Reem Al Hout is Principal of the American Academy of Beirut, a school which includes children with special educational needs (SEN). We asked her about the benefits of inclusion, and the teaching methods used.
What is an inclusive school?
An inclusive school means that all students are welcomed – regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or educational need. They learn, contribute to, and take part in all aspects of school life.
Students with SEN spend most or all of their time learning with their peers, and the school encourages awareness of the mutual benefits of inclusion.
What are these benefits?
I don't know of any research that shows negative effects from inclusion, if it is applied with the necessary support and services for students.
The benefits include meaningful friendships, respect, better appreciation and understanding of individual differences, and being prepared for adult life in a diverse society.
Some benefits are social. Students can create lasting friendships that help them navigate relationships later in their lives. In an inclusive classroom, they get to see how different people interact.
There are academic benefits, too. In a well-designed inclusive classroom, students meet higher expectations – both from their peers and their teachers. They may also see positive academic role models in their classmates.
Families may also benefit. This is especially true when the SEN student is an only child, whose parents may be unable to fit in to the community, unless the student is in an inclusive school.
Our school holds lots of orientation sessions and meetings between parents, specialists and teachers, to support SEN students' families.
How should teachers prepare for inclusion?
At our school, teachers talk to specialists and study students' previous assessments, inside and outside the classroom. Next, they construct a profile for each student.
Each profile includes information about gender, age, language knowledge, and what gets the student motivated. There's also information from previous teachers about the student’s learning habits and speed (so they know whether to offer extra practice or modified assignments), and specialists' observations about the child's learning needs. These might include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or speech and language delay.
The teacher then has a conversation with each student about their interests, and observes the student during their free time. This helps the teacher tailor their teaching to match each child’s needs, and write which kind of modifications and assessments to use into their weekly lesson plan.
What makes your school inclusive?
We offer extra support for students with different learning needs.
A speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a psychologist and an educational psychologist assess each child's abilities, to tell us about any modifications and support they might need. Based on these assessments, students with SEN are integrated to classes.
How do you make sure that all children at your school get along?
We have students with diverse intellectual abilities, so we try to offer a relaxing environment for everyone. This is not always straightforward. Some children may be reluctant to include their peers in conversations or in playground activities. A lack of understanding can result in hurtful remarks or bullying.
To deal with this, we have a plan for each stage of school, to make sure the atmosphere is supportive and that everyone feels included and understood.
How do you approach inclusion for the youngest children?
We have an early intervention plan that includes all preschoolers (age three to five) and improves everyone's abilities. Our early preschool classes include SEN students with mild disabilities. These children can cope academically with the curriculum requirements, but need extra support. They may have hearing impairments, autism at mild ranges within the spectrum, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders, or speech and communication delays.
An educational psychologist, speech and occupational therapists, and a special educator put together a plan for the whole class.
Next, an occupational therapist and a speech therapist come to the preschool classes to work with all the children in group therapy sessions. They also run individual sessions for SEN students in the class.
The special educator works with each of the SEN students, and also checks in with the classroom teachers.
How do you approach inclusion with older students?
Our high-school students attend orientation sessions run by a special needs coordinator and a school psychologist at the beginning of each year. These sessions explain the different needs that students may have, and show how to offer support.
The high-school students also attend special classes with SEN students all through the year, so they can get to know and appreciate each other.
Some of the high-school classes include a few students who have specific learning difficulties.
High-school students also take part in a weekly community service session. They might help the teachers who are teaching the SEN students, or visit special needs centres outside the school where they join students in activities, bringing gifts and library books.
This community service is required by the Ministry of Education in Lebanon, which asks high-school students to do 60 hours of community service.
How can you tell if a student is 'engaged'?
Student engagement means the attention, curiosity, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught. This extends to their level of motivation. When students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, they learn better.
There is observable behaviour, such as attending class, listening attentively, taking part in discussions, turning in work on time, and following rules and directions. Then, there are internal states – motivation and curiosity.
What support do you give teachers?
Our school does a training induction for teachers every year, with workshops run by special education specialists. The teachers learn different teaching styles, how to be aware of SEN students' needs, when to refer an issue to a school specialist, and what each specialist's role is.
Teachers also learn about the different SEN students currently registered in the school, so they are better equipped to help them learn. By taking time to prepare the school team, we create a positive climate that benefits our SEN students, and the teachers feel more confident.
What advice can you give to teachers to make their classes inclusive?
Find common ground. No two people are alike, but most of us have something in common. If we look for ways in which we can relate to each other, regardless of differences, our relationships become stronger.
Teach students to ask questions. It's almost always okay to ask about the experience of a peer who has a disability. The key is to be considerate and respectful of when, where, and how those questions are asked. Everyone wants to be understood, and talking helps students see beyond the mystery of a disability.
Encourage students to get involved and show responsibility, by working with their peers. At our school, the teachers pair students with different needs with each other, and give them hands-on assignments to complete together.
As the teacher, you lead by example. Your actions and words will tell your students how to communicate with, accept, and respond to other students. Don't just discuss weaknesses; point out strengths. We encourage our high-school students to respect each other and look for each person's unique strengths.
Don't limit inclusion to the classroom – include extracurricular activities as well. At our school, all students join in dancing, singing and acting performances and celebrations. They rehearse together and support each other.
What are the best ways to make sure children's special needs are accommodated?
A school can provide ramps and accessible, adapted bathrooms for those students who are physically unable to get to the places they need to.
Teachers may come into the classroom to work one-on-one with a student. Sometimes students may leave the room for part of the day for individual attention, or to take part in a smaller learning group.
There are also things you can do in the classroom to make things easier for all students. For example, a teacher may wear a microphone, so that a student with a hearing impairment can hear more clearly.
The American Academy of Beirut recently took part in a British Council course on inclusive pedagogy, which led them to develop a strategy for working with the broader school's community through pupils' families.
Read the British Council's approach to inclusion in our report, Core Skills for All (PDF).