Teaching students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms: from policy to practice in Australian schools

Umesh Sharma

It is important to understand that in the past inclusive education was mainly focussed on educating students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms. Now inclusive education does not just relate to the education of students with disabilities, it encompasses all students who learn differently because of their learning styles, sexual orientations, language backgrounds or learning abilities, including those with a disability. Inclusive education is about identifying and addressing barriers to participation of all learners in regular classrooms. While I fully acknowledge that inclusive education is about all students, a major focus of this paper is on the education of students with disabilities in regular schools.

A school can be confident in claiming that they are inclusive when they can demonstrate that all students, including those with a disability, meet four key critical aspects. These are: presence (i.e. the school welcomes and enrols any student with a disability and those students attend the school on a regular basis); participation (i.e. these students participate across full range of school activities); achievement (they achieve in academic, social domains and other important areas); and acceptance (are fully accepted by peers, parents and the schooling community). Clearly, this definition suggests that inclusion is much more than placement of a student with disability in a regular school. It means schools spending considerable time and effort in ensuring that students with disabilities and their carers are respected members of the school community.

Policy Background

Schools in Australia cannot refuse to admit a student if he or she has a disability irrespective of the type or severity (Disability Discrimination Act, 1992) (see Anderson & Boyle, 2015 for more details on the relevant Australian policies). Schools are also required to make reasonable adjustments to address the learning needs of students with disabilities (as mandated through the Disability Standards of Education, 2005). I personally believe that the inclusion agenda should not be enforced by legislative or policy mandates as it means that the agenda is driven by external agencies. Inclusion initiatives should be driven by educators. The legislation and policies then become additional resources available to schools to support what they believe in. I do not deny that implementing inclusive education is difficult. It requires schools to spend considerable time and effort in planning numerous activities to support inclusion. It also requires schools to work closely with a range of professionals and community organisations.

The end result is very high-quality education for all students. The Commonwealth of Australia has recognised that implementing inclusive education necessitates schools making significant adjustments and accommodations to classroom material, activities and curriculum content. Schools are now asked to collect data about the levels of adjustments they make for a student because he or she has a disability and report this data through the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on students with disability (NCCD). The data is largely based on what teachers do within their classrooms/school settings to support the learning of students with disability. Within the model ‘teacher judgment’ plays a paramount role. Clearly, it is extra work for schools to collect and report this data each year. However, it is important to acknowledge that Australia is perhaps the only country where ‘teacher judgement’ with respect to what adjustments schools make for each student is given so much prominence.

The NCCD data is now guiding how much funding each school should receive to support the education of students with disability. In 2018, Australian schools received additional funding based on the levels of adjustments made for each student. The funding ranged from $4,600 for the lowest level of adjustment (i.e. supplementary) to $34,173 for the highest level of adjustment (i.e. extensive) based on the data provided by teachers on the levels of adjustment for each student. Schools that embrace the data-driven policy of NCCD and use the information to plan personalised education and support activities for students with disability have found that the NCCD policy is a significant resource to support implementation of inclusive education rather than seeing it as ‘extra work’.

Questions about inclusion

In this next section, I will address a number of questions that are frequently asked by colleagues relating to inclusive education which have direct practical implications for school educators.

1. Why should we include students with disabilities into regular classrooms/schools?
There are three main reasons we should teach students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms. First, there is a large body of research that shows that students with disabilities who are educated in inclusive classrooms tend to have relatively better academic and social outcomes compared to students of similar abilities who are educated in segregated settings (see McLesky & Waldron,2011; Rujis & Peetsma, 2009). The reason for better academic and social outcomes could be attributed to challenging curriculum in regular schools and increased opportunities to interact with the same age peers in mainstream schooling. In inclusive classrooms, students with disabilities acquire skills in the natural environments that they will need to function effectively in as part of the mainstream of society. It thus enhances the chances of generalisation of acquired skills in natural settings.

Some researchers have found promising long-term outcomes for students with disabilities who attend regular schools compared to those students who attend specialist settings. The long- term positive outcomes include students with disabilities gaining employment in the open market, earning higher salaries, and being engaged and married when compared to their peers who always attended specialist settings (Ryndak, Ward, Alper, Storch & Montgomery, 2010). My colleagues in specialist settings might be a little concerned that the research that I have reported strongly favours inclusive education.

The majority of the research that has compared impact of placement on student outcomes in specialist and inclusive settings indeed does favour inclusion. It is important to note that students educated in specialist settings also make positive gains. However, when compared to their peers in mainstream classrooms the gains in both academic and social domains are less positive. Also, the amount of effort and resources required to make similar gains in specialist settings are much higher. I strongly believe that specialist schools will continue to play important roles in the lives of students with disabilities now and in the future. However, I do think the roles of specialist schools will change in future. Many countries have already started moving in this direction (e.g. Canada and Italy). The specialist schools will play an important part by becoming resource centres and supporting regular schools in implementing inclusive practices.

The second reason for us to support inclusion is cost-effectiveness of the inclusion model (see UNenable report). Some researchers have examined the cost-effectiveness of supporting students with disabilities in regular vs specialist settings. It is important to acknowledge that research on this topic is limited but tends to support inclusive education as the most cost-effective means of supporting education of students with disabilities. I would like to highlight that cost-effectiveness on its own should not be a strong rationale for inclusion. Implementing effective inclusive education requires that we pay close attention to providing all the necessary support that schools, and most importantly teachers, require to include all learners, including those who have a disability. If we mandate schools to implement inclusive education but fail to provide necessary resources to schools, the outcomes of the inclusive education model could be detrimental to both students (with and without disability) and the school personnel.
The third reason we should support inclusion is perhaps the most convincing to me. Inclusion is an opportunity. Teachers and schools need to understand that when they successfully include students with disabilities, they become better overall in everything they do in their teaching. Implementing inclusion provides opportunities for teachers to learn highly sophisticated skills that make them a better teacher for all learners with a range of diverse abilities. Teachers who never get an opportunity to teach in inclusive classrooms are disadvantaged as they never get to learn and practise skills that could have made them a fully accomplished teacher. A teacher who has not learnt to teach effectively in inclusive classrooms, clearly needs more support and ongoing professional learning to make the best use of the opportunity that he or she will have when they start teaching in this environment.

2. What kind of professional learning prepares teachers to teach effectively in an inclusive classroom?
Schools in Australia are inundated with professional learning opportunities. It’s possible many teachers find it difficult to decide which professional learning program they should undertake to be competent to teach in inclusive classrooms. I believe sometimes the information that we present during our teacher education or professional learning programs is potentially misleading and complicates the messages about effective teaching (Sharma & Loreman, 2014; Sharma, 2018). For example, historically inclusive teacher education programs have focussed on covering information about various disabling conditions, characteristics of students with disabilities and how to teach students with a specific disability in regular classrooms. What we have learnt from our own and other colleagues’ research is that too much focus on disabling conditions may enhance the anxiety of teachers and does not always help them become better inclusive teachers. Most recent research and large-scale implementation of inclusive education models across countries of the North and the South suggest that teachers need to acquire some core skills to be highly effective inclusive teachers. These skills are learning about:

  • How each student learns differently from other students;
  • How to motivate all students;
  • How to determine if a student is learning (or assessment for learning);
  • What to teach by taking into consideration the interests and preferences of students;
  • How to modify curriculum so that the class activities are challenging and stimulating for all students;
  • How to use existing resources in the class/school (including class peers, parents and community members);
  • How to apply teaching strategies that make a positive impact on the learning of all students (e.g. peer tutoring, co-operative learning and differentiated instruction);
  • How to work effectively with other adults Including parents and other para-professionals; and lastly,
  • How to address challenging behaviours in the classroom.

As you read this list you will notice that it does not include “learning more about any particular disability”. The omission is critical to note, as we know that not any two students with the same label (e.g. Autism Spectrum Disorder) are the same. They will differ in their abilities, strengths, interests and preferences so it does not really make good sense to learn about various disabling conditions in greater detail. What might be more helpful is to learn about how each student is different from another student irrespective of the label he or she has been given. I am reasonably confident that any teacher who is fairly competent in all of the above nine areas will be able to include all students very well. It’s possible that a teacher may not have acquired all the necessary skills listed above so should he or she wait to acquire the skills? The answer is “no”. There is an expectation that once a student is enrolled the school will provide high quality education for them. The concluding part of this paper provides some of the core activities a teacher can do to support inclusion of a learner with a disability.

3. How should we (or schools/system) support teachers in ensuring that they can provide high quality education to all learners?
Support for teachers is extremely critical for the success of inclusion programs. Research on the topic has shown that teachers need support mainly in three areas (Sharma & Desai, 2008). First, we need to recognise that teaching in inclusive classrooms requires significant efforts in planning. One critical resource with respect to planning is ‘availability of time’. School leaders can support their staff by providing sufficient t ime to plan personalised learning and teaching plans and activities. The second most critical resource for teachers or schools is to have access to expert staff who can assist them with a specific aspect of successfully including a student with disability in their classrooms. The expert could be a visiting teacher who knows more about supporting students with a specific need (e.g. for example, supporting a student who is totally blind and needs the material in an alternate format). The expert could also be someone that teachers could use to clarify any questions that they may have about developing personalised educational plans/strategies for a particular student. Lastly, the teachers need to be provided adequate opportunities to undertake relevant professional learning programs that would assist them with their inclusive teaching. Sometimes the programs could be identified by the teachers themselves, other times school leadership could identify programs that are relevant to the majority of staff in their school. One of the better ways to offer professional learning is to have a whole school professional learning program. Such programs allow all school staff to be on the same page. The school leadership team can then identify necessary material and human resources that will allow the school to implement new learning acquired through the professional learning programs.

4. What should a teacher do if he or she has not received any training in special education?
I fully acknowledge that in order to teach effectively students with a disability, a teacher must receive adequate training in special and or inclusive education. However, there is a possibility that a teacher may not have received the necessary training or the training he or she has received through pre-service or in-service programs may not be adequate. As discussed earlier, a teacher cannot refuse to teach a student with a disability whether or not he or she has received any training. A teacher with limited training in special and/or inclusive education may find some of the following tips helpful when teaching students with disabilities. It is also helpful to remember that inclusive teaching is good teaching.

  • Always use Person First language when referring to persons with disability. Person first language means being respectful of differences a student may have due to disability or any other unique characteristics. One must always avoid labelling students with the condition. For example, a student who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder could be referred as “the autistic boy”. The use of such terminology tends to highlight and create an identity of the person that is defined by only one of the many characteristics (abilities, interests, strengths and preferences) that the student has. The best practice in terms of using Person First Language is to refer to the student with his or her first name. If it is necessary to refer to the condition of the student, consider using language where the emphasis is on the person first and the condition second. For example, a student with autism or a student with vision impairment. A brief article by Snow is an excellent resource for educators who wish to learn more about the topic (https://www.floridainclusionnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/People-First-Language.pdf)
  • Build positive relationships with family and carers. Positive relationships with all parents and carers is good practice. The practice is even more critical when we teach students with a disability. Some of the practices that may facilitate a positive relationship with families are: ongoing communication about student progress (focus on the positive), providing useful resources that can assist the family to support the student’s learning, personalised emails or letters at the beginning or end of the school term/year, and, making the family feel comfortable to communicate with the teacher through various means.
  • Collaborate and consult. It is impossible to teach in inclusive classrooms without collaborating and consulting other key stakeholders. Collaboration is built on the foundation that no one person knows everything about supporting a student who learns differently. When an educator collaborates and consults other members (e.g. a school psychologist, social worker, itinerant teacher or teacher assistant), the outcomes are most likely to be positive for the student and the teacher.
  • Be a creative resource finder. Most successful inclusive education teachers are creative in solving some of the challenges they face when teaching in inclusive classrooms. There are a number of resources available in almost all classrooms irrespective of whether we teach in resource-rich classrooms in Australia, Canada or USA or in countries with limited resources (e.g. Bangladesh or Ethiopia). The resourceful teachers identify how best the existing resources could be used within their context. One perfect example of a resource in almost all classrooms around the world is peers. Peers can be used in structured teaching activities to support all learners (e.g. peer tutoring and co-operative learning). Parents could also be a highly effective resource who could be instrumental in building inclusive communities.
  • Be a reflective teacher. Research (Sharma, 2010) suggests that one of the core attributes of effective and inclusive teachers is their ability to reflect. Asking questions about how you as a teacher can best address the learning needs of a student from their own perspective, and that of their peers and parents, can be a very powerful tool to enact inclusive practices. Reflective teachers through their act of reflection show that they care about their students and their learning and are prepared to change their teaching activities. Their actions create classrooms where student and parent voices can result in changes to practices and create positive classrooms for all learners.


I would like to conclude this article with two key messages that may influence how effective a teacher or school will be in implementing inclusive education. First, it is helpful to consider that ‘inclusive education’ is an opportunity. Inclusion should not be seen an action just oriented towards creating better opportunities for students. It is about our well-being and our self-concept. When school leaders and teachers view inclusion as an opportunity, they enjoy addressing the challenges of implementing inclusion and they become better educators for all learners. The act of inclusion transforms us from a learner with an L-plate to an expert teacher with a full licence to teach all learners. Second, schools do not become inclusive overnight - it takes time and we need to enjoy the journey. We need to understand that we are not perfect and do not always get things right. When mistakes are made, we need to be sure that they have been made with the intention of creating better learning environments for all and making us better and more reflective teachers.


Anderson, J. & Boyle, C. (2015). Inclusive education in Australia: rhetoric, reality and the road ahead. Support for Learning, 30(1), 4-22.

Mitchell, D. (2010). Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs (Final Report). University of Canterbury. Retrieved from http://edcounts.squiz.net.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/ 0016/86011/Mitchell-Review-Final.pdf

McLeskey, J., & Waldron, N. (2011). Educational programs for elementary students with learning disabilities: Can they be both effective and inclusive? Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 26(1), 48- 57.

Rujis, N.M. & Peetsma, T.D. (2009) Effects of inclusion on students with and without special educational needs reviewed. Educational Research Review, 4, 67-79.

Ryndak, D., Ward, T., Alper, S., & Storch, J.F., & Montgomery, J.W. (2010). Long-term Outcomes of Services in Inclusive and Self-Contained Settings for Siblings with Comparable Significant Disabilities. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 45(1), 38-53.

Sharma, U. (2018). Preparing to teach in Inclusive classrooms. Submitted to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Research in Education. (Editor: George Nosbit). Oxford University Press: New York, USA.

Sharma, U., & Salend, S. J. (2016). Teaching Assistants in Inclusive Classrooms: A Systematic Analysis of the International Research. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(8). Retrieved from http://ro.ecu.edu.au/ajte/vol41/iss8/7

Sharma, U., Loreman, T.J. (2014). Teacher educator perspectives on systemic barriers to inclusive education. An international conversation, in Bringing Insider Perspectives into Inclusive Teacher Learning. Potentials and challenges for educational professionals, Edited by Phyllis Jones, Routledge, UK, pp. 168-177.

Sharma, U. (2010). Using reflective practices for the preparation of pre-service teachers for inclusive classrooms, in Teacher Education for Inclusion. Changing Paradigms and Innovative Approaches, Edited by Chris Forlin, Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, pp. 102-111.

Sharma, U., Desai, I. (2008). The changing roles and responsibilities of school principals relative to inclusive education, in Reform, Inclusion & Teacher Education: Towards a New Era of Special Education in the Asia-Pacific Region, Edited by Chris Forlin and Ming-Gon John Lian, Routledge, UK, USA & Canada, pp. 153-168.

UNenable. (Current website). Chapter Six: From provisions to practice: implementing the Convention. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/resources/handbook-for-parliamentarians-on-the-convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/chapter-six-from-provisions-to-practice-implementing-the-convention.html


Umesh Sharma is Professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. He is the Head of the Educational Psychology and Inclusive and Special Education Community. He is the chief co-editor of the Australasian Journal of Special Education and the Oxford Encyclopedia of Inclusive and Special Education.  He has authored over 100 academic articles, book chapters and edited books that focus on various aspects of inclusive education. His recently co-authored book “A Guide to Promoting a Positive Classroom Environment” was the recipient of the International Book Prize Award from the Exceptionality Education International.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.3 Personalised learning, inclusion and equity.

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