Creating more inclusive classrooms which are academically successful

Pix of Dr. Julie Causton

Dr. Julie Causton

Can inclusive classrooms, where students with special needs are mixed into the general student population, lead to increased academic success for all? Yes! says Dr. Julie Causton, a former special education teacher and now a professor in the Inclusive and Special Education Program at Syracuse University. But inclusion must be done correctly.

In a recent webinar titled “Engaging All Students: Five Steps to Creating More Inclusive Classrooms,” Dr. Causton said that pulling children out of classrooms for individual instruction is counterproductive and emotionally hurtful. (We highly recommend watching this excellent webinar, which was sponsored by Brookes Publishing.) Dr. Causton presented figures which showed significantly improved student performance across all demographics in a school after it adopted inclusive classrooms.

Student performance before and after inclusive teaching.

Student performance before and after inclusive teaching.

One student, whose grade 4 IEP listed “significant behavioral and intellectual disabilities,” “truancy issues,” “easy to anger,” “unmotivated,” and “throws desks,” in 5th grade became a model student, exited from special education, and in middle school was an honor roll student.

How can this be? What about challenging behaviors and students’ needs for individual tutoring?

According to Dr. Causton, the keys to successful inclusion are to get clear on what inclusion is, keep students in the classroom, collaborate in new ways, support all academic levels, and provide humanistic behavioral supports.

Collaborating in new ways

Finding innovative ways to co-teach is crucial in an inclusive classroom. In some classrooms, the general ed teacher lectures while the special ed teacher tutors individual students in the classroom. But this may create a buzz of whispering during the lecture, which can be distracting. Here are some other ways to co-teach. Dr. Causton also suggests reading her book, coming soon at

Duet teaching

In duet teaching, both adults engage in primary teaching roles in the class. Instructors collaboratively lead class discussions, answer student questions or facilitate lectures and activities. This method works well for introducing and/or ending a unit or lesson, facilitating a class meeting, and engaging in a community-building exercise.

One teach/One assist

In this method, one teacher leads the lesson while the other supports in some way. The lead person is usually in charge of the content while the assisting teacher adds examples, distributes supplies or checks in with students. This method works well for setting up a complex presentation or demonstration, managing a lesson with new tech tools, equipment or assistive technology, managing a lesson with a lot of directions or transitions, and setting up the classroom for a change in activities

One teach/One float

This is a good model to use when one teacher is demonstrating something that students need to imitate. For example, if a teacher is showing learners how to create land forms with modeling clay, the second teacher can go from desk to desk to give support and feedback on the sculptures.

This method is helpful for starting students on independent work or group work; helping students assemble into assigned pairings or groupings; and ensuring that students are following along with a demonstration, model or example

One teach/One make multisensory

In this approach, the teachers integrate each lesson with multiple strategies and tools to reach all learners, such as dramatic reenactments, costumes and props, audio cues or music, visuals, presentation software and new apps and websites.

This model is helpful for offering more than one mode of output during a lesson (for example, auditory and visual); adding interest, humor or a bit of drama to a lesson; showing a new tech tool; and engaging in a demonstration.

Parallel instruction

This method involves splitting the class into two sections. Each teacher can teach the exact same content; introduce two different activities, concepts or ideas and then swap sections (or, don’t switch and let students return to the larger group and share new content with peers); and/or teach two groups based on interests and conduct a series of mini-lessons on this information.

Station instruction

With station instruction, teachers divide instructional content into multiple segments and present the content at separate locations within the classroom. They can be activity-based or teacher-led. When creating stations, consider:

  • Will you provide opportunities for practice, discussion, problem solving, review of new material, partner reading, product creation or tech tool exploration?
  • How many stations will you need?
  • How will you direct the flow of your stations (for example, student choice, advance only when task is completing, rotating stations).

Self-paced learning with student co-tutoring

This method (not mentioned in Dr. Causton’s webinar) lets students work at their own pace, and students who master the material quickly can tutor those who haven’t yet finished. This works well with older students. To read about a classroom where this was practiced successfully, see “Special ed teacher turns class around with gamification,” which describes Kate Fanelli’s high school algebra class at a day center for students with special needs.

Supporting all academic levels

It takes differentiated instruction to support all academic levels. Differentiaion means giving students multiple options to take in information, make sense of ideas, and express what they learn. This provides accommodations for students who are poor readers or are behind in other ways.

Dr. Causton writes about how to provide differentiated instruction in a full chapter of her book, mentioned at the end of this article. She also suggests looking at Carol Tomlinsons’ work, who she calls “the guru of differentiated instruction.” But here are a few strategies:

think-tac-toe exampleThink-Tac-Toe

A strategy that allows students to choose how they will show what they are learning by giving them a variety of activities to choose from. Students are given a 3×3 grid like tic-tac-toe with the exception that each spot is filled with an activity.

Dinner menus

Offers students four to six options for producing a final product. Each choice should be challenging and should require about the same amount of time to complete. Here are some examples of product choices:

VideoDioramaTravel brochure
Web pagePuppet showPoem
Mock trialMapPowePoint presentation
Letter to the editorDemonstrationDebate
ExhibitPhoto essayReenactment
News reportPlayDiagram
Written reportCreative writingAd campaign

Interest centers

An interest center, or learning center, is a space set aside in the classroom that allows easy access to a variety of learning materials, which students can use by themselves or with others, and which might include hands-on experiences.


Cubing asks students to consider an idea from a variety of perspectives. The cubes are six-sided figures that have a different activity on each side. A student rolls the cube and does the activity that comes up. Students can work alone, in pairs, or in small groups with the appropriate cube, and can roll again if desired.

Other tools and tips for supporting all academic levels

A fidget. These are helpful to all students.

A fidget. These are helpful to all students.

Use tools that direct attention and keep students on task. Let each student have their own little dry-erase board. On the board you can quickly write things such as a choice board or a to-do list. Dr. Causton also recommends Post-it Notes, book stands, page ups, reading strips, and highlighter tape. She especially recommends fidgets, because many students crave movement while they are learning and need something to do with their hands.

Some students may need to hear directions repeatedly, so if you record the instructions, the student can replay them as needed. There are several tools for this, such as a recordable card, a key chain recorder, the PPT audio feature, an iPod, an AT button, and the Voki app, which is free.

Tools for giving direction.

Tools for giving direction.

Provide choice. It is very important to let students have a say in their educational day, even in little ways. For example, they can choose to write or say it; use a pen or marker, work with friends or alone, use an agenda or not, or a host of other things.

Let students choose their own body position, such as working at a table, lying on a rug on the floor, standing up and using a music stand, writing graffiti-style on the wall, even taping paper to the bottom of their desk and working upside down. Providing clipboards allows students to work in a variety of positions.

Reserve a few moments in the day for problem solving. Encourage students to bring up issues they are having and then turn to the classroom as a whole for help. This encourages students to advocate for themselves and also fosters compassion and interest in others.

See additional tips in Dr. Causton’s book, mentioned at the end of this article.

Providing humanistic behavior support

When faced with challenging behavior, teachers typically want to know how they can get the student to behave or respect others. They think about what consequences or reinforcements can be used to change student behavior.

Dr. Causton suggests that we should ask new questions. What is the student trying to communicate with his or her behavior? Does the student feel comfortable, safe, valued, and empowered? Is the curriculum challenging, motivating, and interesting? How can we help students connect with others? How can students experience joy in school?

The key is figuring out what the student needs. When students misbehave, they are telling you what they need. “If you know how students misbehave, you know how they are smart,” says Dr. Causton. “If you know how they are smart, you know what they need MORE of.” For example, if students move around a lot, they need to move around a lot. If they talk back, they are verbal.

Learning more

You can find out more about Dr. Causton’s ideas at and in her book “Educator’s Handbook for Inclusive School Practices” . Watch her webinar to get a coupon for a discount off the book price. Also view “Building an Inclusive Classroom Environment” on


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