The call for teachers to cater to the greater diversity within Singaporean classrooms has never been so explicit. How do we effectively include pupils with special needs in the mainstream classroom? And are our teachers ready for this?
Recent educational initiatives announced by the Ministry of Education have called for better support of pupils with special needs and disabilities within mainstream schools.
Underlying these initiatives are the aspirations and efforts of younger parents with special needs children and a maturing society seeking to establish a sense of collective identity and nationhood through the involvement and participation of its diverse citizens.
The seeds of a society where people of diverse backgrounds and abilities can comfortably interact and relate well with each other are found in communities that educate its members to acquire the attitudes and skills to work with and be inclusive of other fellow citizens.
Many younger parents of children with special needs often send their children to mainstream schools instead of a special school so that their children can learn the skills to participate more fully in society. These parents see the promise of a better future for their children and greater membership in society if they can grow up and interact with diverse others in mainstream schools.
School communities are “vital spaces” for children to learn the attitudes and skills to support the inclusion of others in society, and teachers play an extremely significant role in creating inclusive classroom communities.
In our research study, we interviewed teachers from various primary schools who were able to successfully create inclusive learning communities within their classrooms. We were specifically interested in the pedagogical approaches and strategies they used with their classroom communities.
The source of these teachers’ use of appropriate pedagogies to foster and build a caring and inclusive classroom community can be traced to their “personal pedagogy”. By that we mean what teachers strongly believe in, value, cherish about teaching, and the essential meanings they make about their work with pupils.
These teachers developed over time inclusive personal pedagogies, which were influenced by their own family upbringing, school experiences, school cultures, and their own reflections on their experiences with children with special needs. Having an inclusive personal pedagogy enabled them to model caring and inclusive dispositions, which, in turn, helped in creating learning environments that are inclusive for all pupils and yet responsive to individual needs and abilities.
Inclusive pedagogical approaches
The pedagogies adopted by these teachers focused mainly on two areas: social and academic inclusion.
Social inclusion refers to how the teacher fosters social relationships, friendships and networks so that each child has a strong sense of belonging within the classroom community. Academic inclusion refers to how the various learning needs and abilities of pupils are catered to using appropriately differentiated teaching and instructional strategies and materials. The pupils learn at a pace suited to their needs and, importantly, they enjoy learning.
Some of these pedagogical approaches and strategies are highlighted in Table 1 below.
|Social Inclusion||Academic Inclusion|
|At the individual level:
Understand the child first and seek causes for his or her behaviour. Befriend the child, spend time trying to understand him/her, and what is happening to the child both at school and home.
Individual work/counselling – spend time working on particular issues, give feedback and teach appropriate skills.
At the whole-class level:
Respect for differences – use your observations of pupil behaviour and everyday events as a point for discussions and teach skills such as perspective-taking and empathy.
Building relationships – proactively create opportunities for interaction, relationship-building and the formation of friendships.
Cultivate a helping ethic through peer support systems and cooperative learning activities.
Let pupils participated in managing the classroom through self- and peer-regulation.
|More specific and direct instruction – break down particular skill, task or concept. Teach basics before progressing to more complex skills or concepts.
Focus on strengths – make it a point to focus on pupils’ strengths. Create opportunities for pupils to experience success and build self-esteem.
Feedback and encouragement – give positive and constructive feedback for both academic and social aspects of learning.
Differentiation – based on your pupils’ learning styles, abilities, interests or preferences, differentiate your teaching methods, types of activities or tasks, materials, grouping arrangements and assessment.
Accommodation of learning needs – modify your teaching materials to support various disabilities.
Cooperative learning and peer tutoring
Relate academic learning to real-life situations – use relevant examples, stories and illustrations from everyday life to teach life lessons and values.
Making a difference
These findings show that the teaching and inclusion of pupils with special needs in the mainstream classroom is not as esoteric or “specialised” as one might imagine.
These teachers drew from their repertoire of teaching strategies for diverse needs and applied them appropriately in class-wide, group and individual settings. Guided by their own personal pedagogy of creating an inclusive and caring classroom community, they were able to capitalise on learning opportunities presented by difference and diversity, and use them for teaching not just the academics but also character development and the values and skills for relating to and including others.
We do not deny that trying to include pupils with special needs can be challenging when it is left solely to the teachers themselves. Where appropriate, necessary supports can be beneficial (e.g., related services in terms of needed therapies or a school-wide support approach in transitioning children with special needs across grade levels). However, the notion of creating an inclusive and caring classroom community where pupils look out for each other, by default, creates an effective class-wide behaviour management system owned and sustained by the pupils themselves.
These teachers recognised and made use of difference to make a difference in their classrooms in ways that contributed to the social and academic aspects of learning and development of all their pupils and, ultimately, themselves.
> To learn more about this research project, click here