Teacher educators understand that teachers play the pivotal role in creating an inclusive learning environment, whatever the context. Research confirms our instinctive understanding that an open-minded, positive and supportive attitude is crucial for making diversity work in the classroom.[1] Learners need to feel safe and valued in order to take the risks required for successful learning, and this happens when teachers gain their trust through consistently modelling inclusive values. To help teachers develop this ‘way of being’ [2] we need to encourage them to examine their own assumptions about SEN and understand how unconscious bias may impact negatively on the way they perceive and interact with certain learners.

A good starting point is to show them a picture of a child from the age range they teach. The child needs to have a neutral expression and be wearing glasses. Ask the teachers if they think the child is an extrovert or an introvert, or if they don’t know. Usually there will be a mixture of responses as they make assumptions about the child based on her appearance. Ask the teachers who think she is an introvert or extrovert how they have come to that decision. They may say that that children who wear glasses tend to be introverted, or that her facial expression suggests a particular personality. Of course the right answer is that we don’t know, as we only have our preconceived ideas to guide us. Explain that we all have unconscious biases which we are useful for making rapid assessments of people and situations in everyday life.[3] Also, if a child reminds us of someone else, we often assume they are like that person and treat them the same way.[4] Realising that these assumptions and judgements are subjective and often inaccurate helps teachers avoid jumping to conclusions, and keep a positive, open mind about each individual student.

To explore unconscious bias further you can ask teachers, in groups of three or four, to come up with a definition of ‘Special Educational Needs’. This encourages them to consider carefully the meaning of the term, what kind of learners it applies to and the range of needs it encompasses. After each group has given their definition show them the definition of SEN that applies in your context (it varies slightly in different countries), or use this summary of the UK legal definition:

'Students have special educational needs if they have significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of students of the same age, or a disability which prevents them from using facilities in mainstream schools, and special educational provision has to be made for them.'[5]

Now you can facilitate a class discussion, focusing on contentious aspects such as whether SEN should include learners with challenging behaviour, those from deprived backgrounds or with a different home language and if it should apply to gifted and talented children. Are some types of special need more deserving than others? Can SEN be used as an excuse for bad behaviour or as a way of avoiding exams? Learners will reflect on their own beliefs about SEN and see how they compare with others.

Although definitions of SEN may vary slightly, in 2017 UNESCO stated that the purpose of inclusive education is to put ‘the right to education into action by reaching out to all learners, respecting their diverse needs, abilities and characteristics and eliminating all forms of discrimination in the learning environment.’[6] This reflects the social model of disability which, rather than viewing a child with SEN as ‘faulty’ and in need of mending, sees barriers to learning and negative attitudes as the problems that need to be fixed in order for learners with SEN to be fully included in education.[7] The medical model of disability, which was the dominant until the 1980’s, saw people with mental and physical impairments as helpless victims to be pitied. These attitudes were reflected and reinforced in the language used at the time which described people with disabilities as being ‘confined’ to a wheelchair or ‘suffering’ from epilepsy.

You can help teachers consider the importance of inclusive language through a dictation exercise. Ask them to divide a piece of paper into 3 columns headed ‘OK’, ‘Not sure’ and ‘Not OK’. Then dictate the following words and phrases, asking the teachers to decide which column they should go in.

Handicapped, special needs, slow learners, learning disability, neuro-diverse, subnormal, cripple, wheelchair user, mentally retarded, on the spectrum, learning difference

Ask the teachers to compare their answers with a partner, then open up to a group discussion. Direct them into noticing language which is euphemistic, condescending, de-humanising and offensive: handicapped, slow learners, subnormal, cripple, mentally retarded. Explain how some terms started off in the ‘OK’ column but have moved into the ‘not OK’ category over time. For example, the word ‘special’ itself is often used as a term of abuse in the playground these days. Contrast with neutral, non-judgemental language and explain that currently in the UK we use the terms ‘neuro-diversity’, 'learners with special educational needs' or 'learners with additional educational needs'.

Encouraging teachers to reflect on their unconscious biases, preconceived ideas and use of language helps them to develop the affirmative, enquiring and flexible attitude necessary to create a truly inclusive classroom.


About the author

Sally Farley is a teacher trainer, counsellor, writer and SEN expert. She specialises in inclusive learning techniques and takes a humanistic, collaborative approach to teaching, using many multisensory, learner-centred techniques in order to help her students learn in the style that suits them and reach their full potential. She has designed and implemented teacher training courses around the world and been a plenary speaker at many international SEN conferences.