Creating a Culture of Inclusion in the Classroom

How one teacher encourages her students to respect each other’s differences and the value those differences bring to the community.

By Jude Miqueli

U.S. classrooms are becoming more and more diverse, including students from different cultures, family backgrounds, and disabilities. When the diversity of a community increases, the possibilities for conflict and misunderstanding also increase. It is a teacher’s job to teach students to appreciate each other’s accomplishments and strengths, so that the classroom can function as a unified team. Indeed, this is a valuable skill which will follow students beyond graduation, wherever they end up. Regardless of their career path, every student will encounter many people different from themselves, whether at work, in their neighborhoods, or online. Knowing how to get along with different people will be crucial to their success as adults.

Community Starts with You

You have to look at your own behavior first, and reflect on how you are interacting with others. In my class, we self-reflect at the end of each day. Students reflect on their behavior throughout the day, and can also use this time to acknowledge each other for positive behaviors like sharing or saying “thank you.” I use an app called Bloomz to reward the behaviors we point out. This has been a very important part of building self-esteem and friendship in our class. As a group, we continuously acknowledge our behaviors, and build a supportive community where accountability is the norm. When classmates know each other well and recognize what gifts each individual brings to the group, students honor each other’s differences, and behaviors like bullying are less likely to occur.

This activity is very helpful for my student who is on the autism spectrum, and who is learning about personal space, how to raise his hand and wait to be called on, how to say “thank you,” and how to give compliments to people. The whole class is able to acknowledge his positive behaviors, and he is also learning to acknowledge others positively. This is helping him socialize and build friendships. When my students earn a reward and flowers “bloom” on the app, I give them a real flower in class. It may seem like a small thing, but the impact it has on the students is huge. When my student on the autism spectrum received a flower, the whole class clapped and he came up to the front with a big smile on his face to receive it. It was a big moment for our whole classroom community.

Dealing with Conflict as a Community

This is my fourth year teaching, and I have yet to have a serious issue with bullying in any of my classrooms, but that doesn’t mean I am not on the lookout for any behavior that could develop into bullying later. For example, one time there were a couple of boys in my kindergarten class who repeatedly made fun of any student who liked the color pink.

I took this very seriously, since if this behavior continued, it could turn into gender-based bullying in adolescence (or even adulthood). I created a PowerPoint called Stand Up for Pink. In it, I defined bullying and included images of cool-looking men (dads, football players, musicians, etc.) wearing pink. After I presented the PowerPoint, I handed out a pledge that everyone signed to agree to end making fun of the color pink.

Many of the students were happy I addressed this. During our class discussion, I had a kindergarten boy share that he loved pink and it was his favorite color. Many of the girls shared that when the boys made fun of pink because it was a “girl” color, they were also making fun of girls. After this day, I never heard another student make fun of pink for the rest of the year. I even noted that some of the boys who initially made fun of the color were using it in their drawings.

When a more serious conflict between students does arise, teachers need to partner with parents and families to address it. When everyone is aware of the circumstance, they can begin work towards a solution. This can be tough. No one wants to receive a blunt email stating that his or her child is in trouble. Teachers need to be thoughtful in their approach to contacting parents about behavioral issues.

Whenever I am in this situation, I try to communicate that I wish to work with the parent to support their child’s growth and success in having positive relationships with their peers. I want the parent to know that I am not here to scold them, but I am here to work with them to support their child. Sometimes there is painful information to share regarding words or physical actions that the child has engaged in, but I am not here to be judgmental. I simply relay the information and let the parent know that I am here to partner with them to solve the problem.

Keeping an Open Mind

I work at a Montessori school, where students have a voice and a choice in what they work on and how they work on it. We provide each student with a checklist of subject matter that they need to complete by the end of the week. The student chooses which subject they will work on first and has the freedom to complete it in a way that makes sense to them. When they complete an assignment, students gain self-esteem, enjoy the process, and take ownership of their own learning. Students are empowered to not only learn, but to learn how they learn best.

I encourage creativity in my class by listening to my students. When I am walking around the room checking in with everyone after giving an assignment, I often notice students who appear to be off task. Instead of jumping to conclusions, I talk to the student, ask them questions, and show that I am interested in what they are doing. What I usually find out is that they are in fact doing the assignment, and they are going above and beyond. It is often a gifted artist who is completing the assignment in a way that I could have never imagined, because their creative process is different than mine. These are some of my favorite moments, because I have the opportunity to learn from my students, not just the other way around.

In our world today, you don’t have to look very far to see examples of intolerance, but working with my students proves to me every day that people aren’t born that way. Lower elementary students are open-minded, tolerant, and accepting of all people. In one classroom last year, I had a student with misophonia (sound sensitivities), another on the autism spectrum, one with OCD, and another with Tourette’s Syndrome. One student’s tick was another student’s trigger. This created many opportunities for us to discuss diversity and inclusiveness within our classroom. When I saw their patience and how they came up with creative solutions to work together and create a safe space where everyone could feel comfortable and learn, I had hope for the future.

Jude Miqueli teaches 1st– through 3rd-graders at West Seattle Montessori School and Academy

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