Focus On Abilities and Benefit All Children: A Case for Progressive Inclusion Schools

Focus On Abilities and Benefit All Children: A Case for Progressive Inclusion Schools

Education April 26, 2014 / By Nina Fiore
Focus On Abilities and Benefit All Children: A Case for Progressive Inclusion Schools

Providing the best schooling for the widest range of children, Progressive Inclusion Schools, which focus on providing age-appropriate academics to a variety of learners, are an attractive option for both typical and Special Needs children and a much-needed addition to the educational landscape.

With the ever-increasing diagnosing of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Learning Disorders (LD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD), there is a growing need for places where these Special Needs (SN) children can attend school and have their needs supported while still learning what is age-appropriate for them, academically.  

Many of these students are very bright, eager to learn, and hard-working, but need certain supports and accommodations to be successful, such as regular movement, shorter class times, smaller class sizes, respectful, understanding environments, and flexible teaching styles. Many of these same supports/accommodations have been found to also be beneficial to typical students and to learning in general, as they increase student engagement and retention.  Accommodations like these can also benefit students with various forms of intelligence, such as students who excel in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects, daydreamers (the next personality trait to be pathologized[1]), very creative students, and “divergent thinkers”.[2]

In most elementary schools, the teacher-centric, “sit still and listen” method of teaching still employed is one of the main reasons so many special needs children are not able to be in regular schools to begin with[3].  It seems that the problem is less with the children, and more with the way schools are organized and run. Schools need to change with the times, become more flexible, more relevant, and more accepting of different personalities, different abilities, different intelligences, and different learning styles. 

Schools also need to have the expectation that special needs children CAN learn, and that learning will benefit them greatly in the future.  They need to "presume competence".  Many schools and teachers/therapists still operate under the notion that special needs children can not learn, and therefore only seek to keep them “occupied” during the school day instead of trying to educate them, especially if the child has language difficulties.  This is not only doing a huge disservice to these children and their families, but to society in general.

Many special needs schools are failing their children by denying them the basic presumption of competence and the basic instruction they need to perform their best. Children most definitely won't be able to learn what they are not taught.

Research has shown that children perform best when their teacher holds high expectations for them and that low expectations lead to low student performance[14].  Yet low expectations are unfortunately still the norm with special needs children.  As cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman says, “many children with disabilities are being denied the right to appropriate and demanding expectations. Stereotyping students with disabilities on the basis of a disability label or standardized test score is not supported by the best evidence from the field of psychological and educational measurement.”[15]

Schools need to move their view of students away from a deficit-driven model to an orientation that values every student’s strengths and gifts, and works with those strengths to help the student make as much progress as possible.  Children should not be disregarded simply because they are different than the “norm”.  Their education should not be ignored just because they are unable to participate in antiquated, rigid classroom settings.

In order to be able to serve all children as effectively as possible, schools need to first change their mindset.  They must shift from a teaching-centric approach to a learning-centric approach[4].   They must change how they view all students and make sure they understand and address their individual strengths and weaknesses and not just presume the student’s incompetence based on stereotypes around their diagnoses[5]. Schools also need to alter how they organize classes and how they implement the curriculum so the lessons create active learning experiences that are engaging and accessible to a wide variety of learning styles[6]

Progressive Inclusion Schools seem to be the way forward for education.  Progressive, inclusive, personalized, learner-centric education practices, based on the most effective methods of learning from the most current research in education and cognitive science, provide a supportive, academically-rich learning environment to the widest range of students possible.[7]


How Progressive Inclusion Schools Work

Collaborative Classrooms

True Inclusion Schools would have all classrooms comprised of half special needs children and half typical children. All children would have a personalized education plan and data would be taken on each child’s daily work, so that teachers/parents could track progress and fix programs/approaches that aren't working in a timely manner. Portfolios would also be assembled of the child’s work, in order to show strengths, weaknesses, and overall progress.

The school would be committed to modeling a future society where all types of people - special and “typical” - live and work together seamlessly.  Given how prevalent diagnosing special needs is at present, there will as a result be many more SN adults in the USA in the near future.  They do not all want to be excluded from society just because they learn differently or have different abilities/different ways to regulate and focus than “typical” people, or the more appropriately-termed “neuro-majority”.[16].  Many special needs people have a good deal to contribute to society if they are allowed to partake. Many are excellent writers.  Many excel in STEM subjects and are creative thinkers, which are skills needed to drive forward our future innovations.  Communities would do well to become more inclusive and allow all people to thrive to the best of their abilities, regardless of diagnoses. Part of the school mission would include educating students, their families, and the community, and promoting understanding and acceptance for the strengths and weaknesses of children/people of all abilities - similar to acceptance towards cultural diversity, for example.

Differentiated Instruction: Small Class Size/Working in Groups/Variety of Instructors

Class size would be limited to 17-20 students per class,[17] and students would be broken into smaller groups within the same classroom, based on their abilities in different subjects. So if a student excels in math but needs reading help (SN or not) they could be placed in the appropriate group for each subject and not be labelled as being in one functional group for the entirety of the school day.  The idea being to give children the help they need where needed, but not making the help they need define them or their involvement in the school.  Likewise, if a gifted student was really ahead of his/her class in a certain subject, he/she could be given projects to do that were appropriate to their skill level as well.  Personalized education, which incorporates self-directed learning and project-based learning, is meant to benefit children all across skill levels - from the lowest to the highest.[18]

So, for example, if the class lesson is about recycling, the lead teacher would talk about recycling to the entire class and everyone would take a field trip to a recycling plant or watch a video about a recycling plant together.  Then they would break off, in class, into various groups where some groups are writing stories about recycling, some are reading more about recycling, and others are maybe coloring in a worksheet on recycling while talking about recycling with the group leader. Same topics, different approaches based on skill levels.  Usually the lead teacher would direct the overall lesson and walk amongst the groups as they work on their projects.  Groups could be led by other teachers, TAs, Paraprofessionals, even Parents who want to volunteer in class.  There could also be certain days where students are called upon to lead some of these groups, as peer-to-peer learning has been shown to have great benefits for both the student-“teacher” and the student-student[19].  Also, a variety of instructors has shown to be beneficial in retaining children’s attention and retention of materials covered.


In addition to the inclusive academic lessons around general subjects, there would be a certain number of "electives" offered each day.  During these periods, typical students could choose from yoga, music, chess, art, while the SN students would use these times to get their required therapies - OT/SLT/PT, counseling, etc. This way no one is "pulled out" of class and stigmatized and no one will miss academics because they need to go to therapies.  If special needs students have free periods during the week (as some special needs students need fewer therapy hours than others) they could also take elective classes. 

Experiential Learning and Following Passions

Educational research also agrees that children learn best when they experience what they are learning first-hand and when they are learning about something they have a passion for.  For example, progressive schools often talk about “nature walks” and “community outings”, where they take children to the neighborhood pizzeria, to see how pizza is made, or to the auto mechanic, fire station, ballet school, etc.  They then create lesson plans and projects that use these experiences to further explore children’s interests.  Inclusion Specialist Paula Kluth talks about a boy with ASD who loves whales.  Instead of criticizing him as being “obsessive”, as is done with so many ASD children, the teacher creates a whale-based curriculum for him and uses his interests to fuel his learning.  Other students with passions are encouraged to pursue their passions as well. Students remember lessons where they were actively involved in the learning process, be it through discussion, presentation, field trips, or explorations of their passions. Not taking full advantage of the best ways that children learn makes no sense in education, yet it is done every day in many schools, especially ones for special needs students.

Respect for Differences

The general policy of the school would focus a great deal on inclusion and respect for people’s differences, not just in class but in general.  There would be an emphasis on how everyone, not just SN students, has strengths and weaknesses.  There would be strict policies against bullying of any kind, and that includes no bullying from teachers and administration towards students as well.  Teachers would be instructed on how to discuss inclusion in the classroom, as research has shown that it is not simply enough to have the children in the same room together, there needs to be a dialogue about empathy and understanding for all students.  As the former principal of a progressive inclusion school in Chicago says, “The school and its teachers need to be explicit in their support of inclusion and facilitate discussion around accepting people’s differences”.[20]

Some schools even have monthly exercises they call “Wordless Wednesdays”, where speaking students need to find ways to communicate throughout the day without speaking.  Exercises in empathy like this have been found to not only make the students more understanding/caring towards one another, but being able to really see a situation from another’s point of view helps build emotional intelligence and helps to make children more creative thinkers and problem solvers in general. 


All classrooms would incorporate technology as needed to help children learn and communicate.  Some special needs children use iPods and iPads to help them speak, so they would of course be incorporated into lessons.   Further incorporating technology such as iPads into lessons would be strongly encouraged and teachers would receive Professional Development to learn how best to incorporate tech into lesson planning/creation.  Classes would have FM systems so that teachers could be understood clearly by all, as well as sensory friendly spaces (a sensory corner, i.e., a tent filled with pillows, ball-chairs, finger fidgets - things you have to fight for your SN kid to have in most typical schools, both public and private).  Youngest children would be able to bring things to school that make them feel more comfortable being in school such as a favorite toy or stuffed animal. It might also be helpful to have all rooms videotaped and possibly even on a live feed -- so parents can check in on how their kids are doing throughout the day and so children who are home sick can maybe tune in to hear the day’s lesson. 

Movement, Movement, Movement!!: Making Regular Movement A School Priority

One of the most important school policies would be a focus on movement throughout the school day. I can’t stress how important this is and how much this one change could change so many classrooms. Regularly-scheduled movement breaks throughout the day and during each class, help ALL children regulate and focus better on the lessons that come after the movement breaks. 

Regular movement has been shown to increase focus and retention in young children, and it also has been shown to lower rates of behavioral problems such as fighting and bullying[21]. Keeping children active and therefore healthy in the environment where they spend the majority of their waking hours should be a priority in schools.  Given all the focus on getting adults to move more to combat obesity and health problems (treadmill desks, standing desks, fitness bands, “sitting is the new smoking", e.g.[22]) and given all the focus on childhood obesity rates, keeping children “still” should NOT be a priority of schools, but it is still very much the case.  In fact, the complete opposite should be true. An emphasis on regular breaks for movement -- one of the most therapeutic things for children with ADHD and ASD and one of the most beneficial ways for ALL children to learn[23] -- should be incorporated into EVERY classroom lesson and be made an important part of the overall school policy. [24]

Another way to increase focus and retention in young children is to break up the lessons during the school day into 20-30 minute sections, followed by 10 minutes of movement around the classroom - even if it is just to stand up at their seats and stretch or do jumping jacks/run in place, like in an “Instant Recess”.[25]  The shorter sessions are more easily remembered because studies show humans tend to remember beginnings and endings much more than middles.  The movement also helps children focus and retain more information from the upcoming lesson.  Therefore, having 20-30 minute lessons plus 10 minutes of movement in between them, means a lot more information will be retained over the course of the day than would be retained from regular 40 minute classes/lessons.  More time teaching is not always better, especially if the lesson is not being absorbed and retained.[26]

In conclusion, schools need to move their view of special needs students away from a deficit-driven model to an orientation that values every student’s strengths and gifts and works with those strengths to help the student make as much progress as possible. Special needs children, even those with language difficulties and those who can not speak, can often learn just as well as typical peers, if instruction is provided in a way that supports their learning style. Many special needs students need certain supports and accommodations to be successful, such as regular movement, shorter class times, smaller class sizes, group teaching methods, inclusion of technology, respectful, understanding environments, and flexible, varied teaching styles. Many of these same supports/accommodations have been found to also be beneficial to typical students and to learning in general, as they have been shown to increase student engagement and retention.

The latest, most effective teaching methods - which also happen to support and accommodate special needs children - can be found in Progressive Inclusion Schools. Personalized, progressive, inclusive education, which incorporates differentiated instruction, group learning, experiential learning, regular movement breaks, technology aids, sensory aids, and respect for differences, is meant to benefit children all across skill levels - from the lowest to the highest. Since they provide the best schooling for the widest range of children and truly reflect the diversity of humans in every respect, Progressive Inclusion Schools that focus on providing age-appropriate academics to a variety of learners are a very attractive option for education for both typical and special needs children, and are a much-needed addition to the educational landscape.




[16] I am not certain who coined the term, but I have seen it used predominantly in the writings of Autistic Writer, Speaker and Autism Advocate, Judy Endow, MSW, on the blog Ollibean:


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