'To be inclusive, we need to put all students in the shoes of a child with SEND'

To make classrooms truly inclusive, we need to teach students about what it means to have special educational needs or disabilities, argues a social studies teacher from America

Greg McGrath

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When designing an inclusive curriculum, we can sometimes overlook one important thing: educating our students about special educational needs and disabilities.

You can have the best differentiated lesson plans in the world, but students with disabilities will never feel part of the community if their peers are resistant to accepting people who are different to them. That’s why I believe that effective inclusion must start with explicitly teaching students about what it is like to have special educational needs.

Let me be clear: at no point should you ever talk about a specific student and their disability in your classroom. But you can teach more generally about the differences between people and the conditions that can cause some people to find everyday activities more challenging.

Start by creating a weekly community-building lesson. If there is no space for this in your already squeezed schedule, it could be delivered as an assembly or during tutor time. It’s really important for there to be a regular, established time to talk about building an inclusive classroom community, where you can safely discuss topics such as building character, being an upstanding citizen, race, bullying, respect and disabilities.

Many schools already deliver regular PSHE sessions that cover these issues. In this case, make sure that learning about disabilities and educational needs is integrated into your PSHE.

How do we 'teach' inclusion?

The variation in how people learn is a great springboard for talking about differences. No two learners are alike ─ whether they have a disability or not. Stress that disabilities and special educational needs can be visible or hidden, and that everyone deserves to be a part of the learning community regardless of their needs.

Use a video to prompt discussion. For example, ‘Bella and Terra’ is a short news story about an elephant and a dog that have formed an unlikely friendship, and ‘Like Everyone Else’ shows children and parents talking about disability awareness. Both are available for free on YouTube.


You can also try an activity that will help students to experience, on a very basic level, what it might feel like to have learning disabilities.

Give one student an abstract shape and ask them to describe to another student how to draw it, without letting their partner see the picture for themselves. Or, display a series of colour names printed in different colours to the ones they denote (the word “red” printed in a blue font, for example). Ask students to read the words, ignoring the font colour. They may find this quite tricky to do and it will help them to empathise with people who find reading a daily challenge.

However you go about it is up to you, but we must teach all students to be inclusive role models and more open-minded learners when it comes to working with people with disabilities or differences. Without this, inclusion will never truly work.

Greg McGrath teaches 5th Grade language arts and social studies in New Jersey.

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Greg McGrath

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