ITEEA The Elementary STEM Journal, Vol. 24, Issue 4
PublisherInternational Technology and Engineering Educators Association, Reston, VA
ReleasedMay 1, 2020
The Elementary STEM Journal, Volume 24, Issue 4 - May, 2020

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Article - Inclusion in the Classroom: Definitions, Populations and Best Practices


Diversity classroom-200.pngInclusion in the Classroom: Definitions, Populations and Best Practices 
by Dan Trent, DTE

Inclusion and diversity have become "hot topics" in almost all areas of our society in recent years.

Large and successful companies embrace inclusion and diversity as key components of their company culture and use this information to promote their "brand." Many schools and universities, both public and private, strive to be inclusive.  In fact, organizations that lack diversity or fail to embrace inclusion may be publicly ridiculed for being insensitive.

As teachers and mentors, we have an important role to play in creating a supportive and inclusive learning climate for all students. Research shows that many common educational and social practices reinforce inequities and work against the success of students from underrepresented groups. Thus, promoting success for all learners requires us to reflect on our own practices and engage in deliberate, intentional efforts to model and promote an equitable teaching and learning environment (University of Kansas, n.d.).

Research confirms that businesses that utilize diversity and inclusion initiatives and employ more diverse teams outperform those with a more homogeneous workforce. Similarly, inclusion and diversity practice in educational settings lead to improved student performance among all students. Most agree that inclusion is a "best practice" for almost all organizations.

Casale-Giannola (2014) found that Career and Technical Education, which is foundational for integrative STEM education, is uniquely positioned to provide inclusion opportunities for "at risk" student populations. The study found students in CTE classes benefit via differentiated instruction, real-life connections, opportunities for active learning, repetition, cooperative learning, and meaningful teacher-student relationships.

109493215-300-med.jpgThe words inclusion and diversity are often used interchangeably. In order to create clear diversity and inclusion strategies, it is important to understand the difference between the two. Diversity includes any dimension used to differentiate groups and people from one another. When talking about diversity in a school or workplace setting, we focus on respecting and appreciating what makes people different in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin (SMARP, 2019).

Inclusion, on the other hand, includes organizational efforts to make individuals of all backgrounds feel welcomed and equally treated. An inclusive organizational culture makes people feel respected and valued for who they are as individuals or groups. People who feel welcomed are often much more committed to their work, are more motivated, and have higher levels of engagement. The process of inclusion focuses on making people feel valued and important for the organization’s success. When people feel valued and appreciated, they function at full capacity and feel part of the organization's mission and values (SMARP, 2019).

When discussing inclusion, we need to identify groups that we perceive to be "left out" or isolated. The list includes, but is not limited to: individuals with disabilities, women/girls, "other race" populations, immigrants, rural and inner-city populations, as well as gifted and talented students. Each of these groups presents its own unique challenges to inclusion. They also offer powerful insights and perspectives that can enrich everyone from all backgrounds.

The population most often mentioned in the research includes people with disabilities (both physical and mental). The Alliance for Inclusive Education (2020) defines inclusive education as education that includes everyone, with nondisabled and disabled people (including those with “special educational needs”) learning together. They assert that the education system often creates barriers for disabled learners. Some of these barriers are physical; for instance parts of the school may be inaccessible to wheelchair users. Students who struggle with dyslexia or students who are deaf or hearing impaired also need accommodation for inclusion. These conditions may be more obvious and familiar than some other learning disabilities. We must include special needs students.

Gender equity is an ongoing issue across many aspects of society, not just education. Maryville University (2020) has published a "Definitive Guide to All Gender Inclusion" that states that gender inclusion is a concept that transcends mere equality. It is the notion that all services, opportunities, and establishments are open to all people and that male and female stereotypes do not define societal roles and expectations. They claim that discrepancy in workplace wages is one of the biggest indicators that a lack of gender inclusion still exists. We might go a step further and purport that the wage gap exists because we do not encourage girls to explore high-paying STEM careers. It further states one must include females to achieve gender equity.

Racial inequity continues to be a social issue decades after the Civil Rights movement began. Sanchez (2019) claims that race perceptions are engrained early. She says that preschool-aged children begin to observe in the world around them the things that make individuals different. Teachers have the opportunity to teach children the importance of recognizing the differences and being accepting towards others who are racially different. Lessons tailored around racial diversity help children extend their knowledge about others and help develop positive attitudes towards racial diversity. Not acknowledging a difference or not engaging in talk about racial diversity with students can actually increase racial inequality. Sanchez emphasizes one must include all races to achieve racial equity.

Credit Wesley Fryer via Flickr.jpgIncluding immigrant populations used to be seen as an issue only for states near international borders. There are large immigrant populations all across the country, not just in so-called "border states." We must be inclusive for all immigrants regardless of the size of the group. It may be even more important for a single student to feel welcome and included than if there is a larger group.

Students in rural environments and kids in inner cities often face similar inclusion issues (or lack of inclusion issues). They may face both physical and emotional harassment at home or in the neighborhood where they live. Rural students often feel isolated and alone. Inner city youth may seek solace in gangs to find a sense of belonging. School can be one of the few "safe" places for these individuals. Having a connection to an organization or group of people that makes one feel able to "be yourself" not only results in greater engagement and creativity, it is a psychological need (Florentine, 2019).

In Career and Technical Education, gifted and talented students are often overlooked as a group with inclusion issues. These students are sometimes excluded from participation in CTE courses due to scheduling conflicts. These so-called "band kids" or other high achieving students may be forced to choose between participating in band or advanced placement courses and CTE classes. Yes, well-organized students with good time-management skills should be a part of the Career and Technical Education landscape.

Inclusion in the classroom is vitally important in the creation of successful schools just as inclusion in the workplace improves productivity there. Best practices for inclusion utilized in business are well suited and easily adaptable for classroom situations. Some of these include: establishing a sense of belonging for everyone, empathetic leadership, and understanding that inclusion is an ongoing process (Florentine, 2019). For individuals to bring their best self forward, a sense of belonging must first be established. For real change to occur, each individual leader (teacher, staff member, principal) must buy into the value of belonging—both intellectually and emotionally. Everyone in the building needs to feel included.

The Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Kansas (n.d.) has an extensive library of resources for classroom teachers including these best practices: make your classroom inspiring for underrepresented students (e.g., discuss the contributions of diverse scholars); include diversity and disabilities statements on your syllabus; establish guidelines and goals for classroom interactions (e.g. highlight the importance of respecting others’ perspectives, avoiding generalizations, and being careful not to ask others to "represent" a group you perceive them to belong to); build rapport and community in your class (e.g., incorporate peer learning; create diverse teams to avoid isolating underrepresented students or creating homogenous groups); reflect on your own background and experiences and ask students to do the same; create a positive climate for difficult discussions, and scaffold the discussions (e.g., be an active facilitator by rewording questions, correcting misinformation, and referencing relevant material) and choosing content and examples that address and model diversity, regardless of the subject (University of Kansas, n.d.).

At this point, it is important to mention a common practice that is mistakenly thought to be a best practice. "Colorblindness" is often cited as evidence that a group is inclusive. Simply having individuals from different backgrounds included within a population does not qualify as inclusion. In fact, this practice can lead to completely avoiding the topic of racial identity, thus impairing inclusion rather than encouraging it (Sanchez, 2019).

Teachers must look for ways to increase student exposure to the diversity of human experience. Successful teachers promote a sense of belonging, validation, and mutual respect in their classrooms. An inclusive classroom climate is one that embraces diversity and creates an atmosphere of respect for all members. We should capitalize on the rich array of experiences, backgrounds, and skills that diverse faculty and students bring to the classroom to the benefit of all (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, 2020).


Alliance for Inclusive Education. (2020). What is inclusive education?  

Casale-Giannola. (2014). Inclusion in CTE: What works and what needs fixin'. Tech Directions, Vol. 70, Issue 10, 21.

Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning. (2020). Creating an inclusive climate.

Florentine, S. (2019). Diversity and inclusion: 8 best practices for changing your culture. ADG Communications: CIO.

Maryville University. (2020). Definitive guide to all gender inclusion.

Sanchez, V. (2019). Inclusion and racial diversity curriculum in preschools. Capstone Projects and Master's Theses, 505.

 SMARP. (2020). Empowerment in the workplace: Definitions and best practices.

University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). Inclusive teaching.


Dan Trent, Ph.D., DTE, is Associate Professor, CADD Program Leader, and Architectural Construction Management Program Leader in the Department of Engineering Technology at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, MS. He can be reached at