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Building a Community in an Inclusive Classroom


Audri Sandoval Gomez and Aja McKee

This module aligns with the following DSE tenets:

  • promotes social justice, equitable and inclusive educational opportunities, and full and meaningful access to all aspects of society for people labeled with disability/disabled people

  • assumes competence and reject deficit models of disability

Classroom Community 

Establishing a classroom community can provide children with space to develop their capabilities and experience a sense of wholeness in a community with others. Equally important is David and Capraro’s (2001) definition of classroom community, where “students should develop a process of understanding, sharing, compassion, and empathy” (p.81).

The elephant in the room is a metaphorical idiom for an obvious topic or discussion that everyone is aware about; yet, for certain reasons is not discussed because it may bring about feelings of discomfort, awkwardness, or embarrassment. When looking at inclusive practices, many students with disabilities are placed in general education classrooms, where they may be the only student with a disability or the minority within the classroom. As students with disabilities filter into general education classrooms, the ability for students with disabilities to feel a sense of belonging in an environment that sets them apart from the other students is crucial. General educators have the ability to make the transition for students with disability a stress-free and easy change as long as they do their part in being supportive and building a sense of community for all students. 



  1. Why should we address disability? Should we also address other differences?

  2. How is disability addressed in the classroom or is it addressed?

  3. What is the educator's responsibility in ensuring that students with disabilities feel a part of the classroom community? 


Introduction to Disability Studies and Community Building


In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted which ensured that children with disabilities were required to be educated with their peers without disabilities to the maximum extent possible. Therefore, the term mainstreaming developed which described the practice of students with disabilities spending part of their school day in the general education classroom to the extent possible. Additionally, students were mainstreamed with their typical students in non-academic based portions of the school day such as recess, lunch, art, music, and physical education. EHA has been amended and was renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990. Since then, additional revisions have been made and IDEA is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004). With the amendments of IDEA and IDEIA, these revisions introduced the practice of inclusion. Inclusion mandated that children with disabilities were educated alongside their typical peers in general education classroom to the extent possible with supplementary aids and services (Alquraini & Gut, 2012). In order to create an environment welcoming of all students, it is imperative to build community within the classroom so all students feel a part of the classroom.

The emergence of Disability Studies has provided new ways of thinking about disability. A description of Disability Studies and what it encompasses, has been defined by the Society of Disabilities Studies (SDS) through its mission statement:

Promote the study of disability in social, cultural, and political contexts. Disability Studies recognizes that disability is a key aspect of human experience, and the study of disability has important political, social, and economic implications for society as a whole, including both disabled and nondisabled people. Through research, artistic production, teaching and activism, the Society for Disability Studies seeks to augment understanding of disability in all cultures and historical periods, to promote greater awareness of the experiences of disabled people, and to advocate for social change (2016).

Disability Studies main focus is “how disability is defined and represented in society” (Taylor, 2011, p. 94). Ferguson and Nusbaum (2012) state, “changing how societies (and ourselves!) think about and respond to disability can create the cultural space in which inclusive approaches to education, employment, living, and community can flourish” (p. 75). Students in inclusive settings will have a greater understanding of disability as educators help promote, nurture, and develop a community of learners for all students with and without disabilities. 

Essential Questions

  1. How can community building change the dynamics of relationships in the classroom?

  2. What is the educator's role in community building in the classroom?

  3. How is the community dependent on the educator?



  • Understand the purpose of community building in inclusive classrooms. 

  • Identify the benefits of community building for students with and without disabilities in inclusive classrooms. 



The Department for Education and Skills (DfES, 2001), view inclusion with the idea of building a community within the educational context. DfES (2002) states, "inclusion is about engendering a sense of community and belonging and encouraging mainstream and special schools and others to come together to support each other and pupils with special educational needs” (p. 3). Therefore, it is vital to consider the concept of inclusion and community as one entity since students with special needs and typical peers are being educated alongside one another.

As students with disabilities are now being educated alongside their typical peers, it is imperative to look at how these diverse groups function as a community within a classroom. Inclusive practices change the structure of the classroom environment and studies have shown that inclusion does not directly lead to friendship of typical peers and students with special needs (Lee, Yoo, & Bak, 2003). In fact, Frostad and Pijil (2007) studied the social relationships between these two groups in an inclusive setting and found that students with special needs seem to have more difficulty in developing relationships within an inclusive setting than do their typical peers. Based on these findings, it is important to understand how students with special needs and their typical counterparts interact within a classroom, or as a community within the classroom. Due to the rise of inclusive practices, building a community within an inclusive setting where these two distinctive groups can cohesively work, as one unit, needs to be addressed. 

Educators can bridge this diverse group of students by building a classroom community (David and Capraro, 2001). Naraian (2011) states, “the successful participation of students with disabilities in a general education classroom is generally presumed to be contingent on the creation of classroom communities that can nurture the qualities of equity and care and where different forms of diversity are valued” (p. 955). Additionally, Furman (1998), argues that a sense of community is not present until members experience a feeling of belonging, trust in others, and safety.


Berry (2006) states attributes of classroom culture underlying successful inclusive classrooms are believed  to include valuing of student voices, authority sharing, accountability of students to each other, presence of relevant resources, attention to individual differences positive interpersonal relationships, preparation for integration, participation in shared routines, school-wide community spirit, and high levels of acceptance and expectations for all students (p. 491).

When establishing a community of students with and without special needs, communities should be characterized by a “sense of belonging, of collective concern for each individual, of individual responsibility for the collective good, and of appreciation for the rituals and celebration of the group” (Noddings, 1996, pp. 266-267).

Effective Strategies

With the momentum of inclusion on the rise, much has been written on effective strategies to ensure a successful inclusive setting for students with and without disabilities (Crosland and Dunlap, 2012; Cross, Traub, Hutter-Pishgahi, & Shelton, 2004; Doveston & Keenaghan, 2006; Downing and Peckham-Hardin, 2007; David and Capraro, 2001; Scott, Vitale, & Masten, 1998). Several researchers have tried a variety of interventions for improving classroom dynamics to create a community within an inclusive setting. Favazza and Odom (1997) examined the effects of contact, books, and discussions about people with disabilities. There were great gains in levels of acceptance of the children who had high-contact with children who had disabilities.

A significant study conducted by Voeltz (1982) confirmed that implementation of an intervention, whether it is a certain program or restructuring of a classroom, should occur to positively establish a community of learners. Results showed that children who participated in discussions about diversity and disabilities, viewed presentations about severe disabilities, and had interaction opportunities with their peers who had severe disabilities in the classroom showed that the children were more accepting of others with a disability.


  • Alquraini, T., & Gut, D. (2012). Critical components of successful inclusion of students with severe disabilities: Literature review. International Journal of Special Education, 27(1), 42-59. Retrieved from

  • Berry, R. A. (2006). Inclusion, power, and community: Teachers and students interpret the language of community in an inclusion classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 43(3), 489-529. Retrieved from

  • Cross, A.F., Traub E.K., Hutter-Pishgahi, L., & Shelton, G. (2004). Elements of successful inclusion for children with significant disabilities. Topics In Early Childhood Special Education, 24(3), 169-183.

  • Crossland, K., & Dunlap, G. (2012). Effective strategies for the inclusion of children with autism in general education classrooms. Behavior Modification, 36(3), 251-269. DOI: 10.1177/0145445512442682

  • David, H. L., & Capraro, R. M. (2001). Strategies for teaching in heterogeneous environments while building a classroom community. Education, 122(1), 80-86. Retrieved from

  • Department for Education and Skills. (2001). Inclusive schooling: Children with special educational needs. Retrieved from

  • Doveston, M., & Keenaghan, M. (2006). Improving classroom dynamics to support students’ learning and social inclusion: A collaborative approach. Support for Learning, 21(1), 5-11.

  • Downing, J. E., & Peckham-Hardin, K. D. (2007). Inclusive Education: What Makes It a Good Education for Students with Moderate to Severe Disabilities? Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32(1), 16-30.

  • Favazza, P. C., & Odom, S. L. (1997). Promoting positive attitudes of kindergarten-age children toward people with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63(3), 405-418. Retrieved from

  • Ferguson, P. M., & Nusbaum, E. (2012). Disability studies: What is it and what difference does it make? Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 37(2), 70-80. 

  • Frostad, P., & Pijl, S. J. (2007). Does being friendly help in making friends? The relation between the social position and social skills of pupils with special needs in mainstream education. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 22(1), 15-30. Retrieved from

  • Furman, G. C. (1998). Postmodernism and community in schools: Unraveling the paradox. Education Administration Quarterly, 34(3), 298-328. Retrieved from

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U. S. C. § 1400 (2004).

  • Lee, S. H., Yoo, S. Y., & Bak, S. H. (2003). Characteristics of friendships between children with and without disabilities. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 38(2), 157-166. Retrieved from

  • Naraian, S. (2011). Seeking transparency: The production of an inclusive classroom community. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 15(9), 955-973. doi:10.1080/13603110903477397

  • Noddings, N. (1996). On community. Educational Theory, 46, 245-267. Retrieved from

  • Scott, B.J., Vitale, M. R., & Masten, W. G. (1998). Implementing Instructional Adaptations for Students with Disabilities in Inclusive Classrooms: A Literature Review. Remedial and Special Education, 19(2), 106-119,

  • Society for Disability Studies. (2016). Mission and history. Retrieved from

  • Taylor, S. J. (2011). Disability studies in higher education. New Directions for Higher Education, 154, 93-98. DOI:10.1002/he.438

  • Voeltz, L. M. (1982). Effects of structured interactions with severely handicapped peers on children's attitudes. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 86(4), 380–390.

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