. Let these students know they’re a valued part of your community by intentionally creating space for them.
Every student should have their own desks and cubbies, whether they’re present all day or not. Include all of your students in class-wide activities, like the seasonal displays on your doors and the artwork in your hallways. If for some reason they’re out of the room when the class completes them, take the time to ensure they get it done.
Classroom jobs can be a creative way to show your students you value them. Inclusion is about building a community, and everyone has a role to play. One of my littlest friends was very protective over the lunch sticks in his kindergarten class, so his teacher created a job just for him. He took great pride in making sure all of his classmates had their chosen stick and got exactly what they wanted for lunch each day.
2. Take one step at a time.
It may seem daunting, preparing lessons for your students who have more complex disabilities. Jay is one of those kids. The thing I want you to remember is that these kids - and all of your students - benefit simply from interacting with each other.
Children are always learning from each other. They’re learning to trust each other, learning how to navigate the world, learning how to be a part of each other’s lives. They’re learning that we’re all different and the same in so many ways. School is about more than what gets written down on a sheet of paper.
Take a look at your lesson plans each week. Highlight a few activities when your students aren’t usually included, that you think they would love. Then let their special education teacher know you’d like them to participate.
Art activities are always a great place to start. Maybe you’re creating a plant cell or drawing two-dimensional shapes. It doesn’t matter if all of your students complete the project perfectly. Inclusion is about community, and not always about curriculum mastery.
Inclusion is about community, and not always about curriculum mastery.
Once you start looking at your lessons through the lens of inclusion, you’ll naturally find ways to make more of them accessible for all of your students. For instance, you might offer multiple options for your children to show what they know -- YouTube videos, Minecraft screenshots, or magazine cutouts.
Connect with other educators and disabled adults - in your district or across the country - who are interested in inclusive practices, and learn what’s working for them. Reach Every Voice has a fabulous self-paced course on adapting grade-level curriculum for students with complex communication needs.
3. Ask questions.
I’ve found that the biggest roadblock to inclusion is a lack of understanding and confidence. The stigmatization of many disabilities can make general education teachers feel inadequate when teaching disabled students.
As an educator, you’re well aware that all children have specific needs. Some of them may have needs you’re less familiar with, and that can be intimidating. The more time you spend with your students, the more you’ll get to know them. The more you get to know them, the more confident you’ll feel.
Reach out to the parents. They already know what makes their children laugh, what their strengths are, and what topics they’re passionate about. Most of that information isn’t typically in the IEP. Use your student’s strengths and interests to guide your lesson planning. Remember, learning is a life-long process -- for students and educators -- and the joy is in the journey.
Ask your administrators what resources are available. Our district has AAC specialists, professional development trainings, and more to help general education teachers accommodate their students. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in-house, there are plenty of resources online. I’ll link to some of my favorites at the bottom.
Remember that children are children are children. You don’t have to be an expert in special education to be inclusive. You simply need to have a love for children.
Meghan Ashburn is an educational consultant, professional development facilitator, and writer, currently at work co-authoring an upcoming book about autistic and parent advocacy. A graduate of Virginia Wesleyan and a former elementary school teacher, she’s passionate about helping educators and families learn how to better support neurodivergent children. Her primary focuses are accessibility, communication, inclusion, and trauma-informed practices.
Meghan is also a neurodivergent parent of four children, two of whom are autistic. She loves connecting parents with up-to-date resources from the autistic community and their allies.