What Does Inclusive Education Mean?

What Does Inclusive Education Mean?
Alejandro Sanfeliciano

Written and verified by the psychologist Alejandro Sanfeliciano.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

From educational psychology‘s perspective, we’ve moved from using the word “integrated” to “inclusive”. Is inclusive education just a modernization of the term, or does it imply a change in values and practices?

You might think that changing one word for another doesn’t have much significance. However, we define our world through concepts, and changing terms means changing perspectives.

If you go to any school and ask if the students are integrated, they may say yes, in all honesty. And they’ll show you the names of students of diverse ethnicity, home countries, or socioeconomic positions. The school will tell you that they’re receiving good education. Now, ask them about whether the students feel included in the school. Their answer will probably not be matter-of-fact.

Differences between integration and inclusion

When we talk about integration, we look at if socially disadvantaged students are receiving an education equal to other students. It asks if someone is inside or outside an educational environment. On the other hand, inclusion mean that and more. A student’s social and personal welfare is the most important factor here.

Inclusive education: a teacher and her female student.

Inclusion is concerned with whether students are treated with equality, affection and respect as the unique people they are. And it is also important to see if they’re comfortable within the school’s “ecosystem”. That is, whether they worry about having friends and being part of life within the school.

An essential difference between the two terms is that one is universal while the other is selective. When talking about integration, we focus on a stigmatized group receiving a “normal” education. On the other hand, with an inclusive model, we take into account every student’s personal situation and aim for the school to include them.

Any student, even if they’re not part of a stigmatized group, may feel left out. For example, a shy child who finds it hard to make friends. Or another who is concerned about their sexual orientation. They probably have difficulty being included. The integration model neglects these children, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Reasons for inclusion

The primary reason for inclusion is not to ensure students’ social and personal welfare just because they are “buzz words”. We should think more deeply than that. Inclusion’s goal is significant improvement in students’ education and learning. The important thing is that all students develop to their full potential, without obstacles.

For this to be possible, a student’s social and personal well-being is crucial. After all, a person who has social and personal problems will be short on resources, which turns into a huge obstacle in their education.

“Special Education” classes are an example, created as part of the integration model. They provide specialized instruction to students who couldn’t keep up with the pace of normal classes. But it has become more of an exclusion mechanism than support. It labels students as “not normal”, and this has consequences on their social and personal well-being.

Another essential point is that if we want to educate with equality, cooperation and non-discrimination, we must lead by example. We cannot educate about those values unless the school is based on an inclusive model that follows those values.

What can we do to have inclusive education?

Looking at any failure, it’s easy to create theories that seem to fix it. But when it comes to putting these into practice, the goal gets more complicated. Normally, we find ourselves caught in certain political, economic and social situations that are sometimes very difficult to work within. Even so, you can always take steps to get as close as possible to the theoretical model of inclusive education.

A teacher with her students.

Research on inclusive education provides guidelines that can help us move in the right direction. Among these strategies the most effective and important are the following:

  • Observation of classes, followed by a structured discussion about what was observed.
  • Group discussion of video recordings of a colleague’s work.
  • Giving students and their families a voice. They can tell you their own needs and problems.
  • Collaborative planning of classes between students and teachers. Also, reviewing results together.
  • Renewing the school curriculum. Modifying it to the students’ specific needs.
  • Cooperation between schools, including visits to neighboring schools to help gather information.

A key aspect reflected in most of these ideas is self-evaluation. If we want inclusive education, we must constantly review what happens in schools. After this self-evaluation, we must adopt the measures we’ll need to correct errors hindering inclusivity.

An inclusive school, in the full sense of the term, is a utopia. However, this does not mean that we should give up on it. Quite the opposite. Utopias are there show us what path to follow. They are an ideal and a goal, they motivate and guide our actions.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.