5 Traits to Look for in an Inclusive Classroom

Traditional classrooms and inclusive classrooms differ significantly — in overall educational philosophy, instructional strategies, and support resources for learners.

Because myths and misunderstandings about inclusion abound, even at the school level, it’s helpful for families of students with special needs to be familiar with the characteristics of this model so they can better advocate for truly inclusive education.

Bringing All Learners Together

By definition, inclusive schools welcome children of all abilities. Classes are created by placing students together according to age and without regard to ability level. Years of research, most recently compiled by the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, have demonstrated that there are significant academic, social, emotional, and physical benefits to teaching typically and non-typically developing children in the same class setting. In fact, instructional strategies, such as Universal Design for Learning and Differentiation, were derived from the goal of teaching different types of learners together in one setting. Educational supports, such as specialized service providers (speech-language therapists or occupational therapists), flexible scheduling, and accessible spaces transcend the physical space of the classroom and enable schools to provide effective inclusive learning experiences for all students.

Supporting Students Within the Classroom

Classrooms themselves have numerous systems and supports to ensure that all children can learn alongside one another. Some are as overt as a paraprofessional assisting a student with a writing assignment, while others are as subtle as a teacher using a book with large print to read a story to the class. Recognizing the “indicators of inclusion” can give families concrete characteristics to look for when they tour schools, as well as specific supports to request at an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting for their child.

5 Common Traits of Inclusive Classrooms

1. Groups of desks placed around the classroom

Grouping students allows for socialization as well as cooperative and peer learning. As Robert E. Slavin notes in Synthesis of Research of Cooperative Learning, the positive effects of this approach have been consistently found on such diverse outcomes as self-esteem, intergroup relations, acceptance of academically handicapped students, attitude towards school, and the ability to work cooperatively. Moreover, research by David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, professors of education and codirectors of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, suggests that cooperation — as contrasted with competitive and individualistic efforts — typically results in higher achievement and greater productivity; more caring, supportive, and committed relationships; and greater psychological health, social competence, and self-esteem.

2. Visual learning aids to assist in teaching many students

Visual supports are commonly used in inclusive classrooms. Aids such as graphic organizers — whether these are created by a student, teacher, or technology company — can help students significantly outperform peers who did not use these tools. Other visual materials are effective, as well. Daily schedules, in either pictorial or written form, are often placed in a prominent location to help students anticipate transitions; timers are frequently used to help them remain on task and develop time-management skills; and posters as well as anchor or flip charts can assist students in understanding and remembering concepts.

In addition, computers and tablets, with their related complement of applications, are becoming more integrated into teaching practices. Free apps, such as Number Pieces, help students understand computation with large numbers through the use of diagrams and drawings. Finally, in an inclusive classroom, there will be no shortage of labels, symbols, and pictures placed around the room to help students identify learning zones, supplies, materials, and items of interest.

3. Developmentally appropriate learning materials placed around the room

Instructional materials, such as leveled books, math manipulatives (like Cuisenaire rods or base-ten blocks), and centers with hands-on activities, are well-suited for both kinesthetic learners and students at various ability levels. (Kinesthetic learning, as described by Howard Gardener in “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” is a style of acquiring knowledge and skills through “doing” or “moving.”)

4. A classroom social skills program

A social skills curriculum is the cornerstone of a respectful and productive inclusive environment. By guiding students in the development of these abilities, teachers can support communication among children, increase learners’ confidence, and encourage culturally responsive behavior. Students are taught to engage and interact with one another in socially appropriate ways and to adapt to the needs of others. Meanwhile, children learn to become community and global citizens.

5. Widely available assistive technology

Assistive technology (AT) should be readily provided to students to support their individual interests, styles, and educational needs. Items such as adaptive pencil grips, iPads, apps, augmentative communication tools, and color overlays are all used to make the curriculum accessible to children with special needs. Whether simple or complex supports, AT can be used effectively to ensure that all children are able to learn — and to enjoy their education as well.

A Final Note

By using these essential supports to instruct and include all learners in their classrooms, teachers demonstrate that they value the contributions each child brings to the group. The strengths of such environments lie in their student-centered, scaffolded approach to teaching children — whether they have special needs or not.

Is your child already in school, but you're looking for help? Read Inclusive Education: How to Be an Advocate for Your Child, and find more special needs education resources on Noodle.


Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.

Kim, A., Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., & Wei, S. (2004). Graphic Organizers and Their Effects on the Reading Comprehension of Students with LD: A Synthesis of Research. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 105-118.

Slavin, R. (1991, February 1). Synthesis of Research of Cooperative Learning. Retrieved September 18, 2015.