Article  |  March 1, 2023

Building Bridges: Promoting Inclusiveness in the Classroom

As student populations grow increasingly diverse across schools in the US, it is important for school administrators to establish an inclusive education system that connects and supports all students. Implementing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) education, with a heavy focus on inclusion, in the classroom can cultivate an environment of respect and harmony. This type of education teaches educators to value the unique qualities of each student and encourages students to appreciate their own differences as well as those of their peers. By doing this, students gain the opportunity to develop important life skills such as recognizing unfair or biased treatment of others and expressing empathy when their peers are excluded or mistreated. As a whole, DEI education can assist students and educators in examining biases and navigating complex topics together, which can promote understanding and reflection and strengthen cross-cultural relationships.

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This article seeks to address the effects of excluding DEI from a school’s curriculum, the benefits it can offer, and the importance of DEI education in schools. Finally, we provide a guide to increasing DEI in the curriculum.

The Danger of Ignoring DEI in Education

Ignoring student diversity and failing to take proper action in response to it can have negative consequences. For example, schools that maintain a traditional and static curriculum deprive students of exposure to different representations of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation in the classroom. This not only forces students to conform to the mainstream curriculum, but also teaches them that different forms of identity and the experiences of minority groups are not worth learning about. Without inclusive and representative learning materials, unconscious bias towards minority students can remain or increase; for example, when textbooks favor the narratives of the dominant culture and either present minority groups in a negative light or ignore their contributions. This can lead to stereotypes and biased assumptions from teachers and peers, which can cause minority students to experience stereotype threat and other negative perceptions of themselves.

To combat this, educators can establish an inclusive curriculum that focuses on the lives and contributions of diverse historical figures, such as people of color or those with disabilities, by incorporating resources in class (Kishore, 2022). Including positive images of diverse groups in lessons can contribute to prejudice reduction and allow students to form positive attitudes about different groups. Students with disabilities who receive accommodations can still feel singled out if these accommodations are paired with a traditional and fixed curriculum. This may cause disabled students to reject their accommodations in an attempt to fit in, and even refuse support that could actually help them (Parrish, 2019). It is recommended that educators modify their teaching plan to facilitate academic achievement from diverse students, such as using different modalities of learning in class or allowing students to choose activities or lesson topics.

LGBTQ+ middle school students also regularly hear homophobic remarks or negative comments about gender expression from other students and school staff (GLSEN). This lack of support and understanding from school staff can make students feel unsafe at school and influence their peers to model the same unsupportive behavior. Therefore, it is important for educators to apply an anti-bias framework in order to teach students how to identify different forms of injustice and unfairness and stand up for themselves or others when mistreated.

The Benefits of a DEI Curriculum

Incorporating DEI into school curricula provides an opportunity for marginalized students to feel a sense of belonging in school. Classrooms that are inclusive of all races, genders, sexualities, religions, and abilities can help students boost their self-confidence and self-efficacy in their academic performance and other areas. A study by McMahon et al. (2016) that measured the effects of applied organizational, social, and academic inclusion methods on African American and Latino students with special needs found that with these practices, the students had higher school satisfaction and an improved sense of belonging. Additionally, non-disabled students received the opportunity to learn together with those who are different from them, facilitating the growth of consideration and acceptance.

According to Gurin et al. (2002), DEI helps establish a positive outcome known as a democracy outcome. This outcome focuses on embracing perspectives and achieving higher cultural and racial understanding, which increases students’ ability to work and get along with those from different backgrounds. Accepting and understanding others’ perspectives can reduce stereotyping and prejudice by allowing students to feel a sense of equality with their peers, which in turn increases belief in oneself (Gurin et al., 2002). Educators can achieve this outcome by encouraging group work and discussions about students’ experiences and struggles. Implementing ethnic exploration groups is beneficial for cooperative learning, which allows students to research their ethnic heritage and learn about their own and others’ ethnic backgrounds (Holcomb-McCoy, 2005). This can also help educators gain a better understanding of their students’ backgrounds and cultivate a genuine and secure student-teacher relationship.

Using gender-inclusive language and knowing how to intervene in ways that do not further stigmatize sexual minority students is important as well. According to GSLEN, attending a school where inclusivity is modeled towards LGBTQ+ students is “related to less hostile school experiences and increased feelings of connectedness to the school community.” In this way, DEI can provide the opportunity for students to integrate their personal narratives and experiences and teach them how to combat social injustice.

It is also necessary to consider when educators should implement DEI education for middle schoolers. Iwai (2013) studied the effects of an education program on elementary/middle school teachers who learned culturally responsive teaching for one semester in a literacy course on children’s multicultural literature. Results found that participants who had limited knowledge about multicultural children’s literature at the beginning of the semester were willing to learn more about the literature content by the end of the semester and displayed an increase in positive responses towards multicultural and diversity issues in general. Given that it took one semester for these teachers to develop positive attitudes towards diversity, adolescent students may be able to absorb DEI content in a shorter amount of time.

According to Lucas et al. (2014), younger brains may be more flexible and plastic when compared to older brains, allowing for quicker digestion and understanding of novel information and updates to beliefs. Because of this level of flexibility in these brain regions, it may be ideal for middle school students to receive DEI education as early as the beginning of the school year in order to establish a solid foundation.

DEI & Global Citizenship

Diversity, equity, and inclusion play an essential role in a school’s curriculum because they promote the goal of increasing social awareness and harmony among peers. Inclusion in the classroom can foster diverse interactions and relationships, where students can gain solid social and community skills and access to a support system. As mentioned previously, collaborating within groups can be beneficial for learning about peers’ backgrounds. When students have the chance to collaborate with a diverse group or work on topics relating to diversity, they can provide different perspectives, confront stereotypes, and discover similarities among themselves. This strengthens students’ creative thinking and deepens their knowledge of new cultures and alternative ideas.

Navigating diversity-related matters in the classroom using real-world context allows students to prepare for challenges in the future. When students demonstrate the cultural competencies to collaborate with diverse groups, they gain access to highly desirable skills sought by employers. These important life skills, including empathy and open-mindedness, not only open more dialogue and prevent students from developing prejudices, but also prepare a student for global collaboration with colleagues.

DEI Approach and Implementation Guide

Instructions: This table can be used as a checklist or suggestions guide for educators/counselors who are looking to incorporate a DEI curriculum into their schools. For facilitating optimal DEI integration, it is recommended that at least half of the solutions in each category be achieved/checked off.

The DEI-based materials/subject matter students are engaging with:
  • Reflect and affirm students’ identities
  • Bring awareness to global diversity
  • Educate on equity, power and privilege
  • Elicit critical thinking about students’ own biases and perspectives
How are educators implementing DEI into their classrooms?
  • Showing informational videos featuring people from minority/underrepresented backgrounds
  • Including reading materials developed by authors of various backgrounds or perspectives
  • Giving students the choice to express themselves in class activities/tasks
  • Allowing students to choose from a range of topics for lesson content
  • Establishing cooperative learning opportunities and group projects
What are ways that students are showing understanding of the DEI material?
  • Being able to relate one concept to another
  • Applying what is being learned to real-life situations
  • Connecting own experiences to material
  • Being able to identify examples of prejudice/bias/racism
What methods are being used to model inclusivity in the classroom?
  • Valuing and respecting students’ opinions/perspectives
  • Using inclusive language (i.e. reframing students’ opinions, using correct pronouns, avoiding generalizations)
  • Choosing activities that don’t single out students with disabilities
  • Encouraging students to share about their lives and interests
  • Acknowledging student differences as well as visible and invisible student identities
How is classroom discussion being structured in terms of equitable participation?
  • Guidelines for discussion are established together with students
  • Confidentiality is kept when students are sharing personal information
  • Visuals and other resources are included to accommodate english-language learners
  • Offensive or insensitive comments are addressed to make sure students are held accountable
  • Alternative methods of participation can be considered for different student conditions

References

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbtq/lgbtq-inclusive-curricula 

Cchiaro. (2020, October 21). How to evaluate your teaching for diversity and inclusion. Graduate Programs for Educators. Retrieved from https://www.graduateprogram.org/2020/10/how-to-evaluate-your-teaching-for-diversity-and-inclusion/  

GLSEN Research Brief. (n.d.). https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/The_Experiences_of_LGBT_Middle_School_Students_2007.pdf 

Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330–366. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.72.3.01151786u134n051

Holcomb-McCoy, C. (2005). Ethnic identity development in early adolescence: Implications and recommendations for middle school counselors. Professional School Counseling, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2156759X05009002 

Iwai, Y. (2013). Multicultural children’s literature and teacher candidates’ awareness and attitudes toward cultural diversity. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 5(2), 185-198.

Kishore, N. (2022, January 20). Setting up a disability-inclusive curriculum. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/setting-disability-inclusive-curriculum/ 

Lucas, C. G., Bridgers, S., Griffiths, T. L., & Gopnik, A. (2014). When children are better (or at least more open-minded) learners than adults: Developmental differences in learning the forms of causal relationships. Cognition, 131(2), 284-299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2013.12.010

McMahon, S. D., Keys, C. B., Berardi, L., Crouch, R., & Coker, C. (2016). School inclusion: A multidimensional framework and links with outcomes among urban youth with disabilities. Journal of Community Psychology, 44(5), 656-673. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.21793

Parrish, N. (2019, May 15). Ensuring that instruction is inclusive for diverse learners. Edutopia. 

Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/ensuring-instruction-inclusive-diverse-learners  University, C. M. (n.d.). Model inclusive language – eberly center – Carnegie Mellon University. Model inclusive language – Eberly Center – Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/classroomclimate/strategies/inclusivelanguage.html

Britney Hong

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