- Utilize furniture that blends in and can accommodate everyone.
- Design classroom layouts that are open and easily accessible.
- Encourage student engagement through shared experiences.
The way that schools and educators approach special education is rapidly changing for the better and including students with disabilities in general education settings is at the forefront of these improvements. As of 2019, approximately 14% of students in the U.S. public school system were served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and most of those students spend 80% of their time or more in general education classrooms.
Creating a learning environment that supports both disabled and non-disabled students can be challenging, but the rewards are well worth the effort. According to The Atlantic, “as many as 85 percent of students with disabilities can master general-education content if they receive educational supports.” Additionally, inclusive classrooms allow non-disabled students to “benefit socially by forming positive relationships and learning how to be more at ease with a variety of people.”
Having an inclusive classroom environment helps educators provide a balanced education to their students. So, how exactly can schools continue to support educators as they lead all of their students towards success?
Utilize flexible classroom furniture
Every student has their own seating preference, which is why flexible school seating has become so popular. This trend has another benefit though: it makes it extremely easy to provide disabled students with seating that fits their needs without calling attention to their differences.
Soft seating is especially helpful because the thick foam can support a wide variety of body types and is available in many shapes and colors. These pieces are also easy to combine for collaborative activities. Wobble stools and wiggle wobble chair feet help students with ADHD maintain concentration by offering more freedom of movement to students that like to fidget. For more traditional seating, the cool blue compass chair is designed to mimic standard school chairs while providing a wider seat and comforting armrests.
Flexible furniture that can be adjusted is another great way to create an inclusive classroom. Adjustable-height collaborative desks are particularly useful as students can customize how much room they have during individual lessons, while seamlessly combining with other desks for group activities. Some adjustable tables can be particularly useful for certain types of students. For students that need help focusing, horseshoe tables direct attention towards the center and provides a space for educators to sit as well. For students that have extra energy throughout the day, sit-to-stand desks can allow them to stretch their legs without disrupting others.
Adding flexible furniture can be a solution for many students that struggle to feel comfortable throughout class. Most classroom furniture can be ordered with wheels attached, making rearranging rooms a cinch. While furniture is an important facet of creating inclusive classrooms, implementing adaptive classroom layouts is just as crucial.
Design accessible classroom layouts
Most public spaces already take care to have pathways wide enough for wheelchair users and people with mobility disabilities to navigate, but going beyond this basic idea to provide a space that can be equally enjoyed by everyone isn’t much more difficult.
Classroom lounge areas are great for encouraging students to study independently between lessons. Using a corner is ideal because bookcases and seating can be placed against the wall, leaving most of the space open and accessible. Makerspace workstations similarly fit well in corners and can be adjusted to accommodate a wide variety of students. A soft classroom rug can tie everything together and create a calming atmosphere.
Make sure to include decorations and signage that encourage everyone to be kind and embrace whatever makes them special. Book displays are a great addition to learning spaces, as students can grab books off the shelf easily, no matter their height, and most of the cover being visible makes the books enticing to students. Filling displays with picture books that celebrate inclusivity can help students both practice reading and learn how to treat people that are different from themselves. While these suggestions seem small, it can make a big impact on a student to have a space they can easily enter and to have signage or books prominently displayed that include kids that look and act like them.
When students feel welcome among their peers, they learn to enjoy school more and can become more confident. The right furniture and the right layout provides a conducive space for students to share and learn together.
Create Opportunities for Shared Experiences
Most students have something that makes them unique and sharing with others opens the door to friendship and understanding. Some lessons may involve writing down a personal story or having a simple show and tell, but organic interactions can easily be encouraged with a bit of planning.
Having interactive items in the classroom can help students form connections with each other. The All About Me 2 in 1 Mirrors allow students to play with their reflections, while Express Your Feelings Sensory Bottles help students identify how they feel.
Including everyone in tactile lessons can also be helpful. When students need to use dexterity aids regularly, there is little reason not to involve other students too. Tools like the digi-squeeze hand exerciser help students with disabilities but can also teach non-disabled students exercise techniques that can prevent carpal tunnel. Doing these exercises right after computer-based lessons not only creates a stable routine for students who need that, but also forms a good habit for everyone.
Lessons done outside of the classroom can encourage students to get engaged by asking questions, helping each other understand, and sharing what they’ve learned. Experiencing new things together highlights their similarities more than their differences, helping to bridge the gap between students.
Many schools already have other spaces that can easily be used for inclusive lessons and activities. Vinyl floor cushions are great for this because they can be used almost anywhere and are very easy to carry. Setting up schoolyard outdoor classrooms is a great way to casually bring students together for shared tactile lessons, from identifying basic colors to understanding how pollinators work with plants. Some schools have relaxation spaces meant to de-stress students. These sensory rooms are gaining popularity thanks to their interactive accessories like bubble tube mirrors and fiber optic tranquility tunnels, which give students a calming sense of wonder and boosts their inquisitive nature.
Creating inclusive classrooms can be intimidating at first glance, but even small changes can have big effects. When students feel comfortable in their classroom and can easily socialize with each other, they learn to celebrate their differences and can even improve academically. As we continue to support inclusive learning spaces, helping students love themselves and their peers is not only essential, but one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator.
Riser-Kositsky, Maya. “Special Education: Definition, Statistics, and Trends.” Education Week, Education Week, 21 July 2021, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/special-education-definition-statistics-and-trends/2019/12.
Mader, Jackie. “Teacher Training Is Failing Students with Disabilities.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Mar. 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/03/how-teacher-training-hinders-special-needs-students/518286/.
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