Inclusive education has been at the forefront of every school and system leader’s purview for the past number of years. It has had a wide ranging impact on leaders, from having very little influence on thinking to a significant shift of perspective, moving from traditional special education practices to a more contemporary approach of learning for all.
Shining a light on inclusive education has prompted leaders to reflect on their beliefs about student learning and how to create a culture of meaningful inclusion within their schools and districts. Inclusion has been both encouraged and mandated by provincial governments, with most departments of education providing philosophical statements of inclusion and accompanying guidelines or frameworks for schools and districts to follow. Yet, there is a vastly diverse understanding of what inclusive education really means and, further still, a widening spectrum of how inclusive practices are implemented within schools and districts.
It is commonly perceived that inclusive education refers solely to students with significantly diverse needs who receive additional supports through some type of identification system, such as special education coding, a include them within the regular classroom setting. This approach to supporting students with diverse needs typically results in students receiving differentiated programming planned by the classroom teacher and sometimes supported by the educational assistant.
This model often results in a deficit approach, both for students receiving the programming and the educators who are developing and delivering the instruction. Often staff with the least amount of training are expected to deliver the most complex programming with few professional supports. Teachers may have little to no experience and/or training with programming for students with diverse needs. We also know that all students have unique differences, and therefore, require varied programming, which means that teachers must dig deep into their toolbox of strategies and resources to appropriately support students new to their classroom each year. This results in educators feeling isolated and frustrated with the responsibility of providing an effective program for one or more students with diverse needs in their classroom. That said, there are many teachers and educational assistants who have extensive experience with supporting students with diverse needs, resulting in the student and their family feeling very satisfied with the services and programming received. This approach to supporting inclusion results in a ‘lottery system’ for students - some will win and some will lose with respect to their programming. As Bruce Uditsky, Chief Executive Officer of Inclusion Canada, states, “In many schools when a welcoming teacher or principal changes, inclusive education might vanish and any history of having provided inclusion in the past erased from a school’s memory.” (2018)
School and system leaders have the opportunity to change this story of students winning or losing the inclusive lottery. They may lead this change by revisiting the foundational beliefs of what inclusion means and adopting a perspective of embracing diversity among staff, students and families. Alberta Education went through a process of revisioning beliefs around supporting students with diverse needs which resulted in a statement in the Alberta Education 2015-16 Guide to Education: ECS to Grade 12 which views inclusion as a values-based approach to accepting all students,
“... regardless of race, religious belief, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical disability, mental disability, family status or sexual orientation, or any other factor(s), have access to meaningful and relevant learning experiences that include appropriate instructional supports.” (2015-16 Guide to Education: ECS to Grade 12, page 25)
With this perspective of what inclusion encompasses, the traditional approach of relying solely on specialized school or district programs for students with significantly diverse needs no longer meets the mandate of the provincial government nor does it adequately meet the needs of all students.
How then can school and system leaders create environments that meaningfully include all students?
A systematic approach of developing processes, procedures and structures along with collaborative teams collectively supporting students provides a sustainable, effective, and efficient model of supporting all students.
This means that schools and districts may design a systemic approach to developing a common vision of a responsive inclusive culture for their organization. This is accomplished by:
- Collaboratively developing a common vision, mission, values and commitments supporting learning for all,
- Developing a strategic plan of how to establish an inclusive culture of learning,
- Creating a communication plan for sharing information and receiving feedback as inclusive practices are implemented and maintained in the organization,
- Developing inclusive teams at the school and district level to ensure coordination and a fluid system of supports,
- Establishing clearly defined roles and responsibilities for staff at all levels of the organization,
- Establishing a continuum or layering of collaborative teams that provide supports and services to meet the diverse needs of students and their families. The layering of teams is described in greater detail by Lorna Hewson, Lead Learner with Jigsaw Learning, in her blog Scaffolding our Collaborative Response: Purposeful Layering of Team Meetings
- Engaging with community partners to collaboratively provide supports to students and their families
- Ensuring access to resources that support specialized programming for students with complex needs and personnel who can support the implementation and monitoring of specialized programming
- Creating a comprehensive professional learning plan to:
- engage school and district leaders with growing their understanding of leading a responsive inclusive culture and implementing effective structures, processes and procedures;
- support school staff with reflecting on their beliefs and values of inclusion;
- provide explicit training for differentiated instruction;
- provide training to staff for the implementation and delivery of specialized programming;
- support staff with creating meaningful individual program plans.
Leading responsive inclusive cultures at the school and system levels is complex work. It requires thoughtful reflection of the local context. It requires leaders to plan for sustainable supports for students and their families that transcend their position and the position of other leaders in the organization. Having system wide structures, processes and procedures that are supported through the establishment of collaborative teams is a sustainable, effective approach to ensuring a responsive inclusive culture.
Alberta Education (2015). 2015-16 Guide to Education: ECS to grade 12, page 25. Retrieved from https://www.alberta.ca/inclusive-education.aspx
Hewson, L. (2020). Scaffolding our Collaborative Response: Purposeful layering of team meetings. Retrieved from https://www.jigsawlearning.ca/publications/blog-posts/scaffolding-our-collaborative-response-purposeful-layering-tUditsky, B. (2018). The Inclusion Lottery: A game of chance with a child’s education. Retrieved from https://inclusiveeducation.ca/2018/03/19/the-inclusion-lottery-a-game-of-chance-with-a-childs-education/