The vast majority of students with disabilities spend their school days in general education classrooms, surrounded by nondisabled peers. The reasons for this are clear: students with disabilities have improved academic outcomes, have fewer absences, and receive better instruction when taught alongside their nondisabled peers. However, in order for students with disabilities to master general education content, general educators and special education teachers must work together to provide an inclusive classroom that accommodates their needs.

Classroom inclusion goes beyond giving students with disabilities the quality education they have a right to. It’s about providing an improved learning environment that takes into account the unique needs of all young learners. As we discuss the many benefits of and approaches to making classrooms more inclusive, consider what it would be like to expand your role in education and serve the students most in need of your attention.

The Benefits of an Inclusive Classroom

A paper published by the National Center of Educational Outcomes (NCEO) shows that 80-85% of special education students can meet the same achievement standards as their nondisabled peers if given the individualized instruction, appropriate access, supports, and accommodations required by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students with disabilities are affected to varying degrees by a variety of conditions, and only a small group of students, including students with intellectual impairments, autism, and multiple disabilities, require different achievement standards. Even then, these students benefit from grade-level curriculum.

In a paper summarizing the evidence on inclusive education, researchers looked at more than 280 research studies in 25 countries and found consistent evidence that when students with disabilities are taught alongside their nondisabled peers, their cognitive and social development benefited. Although results vary from student to student, students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms tended to outperform their peers in segregated settings.

Classroom inclusion for special needs actually benefits disabled and nondisabled students alike. In order to foster inclusivity, educators have to take into account students’ individual strengths and weaknesses, which means providing students with multiple ways to engage with material, interpret content, and express themselves in class. As a result of their relationship with students with disabilities, nondisabled students in inclusive classrooms also report having improved self-esteem, personal principles, and acceptance of people who look and behave differently than they do—acceptance that can develop into lifelong friendships.

Making Classrooms Inclusive for Special Needs

In order for students with disabilities to achieve academically, it’s not enough for them to share a classroom with their nondisabled peers. In an article by Scholastic, education consultant Audrey O’Clair compares an inclusive classroom to a wheelchair ramp, an accommodation that can help one segment of the population while being used by all. “When it comes to education, how can we make a metaphorical ramp?”

Review Individual Education Plans

As required by IDEA, every student with a disability is entitled to an Individual Education Plan (IEP), a unique document developed by parents and a multidisciplinary team to improve educational results for students with disabilities. Among other vital information, this document covers a student’s annual goals, special education services to be provided, and the extent to which they can participate with nondisabled students. Reviewing the IEP of every student with a disability in your class will help ensure that you are meeting their specific needs.

Create a Safe Space

Students can feel distracted or even distressed by loud noises and commotion in and outside of the classroom. When students feel overwhelmed or frustrated, a safe place can help them regain their composure. A safe place can be designated anywhere in the room that students feel comfortable, whether that’s behind a bookshelf or at a desk in the corner. Some teachers even allow their students to briefly leave the classroom if they feel uncomfortable cooling down in front of their classmates.

Consider How Students Interact With Their Environment

Wheelchair-bound students need to be able to move around their classroom with ease, while students with vision impairments need to sit closer to the front of the class. Ask yourself: how would I interact with the world if I was a small child? Are there enough learning materials, and are they all within reach of the young boys and girls in my class? Stock your classroom with enough pencils, paper, and supplies to ensure that a student’s preferred learning materials are only an arm’s length away.

Differentiate Instruction

Differentiated instruction entails using multiple teaching methods so that every student can benefit. For example, some students excel at reading and will benefit from reading a story by themselves, whereas other students are better listeners and will benefit from reading along with an audio recording. One of the key tenants of differentiated instruction is giving students as many opportunities to learn as possible. By providing learning materials of varying types and levels of difficulty, teachers can ensure that all students have access to learnable content.

Rely on Your Fellow Teachers

Special education teachers are sources of support for students and general education teachers alike. Traditionally, special education teachers would join a general education classroom to assist a small group of students or provide individualized attention to a single student. However, making sure that students with disabilities don’t feel singled out from their peers is an important aspect of classroom inclusion for special needs. General and special educators may take turns instructing students in an inclusive classroom. They may even elect to co-teach a class and foster an inclusive learning environment together.

Making a Difference in the Lives of Disabled and Nondisabled Students

There are nearly 7 million disabled students currently enrolled in the U.S. public school system. The vast majority of these students are placed in general education classrooms, where they rely on the experience and expertise of trained educators. If you’re interested in becoming a source of support for these students, consider pursuing a masters’ degree in special education from The University of Texas Permian Basin. At UT Permian Basin, you can earn a Master of Arts in Special Education in as little as 12 months and advance in a growing field of advocates, educators, and specialists.

Learn more about UT Permian Basin’s online MA in special education program.