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January 5, 2018

Designing an Inclusive Classroom

It’s the night before the first day of school. Lynn is laying in bed, eyes wide, her thoughts racing. She imagines everything that could possibly go wrong the first day.

She worries that she’s not ready.

Lynn’s biggest fear is that she has no idea who will be in her class – she won’t find out until she gets to school. Lynn has been texting her friends with last-minute thoughts about the day ahead – her friends can’t sleep, either. The hours tick by, and before she knows it, it’s time to get up and face the day.

Lynn hopes she will get to eat lunch with her friends – the other teachers.

Universal Design

Every teacher, whether it’s his or her first year or 20th, knows that sleepless, night-before feeling. Every teacher wants the first day to be perfect – an amazing first day can set the tone for a successful, productive year. Teachers hope that every student who walks into their classroom feels welcomed as part of a community of learners and hope that each student finds the self-confidence to know he or she is smart and capable.

But how do we create this magical environment that gives all students what they need? The truth is, no matter how many times we’ve set up our classrooms and planned opening-week activities, we still worry that something has been overlooked. We ask ourselves if we have everything in place that our students will need to learn and grow. There are so many variables that teachers can’t control: students’ past experiences, what goes on in students’ homes, the fact that there is more pressure every year to deliver better results on high-stakes tests. Most teachers are going to find a diverse group of learners looking up at them that first day – students from different backgrounds, with learning differences, physical differences and emotional differences. How do teachers accommodate a room full of learners with such a wide variety needs? How do teachers set up classrooms to give each student the best chance of success? Our classroom environment is one part of our teaching practice in which we have some autonomy. An inclusive classroom is designed to welcome all types of learners, lends itself to differentiated instruction and sets the stage for student success. An inclusive classroom isn’t designed just for average students. It’s designed to be universally accommodating for any student.

 An inclusive classroom is designed to welcome all types of learners, lends itself to differentiated instruction, and sets the stage for student success. 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students with disabilities will be educated in the least restrictive environment to meet their needs. This does not mandate inclusion in every circumstance, but inclusion (either full-time or part-time) is always preferred when determining placement. Research indicates that students with disabilities are more successful, both academically and socially, when they are included in general education classrooms. This means that every teacher should expect, and prepare for, learners with IEPs (Individual Education Programs) who have unique physical, emotional, or learning needs. Differentiated instruction is expected in every classroom – it’s simply best practice to be responsive to learners’ needs, whether they have an IEP or not. There are also steps teachers can take long before class lists are distributed to ensure that their classrooms are ready to welcome any learner who walks through their door. Simply adhere to the principles of Universal Design.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) embraces the concept of universal design to ensure that instruction is accessible to all students. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), originators of the UDL framework, define UDL as “a research-based set of principles to guide the design of learning environments that are accessible and effective for all.” There are three principles of UDL, all based on neuroscientific research:

Provide Multiple Means of Representation 

Present academic content via a variety of formats (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) to accommodate different learning strengths. The more multisensory opportunities students have to interact with content, the greater the likelihood of transfer of knowledge. Determine students’ level of background knowledge and activate or supply it. Provide clarification of vocabulary and symbols. Never assume that students’ silence indicates comprehension.

Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways (written, verbal, kinesthetic). Ensure access to assistive technologies such as text-to-speech, speech-to-text and tools for organization such as graphic organizers. As students become more independent using a variety of media, scaffolding can be scaled back as students’ executive functioning increases.

Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Some students will learn best via highly structured approach; some students prefer to work collaboratively and others independently. Providing students with choice increases their motivation and engagement by allowing them to access information. For example, provide a choice board or menu from which students can choose to illustrate, write about or discuss the content. Allow students to choose from both collaborative and individual activities. This promotes self-regulation and the acquisition of coping strategies as students gain independence.

Universal Design for Instruction

The Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) incorporates both universal design concepts and the Universal Design for Learning framework to address the entire learning environment. UDI considers the physical aspects of students’ classroom experience, instructional and assessment methods, and the classroom culture. There are nine principles of Universal Design for Instruction:

Equitable Use

Instruction is useful to and accessible by all; provide the same means of use for all students when possible, equivalent when not. Some students may need to use voice-to-text technology to complete a writing assignment, for example, but they are still doing the same work as their peers.

Flexibility in Use

Instruction accommodates a range of individual abilities; provide choice in methods of use. For example, if you provide silent reading time in your classroom, some students may be listening to an eBook with headphones.

Simple and Intuitive Use

Instruction is designed to be straightforward and predictable. Eliminate unnecessary visual clutter and complexity. Provide visual cues to indicate important information, such as bold text or symbols.

Perceptible Information

Information is communicated effectively, regardless of student’s sensory abilities. This principle ties in with UDL’s multiple means of representation; provide auditory, visual and kinesthetic experiences. If learners are watching a video, it should include captioning.

Tolerance of Error

Instruction anticipates variation in individual learning pace.

Low Physical Effort

Instruction minimizes nonessential physical effort.

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Instruction is designed to provide appropriate size and space for approach, reach and manipulations regardless of student’s size, posture, mobility, or communication differences. For example, a student in a wheelchair may have difficulty accessing a microscope that requires the user to stand during use.

A Community of Learners

Instructional environment promotes interaction and communication. Establishing a classroom culture in which students respect each other’s differences, where students feel safe to make mistakes, is essential for the inclusive classroom. This requires daily intentional work, especially at the beginning of the year, but will result in a positive return on the investment as students embrace a growth mindset. Allow students to have input on classroom norms to increase ownership.

Instructional Climate

Instruction is welcoming and inclusive with high expectations for all students.

One conundrum teachers face every year is how to arrange students’ desks and best utilize the space they have. In fact, the Danielson Framework for Teaching includes “organizing physical space” as one of the components of teacher evaluation. However, there is not one classroom arrangement that is perfect for every situation. UDI principles tell us that students should be able to move easily and safely, teachers should be able to quickly and easily access students and students should be positioned so that they can see and hear with minimal distractions. Be flexible. Sometimes a U-shape works best, sometimes students need to work collaboratively, so a cluster of four desks pushed together are ideal. If you have different groups of students throughout the day, you may find that some classes do well with the cluster arrangement, while others are too distracted by it. Traditional rows allow easy access to students, but make collaborative work difficult. Trust your judgment and be responsive to the needs of your students – you will find an arrangement that works for your class.

Your Inclusive Classroom

Both Universal Design for Learning and Universal Design for Instruction may be incorporated under the umbrella of Universal Design for Education. Many teachers are already intuitively providing these experiences in their classrooms because they have realized that all students benefit, not just students with learning disabilities or learning differences. Whether you will be setting up your classroom for the first time, or you are excited about the opportunity to start fresh next year, apply the principles of UDI and UDL as you plan your classroom’s physical environment and classroom culture. Sleep well the night before the first day of school knowing that you are ready to welcome every student who comes through your door and empower all of them to do their best.


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