Inclusive Education for Social Change – Getting it right from the start

By Manishi Srivastava PhD

In a typical family function in my place, ‘all’ are invited. Family, friends, acquaintances and ‘staff’. This includes servants, gardeners, drivers and their families, and is a mark of generosity of the members organizing the function, who did not forget to include this low-income class which also tend to belong to a lower caste in the country. The day arrives, and we see each of these sections sitting separately, often with no seating arrangement for the ‘staff’. Attending to them or talking to them once during the entire function is an act of the ‘big-hearted’. On analyzing the situation you would agree that they were ‘invited but not included’. This reiterates a point that a lot of people make when they see something similar happening in society: Inclusion is not merely access.

Something similar is also being observed in many organizations where the focus is on increasing diversity but not strengthening the foundations that enable diversity. It is a struggle to retain diversity even after a lot of ‘diversity hires’. This has been attributed to the organizational culture not embracing different perspectives. Perhaps, the environment does not enable individuals to have the opportunity to perform their best and advance. What seems to be missing in each of these situations is acceptance. Acceptance in society is not a luxury but a necessity. It is socially painful to be disrespected and rejected by our peers. 

Structural exclusion leads to marginalization

The deep persistent disadvantage of social exclusion can be seen in the way that people treat others in the workplace or in society in general. We are dealing with a legacy of exclusion and marginalization that has been going on for centuries. It might not be a modern issue but it remains a modern reality. This can be attributed to the absence of what has been considered the foundation of a fair society: mutual respect. Thus what we need to strive for is not only diversity but also inclusion and equity so that everyone feels like they belong. 

If this ideology of inclusion has been expressed for so long, then what is preventing it from happening? Perhaps, because our brain is programmed to consider those with looks and habits similar to ours as familiar and prefer them over the strangers. This is why favoritism is robust even in the youngest of individuals. Feeling threatened by the presence of an outsider is an instinct which probably originated when humans lived in very small groups and had to be careful of out-group members. But following every one of our instincts has not always led to good outcomes. For example, instincts prompt us to use aggression as the best way to deal with threats and from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to do so. However, in a present day scenario this can often lead to negative consequences and therefore it is best to override such an instinct. A societal structure can remain stable only when people learn to reflect before acting on their instincts and one can be made to practice this. Similarly, we can only ‘learn’ to override our instinct of acquainting only with the familiar and such learning is what inclusive education strives for. 

Evolutionary theory in social science suggests that cultural variability is a major distinctive feature of the human species. The goal should be to reach beyond the level of tolerance. Tolerance is to abide by something that you don’t like. What we need is individuals feeling fortunate to have differences around. We could also leverage our knowledge of neuroplasticity to find ways to inculcate and grow inclusion. Educators who understand neuroplasticity know that the brains of children in the classroom change every day (Bernard, 2010) and early experiences shape the developing brains of these budding citizens. 

Social exclusion and its consequences have underlying causes in lack of diversity around while growing up. Students who have grown up being included also end up including others. This is also why it is a challenge to address the issues of isolation and exclusion with adults who may not have been raised in diverse environments. Changing the paths of their normal neural processing would be necessary to develop acceptance for the unfamiliar, which is extremely difficult in later stages of life. Instead, interventions with youngsters who are still shaping their opinions may be more useful. This is the idea behind inclusive education. Thus, the 2015 Joint Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs notes that early childhood inclusion leads to inclusion “in all facets of society throughout the life course.” 

The need for Early Intervention

People are not born with a sense of social justice; it is learned. And it can be learned in classrooms. Classroom is a small space which imitates the world of adults. The negative consequences of the lack of mutual respect are also similar. School drop-out rates of students from ethnic minorities are higher if they face mistreatment by their peers (Umana-taylor, 2016). In addition to differences due to social structures such as race or class, stereotyping of physical nature can also have similar consequences. For example, overweight students, often lacking friends, are less likely to pursue higher education after school when compared to their classmates (Crosnoe & Muller, 2004; Crosnoe, 2007). Thus, exclusion, irrespective of its causes, can impair academic success. Cyclical patterns of exclusion and low achievement have also been observed as students with low performance often show signs of low self-esteem, which manifests in how they start victimizing their peers. Peer rejection in a classroom is equivalent to low social status in a workplace, both of which result in reduced engagement.

From a social developmental perspective, the presumption that acceptance by peers is a developmental necessity helps in moving towards inclusive education. The structure of school and instructional practices as well as the student body composition are factors in social exclusion (Juvonen et al., 2019). Recently, schools have been called to act as ‘agents of change’ in the fight against discrimination (Losinski, Ennis, Katsiyannis, & Rapa, 2019). Teachers and school administrators could play a critical role in encouraging social inclusion. Research on inclusive education in collaboration with schools has been a recommended approach to discover the best practices for inclusion. As Ainscow et al. (2006) argue, ‘collaborative ways of working,where researchers work alongside participants in schools, are intended to overcome the traditional gap between research and practice.’ Recent studies utilizing such collaboration have shown how a teacher’s attitude towards a student affects the acceptance that he receives from other students (Sette et al., 2020) and also how the views of students’ on socioeconomic status varies depending on whether they see it from the lens of fairness or in light of existing social hierarchies (Gruetter et al., 2022). 

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