How can teachers and special educators / special teachers collaborate to create more inclusive environments?

How can teachers and special educators / special teachers collaborate to create more inclusive environments?

The question in the title was the starting point for a research review conducted by David Paulsrud at Uppsala University (see reference and link to the article below). Based on what we know about Swedish special education, the answer to the question in the title is very important.

It has been shown that teachers in Sweden feel that they do not have access to the support they would like, while many points out that such support is crucial for inclusive school environments to be created.

Another way of expressing this is to state that the system perspective that, at least until recently, has permeated the thinking about special education in Swedish schools has not been completely easy to implement in school practice (see link to previous blog below).

The system perspective implies that school difficulties should be addressed at the organizational, group and individual levels. The idea has been to counteract the school's tradition of routinely individualizing school problems, i.e. to explain them with shortcomings in the student and / or his / her home environment and to create special types of teaching groups for students who are not considered to fit into the mainstream.

If schools are to become more inclusive according to the system perspective special educators / special teachers should not mainly work with students in segregated environments. Instead it becomes important to work closer to the regular teaching and support the teacher in different ways in the effort of creating an inclusive learning environment in the regular classroom.

Thus, the collaboration between teachers and special teachers / special educators becomes of crucial importance. Rather than having different responsibilities (for "normal" and "deviant" students respectively) a common responsibility for all students is foregrounded.

But what does research say about how the collaboration between teachers / special educators can contribute to more inclusive school environments?

Different forms of cooperation

In the article that presents the outcome of the research review written by Paulsrud with some assistance from me, two different forms of collaboration, co-teaching and supervision, are distinguished as well as a mixed form consisting of, for example, an investment in professional development combined with supervision. Thus, altogether research about three forms of collaboration in relation to the development of more inclusive schools is analyzed.

Both co-teaching and supervision have in many contexts been presented as forms of collaboration which can contribute to a more inclusive school. Co-teaching is an overarching concept which includes different forms of cooperation: 1) one teacher teaches and the other assists, 2) Station learning, 3) Parallel teaching (division of the class into groups), 4) Alternative teaching (a smaller group is created temporarily) and 5) Team teaching (shared responsibility for joint teaching).

When it comes to supervision, a distinction is usually made between counseling and reflective conversations. Counseling is based on an expert role where the student is placed at the center while reflective conversations are process-oriented and focus teachers' reflection on their work. In Swedish special education, the supervision model rather than the co-teaching model has been an ideal.

Many have thus seen the possibility that the collaboration between teachers and special education / special teachers can be organized in such a way that it contributes to more inclusive environments. But what support does this idea have in research?

In order to investigate this question the aforementioned research review, which is based on international, qualitative research, was carried out. Only studies with observational data were included in the review. On the other hand, several of these studies combined the observational data with interviews. A total of 25 studies formed the basis for the review.

Conclusions in the research review

Co-teaching was the form of teaching that dominated the material (17 studies), which is probably due to the fact that the supervisory role is not as established internationally as in Sweden. When it comes to co-teaching, a relatively clear pattern emerges that has also been found in previous research, which means that the model that the teacher teaches while the special teacher assists dominates. In this way, co-teaching seems in part to be, so to speak, about moving special education into the classroom and not about a shared responsibility for the entire student group.

Only a small number of studies (4 studies) of supervision were identified and there were both studies where egalitarian relations between teachers and supervisors were identified but also those where there were clear communication problems in the relationship. It should be noted here that there are several dissertations in Swedish where supervision has been analyzed but which were not included in the research overview, which as mentioned focused international publications.

There were also a few studies (4 studies) which were characterized by a mixed form (see above). In the reports from these studies, the authors were positive in their description of the collaboration and its ability to develop the school in a more inclusive direction.

In the review the importance of factors such as personal chemistry and time and space for the collaboration were identified as important. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the analysis is when the collaboration between teachers and special teachers is put in relation to educational policy changes.

Several studies identify, perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, a conflict between collaboration to create a more inclusive environment and the external requirements, in the forms of content management of teaching and the achievement of pre-determined goals, that characterize governance through New Public Management.


The research overview illustrates problems that may arise in the various forms of collaboration but also factors that are important for the collaboration to become more fruitful. The conclusions are also supported by the fact that similar factors have emerged in previous reviews.

As pointed out in the overview, however, there is rarely substantial evidence for success factors in the sense that it has in a methodologically sustainable way been shown how factors de facto lead to changes in the students who are to be included. There is a great deal of room here for future studies than include the consequences of the cooperation which to a greater extent than before also analyzes the conditions for cooperation between teachers and special educators / special teachers in the light of educational policy changes.

It is also important to note that the international research that forms the basis for the research overview has been carried out primarily in the USA, where the conditions for special educational work are different than in e.g. Sweden. This explains the focus on co-teaching that most studies have and thus the few studies that deal with supervision.

However, it is possible to draw a similar conclusion also with regard to the Swedish context. Thus, more research is needed concerning the consequences of supervision. Does it lead to that students become more included? In a similar vein it is also important to analyze how inclusion policy is affected by other educational policies such as the emergence of NPM.


Paulsrud, D. och Nilholm, C. (2020) Teaching for inclusion - A review of research on the cooperation between regular teachers and special educators in the work with students in need of special support. International Journal of Inclusive Education. Published on-line.


Link to the article:



Previous blog where, among other things, challenges for the system perspective are discussed: (in Swedish): https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blogg/start/-/blogs/att-professionalisera-det-specialpedago



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