Building Bridges for Successful Change

By Elaine Gould, M.A.Ed.


Teaching children to be knowledgeable about differences, supportive of others, and active in changing structures that are oppressive to various groups can all begin within inclusive classrooms. It is within a classroom that openly and directly addresses the interests, needs, and possibilities of all its members that students may best experience democratic structures that empower and support all participants. (


An increasing number of students who have more significant disabilities and educational needs, such as students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Emotional Disabilities, are being included in the general education classroom. In today's educational environment, teachers must develop supportive relationships with their colleagues, their students, and the community so they can effectively teach students with disabilities in inclusive settings.

For teachers to meet this challenge, teachers need a system of support that provides ongoing professional development as well as scheduled time to collaborate with fellow teachers and specialists who have expertise in providing instruction to students with disabilities (Holdheide & Reschly, 2008). With this knowledge and support, teachers begin to ask questions like "'What can I do to prevent ...? and How can I support the student so that ...?'" instead of asking "'What do I do when ...?'" (Leach & Duffy, 2009, p. 32). This way of thinking demonstrates an understanding that environmental changes that encourage student engagement in learning and positive student behavior are more productive than more corrective, student-centered interventions (Leach & Duffy, 2009).

Contrary to the belief of many that the educational and social needs of students with disabilities are better met outside of the general education classroom, students with higher incidence disabilities do not achieve increased academic or social gains in more restrictive settings (Holdheide & Reschly, 2008). Indeed, in many cases, academic progress declines and student isolation and disengagement from peers and the school community intensifies (Kern, Hilt-Panahon, & Sokol, 2009). On the other hand, when students with disabilities, including those with ASD, receive instruction in inclusive settings, they feel valued as individuals. They benefit by connecting with their peers, developing friendships, increasing social skills, and experiencing academic gains (Holdheide & Reschly, 2008).

Inclusion and Universal Design for Learning

The concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) lends itself to the philosophy of inclusive education because, ideally, inclusive classrooms are structured to facilitate the participation of individuals with a variety of physical, instructional, and behavioral needs (Renzaglia et al., 2003). When instructional content, methods, and assessments are designed based on a consideration of the needs of students with disabilities, all student needs can be met, and the need to isolate specific students decreases (Renzaglia et al., 2003).

Instruction that is preventive and supportive in nature requires planning that carefully considers the content, the instructional environment, student grouping, and assessment options (Leach & Duffy, 2009). Below are some examples of preventive, supportive, and corrective strategies that can be implemented for students with ASD but are effective for all students (Leach & Duffy, 2009).

Preventive Strategies
  • Actively engage students in their learning using cooperative learning, hands-on activities, and computers to prevent problem behaviors. Alternate these activities with less desirable instructional activities.
  • Use social stories to prepare students for change and transitions.
  • Use pictures to increase communication by pairing a picture cue with a request.
  • Change the environment to address students' sensory needs by removing distractions, reducing noise level, and clearly defining work spaces (Leach & Duffy, 2009).
Supportive Strategies
  • Post, teach, model, and practice clear behavioral and social expectations for routines and academic activities across school settings.
  • Use advance and graphic organizers and guided notes so students know what to expect during the lesson.
  • Be flexible in terms of assessments by allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge based on their interests, strengths, and learning preferences.
  • Physically involve students in instruction through role-playing and increased opportunities to respond (Leach & Duffy, 2009).
Corrective Strategies

 When teachers predominantly use preventive and supportive strategies for students with disabilities, the likelihood that corrective strategies will be required decreases. Nevertheless, when needed, corrective strategies may include the following:

  • Provide prompts (physical guidance, gestures, models, and verbal and visual cues) when redirecting students to the task. Instead of saying, "Don't ...", tell students what they should be doing instead.
  • Know that disengagement and negative behaviors may be communicating that the student needs support with the academic or social task (Leach & Duffy, 2009) and act accordingly.

Inclusive environments foster the development of self-determination skills, which include choice-making, decision-making, self-advocacy, goal setting and attainment, and self-awareness. Development of self-determination skills should be encouraged from an early age in an effort to prepare students to direct their own lives and experience a better quality of life when they leave high school (Renzaglia et al., 2003). Self-determination skills can be directly taught, infused into the general education curriculum, and through specialized curricula. Becoming more self-aware by understanding one's strengths and interests, one's disability, and how the disability impacts one's participation in inclusive environments is a valuable experience for students with disabilities (Fullerton & Coyne, 1999). Opportunities to practice and generalize these skills may be provided by involving students in educational planning and leadership in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting (Fullerton & Coyne, 1999).

Transition from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school is difficult for many students. It is especially challenging for students with disabilities, and even more so for students with ASD. Communication is necessary to bridge the gap between the current and the receiving school, including preparing the student for the changes that lie ahead (LaCava, 2005).

Below are some ways to build partnerships with students, teachers, and administrators to make seamless school-to-school transitions.

  • Ensure that transitions reflect student independence to foster the development of self-determination skills required for future transition planning.
  • Identify positive instructional, environmental, and behavior supports that have been successful for the student.
  • Provide the receiving school with current assessment results and IEP updates. Receiving school personnel should review these files well in advance of the student arriving at their school.
  • Start the transition process early so that students are more comfortable with the transition and to enable the receiving school to plan for unique student needs.
  • Provide students with a calendar so that they can see how the transition process will unfold.
  • Connect each student with an older student and a teacher at the receiving school.
  • Take pictures and provide maps of the new school.
  • Visit the school and have the student practice getting from place to place.
  • Ensure that teachers and other school staff make a connection with each student early in the school year to make the students feel safe in the new environment.
  • Have schedules and routines in place to increase predictability and consistency (LaCava, 2005).
 There are many ways to strengthen connections and build relationships that support the successful inclusion of students with disabilities and student engagement. Inclusive programming promotes academic and social success for students with disabilities and makes school a place where they want to be. By considering the value that all students bring to the classroom along with their unique learning needs, teachers can facilitate the creation of more inclusive and accepting environments that model acceptance and prepare students to be successful in the classroom, the school, and the community.


Fullerton, A., & Coyne, P. (1999). Developing skills and concepts for self-determination In young adults with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities;14, 42-52.

Holdheide, L., & Reschly, D. (2008). Teacher preparation to deliver inclusive services to students with disabilities. National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. 1-25.

Inclusion Notes. (n.d.) Retrieved from

Kern, L., Hilt-Panahon, A., & Sokol, N. (2009). Further examining the triangle tip:Improving support for students with emotional and behavioral needs. Psychology in the Schools, 46, 18-32.

LaCava, P. (2005). Facilitate transitions. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 46-48.

Leach, D., & Duffy, M. (2009). Supporting student with autism spectrum disorders in inclusive settings. Intervention in School and Clinic, 45, 31-37.

Renzaglia, A., Karvonen, M., Drasgow, E., & Stoxen, C. (2003). Promoting a lifetime of inclusion. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 140-149.