Understanding and Promoting Social Inclusion

Social inclusion refers to all the opportunities that children with special educational needs have in regular settings in order to be taught all the curriculum and extra-curricular activities. This also includes interacting positively with their typically developing peers and developing social relationships and friendships with them. Research shows that students who feel socially included develop positive feelings about themselves and consequently their self-esteem is higher. It has also been found that the development of social relationships with their typical peers increases their classroom understanding and participation. However, my experience as a special needs assistant and social clubs supervisor in a primary school confirmed what I had read; Pupils with special educational needs usually participate in fewer school activities and extra-curricular activities than their typical classmates and this may have a negative impact on their social inclusion.
According to ‘Theory of Mind’, individuals have beliefs, desires and intentions, which are inferred from other people in order to understand why someone acts in a specific way or to predict how someone will act in a specific situation. Through this process, people are able to think and react in nonegocentric ways which allows them to develop social relationships.
However, for those with additional needs, attachment disorders during infancy seem to play a considerable role in the development and maintenance of social interactions. There are many differences in the way that infants with and without special educational needs interact with their primary caregivers. For instance, it has been found that infants with visual impairment develop an attachment to their mothers more slowly than typical infants and therefore their mothers need to be more verbally and physically involved with them in order to develop an emotional attachment. Such early experiences can have a significant impact on children’s later interpersonal interaction. 
The different types of educational settings also have an impact on students’ social inclusion, for instance some studies suggest that the number of interactions among students with and without special educational needs is much higher in mainstream schools which promote inclusion. The presence of support teachers next to students with special educational needs is also important for their progress and inclusion, because they are helping them by using adaptive teaching strategies. However, this is a double-edged sword; according to some students, the presence of a support teacher, at times leads them to feel isolated from their typical peers. The extent of their needs is also significant when it comes to the development of social relationships with peers. Typically, students are usually more tolerant towards their classmates with visible disabilities than towards their peers whose disability is not apparent.
The question is what can be done in order to promote the development of social relationships among students with and without special educational needs? Generally, in most countries children with special educational needs are nominally part of a child centred curriculum, where educational interventions take place at schools and all teaching staff are trying to respond to their needs. However, there are some “tips” for how educators may help promote inclusion and some of them are described below.
Before students with special educational needs start attending mainstream schools, the teaching staff need to create the appropriate environment suited to their needs. This could include preparing the equipment they need, for instance any assistive technology and tools, in order to make students feel confident in their new school environment.
We should always keep in mind that typical students may not have previous experience with students with disabilities. Consequently, the educational strategies, that their teachers are going to use, need to provide them with the appropriate awareness; the development of awareness interventions on typical students’ attitudes toward their peers with special educational needs is essential for the inclusion of these students. 
These awareness programmes may consist of a lesson and a video about special educational needs in order to prepare students for the arrival of their new classmate. They may also include some sensibilization activities toward special educational needs. For instance, 344 students who participated in a study which was exploring the effect of educational interventions on children’s attitudes toward peers with visual impairment, took part in soccer tasks using blindfolded goggles and had also the chance to discuss with some soccer players with visual impairment (Reina, Lopez, Jimenez, García-Calvo & Hutzler, 2011). According to the findings of this study, typical children’s attitudes towards their peers with visual impairment changed and they started interacting positively with them
On the other hand, students with special educational needs should also participate in educational programmes in order to reinforce and maintain their social skills. Through these programmes, they learn how to take initiatives, maintain self-control, accept differences and manage their emotions. Lego therapy and social stories clubs are two early educational interventions which can make the difference on students’ social life. Students with special educational needs may also be asked to co-operate during these social clubs with their typically developing peers in order to develop social relationships and friendships with them.
The feedback from teachers and classmates is essential to the development of social skills and self-evaluation of students with special educational needs. Many studies which explore the well-being of students with special educational needs indicate that when teachers’ attitudes towards inclusion are positive, their students develop the sense of belonging and feel less stigmatized.
It has also been found that the best feedback is the one which is provided naturally by peers and it does not need further intervention from the teachers. Specifically, the presence of friends is the most protective factor against the adverse experiences of social isolation and depression.
The development of friendship plays a considerable role in the protection of students against victimization and bullying. Therefore, it is important to create educational environments which encourage the development of social relationships among students with different needs and as a result this can boost the confidence of students who need the greatest support.

Further reading
Coster, W., Law, M., Bedell, G., Liljenquist, K., Kao, Y., C., Khetani, M. & Teplicky, R. (2012). School participation, supports and barriers of students with and without disabilities. Child: Care, Health and Development, 39, 535-543.
Jindal-Snape, D. (2005). Self-evaluation and recruitment of feedback for enhanced social interaction by a student with visual impairment. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 98, 486-498.
Reina, P., Lopez, V., Jimenez, M., García-Calvo, T. & Hutzler, Y. (2011). Effects of awareness interventions on children’s attitudes toward peers with a visual impairment. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 34, 243-248.
Uplane, M. & Wadegaonkar, A. (2017). Using ‘Socialization Programme for Visually Impaired students’ (SPVI) to improve their Social Skills. Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 4, 39-52. 

Source: Manitsa, I. (2019, April). Social Inclusion. Developing Minds: Exploring Cognitive Diversity. Retrieved from http://bit.do/aprilnewsletter2019