Cultivating Inclusive Classrooms

What it really means to have an inclusive classroom

Inclusion is Not a Place.

Inclusion is an attitude; it’s an embodied philosophy. Inclusion is borne out of school culture.

Inclusion is not simply about physical proximity. It is about intentionally planning for the success of all students.

When children with disabilities are lumped into general education classrooms without proper support, this is unfair to both the students and teachers. Policy-makers put out “inclusive schools” legislation and dust their hands off as though they’ve done something positive.

Governments must provide adequate funding so that all students can thrive, regardless of their physical location within the school, and to ensure that inclusion is much more than physical proximity to their classmates.

I’m going to describe a fairly basic example from our own lives, but teachers and school administrators may need to think outside the box and be creative to meet student’s needs in a way that does not separate them from their peers simply for the convenience of the school staff.

Movement Breaks Benefit Everyone

My son was diagnosed 2e with ADHD at age 6, when he was nearing the end of first grade. In grade two we — his school team together with our family — developed an SSP (aka IEP) to outline accommodations he would need. One of his accommodations to be provided was movement breaks.

It has been well established that movement breaks and physical activity improve both classroom behaviour and academic performance in students with ADHD (eg. Silva et al., 2015; Villa-González et al., 2020), so this is an important support to include in an education plan.

What policy-makers and administrators in our education system seem to overlook is exercise benefits everyone: all students perform better academically after physical activity (Sullivan et al., 2017), and all people are more productive when they move their bodies regularly (Chopp-Hurley et al., 2017).

This narrow mindset resulted in a classroom full of 6 and 7 year old children who would have benefited from movement breaks, but did not get them.

This could have been a fantastic opportunity to engage the entire class in regular movement breaks, conveying the importance of daily physical activity, and making it a healthy habit. Instead our son had to leave class, go down the hall to the gym or to another space in the school with one adult supervising, and have movement breaks alone.

What 6 or 7 year old child wants to be excluded from their class to go exercise by themselves while the rest of their peers are doing a different activity in the classroom?

More importantly, what message was that sending to our son, and to his peers about him? “You’re different and you have to leave to go do something else while the rest of us stay here.”

While I do appreciate the effort made to accommodate, this is not at all inclusive — quite the opposite, it’s exclusionary, and it’s stigmatizing. Being excluded has a much greater negative impact on students than being a little hyperactive or fidgety in class, or having difficulty focusing on their work.

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Exclusion and Stigma

Children with ADHD already face social stigma and isolation from peers, beginning at a very early age. Stenseng and colleagues found that ADHD symptoms at age 4 predicted more peer rejection at age 6 (Stenseng et al., 2017).

In another study involving boys aged 8 to 11.5 years, children with ADHD were more likely than nonclinical controls to receive lower social preference scores from their peers in the classroom (Hodgens et al., 2020).

Many studies have demonstrated the significant impact that peer rejection and exclusion have on children and youth.

Shea & Wiener (2003) found that social exclusion was the most salient form of peer harassment for boys who were perceived as being different from other children. Being perceived as different was the cause of much of the victimization perpetrated upon the boys, which subsequently led to severe psychological and emotional distress.

In an extensive literature review, Dr. Hoza (2007) made a number of troubling conclusions. Among them were low acceptance or rejection by peers places children at risk for a host of serious negative outcomes, and once rejected, overcoming a negative reputation with peers is extremely difficult.

In a profound long-term study, researchers first assessed peer rejection and friendships in youth with ADHD at 10 years old. When they followed up with those youth 5 and 8 years later, at ages 15 and 18, they found increased rates of delinquency, depression, anxiety, substance use, and general impairment (Mrug et al., 2012).

Inclusive Interventions

We can help mitigate these risks in three very important ways.

Having one close, high-quality friendship significantly mitigates the risk of bullying behaviour (Bollmer, 2005). In other words, having one close friendship reduces the risk of a child being bullied, even if they are rejected by other peers.

Adults must role-model acceptance and inclusion of children with disabilities, in particular early years teachers, who will have a significant impact on the perceptions developed by those children’s classmates. When teachers create a classroom culture that encourages peers to be more inclusive, children with ADHD are more accepted and liked by their classmates (Mikami et al., 2020).

Most importantly, educating children about ADHD and other neurodifferences improves inclusion and peer acceptance. Children who have a positive and accurate understanding of ADHD are more likely to accept and befriend those peers (Na & Mikami, 2018).

Creating Inclusive Classrooms

When children with disabilities are othered by having to leave their classroom, this can engender social stigma and create division between students who receive additional supports and those who don’t.

Understandably, sometimes a student needs to receive supports outside of their classroom, for a variety of reasons including privacy and confidentiality. If the student has a positive relationship with the clinician or service provider, then this time can be something they look forward to: a break from the classroom, time spent with someone who cares about them, and someone who can provide them with the supports they need.

Straightforward accommodations like movement breaks can be provided within the classroom, and when done well, this can benefit the entire class. Students recognize that everybody learns differently and can be exposed to all different kinds of people and ways of learning in a supportive environment.

Experts have known for a long time that children’s knowledge of disabilities and their participation in an inclusive class contribute significantly to their acceptance of children with disabilities (Diamond et al., 1997), yet our governments consistently underfund supports for these students in public schools.

Many ministries of education claim to value diversity, and many even have inclusive schools legislation. Meanwhile they throw students with disabilities into “mainstream” classrooms with little to no additional funding for supports and expect the teacher to be able to provide adequate academic programming for all 30+ students.

Our provincial governments must provide adequate funding so that all students can thrive, regardless of their physical location within the school, and to ensure that inclusion is much more than physical proximity to their classmates.

(c) Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Related Articles


Bollmer, J. M., Milich, R., Harris, M. J., & Maras, M. A. (2005). A Friend in Need: The Role of Friendship Quality as a Protective Factor in Peer Victimization and Bullying. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(6), 701–712.

Chopp-Hurley, J. N., Brenneman, E. C., Wiebenga, E. G., Bulbrook, B., Keir, P. J., Maly, M. R. (2017). Randomized Controlled Trial Investigating the Role of Exercise in the Workplace to Improve Work Ability, Performance, and Patient-Reported Symptoms Among Older Workers With Osteoarthritis, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 59(6), 550–556. https://10.1097/JOM.0000000000001020

Diamond, K. E., Hestenes, L. L., Carpenter, E. S., & Innes, F. K. (1997). Relationships Between Enrollment in an Inclusive Class and Preschool Children’s Ideas about People with Disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 17(4), 520–536.

Hodgens, J., Cole, J., Boldizar, J. (2000). Peer-Based Differences Among Boys With ADHD. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 29:3, 443–452. https://10.1207/S15374424JCCP2903_15

Hoza, B. (2007). Peer Functioning in Children With ADHD. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 32(6), 655–663,

Mikami, A.Y., Owens, J.S., Hudec, K.L. et al. (2020). Classroom Strategies Designed to Reduce Child Problem Behavior and Increase Peer Inclusiveness: Does Teacher Use Predict Students’ Sociometric Ratings?. School Mental Health. 12250–264.

Mrug, S., Molina, B.S.G., Hoza, B. et al. (2012). Peer Rejection and Friendships in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Contributions to Long-Term Outcomes. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 40, 1013–1026.

Na, J.J., Mikami, A.Y. (2018). Pre-existing Perceptions of ADHD Predict Children’s Sociometrics Given to Classmates with ADHD. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 273218–3231.

Shea, B., & Wiener, J. (2003). Social Exile: The Cycle of Peer Victmization for Boys with ADHD. Canadian Journal of School Psychology18(1–2), 55–90.

Silva, A., Prado, S., Scardovelli, T., Boschi, S., Campos, L., Frère, A. (2015). Measurement of the Effect of Physical Exercise on the Concentration of Individuals with ADHD. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0122119.

Stenseng, F., Belsky, J., Skalicka, V., Wichstrøm, L. (2015). Peer Rejection and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms: Reciprocal Relations Through Ages 4, 6, and 8. Child Development, 87(2).

Sullivan, R., Kuzel, A., Vaandering, M., Weiyun Chen. (2017). The Association of Physical Activity and Academic Behavior: A Systematic Review. Journal of School Health, 87(5).

Villa-González, R., Villalba-Heredia, L. Crespo, I. del Valle, M., Olmedillas, H. (2020). A systematic review of acute exercise as a coadjuvant treatment of ADHD in young people. Piscothema, 32(1), 67–74. https://10.7334/psicothema2019.211

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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