• Sherry St. Clair

Leading the Inclusive Movement for Students with Disabilities

I just love Savanna's work. Her passion for those she serves is undeniable and something I greatly respect. The number of lives she impacts through her consulting will never be known but I am thankful to know she is in the field advocating for children. Enjoy her words of wisdom. -Sherry St. Clair

What is the first step we can take to create a fully accessible and inclusive school community? A great place to start is to make sure you have a vision of what you want inclusion to look and sound like in your school community. School administrators, educators, support staff, students, parent council, and student government all need to develop the vision and embrace it collectively. The vision should be written down and easily understood by all members of the school community. The vision must be visible on the school website, on classroom bulletin boards, in lunchrooms/cafeteria – whatever and wherever is the best way to get the message across. Creating a unified vision around Inclusion promotes a proactive, solution-focused approach to fostering accessibility and inclusion for all students. One of my favorite reminders is, “Inclusion is more than a seat in a classroom or a wing in our school building.” It is a belief/philosophy that all students can have their individual needs met in the general education setting, with supports and services provided there. Inclusive Practices is a mindset then, that drives your resources, professional development practices, schedules, and overall school community.

In strong inclusive school communities, differences are not just expected, but celebrated. Structures such as bulletin boards and school celebrations are added to honor learning differences so that our students with disabilities are acknowledged for what they add to our schools. One school I worked with stopped having ‘only’ honor roll assemblies and added two student success showcases for all students to display their unique talents and skills. Some students danced, displayed science projects, played a jazz set, drawings, one student who was trained in professional dog handling showed her talents. Plastered throughout the school gallery, were 1-page statements that every child filled out that finished the phrase, “I am proud of.” Students and parents walked through the showcase. Isn’t this an amazing idea to foster collaboration, community, and opportunities for all students to lead and be celebrated?

One teacher should not own this philosophy of inclusion. Everyone understands, inclusion is not “something to do” but a belief that all students can be supported in the least restrictive environment possible. If we build the philosophy – fairness not being sameness, each student gets what they need to be successful, students are able to capitalize on their talents and feel comfortable taking learning risks as they move towards progress on their areas of growth.

Two key characteristics of successful inclusive school communities are interdisciplinary collaboration and evidenced-based instruction.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

In strong inclusive school communities, every teacher is invested in every child’s achievement, proactively differentiating instruction to provide every learner access to rich instructional opportunities. An outsider can see this philosophy in action, isolation does not exit, and teachers are interdependent on each other. Math teachers are not only talking with math teachers, or special education teachers only talking with sped teachers. Instead families of teachers are talking to ensure the success of the family of learners. Special Education and ELL teachers are a part of interdisciplinary teams, learning teams, and content teams, as co-planning with UDL in mind is essential for student success.

During these vital planning conversations, magic happens and creative solutions on differentiation occur. I’d love to share a great example of the brilliance that is fostered during collaborative planning with diverse instructional teacher backgrounds. I worked with a co-teaching team recently, and the teachers were planning vocabulary instruction using Marzano’s six stage framework. One teacher was worried because many of their students often shut down, citing, “I can’t draw” as their obstacle. The co-teacher shared a useful technology tool that can remove that barrier, a free tool that utilizes predictive software for drawing. Did you guess, “Autodraw.com?” When we intentionally create space for teacher collaboration to support differentiation, the achievement of students with exceptionalities increases substantially (L.Dieker, W. Murwaski, 2008).

Evidenced-Based Practices

Beyond UDL, our instructional practices should include lots of specially designed instruction (SDI) across the spectrum of services from co-teaching to resource small settings. The definition of Special Education is Specially Designed Instruction. Special Education is instruction that is more intensive, more precisely delivered, and absolutely necessary in order to support the needs of students with disabilities beyond “good, effective instruction.” Using the IEP as the blueprint for implementing SDI to remove barriers and fill gaps based on areas of academic need will provide students with disabilities meaningful access to the curriculum (W. Rodgers, M.P. Weiss, 2019). Every teacher can deliver SDI, and the special education teacher takes the lead in sharing and modeling SDI for students.

Lastly, but important, social and emotional learning is embedded throughout the day to benefit all students and especially those with exceptionalities. Reading, writing,math and social emotional skills are taught in all subjects. In this way, every student is working on a social skills goal, not just those with IEP goals. I share a three-step framework for integrating SEL: 1. Analyze the academic standard and list 1 or 2 of the SEL skills that are necessary for task success (most academic standards include self and social awareness). 2. Create and model a mini lesson for the SEL skill (8-10 minutes max). 3. Add scaffolds to support learners (checklist, sentence starters, etc.)

So how inclusive are we? Inclusive Schools.org provides a free Inclusive Schools Self-Assessment and provides specific resources and next steps and my latest book, Shaking Up Special Education: Instructional Moves to Increase Achievement shares hundreds of instructional strategies to support special education teachers, general education teachers, and diverse learners.

Children learn to swim by getting in the water. We learn to include when we include. Change can happen. It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, just as long as you don’t stop. In closing, I’d like to share this inspirational video that highlights the benefits of building a unified vision on inclusion, interdisciplinary collaboration, and evidenced-based practices. If you would like to discuss any area related to inclusion, feel free to reach out to me. I’d love to connect.


Savanna Flakes is an international education consultant specializing in inclusion, special education, and social emotional learning. Savanna has worked with school communities around the world to support teachers with effective instructional practices to reach ALL students. She serves as a professor in the American University School of Education and Health, and she presents internationally on topics such as Universal Design for Learning, Team Collaboration, and Technology Integration. Savanna has received numerous honors and awards for her work on behalf of students and in education such as a TEDx Speaker, National Association of Special Education Teachers Outstanding Special Educator Award, and the U.S. Department of Education-White House Outstanding American Educator. Savanna is a “Possibilitarian;” she believes everything is possible with an Inclusive Mindset. For more information visit www.readingforabetterfuture.com.