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Written by: Rashaad Young and Crystal Williams, Ed.M.

Children with disabilities may have a difficult time when they start to recognize the ways in which they are different from their peers. These differences may become more noticeable to a child when they enter a new setting, such as entering preschool, moving to the general education classroom, or entering middle school. Additionally, it is even more difficult when the child does not see or hear themselves reflected in that setting’s materials or environment. Teachers at all grade levels can support inclusion by using several strategies related to representation suggested by Yu and colleagues (2016).

1.  Classroom Materials

  • Many classroom materials reflect typically developing students. It can be harmful for children with disabilities when they do not see themselves in classroom materials. Also, a lack of representation in the materials prevents children without disabilities from learning about their classmates with disabilities. Therefore, materials such as books, posters, and signage should represent people with disabilities. Teachers can enhance representation by selecting materials for the classroom that show student students using sensory materials (e.g., chewy tubes, weighted items), alternative communication methods (e.g., Braille, sign language, communication boards), or adaptive equipment (wheelchairs, alternative seating, adapted utensils). For example, a classroom poster may include a child using a Picture Exchange Communication System® (PECS®). Additionally, teachers can evaluate books and other materials to ensure that people with disabilities are represented appropriately, rather than with stereotypic language and/or examples of tokenism. Positive exposure to people with disabilities can foster awareness and understanding about disabilities, which can lead to positive changes in behavior such as promoting cooperative play between children with and without disabilities.

2.  Classroom Curriculum

  • The curriculum is “the ‘what’ of children’s learning and may include experiences, activities, routines, and materials that are provided to children within classroom environments” (Yu et al., 2016, p. 118). However, most lessons within any given curriculum lack representation of individuals with disabilities. One simple suggestion is to include photos and stories in the curriculum that reflect individuals with disabilities’ experiences. For example, if students are to count the number of chairs pictured on a page, this page can be adapted so that some or all the chairs are wheelchairs. As another example, for an assignment in which students read an excerpt and answer questions about it, this excerpt can be about an individual with a disability. Or if teachers are doing a unit on career exploration, they can emphasize (through stories, photos, or guest speakers) that individuals with disabilities can engage in a variety of professions. Adapting the curriculum to be more representative can change the way students view people who are different from themselves.

3.  Classroom languages

  • Language diversity includes different spoken languages, as well as other forms of communication (e.g., sign language, gestures, PECS®). The ways in which students communicate should be valued by teachers and classmates to help create a sense of belonging. Teachers can intentionally embed all forms of communication represented by their students into their teaching, such as hanging posters with multiple languages represented, learning common phrases in each communication method, teaching students to understand one another’s communication methods as much as possible, and pairing multiple communication forms at once. An example of pairing communication methods may involve signing the word, “eat” while telling the students verbally that it is snack time and pointing to the snack. Embedding this learning in established routines, such as selecting classroom jobs, reviewing the daily schedule, or music/movement activities allows children to get consistent practice. Examples of this would be saying ‘hello’ in different languages during a morning meeting, learning numbers in different languages, or singing songs in various languages. Additionally, teachers can teach students to use technology to support communication with others, such as using Google Translate or searching for a video that demonstrates a sign for a specific word. “Using multiple forms of communication demonstrates that we ‘all belong’ and supports children’s access to and participation in learning and social experiences,” (Yu et al. 2016, p. 121).

4.  Schoolwide Environments

  • Students with disabilities should have opportunities to be actively engaged in the school community at large, rather than confined to a certain area and certain activities. For example, students with disabilities should receive the necessary supports to attend and meaningfully participate in physical education, library, school assemblies, parties, etc. To promote schoolwide inclusion, it is important to ensure that the whole school is accessible, such as having multiple languages on signage and having places for students who use wheelchairs to sit next to their peers during specials (e.g., art, library) and lunch. Additionally, events such as 5Ks, field days, and concerts can be intentionally planned to ensure students with disabilities can participate. Examples include noting that students can “run, walk, or roll” and providing sensory-sensitive supports (e.g., dim lighting, noise cancelling headphones).

5.  Family Collaboration

  • The Division for Early Childhood Recommended Practices suggests that “…practitioners work with families and other adults to modify and adapt the physical, social, and temporal environments to promote each child’s access to and participation in learning experiences,” (Yu et al. 2016, p. 122). This can be accomplished by providing families with resources that promote acceptance of differences, such as a list of children’s books that promote diversity or a list of disability-friendly community events. Teachers can also provide families with tips, reflective questions, or conversation starters to help families talk about disabilities with their children while at home. For example, parents can facilitate conversations with their children that focus on helping children identify commonalities (e.g., “You both like to swim”), differences (e.g., “You use a fork to eat, but they use a tube”), individual strengths (e.g., “Amir is really good at art”), and individual support needs (“They need to use a chewy tube, like how you need to have a night light at bedtime.”) Acknowledging each of these areas helps children recognize that each person is valuable. By partnering with families, children will have more opportunities to learn and gain acceptance of others.

You can find links to helpful tip sheets and resources in this document.


Yu, S. Y., Ostrosky, M. M., Favazza, P. C., & Meyer, L. E. (2016). “Where are the kids like me?” Classroom materials that help create a sense of belonging. In T. Caralino & L. E. Meyer (Eds.), DEC recommended practices monograph No. 2 environment: Promoting meaningful access, participation, and inclusion (pp. 115-126). Division for Early Childhood.

Image Credit: RDNE Stock project