Three Strategies for Strengthening Inclusion in Schools

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In today’s educational landscape, inclusion has become a cornerstone of progressive special education practices.  Inclusion practices are grounded in the idea that all students, regardless of their abilities, should learn together in the same classrooms because inclusive education not only benefits students with disabilities but also enriches the learning experience for their non-disabled peers. The path to meaningful and responsive inclusive practices however is fraught with challenges and potentially dangerous blind spots.   Meaningful and responsive inclusive practices for students with IEPs requires a deep commitment to rethinking traditional educational models. 

green callout box with text When general education teachers feel overwhelmed and unprepared to support students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), the benefits of inclusion can be significantly undermined. To truly embrace inclusion, we must think beyond the logistics of classroom placement and actively cultivate a learning environment where the diverse needs of all learners are acknowledged, affirmed, and celebrated as essential to the vitality and health of our schools.  In this article, we will explore a more nuanced definition of inclusion, the current opportunities and limitations inclusion has for students with IEPs, and three actionable strategies to deepen inclusive practices in schools that will ensure every student flourishes in every classroom space.

“ I don’t know that I am necessarily as qualified as I should be to do full inclusion.  But I do agree that it should be done.  But I’m not, I know that I am not fully comfortable with it.  Not because I don’t like it, but because I am not trained.” 

This honest and vulnerable reflection was shared with me during one of the interviews of general education teachers that I conducted for my doctoral dissertation research.  I appreciate this quote because it beautifully summarizes the two shared sentiments across all eight of the teachers I interviewed: 

  1. As general education teachers, we believe in the spirit and idea of inclusion.
  2. We feel frustrated having students with IEPs in our class because we don’t feel qualified or supported to teach them.

As a former special education teacher and Director of Special Education, my biggest take-away from my doctoral research is that as IEP team members advocating for increased inclusion, we need to be wide-eyed that inclusion means so much more than just the physical placement of a student during the school day.  For many educators, inclusion is a radical shift that disrupts traditionally held beliefs about who general education is for and which students general education teachers are trained to teach.  We can not assume that our advocacy or commitment to inclusion stops after the placement conversation during an IEP meeting ends.  In order for inclusion to be meaningful, responsive, and effective, as both IEP team members and educational leaders, we need to ensure that schools and teachers are doing the important work of aligning their beliefs and self-talk about students with IEPs to the spirit and goals of inclusive education.  This  alignment work is critical so that inclusion in general education does not result in deeper feelings of isolation or othering that are persistent in special education today.  

The benefits and challenges of inclusion

In relation to special education, the most literal definition of inclusion means the physical placement of students with IEPs in general education classrooms. Interestingly and despite its growing popularity, the word inclusion is never used in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA 2004). Instead, IDEA (2004) refers to the “least restrictive environment,” which says: 

To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, [be] educated with children who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment [occur] only when the nature  or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of  supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. (20. U. S. C. 1412(5)(B))

I invite you to consider this deeper, more nuanced definition of inclusion: Inclusion for students with disabilities and other diverse learners means reimagining general education as a learning space where the rightful presence of all types of learners is affirmed and celebrated as undeniably necessary and valuable.

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Inclusion, where students with and without disabilities learn together in the same classroom, offers numerous benefits that extend beyond academic achievement. One significant advantage is the social and emotional development of students. Inclusive classrooms provide rich opportunities for fostering empathy, deepening a sense of belonging, and helping students develop the social and emotional skills needed to thrive in diverse environments.  For students with IEPs specifically, inclusion can lead to higher personal and academic self-esteem, stronger post-secondary opportunities and outcomes, and significantly decreased feelings of isolation and exclusion that are persistent within traditional special education models.

Academically, inclusion provides students with disabilities access to the general curriculum and the opportunity to learn alongside their peers. This can result in improved academic outcomes as students are held to higher expectations and benefit from the same quality of instruction as their non-disabled peers. Moreover, inclusion promotes collaboration and co-teaching strategies, where general and special education teachers work together to plan and deliver instruction, ultimately benefiting all students by providing diverse teaching methods and personalized support.

Nonetheless, inclusion is not without its challenges. One major challenge is the preparedness of general education teachers. Many teachers feel inadequately trained to support students with disabilities, which can lead to frustration and a lack of effective teaching strategies in the classroom. Without focused skill and mindset coaching and support, the intended benefits of inclusion may not be fully realized.  Another challenge of inclusion is that it can sometimes lead to insufficient support for students with more significant needs. In an inclusive setting, the focus on fitting into the general education environment might overshadow the need for specialized instruction and interventions that some students require. This can result in a situation where the educational needs of students with disabilities are not fully met, potentially hindering their academic and social emotional development. To address these limits, schools must ensure that inclusion is thoughtfully implemented, with ongoing coaching and professional development for teachers, adequate resources, and a commitment to creating a supportive and responsive learning environment for all students and staff.

As a fellow educator, I have witnessed firsthand the persistent mindset blocks that can pop up for teachers when students with IEPs are included in general education.  These blocks include: 

  • Feeling overwhelmed by the idea of providing personalized supports at scale.
  • Believing there is limited class time and resources to balance the diverse needs of all students. 
  • Feeling hesitant or overwhelmed by the idea of inviting and collaborating with special education staff in their classroom.
  • Believing that getting an A in their class is the only acceptable indicator of success for inclusion and feeling like they don’t have the instructional skills to make that happen.

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Transformation around these belief and mindset blocks can’t happen in stand alone, whole  group professional development sessions.  They can happen however in a supportive, non-judgmental coaching relationship.  By pairing coaching around skill development, mindset, and affirming beliefs, we can meet teachers and leaders where they are at and walk them into the inclusive mindsets needed to sustain inclusive practices for all kinds of learners in their school. 

Three high leverage strategies for improving inclusive practices in schools are: 

  1. Coaching school leaders and teachers (both general education and special education staff) on detaching from the medical model of disability to embrace neurodiversity, 
  2. Coaching general education and special education teachers to raise their awareness of how their beliefs about disability might be impacting their actions or inactions as instructional decision-makers, and 
  3. Coaching IEP teams on how to design and implement strengths based IEPs that emphasize building student’s positive self-identity as learners, their awareness of their unique learning profiles and supportive accommodations, and advocating for their needs without fear of exclusion, isolation, or shame.  

I am specifically using the language of coaching over the language of training because I deeply believe in the transformative power of coaching to bring our beliefs and actions sustainably into alignment.  

green callout box with text In conclusion, achieving meaningful and responsive inclusion for students with IEPs requires more than just placing them in general education classrooms; it demands a radical rethinking of traditional educational models and a deep commitment to fostering a supportive, inclusive culture. This journey is fraught with challenges, including the preparedness and mindset of general education teachers, but these challenges are not insurmountable. By embracing coaching strategies that promote neurodiversity, raise awareness about the impact of beliefs on teaching practices, and design strengths-based IEPs, schools can create environments where all students, regardless of their abilities, feel valued and supported. Inclusion, when thoughtfully and effectively implemented, can transform classrooms into vibrant spaces of learning and growth for every student, ensuring that no one feels isolated or excluded. The path to inclusion is ongoing and requires continuous effort, reflection, and collaboration, but the rewards—enhanced academic and social outcomes for all students—are well worth the investment.

Headshot of Dr. Allegra Johnson, CEO and Founder of Uniquely Supported, a coaching and consulting practice that supports school teams with inclusionDr. Allegra Johnson is the founder and CEO of Uniquely Supported, an inclusive special education coaching and consulting practice.  Allegra began her career in education as a self-contained middle school teacher in south Los Angeles in 2007. Over her 15 year career as an educator, she has supported students with IEPs as a special education teacher, Director of Special Education, and as an Executive Director of Educational Services in Los Angeles Unified School District and two charter school networks.  Allegra provides coaching and strategy support to Special Education Directors, School leaders, Special Education teachers, and IEP teams. 

To learn more about working with Allegra, please visit or connect with her on LinkedIn at