Creating inclusive schools and classrooms - is it possible?

Creating inclusive schools and classrooms - is it possible?

While there are plenty of ideas as to how make schools and classrooms more inclusive, there is less empirical research concerning how this is to be accomplished, especially if we mean that inclusion pertains to all pupils.

 I will present some findings from our own research which might be helpful for educators who want to increase the inclusiveness of their schools/classrooms. However, let us first take a look at the concept, inclusion, which is well known to interpreted in quite different and even contradictory ways.


A difficult concept

The concept ”inclusion” in the context of special needs education emerged in USA in the mid 1980ies. Several influential educators believed that the precursor “mainstreaming” had lost its potential to change schools in the desired direction. Mainstreaming came more to be about where children with disabilities/in need of extra support would receive their education and not about the quality of education in a more general sense.

Inclusion involved both the idea that children with disabilities/in need of extra support would attend general classroom but also concerned the fact that they should have a satisfactory and beneficial situation within the classroom. In addition, some commentators suggested that inclusion concerned all pupils, not only children with disabilities/in need of extra support. A few even more radical commentators suggested than inclusion involved the creation of communities within schools and classrooms.

It is an enormous difference between viewing, on the one hand, inclusion to involve both the place of education as well  the well-being of pupils with regard to their health and learning, or, on the other hand, to involve only where the education is taking place.  In the former case we have to investigate whether a particular classroom is inclusive or not. In the latter case, we can conclude that a classroom is inclusive if children with disabilities/in need of special support are placed in the classroom. 

Put otherwise, in the former case, inclusion is a good thing in itself (since the wellbeing of the pupils is part of the definition of inclusion). To put it bluntly, if it is not working, it is not inclusion.  In the latter case it is an empirical issue whether inclusion is a good thing or not. Further, in the former case we can talk about classrooms as being more or less inclusive, in the latter case inclusion is an either-or issue. Unfortunately, these different meanings of inclusion are constantly mixed-up, not least in research.



A lack of research about how to create inclusive schools and classrooms

My colleague Kerstin Göransson and I have been quite critical to research about inclusive education (see reference below). Not only is the concept defined in diverse ways, there is also a lack of research that in a methodologically cogent way demonstrate how schools and classrooms can become more inclusive when inclusion is defined as being concerned with the well-being and learning of all pupils.

Since such studies are lacking I want to present two studies that I have been involved in myself and where we have tried to identify some factors that can contribute in making environments more inclusive. These studies differ from a lot of research in the field since we tried to be quite explicit with what was meant by inclusion in the studies.

However, it should be pointed out that also our studies, especially the second one, fall short of the methodological criteria used by Kerstin and I when criticizing the research about inclusive education. Thus, one should be careful when drawing conclusions from our studies.

The first study is a case-study of an inclusive classroom and the second one is an interview-study with heads whose schools had exhibited good learning outcomes and who had displayed inclusive attitudes on a questionnaire. Moreover, they were identified as working in in inclusive way by chief education officers. Thus, both studies were studies of good, if not best, practice.

I want to underscore that these studies they do not allow for conclusions regarding exactly what factors that help to create inclusive schools and classrooms. Much more research is needed in order to disentangle which are the most important ones and how they interact.


A case-study of an inclusive classroom

In the first study Barbro Alm and I researched a classroom during school year 5-6 which we, after conducting a pre-study, had reason to believe was inclusive. There were five children in the classroom that had been categorized as having a disability.

As asserted above, the inclusiveness of a classroom has to be investigated. We thus scrutinized the inclusiveness of the classroom in a number of ways using primarily interviews and questionnaires. We reached the conclusion that the classroom displayed a high degree of inclusiveness since data from different sources indicated that all children seemed to have a good social and educational situation.

How then did the two teachers work? The following factors were identified as factors potentially contributing to the high level of inclusiveness in this classroom:


  • A shared view that it was important to work with group-dynamics
  • A lot of outdoor-acitivites
  • An uncontroversial divison of labour between the two teachers (one teacher with educaitonal responsibility and the other with more responsibility for the social climate and the 5 pupils with disabilities)
  • A good personal relation between the teachers
  • Few pupils in the class (15)
  • Adaption of the teaching to the pupils individual abilities
  • Clear frames for appropriate behavior in the classroom
  • Clearly structured activities
  • Class council meetings
  • Good relations with the parents
  • Lots of group activities (where the teachers,  not the peoples werre responsible for the composition of groups, pupils were further trained in group work) in order to increase learning and build good personal relations
  • Conflicts were solved without delay
  • Pupils were respected and cared for
  • Collective discussions about important topics where the teachers strived to include all the pupils


    Factors that emerged in the interview-study with heads

    Gunilla Lindqvist and I identified a set of factors that seemed to characterize the work of heads who held inclusive attitudes and who were running schools that seemed comparably effective:


  • Communicating visions and putting these visions into practice
  • Creation conditions for communication, good relations and trust among the staff
  • Create opportunities for the staff to increase their competence
  •  Act as pedagogical leaders and take an active part in the activities of the school
  • Express a holistic view on children in need of extra support
  • Evaluate solutions and results at regular intervals
  • Distribute resources in a way which makes it possible for all pupils to reach the knowledge goals
  • Provide support is within the frame of the class
  • Teachers are equipped with a broad repertoar to be able to handle diversity within the classroom
  • Evaluations of support and activities within the classroom
  • Special educators are considered important in order to support the teacher
  • Teachers rather than teaching assistants in the classroom
  • Possibilities for the teaching teams to jointly organize learning activities


    As was pointed out, one should be careful in interpreting the meaning of lists like these. Moreover, in the second study we did not have any research data on how the pupils themselves experienced their school environment which of course detracts from our possibility to judge the inclusiveness of the head´s schools.

    Both studies can be characterized as “best practice” studies which thus rest on the idea that a lot can be learned from teachers and heads that are successful in their work.

    Interestingly, none of the head recommended a “closed door policy”, that is that it should never be allowed to have pupils work in small groups outside the classroom. This decision is backed up by research findings that shows that pupils having reading difficulties in fact benefit by working in small groups and, even more, in one-to-one education.


    Göransson, K. och Nilholm, C. (2014). Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education , 29:3, 265-280.

    Lindqvist, G. och Nilholm, C. (2014).  Promoting inclusion? – “inclusive” and effective head teachers´ descriptions of their work. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 29(1), 74-110.


    Nilholm, C. och Alm, B. (2010). An inclusive classroom?  On inclusiveness, teacher strategies and childen´s experiences. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(3), 239-252. 


    This is the first of my blogs that is published in English. I will be publishing blogs in English three weeks in a row and then I will publish one blog every third week. My nest two blog appearing in one and two weeks respectively are named:


    Does David Mitchells book “What really works in special and inclusive education” provide a scientific foundation for teacher´s and special educator´s work with children with special needs?




    Is there any point in training working memory for pupils with ADHD and dyslexia?


    Here is a link to my Swedish blog:





Lägg till kommentar
Skickat 2017-09-18 11:36.
Ok since the comment is in Swedish I will answer in Swedish:
Jag kanske inte förklarade principen tillräckligt väl. En "closed door
policy" betyder att man är helt emot att undervisning ges i någon
form utanför själva klassrummet. Rektorerna var emot den principen
och menade att vissa elever ibland och tillfälligtvis kan behöva få
undervisning utanför klassrumment. Det som visat sig fungera är
inte "the closed door policy" (som jag inte känner till någon forskning om)
men det finns mycket forskning som visar att exempelvis ett-till-ett
undervisning i tidig läsinlärning kan vara effektivt. Sådan undervisning
ges ju i regel utanför klassrummet.
Lisa Skiöld
Skickat 2017-09-08 19:25.
Mycket intressant och glädjande överensstämmande med mitt synsätt.
Jag förstod inte riktigt detta stycke:"Interestingly, none of the head recommended a “closed door policy”, that is that it should never be allowed to have pupils work in small groups outside the classroom. This decision is backed up by research findings that shows that pupils having reading difficulties in fact benefit by working in small groups and, even more, in one-to-one education."

Var rektorerna emot en princip som visats fungera?