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Embracing diversity in the classroom: Strategies for inclusive education

It is crucial for educators to celebrate classroom diversity. Explore these strategies for teachers and leaders to promote an inclusive school environment.
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Why should schools care about diversity in the classroom? Diversity is what makes people different from one another. This can include ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status, ability or religious affiliation. Schools embrace diversity in the classroom when they acknowledge these differences by prioritizing inclusivity.

Caring about diversity means promoting inclusion among teachers and staff, along with learners. That can translate into hiring or training considerations. A district or school’s commitment to promoting an inclusive classroom environment has a far reaching positive impact on the families served and the larger community.

Diversity promotes awareness and empathy

Schools help set all learners on a positive trajectory by promoting awareness of people from different backgrounds and facilitating personal connections across lines that typically divide people. The entire school community benefits. Individuals from diverse or historically marginalized populations are more likely to feel part of the group and safe to contribute.

Learners in general, including those from majority groups, are more likely to empathize with, respect and relate to individuals unlike themselves if they are exposed early to diversity. More willingness to listen to other viewpoints instead of scorning or fearing what is unfamiliar is another indicator of inclusive education.

Why is diversity an issue for schools?

Systemic issues reflected in teacher bias and bullying

We can’t ignore the fact that in the United States today, learners who are different often become the victims of bullying and bias. These issues may appear isolated but largely stem from systemic problems facing the nation’s schools.

A recent UNESCO report showed that across the nation, elementary and secondary students with disabilities experience higher rates of violence by teachers and are up to 1.5 times more likely to experience bullying from peers as compared to non-disabled learners. Findings at rural schools showed girls with disabilities four times more likely to be bullied than non-disabled peers. 

Teachers may make biased assumptions of learner capabilities based on external differences such as socioeconomic level, race, gender or ability. For example, teachers tend to assess learners who are Black differently than white learners. Research from the Brown Center for Education Policy at Brookings found that Black students are 5.8 percent more likely to be suspended multiple times and 2.2 percent more likely to be held back.  

For individual learners, these offenses negatively impact their academic performance, self-esteem and future well-being

Lack of inclusion harms learners

Even in situations where overt discrimination isn’t present, more subtle factors may be at work. For learners of color and people with disabilities, seeing few people who look like them in textbooks or leading their class may lead to feeling a lack of belonging in the classroom.

When learners feel inadequate in comparison to peers, they may participate less and/or become increasingly isolated. Disengagement is linked to lower performance, absenteeism and even dropping out. Lack of inclusion harms individuals into adulthood.

How can schools support diversity?

Engaging learners in honest, respectful and developmentally appropriate discussions about topics such as privilege, racism and bias helps them foster critical thinking according to the National Association of School Psychologists. These dialogues can provide a framework for understanding how existing systems and policies can cause inequitable outcomes. 

The NASP resource also recommends professional development for educators on these topics to give them the necessary tools to advance equity in their schools and classrooms. This includes ensuring that all learners see themselves in the curriculum.

In parts of the country where actions by educators have become highly politicized, supporting diversity is increasingly challenging.

One tactic to bypass divisiveness and bias is to focus on simply providing a solid and structured base for educators to do their jobs well. Quantifiable solutions that lift all boats are easier to agree on. Leaders can demonstrate that when they set up systems to support learners who have needs on one end of the spectrum, those systems do not harm learners at the other end.

The intentional use of edtech to promote inclusion

Through education technology, schools and districts can promote an equitable learning environment that supports diverse populations during these volatile times. It is a tool that lends itself to uniting people by opening avenues for increased communication and understanding between people from varying backgrounds. These can include different ways of learning and processing information, different languages and different cultures.

“Appropriately matched EdTech can play a powerful role in supporting children’s learning, not only in ways of providing access but also in enabling them to build their self-esteem and to flourish at school,” note authors of an academic literature review on education technology for learners with disabilities. Intentionally used, technology tools can support rigorous and engaging opportunities for learning that meet learners where they are at. 

For example, software that allows modifications or scaffolding through differentiated lessons for a learner on a 504 plan, by design, also supports a learner labeled as gifted. What helps individuals with special needs may be neutral or even supportive of learners without that particular need. For example, schools using Hāpara Workspace are able to facilitate more equitable learning experiences because this tool helps teachers differentiate and personalize learning for learners.

Six tips for teaching that promotes inclusion:

  1. Clarify the central focus of each project or assignment from the get go
  2. Present material in a culturally relevant way 
  3. Support learners with feedback and insights on their progress in real time 
  4. Protect learners with content filtering while they conduct research 
  5. Promote autonomy through gradual release of aids and supports 
  6. Differentiate learning to address learners’ individual needs

Leadership’s role in embracing diversity in the classroom

Adopting a growth mindset allows leaders and teachers to develop to their best abilities. It relieves them of the burden of having to know everything already. This is especially helpful when it comes to learning how to better manage diversity in the classroom, given all the misunderstandings inherent to this sensitive issue.

Recent evidence suggests that people adapt to diversity, but it takes time. Initially, diversity tends to lower trust. However as contact continues, positive outcomes emerge. It seems that patience is key for school leaders who care about inclusion and want to make a lasting change. 

As important is really listening to what their teachers need. Staff and teachers who feel valued and respected for who they are will be more likely to pass that same respect on to learners. Teachers who feel secure and organized can also better help their learners. Giving educators tools such as Hāpara Teacher Dashboard can help them manage their administrative tasks with ease so they have more time for learners.

How can teachers facilitate inclusive learning?

Once the classroom structure is set in terms of administrative and instructional workflows, teachers can take time to know their learners and build relationships that facilitate learning.

Open communication to connect with learners

One key take-away from the pandemic was the immense importance of face-to-face communication and individual attention to learners’ social emotional learning and development. This is true for all learners and even more critical for learners with experiences of trauma.

Diversity experts encourage educators to move beyond assumptions to have open communication with learners as unique individuals. Foster a culture of care by interacting with learners from a growth mindset. This helps create a space where all voices are valued.

Educators can develop a safe and caring environment within their groups by reaching out to learners discreetly using supportive language that is inviting and curious. In classrooms with 1:1 devices, messaging features like those found in Hāpara’s Student Dashboard and Highlights, are excellent tools for this communication.

Tools like Highlights can also be used to help learners reflect on how they operate when they work online. By employing open dialogue with language that communicates a growth mindset, teachers model for learners and support them as they develop their digital citizenship.

Design learning experiences that center on diversity

Teaching diversity in class can counter discriminatory stereotypes that learners may learn elsewhere according to community diversity experts. Diverse classes offer more well-rounded discussions and the opportunity to share diverse insights and perspectives benefits learners, who gain the chance to explore new ideas.

Even in classes where there appears to be little diversity, teachers can find opportunities as they get to know learners better. They can use educational technology to connect learners with people who are different from them in a meaningful way. 

As learners autonomously explore the world and seek out relevant resources online both, Highlights and Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara help facilitate safe and secure browsing. Adults who care about these young people can enjoy peace of mind knowing that they are protected.


Explore ways to ensure all learners and staff members feel seen and heard by creating a climate of trust and empathy.

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