Diversity and inclusion are buzzwords that we hear constantly. We agree diversity is important and we strive to have an inclusive classroom. To promote diversity you need to actively practice inclusion. But do we really know what these words mean, how we can achieve them, and the importance they will have to our students?
Diversity is defined as: 1) the state of being diverse; difference; unlikeness 2) variety; multiformity 3) a point of difference. The demographics of any classroom should give us ample opportunity to experience diversity. Experiencing diversity is different than promoting diversity.
Inclusion is defined as 1) the act of including 2) the state of being included 3) something that is included. Here are some ideas on how to set up and run an inclusive classroom that celebrates diversity.
Classroom Setup and Materials
First, it is important to provide an appropriate physical environment.The classroom should be arranged and maintained in a predictable order for students with visual impairments. Take care to ensure there is enough space for students in wheelchairs to navigate the classroom independently. Are students in wheelchairs able to reach classroom materials on their own?
Don’t stop with your indoor classroom. Think of the playground as an extension of your classroom. While your school is equipped with ramps leading in and out of the building, is there a ramp on the sandbox? Can wheelchairs be maneuvered on all areas of the playground?
Classroom materials can be thought of in the same way. What materials are used, no matter how infrequently, that are difficult for students with disabilities? Consider providing trays that fit across wheelchair arms for better access to manipulatives. It would be even better if those manipulatives were magnetic to prevent them from falling onto the floor. Do you have musical instruments for all students to use, regardless of mobility? Bells can be made into bracelets which can be worn on wrists or ankles. Do you allow your students to sit on the floor during free reading? Be sure to provide pillows, bolsters, and bean bags for students who have difficulty sitting on the floor unattended.
Realistic and Consistent Exposure
Sensitivity to diversity includes being aware of different social backgrounds, cultures, languages, races, genders, abilities and disabilities. Look around your classroom. Are your walls decorated with a diverse group of people? Are the books you read in your classroom filled with people from different backgrounds? Do they promote people with different abilities thinking and doing things independently? Do you invite guest speakers from a wide walk of life? Realistic and consistent exposure to people of all kinds will help them accept themselves and others.
We are not all the same. Children will notice and ask questions about differences. Those questions should be answered openly and honestly. After all, to promote diversity we have to recognize differences. As teachers we should also be able to point out similarities and create daily opportunities that allow all children to interact and learn together.
The Education For All Handicapped Children Act requires all students who have disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education, regardless of skill levels, or the severity of disability, in the least restrictive environment possible. These simple ideas outlined above are a positive first step in compliance with this law. More importantly, it provides a positive example for all children about accepting the differences they will encounter throughout their lives.