Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Most Powerful Inclusion Begins with Belief Systems

During my 20 years of teaching in an inclusive classroom I have learned that the most powerful inclusion of children with special (or as I will name them ‘extra’) needs begins with my own belief systems.

For my students to be successful, I need to believe in them.  Every single child that comes through my classroom door!  My image of all the precious charges placed in my care must be strong.  I must view them as capable of achieving their full capacity.  Each and every day.  To do less is to do my students a disservice.

In this article, I will outline 8 beliefs I hold that lay foundations for successful inclusion in my own Kindergarten (and recently also Grade One) classroom in British Columbia, Canada:

Focus on similarities rather than differences.  
  • I know that each child has strengths and talents to bring to the group. 
  • I maintain a mindset that expects to see the strengths and talents of each student placed in my care.  When I am watching intently, these always present themselves, for every child I teach!  
  • When I look at my class and the individuals in it, I see a group of human beings, each with needs to be met.  Some of them have ‘extra’ needs, that’s true.  But they all have needs!  
  • I individualize programming for every child in my class – there are no exceptions.

All children can (and DO) learn!
  • Each child is a human being with the ability to understand when someone has low expectations of or has given up on him or her. Every child deserves a bar that is set high and a teacher’s expectation that they are capable of and will reach that bar of personal excellence.  
  • I must hold high expectations for every child placed in my class and then develop a learning plan that will help each one reach his/her own personal best. 
  • It is my job to assess where children are at when I greet them in September and move them forward – each and every one.  In September I assess each child’s ability levels in the areas of academics and social/emotional intelligence and then make
    plans for how I will move each child forward in their learning.  We develop Individual Education Plans for some of my children.  These are developed in consultation with parents, paraprofessionals, resource and teacher staff, OT’s, PT’s, Speech Pathologists, Administration, and anyone else who has information to share about the child in question.  This is how I maintain my own personal version of ‘no child left behind’.  At the end of a year I am always astounded by the growth each child makes.

The physical classroom environment is the child’s third teacherThe way the classroom is physically set up needs to accommodate and support learning for each child.                                        
  • I make the colours in the room natural ones – browns, greens, etc.  This allows for a calming environment.  
  • I bring nature in.  This connects children to the outside world.  
  • I make my room as open as possible so I can see what is going on at all times.  
  • I make comfort first – pillows, a couch, etc.  
  • My classroom is organized in a way that will allow children to get and clean up materials easily – math things in one area, books in another, etc.
  • There is a quiet and calm space for those children who may need a break from the busyness of the class.  Some children become overloaded with too much stimulation and need some time away.  I provide this not as a punishment but as part of helping children become successful.

Children with extra needs are included in the heart of the classroom culture.                           
  • It is my job to help all my students belong.  It is not enough for me to see the gifts these children bring to my classroom.  The gifts need to be shared and celebrated openly; in the same way I do for the rest of the students in my class.  This means part of my job is to educate the wider community about the needs of a child who may be perceived as ‘different’ to help them become embraced as part of the community.   
  • It is important to spend time openly talking about the ‘extra’ needs my students have.  For example, for a child who is non-verbal, I speak about why that child might make noises and/or uses PECs.  I explain the frustration that can come along with not being able to communicate.  To support this idea (and the child), I teach the class strategies they can use to communicate with the child.  Note that we also talk about how every child has strengths and areas for further growth.  I emphasize that we are all learning together.
  • I teach strategies students can use to support the child in the class, and together we help the child with extra needs become successful.  This is vitally important as when children with extra needs are not understood, they are often pushed to the periphery of the community and never receive an opportunity to enter the social fabric of the group.  In my experience once the child with extra needs is understood and his/her gifts are highlighted, the whole group rallies around and helps learning and successful integration take place.
As much as possible, children with extra needs are included in all classroom activities.  For example, for those who are capable of sitting during carpet activities, they sit with the rest of the class.  At math time, they are always doing math.  At writing time, they are writing.  As much as possible I have the paraprofessional who works with the child complete another activity such as working materials for the child’s programming, pulling other children who need support for reading or math, etc.  I do whatever I can to make it so the child with extra needs does not stand out as ‘special’ or ‘different’.  All my students are ‘special’, after all!  ☺ 

Children with extra needs are included in all aspects of school life.

  • In my school every child is included in events such as assemblies, graduation ceremonies, whole school recess and lunch, choir presentations, Christmas concerts – everything.  I believe all children belong, and all do.  We adapt to make sure every child is included.  Period.                      

Collaboration with staff and administration is critical for successful integration

  • I must be open to hearing new ideas, willing to implement strategies I haven’t tried before, and willing to admit I don’t have all the answers.  
  • I acknowledge that I will need help, because I do!  Many supports need to be put in place for a child with extra needs to be successful. The classroom teacher cannot be successful alone.  S/he needs to draw on the expertise of those around him/her.

The child’s parents must be included in designing programming.  Support, advocacy for inclusion in the class community, and respect for each child and family is paramount.  
  • Parents are the child’s first and most important teacher. Parents of a child with extra needs have perhaps the most difficult parenting job there is.  They deserve acknowledgement of their work, and I must give them credit for the work they do every day.  
  • It is important I affirm parental efforts and always acknowledge the challenges that go along with raising a child with extra needs.  They need my support, and I need their knowledge to be successful in teaching their child.  We are partners in education, and we need each other.

Nothing is impossible.  

  • I must be willing to love and embrace each child placed in my class.  
  • I need to maintain an attitude of hope and remain positive.  
  • I need to be steadfast in my steps and never falter.  
  • I must be ready to overcome hurdles.  They most certainly will arise.
  • I need to be creative in my practice and go with the flow, responding to setbacks by asking questions rather than passing judgement.  

The rewards of carefully looking at my belief systems to ensure a climate of true inclusion exists in my class and school community are immeasurable!  

Gayle Hernandez began her teaching career in 1993. For most of this time she has taught Kindergarten in inclusive schools. She has presented multiple workshops on the topic of Kindergarten in the Burnaby school district, facilitated Burnaby’s Kindergarten Network for 10 years, and completed a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education at the University of British Columbia in 2007. Gayle is passionate about inclusion and building classroom and school communities. - See more at:  Also, you can follow Gayle on Twitter @kindergayle!


  1. A very uplifting post and so good to hear someone else with a very similar view to my own on how we should make sure that those children with special needs are included as an integral part of our classrooms and how EVERY child is special and needs our support as a teacher. Thank you, Gayle :-)
    Special Teaching at Pempi's Palace

  2. You are most welcome SENCO Cat Herder!