Classroom management in inclusive settings

Classroom management in inclusive settings

Leslie C. Soodak

The inclusion of children with disabilities in general education classes provides an opportunity for teachers to identify classroom management policies and practices that promote diversity and community. Community-building management strategies that facilitate friendships, collaboration, parent involvement, and address challenging behaviors in a positive, proactive, and educative manner are consistent with the goals of inclusive education. In addition, in order to develop a truly inclusive school community, management policies and practices that are inconsistent with inclusive education–such as exclusionary discipline policies–need to be addressed by teachers and administrators.

RYAN, A STUDENT WITH MULTIPLE disabilities, and Tania, a child who has challenges in attention and behavior, are full-time members of a class of 26 mixed-ability students in a fifth-grade class in Hubert Elementary School. The class is taught full-time by Ms. James, a general educator, and part-time by Ms. Olmstead, a special educator assigned to support the children, including the two students with disabilities. Before she was assigned an inclusive class, Ms. James generally taught lessons to the entire class and required, with moderate success, that all students remain seated and quiet until everyone had completed their assignments. This year’s inclusive class frequently works in small groups so the students can be more active, involved, and supportive of each other. Changes were also made in the class rules and procedures. For example, because both teachers felt it was unrealistic and unnecessary to require students to stay seated, guidelines about where and for how long students can take breaks were established. As in previous years, the teachers expected each student to complete his or her work; however, this year not all students were given the same assignment. Similarly, all students were expected to comply with the school and classroom rules, but changes were made to ensure that all students were equally able to succeed.

Inclusive classes, such as the one just described, are no longer exceptional. In recent years, the number of students with learning, behavioral, and other educational disabilities being taught in general education classes has more than tripled (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Ten years ago, less than one third of students with disabilities participated in general education classes. By 1997-1998, more than 75% of the 6.5 million students with disabilities were being educated in classes with their nondisabled peers. The move toward inclusive education is supported by legislation, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments (IDEA) of 1997, and research showing the benefits of inclusion for children with and without disabilities (Baker, Wang, & Walberg, 1994; Staub & Peck, 1994).

As the composition of students within classes becomes ever more diverse, educational policies and practices need to be made more inclusive. The purpose of this article is to identify research-based strategies for creating and managing a diverse classroom community. The following three questions frame the discussion of inclusive classroom management practices:

1. How do teachers create a sense of community in classes comprised of students who differ in their abilities and behaviors?

2. How can teachers form a safe and responsive learning environment for all members of the classroom community using knowledge from two traditionally discrete fields (i.e., special and general education)?

3. What considerations and accommodations need to be made at the building and district level to ensure there are explicit and fair expectations for all students?

In this article, strategies to enhance the overall quality of the classroom environment are presented before discussing positive and supportive strategies that may be used to address the challenging behavior of individual students. This approach, which is supported by research in both special education and general education, suggests that school discipline issues are minimized when students feel welcomed, safe, and supported.

Creating an Inclusive Community

Philosophically and pragmatically, inclusive education is primarily about belonging, membership, and acceptance. Historically, the inclusive school movement grew out of a parent-initiated effort that focused on the rights of children with disabilities to participate with their nondisabled peers (Turnbull & Turnbull, 2001). Parents believed, and educators supported the notion, that separating children on any characteristic, such as ability or race, inherently leads to an inferior education for those who are “tracked” out of the mainstream. In addition, efforts to allow part-time involvement in targeted subject areas (usually nonacademic) based on student “readiness” to participate, as in the case of mainstreaming, resulted in less than favorable outcomes (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987). What then emerged was a commitment to full-time membership in age-appropriate, general education classes.

Quality inclusion is not merely determined by student placement, but rather is based on creating an environment that supports and includes all learners (Villa & Thousand, 2000). An inclusive school community must be supported by policies and practices at the school and classroom levels. In the scenario described earlier, Ryan, Tania, and the other 10- and 1 l-year-old children in the neighborhood simply went to school to learn and be together. However, specific policies, strategies, and supports needed to be in place to ensure that all children felt welcome and that the teachers were able to teach their students effectively. These practices were specifically aimed at promoting membership, friendships, and collaboration. While these terms are central to inclusive education, they also hold important meaning to general educators seeking to create democratic classrooms.

Promoting membership

According to parents and teachers, membership refers to a child’s right to belong and to have access to the same opportunities and experiences as other children of the same age (Kunc, 2002). In schools that effectively include all students, membership is promoted by educating all children in their neighborhood (i.e., local) schools, assigning students to classes heterogeneously within those schools, and avoiding policies and practices that exclude students from programs, settings, or events.

One revealing indicator of a school’s commitment to inclusion is whether there are conditions placed on a child’s participation in general education classes. Classroom community is undermined when membership is made conditional on the student’s behavioral or academic readiness (Soodak & Erwin, 2000). When students are required to earn their way into a class or school, teachers and students are given the message that the child is not a full and rightful member of the class, which is likely to decrease teachers’ expectations for success and their willingness to assume responsibility for student learning. There is a substantial body of research demonstrating that sorting, grouping, and categorizing children reduces their status to that of being considered “other people’s children” (Delpit, 1998; Sailor, 2002). On the other hand, acceptance of student diversity provides the groundwork for accommodating naturally occurring learning and behavioral differences among students through strategies such as differentiated instruction.

Facilitating friendships

Inclusive school communities focus on social as well as academic outcomes for children. Friendships matter to children, their parents, and teachers because they provide children with the opportunity to develop important skills and attitudes and, perhaps most important, they enhance quality of life for children and their families (Meyer, Park, Grenot-Scheyer, Schwartz, & Harry, 1998). Based on what we know to be the benefits of having friends, and conversely the negative effects of being socially isolated, many schools actively strive to foster friendships among children. Some of the strategies used to promote friendships include (a) selecting activities that involve cooperation and collaboration rather than competition, (b) creating rituals that involve all members of the class, such as class meetings and friendship circles, (c) using children’s literature to promote discussions about friendship and belonging, and (d) setting up classroom rules to encourage respect, such as requiring turn-taking or not permitting any child to be left out.


Positive interactions among teachers, as well as students, contribute to a sense of school and classroom community. Inclusive schools seek to encourage collaboration among teachers for the purposes of planning, teaching, and supporting students. With adequate support, collaborative teaching leads to positive outcomes for learners in heterogeneously grouped classes (Villa, Thousand, Nevin, & Malgeri, 1996). Implementing effective teaching collaborations, however, is time-consuming and complex. Teachers often express concern about changes in their roles and responsibilities; differences in teaching style and philosophical orientation; and logistical issues, such as scheduling, planning time, and resource allocation. Friend and Bursuck (2002) offer a number of school-wide strategies to support collaboration, including (a) developing and adopting a set of rules, responsibilities, and privileges pertaining to collaboration, (b) providing teachers with designated time for co-planning and reflection, and (c) offering preservice and inservice training in collaboration.

Creating community within a school also depends on the policies and practices affecting families. Although parent participation has long been a goal in both general and special education, differences in policies and practices within the two fields warrant attention. Parent participation in general education has traditionally focused on sharing information about student achievement and ensuring that parents provide the context and supervision needed to complete assignments (Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, & Brissie, 1992). Parental involvement in the education of children with disabilities, on the other hand, is not just considered good practice, it is mandated by law (IDEA, 1997). Parents of children with disabilities must be given the opportunity to collaborate in decision making about the placement, instruction, and related services provided to their children.

An understanding of what parents consider to be effective partnerships may be useful to teachers in negotiating expectations about parent involvement in inclusive settings. Parents interviewed by Soodak and Erwin (2000) stressed the importance of building trust, which developed from interactions characterized by honesty, openness, and mutual respect. Specifically, parents felt welcomed by an open-door policy, ongoing opportunities for involvement, and informal and open communication with professionals. Interestingly, parents said they felt less of a need to be present in schools when relationships were based on trust and respect.

In sum, membership, friendship, and collaboration are key components of an inclusive school community. Diverse classrooms provide a unique opportunity to promote a sense of understanding and tolerance of others–conditions that are likely to reduce conflict and opportunities for misbehavior. However, all teachers, including those who strive to create a sense of community among diverse learners, need to be responsive to students whose behavior impedes their own or others’ sense of community (Stainback & Stainback, 1996).

Supporting Positive Behavior in All Students

Hubert Elementary School is similar to many of today’s schools. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that issues of inappropriate student behavior and aggression would arise. For example, a child might speak offensively to an adult, threaten a classmate, or hit another student. What is important at schools like Hubert Elementary School, and other inclusive schools, is that interventions used to address student behavior reflect the values of inclusiveness by being equitable and supportive to all learners. The teachers at Hubert Elementary School are mindful of the messages sent by their responses to challenging behavior. They choose not to punish or suspend students–actions they feel demean and exclude children. Instead they use positive interventions that focus on supporting the children by making changes in the school environment (such as changing seating arrangements, schedules, and patterns of supervision) and teaching students new or alternate behaviors.

Positive and supportive behavioral strategies

One promising approach to educating children whose behavior impedes their own learning or the learning of others in a respectful and inclusive manner is called positive behavioral support. Positive behavioral supports, which were introduced into special education in the most recent revision of IDEA (1997), refer to the use of behavioral interventions and teaching strategies to achieve important and meaningful behavior change. Positive behavioral supports are based on the belief that problem behaviors are context-related and purposeful, and interventions should reflect an understanding of and respect for the student. The intent is to be preventative, proactive, and educative (Koegel, Koegel, & Dunlap, 1996). Positive behavioral supports are an alternative to punishment and other traditional methods of behavior modification, which do not necessarily teach positive behaviors or create a climate of civility. Although teachers can and should use traditional methods to strengthen students’ positive behaviors by “catching them being good,” behavioral supports proactively modify contexts and teach students to use appropriate behaviors so the stage is set for them to do well.

Use of this problem-solving approach to behavior management usually begins with an analysis of the situation through a process called functional behavioral assessment. A functional behavioral assessment provides an understanding of the student and the function of his or her behavior so a plan for altering the environmental conditions can be developed (Knostner & Kincaid, 1999).

Positive behavior supports were used in the fifth-grade class taught by Ms. James and Ms. Olmstead to help Tania find appropriate ways to express her anger. Tania was frequently becoming upset and was occasionally verbally aggressive to her peers when transitions occurred, particularly when small groups were formed. The teachers arranged to meet with the child study team to discuss possible reasons for her behavior. A functional assessment of the behavior led to the hypothesis that Tania was feeling frustrated by not knowing what was going to be required of her during group work and constrained by the tight class schedule. The supports that were found to help Tania included having the teachers say the directions aloud before students changed seats, having a friend accompany her to her group, and teaching Tania to ask to speak individually with a teacher when she was feeling angry or upset. Also, to help Tania feel more in control of her day, efforts were made to offer her reasonable choices whenever possible.

Responding to misbehavior while support planning

Because classrooms are dynamic places, teachers need to respond to situations as they occur, as well as take the time needed to design and implement a plan to support change. When students misbehave, particularly when the behavior disrupts learning or threatens the well-being or safety of others, teachers may need to respond with immediacy to restore order, preserve dignity, and provide guidance. The goal is to manage the problem behavior without losing sight of how the behavior connects to the individuals’ history and the context. There are well-supported recommendations to consider when responding to student misbehavior. First, try to diffuse and redirect behavior. For example, give choices about what a student may do to make amends for the misbehavior. The choices should reflect “natural” consequences, such as replacing materials taken or redoing work that has been defaced. Second, avoid punishment, because although it may serve to reduce the problem behavior for the moment, it usually encourages students to disengage rather than behave differently. Lastly, if it is deemed necessary to remove a student from the class, do so for a brief time (a few moments can seem long to a child) and without endangering or humiliating the student or others. Also, help the student re-enter the classroom without experiencing shame, guilt, or anger. For example, you may privately inform the student of what he or she missed or ask a supportive classmate to help. These strategies can serve to remind students of established rules and expectations. Recurring behaviors need to be understood and systemically addressed, as with a well-designed positive behavior support plan.

School-wide use of positive behavioral supports

In the past few years, positive behavioral supports have been used more often and with considerable success, particularly in the education of students with disabilities (Braddock, 1999). Recently, there has been growing interest in positive behavior supports as a school-wide approach for creating positive and supportive environments (Colvin, Sugai, Good, & Lee, 1997; Sailor, 1996). Moving to a school-wide implementation requires that there be explicit and shared expectations that are taught, supported, and practiced, and a willingness to use interventions that are grounded in an understanding of students, behaviors, and contexts. Although school-wide adoption of this approach may be beneficial, its use in general education classes requires critical changes in the culture of schools that have long relied on punishment as the primary, and sometimes only, means to curtail negative behavior (Gartin & Murdick, 2001).

Can exclusionary discipline policies work in inclusive schools?

Positive approaches to school discipline are consistent with the goals of inclusive education, but they are far less compatible with existing school or district-wide discipline policies that punish and exclude children from school. Exclusionary discipline policies, known as zero tolerance policies, have become increasingly prevalent in recent years in response to growing reports of school violence. Designed to send a message that aggressive behavior will not be tolerated, many schools have adopted a tough, clear, and seemingly simple plan: evict students who commit specific acts of aggression.

There are two major problems in the use of zero tolerance policies in inclusive schools. First, these policies may undermine their own purpose as well as the goals of inclusion by eroding civility within the school and by disenfranchising those students most in need of emotional connectedness (Skiba & Peterson, 1999, 2000). Second, zero tolerance policies may not apply equally to all students. There is a substantial body of evidence suggesting inequities in the manner students get suspended or expelled. A recent report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University (June, 2000), provided compelling statistical and anecdotal evidence to support the contention that students of color and students with disabilities are at greatest risk of expulsion. In particular, students with emotional and behavioral problems have been overrepresented in reports of suspensions and expulsions (Cooley, 1995) and are most likely to be removed from inclusive settings (Lewis, Chard, & Scott, 1994). Thus, while some educators are trying to meet the needs of students with disabilities in typical settings, the goal of others “may well be the removal of troublesome students from mainstream educational environments” (Skiba & Peterson, 2000, p. 340).

Presently, the way inequities in discipline policies are handled is through the use of legal safeguards for students with disabilities. Safeguards are procedures used to protect students from being unfairly punished for behaviors beyond their control or when the consequences of the behavior were not understood. Legal safeguards included in 1997 revisions to IDEA require schools to make a determination as to whether a student’s disability is related to his or her misbehavior before deciding what, if any, consequences will follow. In addition, school personnel must also determine whether the student was receiving an appropriate education as defined by his or her own individualized education plan (IEP) at the time the incident or behavior occurred.

Although mechanisms for preventing inequities have been set up, these procedures do not necessarily protect students or help them to receive the services and supports they need to succeed. It is difficult to arrive at an accurate determination as to whether a child’s behavior was a result of his or her disability because disability categories are themselves subjective, socially constructed phenomena (Sleeter, 1986) and teachers’ judgments about students with disabilities are likely to be biased (Soodak, Podell, & Lehman, 1998). Clearly there is a need to develop methods for making valid and unbiased judgments about students’ behavior. On the other hand, it may be unreasonable to expect an inherently exclusionary discipline policy to be fairly and equitably applied to students within a diverse school community. All members of the school community need to consider the reasons for and implications of punishing and excluding students and then determine whether alternative strategies, such as positive behavioral supports, would be more effective in reaching the school’s goals.


General education classes are more likely to be diverse and inclusive of students with disabilities than ever before. The strategies identified in this article offer a starting point for classroom practice and professional dialogue about the possibilities of a school-wide commitment to teaching all students. Teachers should identify and access the supports they need to create an inclusive classroom community that ensures membership and opportunities for friendships, collaboration, and parent involvement. Teachers also need to consider the benefits of using positive approaches to behavior management rather than punitive and exclusionary methods in inclusive settings. Clearly, administrative support will be needed for teachers to implement positive behavioral approaches and other strategies to promote an inclusive classroom community.

Inclusive education has already begun to affect school and classroom policies and practices. An increasing number of schools are employing inclusive, community-building management practices, such as those that are used at Hubert Elementary School. It is now the responsibility of all educators to ensure that school policies and classroom practices are consistent with what is in the best interest of all children.

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Leslie C. Soodak is an associate professor of education at Pace University.

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