Understanding Inclusive Education

You learn to talk by talking
You learn to read by reading
You learn to write by writing
You learn to include by including
Bunch, 1999 p.9

What does inclusive education mean
in Canadian society?

Prior to the 1970s, it was very rare to see children with exceptionalities educated in their home schools along with their siblings and neighbours. Typically, they were bussed to schools that had separate classrooms where children with special needs were grouped together for learning. In the 1970s, a movement began to bring children with special needs into the regular classrooms. These children may still have been bussed from other areas, but for certain times in the day, they were "mainstreamed". While the term mainstreaming seemed to imply that children were placed in the regular classroom, this was not really the case. Children with special needs were considered more like visitors to the class rather than full members of the classroom.

Why is inclusive education important?

Inclusion assumes that children with special needs are part of the regular stream and should be treated as such. Inclusion is based on Wolfensberger's principle of normalization (i.e., all persons regardless of ability should live and learn in environments as close to normal as possible). The basic idea behind normalization is that people with special needs should be viewed in the ways in which they are the same as other people rather than in the ways in which they are different. School can be seen as a microcosm of the larger society. As Canadian society has moved toward a more inclusive view of all individuals, so too, have schools moved toward inclusion.

What are the controversies?

Inclusion is not without its controversies. As the movement has evolved, the distinction between regular education and special education has become blurred. More and more regular classroom teachers have been expected to program for the children with special needs. This has caused a lot of problems because many of the teachers have not been trained in special education. Even current teacher education programs do not provide a significant amount of instruction in special education. Another issue of concern relates to the education of the children without special needs. Some parents of these children feel that their children's education has been weakened due to inclusion. Research has shown that this is not the case. The educational attainment of children in classes where there are children with special needs is not significantly less than in classes without children with special needs. One may even argue that children in inclusive classrooms learn more as they begin to understand and accept diversity.

What are the characteristics of an inclusive school?

All children can succeed in an inclusive environment. Research tells us that effective inclusive schools have the following characteristics:

1. Supportive Environment

A school's culture and climate refer to the school's atmosphere, values, and policies. These lead to particular expectations and behaviors on the part of staff members and students. An effective school is one that has high expectations for its staff members and students, provides caring support for students and staff, and provides opportunities for their participation in the classroom and broader school setting. Feelings of acceptance are promoted by a welcoming school atmosphere and a school culture that accepts different kinds of behaviors in the classroom and does not make assumptions about children's abilities.

2. Positive Relationships

Teachers encourage the development of relationships through their decisions about where to seat children in the class. More formal actions include exposing children to role models and setting up buddy relationships. Many strategies can be used to promote the social inclusion of all children.

3. Feelings of Competence

Children need to believe that they are competent at something and that others believe that they can succeed. Children can develop a strong self-concept in many different areas. Children can feel competent in areas related to their social, athletic, moral, and creative abilities and qualities, as well as their ability to learn. By understanding their areas of strength, children come to value themselves and develop a strong sense of self-worth or self-esteem.

4. Opportunities to Participate

All children require opportunities to participate in activities that allow them to understand societal expectations. They can then acquire the physical and social competencies needed to function in their school, home, and larger community. As well, they gain an understanding of their strengths and their interrelationships with others.

When children are valued, listened to, encouraged, understood, and believed in, they will be successful.


Bunch, G. (1999). Inclusion: How to. Toronto, Canada: Inclusion Press.
Hutchinson, N.L. (2002). Inclusion of exceptional learners in Canadian schools. Toronto, Canada: Prentice Hall.
Ross, C., & Specht, J. (2002). Focus On…Strategies for including children in the classroom., 2(1).London, ON: Research Alliance for Children with Special Needs.
Wolfensberger, W. (1975). The origin and nature of institutional models. Human Policy Press.

Additional Resources

  • The Best Practices Guide, authored by Jorgensen, McSheehan, and Sonnenmeier. The Best Practice Indicators are divided into twelve areas that impact effective inclusive education for students with disabilities. To view the complete updated document (2012) click HERE.  
  • The Best Practices Indicators Questionnaire for Schools, adapted from a version created by Anne Denham and colleagues, Inclusive Education Initiative, University of Kentucky. To view this document, click HERE.

National Centre on Inclusive Education