Pedagogy for inclusion

Inclusive practices are effective for diverse (all) learners.

Paula Kluth, a renowned expert on autism and inclusive education, often meets teachers who are anxious about teaching a student with ASD. Kluth reassures teachers:

Although it can be beneficial to know about autism before teaching students with that label, teachers are most effective when they show acceptance, look for strengths in learners, provide personal attention when necessary and allow for differences in the ways students approach tasks and complete classroom work. That is, teachers are often practicing inclusive pedagogy when they are simply engaged in good teaching.

Kluth, 2010, page 222

In his extensive review of research on trends in the education of students with special educational needs, David Mitchell reports:

… there is little evidence to support the notion of disability-specific teaching strategies, but rather that all learners benefit from a common set of strategies, even if they have to be adapted to take account of varying cognitive, emotional and social capabilities (Kavale, 2007). What is required is the systematic, explicit and intensive application of a wide range of effective teaching strategies (Lewis & Norwich, 2005).

2008, pages 111–112

In chapter 10 Mitchell lists 18 strategies used by effective teachers. These include co-operative group teaching, peer tutoring, formative assessment, feedback, and cognitive strategy instruction.

What works for diverse learners – the BES programme

New Zealand’s Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis Programme presents trustworthy evidence about what works to optimise educational outcomes for diverse learners. The syntheses provide a mine of information on effective practices and approaches. This important body of knowledge is being made more accessible to school communities through the development of BES exemplars and the BES summaries.

The BES exemplars explain and illustrate the following dimensions of quality teaching for diverse learners:   

  • Quality teaching is focused on valued outcomes and facilitates high standards for diverse learners.
  • Pedagogical practices enable classes and other learning groups to work as caring, inclusive, and cohesive learning communities.
  • Quality teaching is responsive to all students’ learning, identities, and well-being.
  • Quality teaching is responsive to student learning processes.
  • Teaching makes educationally powerful connections to students’ knowledge, experiences, and identities. 
  • Teachers work smarter, not harder, through the use of evidence for continuous improvement.
  • Opportunity to learn is effective and efficient.
  • Pedagogy scaffolds, and provides appropriate feed forward and feedback on, learning.
  • Teachers and students engage constructively in goal-oriented assessment.
  • Pedagogy promotes learning orientation, student self-regulation, metacognitive strategies, and thoughtful student discourse.
  • Curriculum goals, resources, task design, teaching, school practices, and home support are effectively aligned.

Three of the BES exemplars are particularly helpful for constructing inclusive school and classroom communities that facilitate improvement in a range of outcomes:

Two of the BES summaries discuss effective pedagogical practices in particular curriculum areas that are inclusive of all learners:

All the outputs from the BES Programme are available on the Education Counts website.

What is inclusive pedagogy?

In the following table, Kluth (2010, page 223) articulates what she believes inclusive pedagogy is and is not:

What inclusive pedagogy is not and what it is

What inclusive pedagogy is not

What inclusive pedagogy is

An approach designed primarily to meet the needs of students with disabilities An approach that benefits all learners, including those who are racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse as well as those with a range of skills, gifts, strengths, needs, abilities, and disabilities
Adaptations that are “tacked on” to predeveloped lessons Curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is carefully designed to incorporate the needs of all learners up front
Another disconnected model and/or approach for teachers to implement and fit into the school day A reform that intersects with and ideologically fits with dozens of other current reforms and approaches including response to intervention, differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, co-teaching, constructivist teaching, project-based instruction, active learning, culturally relevant teaching, community-based instruction, and multicultural education
Changing pieces of the lesson for one or two students Continuously assessing and creating lesson formats, materials, groupings, teaching strategies, and personal support for all learners
A new and unfamiliar approach to teaching and learning Something that most teachers are doing already, perhaps without realising it; teachers who offer a range of assessment choices, assign diverse roles to students in cooperative groups, or offer enhancement to learners who need extra challenge are using differentiated instruction. For most teachers, using an inclusive pedagogy will simply involve expanding strategies and approaches already used in the classroom.

© Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc.

Implications of ASD for student learning and development

The dimensions of quality teaching ( BES exemplars, 2012–) include being responsive to all students’ learning processes and to their learning, identities, and well-being. This requires teachers and others in the care community to ‘know their learners’ well. For students with ASD, part of that knowledge will include understanding their ASD and how it affects their learning and development.

People who know the details about my autism are usually more comfortable dealing with me. Also, the more information my teachers have, the more ideas they have to help me learn.

Student with ASD, New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline, page 185

This section summarises evidence about ‘what works’ specifically for students with ASD. It is not comprehensive, but suggests some of the ways:

  • ASD may affect a student’s ability to learn and develop
  • educators could adapt their curriculum and teaching approaches to respond appropriately.

The New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline Summary (Ministries of Health and Education, 2008) provides a list of key recommendations for practice. More detailed recommendations, supporting evidence, and practical advice are provided in the full version.

Core characteristics of ASD and their implications

ASD has four core characteristics: communication, social interaction, cognition, and sensory issues. Each characteristic impacts on a student’s experience of school and requires a different response from the school community to:

  • collaborate with students’ care communities to provide a pool of knowledge about what may work
  • ensure that interventions are coherent in all contexts.


This refers to an impairment in a person’s ability to understand and use verbal and non-verbal communication.

Some possible implications for student learning and development are:

  • the ability to make sense of knowledge and information is restricted
  • access to the curriculum is restricted
  • difficulty in expressing needs and concerns leads to behavioural issues
  • figurative language is taken literally.

Some possible strategies for teachers are:

  • using fewer words and speaking more slowly
  • increasing the use of visual materials
  • adopting assistive technologies [1]
  • looking for the cues that a need is not being met
  • explicitly teaching the meaning of figurative language.

Social interaction

This refers to an impairment in a person’s ability to understand social behaviour, which affects their interactions with other people.

Some possible implications for student learning and development are:

  • social isolation
  • the ability to learn from and with others is restricted
  • difficulty with social rules may lead to conflict.

Possible strategies for teachers include:

  • providing explicit coaching in how to read and participate in social situations
  • helping classmates and colleagues to understand the perspective of the student with ASD
  • providing structured opportunities for social interaction
  • providing supports to reduce anxiety, including breaks from social interaction
  • rewarding good behaviour with opportunities for individual activities in students’ specific interest areas.


This refers to an impairment in a person’s ability to think and behave flexibly, which may be shown in restricted, obsessional, or repetitive activities.

Some possible implications for student learning and development are:

  • a preference for routine and structures creates challenges during transitions between activities and settings
  • difficulty in managing self and problem solving
  • difficulty in planning and beginning tasks
  • inference is a challenge
  • difficulty in transferring learning between settings
  • unusual mannerisms (such as flapping) and repetitive movements.

Possible strategies for teachers include:

  • setting up structures and systems such as written timetables and checklists 
  • collaboratively planning for major transitions such as between teachers or schools
  • using thinking frameworks such as mind-maps and flowcharts
  • building on students’ interests
  • explicitly teaching figurative language and multiple meanings
  • explicitly teaching how a skill mastered in one setting applies in another setting
  • encouraging community acceptance of unusual behaviours
  • carrying out a functional behavioural assessment [2] in order to understand the purpose of behaviour and design an intervention.

Sensory issues

This refers to a person’s tendency to under- or over-react to sensory information.

A possible implication for learning and development is that certain types of sensory overload (for example, hearing loud sounds) may cause stress and be a barrier to learning.

Possible strategies for teachers include:

  • carrying out sensory profiling [3] in order to understand how the student’s senses function
  • making adjustments to the environment to reduce the triggers that cause distress (for example, providing soft furnishings or dimmer lights)
  • providing or allowing comforts such as chew items, ear plugs, or tinted sunglasses.

[1] The term ‘assistive technology’ refers to any device that is used to support the functional capabilities of a person with disabilities. Assistive technologies for people with ASD include ‘augmentative and alternative communication systems’ that support, supplement, or develop communication, such as voice output devices and electronic picture systems. See the glossary in the New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline for more information (Ministries of Health and Education, 2008).

[2] A systematic assessment of the causes of a behaviour, based on the assumption that all behaviour serves a function. The assessment can then be used to teach an alternative that is equally functional but more socially acceptable.  See also the section Practical considerations [link to 5.2.3] or, for a more compete definition and description, see the New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline.

[3] An assessment of how a person with ASD experiences the seven main senses: sight (vision); hearing (audition), touch (tactility), smell (olfaction), taste (gustation); body awareness (proprioception); and balance and gravity (equilibrioception). Sensory profiling can create greater empathy with the person with ASD, highlight their strengths, and suggest ways in which the environment can be adapted to make it more comfortable for them.

Inclusive practices incorporate culturally responsive pedagogy

The principles for improving educational outcomes for students who belong to the majority culture and for students who belong to New Zealand’s many other cultural and ethnic groups are essentially the same. However, they have not always been straightforward to apply in practice. What has often been missing is the ability to create effective links between students’ learning at home and in other cultural contexts and their learning at school (Alton-Lee, 2003). It has taken time and much hard work to understand the kinds of knowledge and relationships needed to create these connections.

Creating inclusive school cultures discusses inclusion and cultural responsiveness. It outlines some of the dimensions of cultural responsiveness and the skills necessary to be culturally competent.

Several resources in the resource library suggest how you might better plan your provision for ethnically diverse students. Some link this with a focus on students with learning difficulties. For example, Bevan-Brown’s Cultural Self-Review (2003) offers practical strategies for implementing improvement for all students, in relation to a range of school programme components.

You may also wish to explore the Te Pikinga ki Runga: Raising Possibilities framework (Macfarlane, 2009). This is an assessment, analysis, and planning framework for working with tamaiti (Māori students) and their whānau.

The framework was developed by Sonja and Angus Macfarlane as a way of supporting teachers and special education practitioners to enact the broad Treaty of Waitangi principles [1] of partnership, protection, and participation. It is organised around four domains, representing holistic student outcomes: hononga (relational), hinengaro (psychological), tinana (physical), and mana motuhake (self-concept).

In her article, Sonja Macfarlane discusses the framework and presents a case study demonstrating its implementation in practice.

[1] These are not actually Treaty principles but were suggested by the 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy as a useful way of framing discussion.

Underpinned by the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, appreciative of the impact of engaging with the environment, responsive to the holistic wellbeing of the tamaiti and cognisant of the competencies that teachers wish to promote in the classrooms, this framework seeks to untangle some of the intricacies for educators in their work with Māori students, and indeed with all students and their whānau.

Macfarlane, 2009, page 49

The Quality Teaching Research and Development Project  supported teachers in a variety of contexts to examine their own practice in order to become more culturally responsive and effective teachers of their Māori and Pasifika students. These case studies may be a useful way of prompting further inquiry into effective teaching and cultural responsiveness in your school community.

Ecological assessment

One way to get to know students well enough to respond appropriately to their learning processes and to their learning, identities, and well-being is to conduct an ecological assessment.

An ecological assessment is ‘the study of the child in his/her physical, social and learning environments’ (New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline, page 247). Those environments include the school, the home, and the relationship between the two.

This kind of assessment helps people in the care community to pay attention to all the factors that influence presence, participation, and achievement. It can be used to identify barriers and mobilise potential resources. 

Researchers Ysseldyke and Christenson (1987, 1993) encourage the use of ecological assessments to understand the features of classroom environments that affect learning. They classify these features into four groups: 

  • planning procedures
  • management procedures
  • teaching procedures
  • monitoring and evaluation procedures.

From such an analysis, adaptations may be made to various aspects of the setting (such as the schedule, curriculum, social groupings, and seating).

Ysselldyke and Christenson developed The Instructional Environmental Scale (TIES) for collecting and analysing data in relation to twelve components of teaching (Table 3 of Spicuzza et al., 2001, page 7). The data includes classroom observations and interviews with students and teachers, and the purpose of the analysis is to identify environmental barriers to learning. Schools can use this scale to interrogate the barriers students may face to learning in their classrooms.

Narrative assessment is an approach to formative assessment that provides a framework for understanding learning and development in all the contexts in which students participate.

Ecological assessments can also be used to support social inclusion and to understand the function of problem behaviours – described in Practical considerations

Formative assessment

Teachers and school leaders in New Zealand share the understanding that:

The primary purpose of assessment is to improve students’ learning and teachers’ teaching as both student and teacher respond to the information that it provides.

The New Zealand Curriculum, page 39

New Zealand schools have worked hard to understand and improve their use of formative assessment and of strategies such as peer and self-assessment. However, it can be difficult to apply those practices to some students with ASD, whose progress through the curriculum may be slower or more uneven than that of their peers.

New Zealand researchers Roseanna Bourke, Mandia Mentis, and Liz Todd (2011) note:

Formative assessment practices that show learners ‘visibly learning’ engage both teachers and learners. However, for learners with high and very high needs, where learning is often ‘invisible’ on traditional tests, those assessment practices are needed that capture their learning in-the moment for a formative function to be realised.

Page 406

The resource library describes several resources that have been designed to help schools make visible the learning of students with high needs. These resources place the emphasis on what young people can do rather than what they cannot. As far as possible, they focus on real events within the contexts in which students are situated – what Bourke et al. call ‘authentic assessment’.

The Ministry of Education’s resources on assessment for students with high needs include the: 

  • the level 1 curriculum frameworks
  • the New Zealand Curriculum exemplars for learners with special education needs
  • a teacher guide on the use of narrative assessment. 

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