Inclusive and Exclusive Education for Diverse Learning Needs
Inclusive education refers to the education of all students, regardless of ability, in mainstream classrooms and involves the use of appropriate supports, adjustments, and resource delivery to ensure the successful inclusion of students at a whole-school level, which is supported by inclusive education policy and/or legislation. A key aspect of inclusive education is the philosophical approach underpinning the inclusion of all students in the education environment based on inclusive attitudes, beliefs, and values of all stakeholders and founded on principles of social justice and human rights.
Exclusive education refers to the education of students by selective merit or exclusion and may or may not involve discrimination by educational authorities, representatives, or other stakeholders. Exclusive education involves attitudes, beliefs, and values that may be viewed as positive or negative, and the presence of exclusion may signal the presence of power within an education system.
Different socioeconomic backgrounds
Gifted and talented or twice-exceptional
Gender (including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex)
Other potential student groups encompass disadvantaged youth, including those who are homeless, in foster care or living in poverty, pregnant, in juvenile detention/facilities, or students disengaged from the education system. Armstrong et al. (2010) noted that to discuss inclusion in the context of inclusive education required discussing their potential exclusion.
Exclusive education refers to the exclusion of students from mainstream education, on the basis of labelling, ability, or diagnosis and may involve placement in special educational services or selective entry schools (Ho 2017). Florian (2008) noted that previously special education was viewed as a mechanism where students were both “included in and excluded from the forms of schooling that are otherwise available to children of similar ages” (p. 203). Similarly, selective entry schools include or exclude students from schooling although entry to a selective school is on the basis of academic ability or gender (Ho 2017).
Inclusive education is identified as a divisive and highly debated area of education (Slee 2011). The topic of inclusive or exclusive education evokes strong arguments and concerns from all sides about the inclusion or exclusion of students. Some of the concerns raised by key stakeholders in the field include the practical application and implementation of inclusion in classrooms, teachers’ versus parents’ rights and responsibilities, children’s rights to an education, the cost of inclusion, disruptive or violent behavior, and the overall purpose of education (Slee 2011).
An Overview of Inclusive/Exclusive Education
At the heart of inclusion and inclusive education are key tenets of social inclusion, social justice, and human rights (Armstrong et al. 2010). Inclusive education has its early beginnings in special education and transformed over decades at varying rates of progress across the world (Ashman 2019). Inclusive education emerged from the field of special education as a result of students [and their families] experiencing injustice in education, particularly related to issues of access and equity (Florian 2008).
In many countries, special education is seen as the provision of additional support to learners whose needs extend outside of those of a majority of learners (Florian 2008). Typically, special education focused on a diagnostic-prescriptive approach in contrast to inclusive education which focused on accepting learner differences as a natural part of human diversity and development (Florian 2008).
Exclusive education is associated with the exclusion of individuals or cohorts on the basis of specific attributes and resulting from direct or indirect discrimination, either of which could be oppressive or empowering, depending on the viewpoint taken. The inclusion or exclusion of students in education is a human rights issue (Degener 2016) and is interwoven with the history of the civil and disability rights movement.
Advocacy through political and policy reforms for change in education have been affected by arguments about the technicality of how to implement inclusive education, what inclusive education looks like in practice, how to measure inclusive education, and ongoing debates and differences in defining the concept of inclusive education (Shyman 2015). Countries in the South (e.g., Africa, Asia, Latin America) tend to have stronger conceptualizations of inclusion and inclusive education which address challenges of poverty, gender inequality, and social and economic advances (Armstrong et al. 2010). In contrast, countries in the North tend to advance and develop inclusive policy and then expand these policies through implementation to countries in the South (Armstrong et al. 2010).
Education systems are context specific and different across those contexts.
Inclusive education is practiced in general and special education settings.
Lack of agreement across different settings about meaning and interpretation of inclusion and inclusive education (D’Alessio and Watkins 2009).
Jahnukainen (2011) further highlighted that international research on special and inclusive education primarily focused on a single country at a time with limited research on comparisons with other countries. Often, this research explored either educational policy or practices for students with disabilities.
Models of Disability
To a great extent, the evolution of inclusive/exclusive education can be explained through the models of disability and systemic approaches to the education of students with disability or students with diverse learning needs. These models of disability include the medical model of disability, the social model of disability, and the human rights model of disability.
The medical model of disability refers to the disability as being the “problem” of the individual and a condition to be cured. Inclusion is viewed in the context of the student assimilating into the education environment and a focus on changing the student (Mackenzie et al. 2016). This model uses a deficit approach of labelling and deviance, which may contribute to the exclusion of students in educational contexts on the basis of medical diagnosis and demonstration of behavior from the norm.
The social model of disability identifies societal barriers that limit participation of people with disabilities in life, for example, attitudes and beliefs and societal structures. A range of educational settings have contributed to barriers and are examples of the social model of disability where students with additional or special needs were educated in segregated settings of special institutions in the late nineteenth century and special schools and special classes in the early twentieth century (Jahnukainen 2011). Florian (2008) noted that within the field of special education, many researchers have noted its role in being a vehicle for including and excluding students in education.
The human rights model of disability recognizes the rights of all people to access education and seeks to decrease the exclusion experienced by those identified as other. This is upheld by human rights legislation such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations 2006; Degener 2016).
Human Rights to an Education
The rights of students with disabilities or students who belong to minority groups are often upheld in policy and legislation. Specifically, education systems are supported by a regulatory and legal framework of policy and legislation, which may be education specific or include additional areas of jurisdiction, and establish how these systems are to be governed, managed, resourced, funded, and accessed. The main difference between policy and legislation is that policy is not legally binding in comparison to legislation, which can be enforced through legal means. Policy and legislation may be used as drivers of change and reform in promoting an inclusive or exclusive education or act as barriers to the successful implementation of either education system.
Regardless of location in the global North and South, all children have a right to an education, and these rights are upheld through various international human rights instruments facilitated by the United Nations. In 1948, the United Nations introduced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and declared the rights of everyone to an education while noting parents “have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Article 26). While this declaration was not legally binding, it did outline fundamental human rights and an aspiration of common standards across the world.
Expand and improve early childhood care and education.
Provide free and compulsory primary education for all.
Provide equitable access to learning and life skills for young people and adults.
Increase adult literacy by 50%.
Eliminate gender disparities by 2005 and achieve gender equality by 2015.
Improve the overall quality of education (UNESCO 2000, pp. 3–4).
Each of these goals either supported inclusion or inclusive practices or explored ways of reducing the barriers to inclusion and emphasized inclusive educational environments for all. This commitment to Education for All continued to be affirmed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Miles and Singal (2010) raised concerns that UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Reports failed to suitably address how children with disabilities were still experiencing exclusion, discrimination, or disadvantage in education systems. These authors further highlighted that children with disabilities became less of a focus in the MDGs in comparison to the increased focus on gender and girls.
With the ending of the MDG in 2015, a new target was set with the Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the creation of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Goal 4 focused on quality education and affirmed the continued commitment by many countries to inclusive education by identifying seven target areas to achieve by 2030 (VanderDussen Toukan 2017). These target areas focus on learners who have often been excluded from education systems, particularly those experiencing poverty and from minority groups such as different ethnicities, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities or additional needs (UNESCO 2017).
With the focus on sustainable change in education, Hardy and Woodcock (2015) analyzed international inclusive education policies and found that the concept and practice of inclusion in schools was challenged by neoliberal policies, principles, and practices due to a focus on “success” of and by the individual. The authors highlighted discourses of diversity, difference, and deficit in the interpretation of inclusion policies across all countries with what they identified as a diversity-deficit spectrum. Repeatedly, challenges came down to a lack of understanding of difference and diversity and how to manage such in the education environment, while all countries demonstrated a lack of uniformity in their understanding of inclusion and inclusive education in theory and in practice (Selvaraj 2015).
The introduction of various international United Nations treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD; United Nations 2006), assisted with advocacy efforts in promoting, upholding, and realizing the rights of children with disabilities to an inclusive education. Policies and legislation vary for each country and affect the degree that Education for All, and inclusive education is implemented at a local level.
The argument for inclusion or exclusion of specific students has often resulted in court litigation between key stakeholders (i.e., parents/carers, teachers, schools) as each side fights for their rights and for the court to mediate in determining a suitable outcome. Key considerations in determining an outcome may include in the best interests of the child, the least restrictive environment, and reasonable adjustments as each stakeholder argues their case and justifies their reasons for the inclusion or exclusion of a student.
Farrell (2000) identified three problem areas with the argument for the right to inclusion and an inclusive education based on the human rights agenda and argument alone. Farrell (2000) suggested that the first problem is not related to the right to an education but that this right might be best met in a special school rather than a mainstream school. This author suggested the second problem is concerned with working out whose rights were being represented – the child, the parents, or the other students? The third problem identified by Farrell (2000) included the rights of parents to choose an educational environment, be it a special school or a mainstream school for their child.
Inclusive/Exclusive Education in Practice
Inclusive education as a concept has limited consensus on an exact definition; however, common features include the right of all students to participate in a regular or mainstream school and for their learning needs to be met through the reduction or elimination of barriers, so they can experience a quality education (Hyde 2015; Slee 2018).
Some of the key concepts underlying inclusive education involve defining and describing the difference between inclusion, integration, segregation, and exclusion. Clarifying the difference between these concepts is useful because it assists in developing an understanding of inclusion and inclusive practices and can facilitate a more inclusive school environment (Ainscow and Sandill 2010).
Key terms and definitions from inclusion to exclusion
“Involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences”
“A process of placing persons with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions, as long as the former can adjust to the standardized requirements of such institutions”
“Occurs when the education of students with disabilities is provided in separate environments designed or used to respond to a particular or various impairments, in isolation from students without disabilities”
“Occurs when students are directly or indirectly prevented from or denied access to education in any form”
Policy and legislation lay the foundation and framework for establishing the human rights of everyone to an education. A quality education that includes all learners, as recommended by SDG4, is an inclusive education that is achieved through two key concepts of inclusion and equity (UNESCO 2017). In 2017, UNESCO released A Guide for ensuring inclusion and equity in education as a resource for countries on how to promote “child-, disability-, and gender-sensitive” education that promoted “safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all” (UNESCO 2017, p. 3).
Understanding the concepts of inclusion and equity and embedding this within a national education framework and system
Policy at a national level reflected and articulated inclusion and equity and transferred into education systems at all levels of leadership while challenging non-inclusive, inequitable, and discriminatory practices
Structures and systems that provide resourcing for inclusion and equity in education
Practices to support all learners including appropriate training and professional development of education staff in inclusive and equitable education practices (UNESCO 2017)
Importantly, this guide still acknowledged resourcing of special provisions such as special schools and units to promote inclusion and equity in education (UNESCO 2017). This statement of resourcing of special schools and units may appear to be in conflict with the inclusive education movement promoting the full inclusion of all students and further contradicting General Comment 4 on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which stated educating students in separate environments from their peers was a form of segregation (United Nations 2006, para 11) and thus exclusion. However, the guide emphasized that countries that have special schools and units played a role in supporting mainstream schools while they work toward more inclusive practices and countries without such services would still work toward inclusion and equity in education (UNESCO 2017).
Planning for Inclusion
Frameworks to Promote Inclusion
Principle 1. Multiple Means of Engagement
Principle 2. Multiple Means of Representation
Principle 3. Multiple Means of Action and Expression
Meyer et al. (2016) explained that each principle is associated with a guideline that is underpinned by research into the neuroscience of why, what, and how people learn. Principle 1 focused on the “why” of learning and promoting engaged and motivated learners. Principle 2 focused on the “what” of learning and promoting resourceful and knowledgeable learners, and Principle 3 focused on the “how” of learning and promoting strategic and goal-directed learners.
Each of these principles is supported by guidelines that recommend various options for how to plan teaching and learning experiences, and all principles are meant to be utilized when planning and implementing instruction (Meyer et al. 2016). Overall, UDL is focused on design and extends beyond good teaching practices to purposely design and deliver learning experiences to increase student performance (Edyburn 2010).
Another way to cater to the diverse learning needs of all students is through culturally responsive reaching (CRT). This approach to educating diverse learners encompasses four main areas of awareness, learning partnerships, information processing, and community of learners and learning environment (Kieran and Anderson 2018). Some of the principles supporting CRT include educational psychology foundations and understandings of child development and how this impacts learning combined with a strong emphasis on student-teacher relationships and building a community of learners while developing learning experiences that are varied, challenging, and meaningful (Kieran and Anderson 2018).
Differentiating the Curriculum
When the curriculum has not been designed at the outset using frameworks such as UDL or CRT or a combination of both, the curriculum is then identified as needing retrofitting through differentiated instruction (Stanford and Reeves 2009) to enable and promote equal access to education for students of varying abilities or individual needs. Stanford and Reeves (2009) explained that differentiated instruction had been used to cater to gifted students for many years prior to its introduction into regular classrooms.
Other terms associated with differentiating the curriculum include modifications, accommodations, adjustments, or reasonable adjustments. Differentiation is described by Fitzgerald (2016) as “not a single strategy or set of strategies” but an “approach that considers individual differences in every task and provides flexibility in the ways that students are permitted to undertake their learning” (p. 18).
Students readiness to learning
Students learning profile including preferences, strengths, and challenges (Tomlinson 2014)
This combination of assessment with instruction is important because assessment provides teachers with data on how to improve and modify their instructional practice daily and help students grow as independent learners (Tomlinson 2014). Alchin (2014) identified adjustments as a deficit approach to disability and cautioned that their continued use was a reactionary approach to designing curriculum and did not promote flexibility or reflect an inclusive and proactive approach to teaching and learning.
Individualized Planning Needs
Individualized or personalized planning is used to assist students with disabilities or additional needs to access the curriculum and educational environment. This plan may be in the form of an Individual Education Plan and may be title under a different name, depending on the educational context and global location. The focus of the plan is the student and making reasonable accommodations, adjustments, or modifications to the curriculum to enable their access to the teaching and learning activities within the school. This plan utilizes a strength-based approach and may or may not be legally mandated in each country. Data is gathered on the student throughout the process to help make decision and to inform practices used with the student.
Teaching Strategies and Behavioral Approaches
Inclusive teaching strategies begin with offering students meaningful and challenging learning experiences (Brownell et al. 2012) that use a strength-based approach to the curriculum design and delivery for all learners, regardless of educational setting from the early years to higher education.
One of the strategies used to promote inclusive education is response to intervention (RtI). RtI is a three-tiered level prevention model framework focused on promoting the use of evidence-based instruction by using student data to inform teacher practice (Brownell et al. 2012; Greenwood and Kelly 2017).
Increase in teacher professional learning attributed to RtI.
Teachers acting as change agents.
Acceptance and increased confidence over time.
Trusting relationships and active leadership were essential for change.
Need for continued professional development.
Need to clarify roles among education professionals (Greenwood and Kelly 2017).
A key concern in educational settings is teacher preparedness and the appropriate use of evidence-based practices (EBP) for children and students with additional needs (Smith and Tyler 2011). Implementing EBPs may be difficult due to a lack of access to current knowledge and training by education professionals. Smith and Tyler (2011) suggested time-poor education professionals were sourcing alternative solutions such as information via the Internet; therefore, a suitable solution would be accessing free online web resources and training provided by accredited organizations and research centers.
Another instructional strategy promoted in inclusive settings is the use of collaborative co-teaching between regular and special education teachers in mainstream settings. Co-teaching may include parallel teaching, station teaching, alternative teaching, one-teach-one, and team teaching (Chitiyo and Brinda 2018). Teachers reported understanding the principles of co-teaching but difficulties in its implementation. Chitiyo and Brinda (2018) recommended more training be conducted on co-teaching strategies for beginning teacher education programs.
While overall access to education is improving, barriers to participation in the classroom still exist for a range of diverse learners (Matavire et al. 2013). The exclusion of students through teaching strategies and approaches such as ability streaming in classrooms has been found to promote segregation of students and discriminatory attitudes and preferences in resourcing and attention between the different ability groups (Matavire et al. 2013). In Zimbabwe, research conducted in schools on ability streaming reported negative outcomes of decreased student self-concept and increased social conflict (Matavire et al. 2013).
Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support
An inclusive school environment adopts behavior management strategies such as schoolwide positive behavior support (SWPBS) or positive behavior intervention support (PBIS). SWPBS is a three-tiered behavior support framework (Tier I, Tier II, Tier III) to promote and guide positive behavior in schools (Horner et al. 2010).
Tier I is universal supports provided to all students in all settings using direct instruction procedures. Tier II is secondary prevention designed for students not responding to the first tier of support and is manualized intervention strategies. Tier III is tertiary intervention for students who have not responded to the primary or secondary supports and has individualized supports designed to meet the unique needs of each student. Horner et al. (2010) recommend the use of a functional behavior assessment in combination with the collection of other academic and social data on the student to comprehensively complete a student behavior plan at this level.
The use of restrictive practices and restraint or violence against children or students with disabilities is recognized as an issue, not only in society but also within mainstream settings (Nelson 2017). Article 16 of the CRPD (United Nations 2006) highlights and advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in relation to abuse and violence perpetrated against them and for the need to monitor, regulate, and legislate the protection of their rights.
Measuring inclusion has been difficult to ascertain, implement, and accurately assess due to differing agreements on what and how to measure inclusive education (Loreman et al. 2014). Initially, the Index for Inclusion was developed by Booth and Ainscow (2002, revised 2011) and used considerably throughout the world. Some of the critiques of this measure included the material being too complex and the tool requiring additional support and professional development to successfully implement in schools (Loreman et al. 2014).
An input-processes-outcomes model was developed by Kyriazopoulou and Weber (2009) to measure inclusive education based on available supports, what occurs during implementation and then the end outcomes of such. Loreman et al. (2014) recommend a “broad varied methodological approach” (p. 12) by “measuring aspects of access, support, policy, curriculum, pedagogy, quality teaching and assessment of achievement” (p. 13) at a whole-school level.
Instruction provided by these assistants is to be supplementary.
Teachers are to develop plans for the assistants using evidence-based practices.
Teacher assistants/aides need training on implementation of these plans.
Teacher assistants/aides need training on behavior management strategies.
Ongoing monitoring and supervision is to be provided by professionals (Giangreco 2013).
Family and Professional Collaboration
When working with children or students with diverse learning needs, educators need to be mindful that it is not only the child or student that they are educating and engaging with but also the family. The term “family” or “families” is used to describe a range of family compositions which may or may not include family members with genealogical linkages (Sands et al. 2000). Family system theory promotes the idea of interconnectedness between each family member and how these connections impact external settings outside of the family, such as schools (Christian 2006). Families and their members are important to partnering with schools and professionals as they play a pivotal role in the child’s success in and outside of the school.
Trust and honesty
Mutually agreed-upon goals
Shared planning and decision-making
The role of parents in the parent/professional collaboration changes according to setting. In the early years, high-quality parent-educator relationships are recommended to address and problem-solve challenging behaviors that stem from living in poverty (Kuhn et al. 2016) and to address the exclusion that occurs so early in the education system from children being expelled from preschool or kindergarten (Gilliam and Reyes 2018).
In 2014, the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (2014) Report revealed that school suspension rates in the preschool years were higher for Black children than White children and resulted in the government advocating for clearly articulated guidelines on suspensions and expulsions of preschoolers and for the use of preventative measures including early childhood mental health consultations. Ingólfsdóttir et al. (2018) noted the contradictions between policy-enacted understandings of a holistic and social model of disability approach to inclusive education embracing a family-centered approach, especially in the early years, with the service delivery that was heavily characterized by a medical model understanding of disability.
In developing trusting partnerships with schools, parents of children with and without disabilities identified four main themes of communicating: establishing a sense of belonging, demonstrating professional competency and commitment, and building family leadership as contributing to a strong parent/professional relationship in mainstream schools (Francis et al. 2018). In post-secondary education, parents are encouraged to transition from a caregiver to an advisory role with a key goal of promoting self-determination of the child/adult in this setting (Francis et al. 2016).
Barriers to Inclusion
Insufficient training and resources
Teacher apprehension about teaching inclusively
Inadequate pre-service teacher training
Support inclusion in theory, less in practice
Underfunding, concerns about allocation of funding
Release time for planning (Woodcock and Woolfson 2019)
Similar to inclusive education, exclusive education is underpinned by social justice and equity. Concerns about the social inclusion or exclusion of all people in society transcend the education systems and extend into communities and wider political spheres. There are two potential types of exclusive education.
The first type of exclusive education is where exclusion occurs in educational settings on the basis of a recognized disability, diversity, or additional need and has a negative connotation. Razer and Friedman (2017) described this cycle of exclusion as encompassing negative experiences felt by both students and educational professionals (teachers and principals). These authors identified how exclusive education was reinforced by “frames of exclusion” and the functioning of education staff within the education environment by either feeling “helpless to change the situation” or “deny the reality of the situation and deny any negative implications of their own action” (Razer and Friedman 2017, p. 147). Other types of exclusion occur when students are denied access to education due to gatekeeping practices at schools (Lilley 2013).
The second type of exclusive education is where inclusion or exclusion of a select group of students occurs in an educational setting. These groups of students may include developing the skills and talents of gifted students in schools of excellence (Al-Shabatat 2014), developing students’ skills in sports through sporting academies (Pope 2002), or the separation of students into different schooling systems through selective entry (Skipper and Douglas 2016).
At a systemic level, Slee (2018) argued exclusion was costly for two reasons. The first reason was the economic cost to governments and to families where providing segregated school systems put an extra burden on government finances in funding divided school systems, when an already existing system could promote inclusive education. This led to the second reason, which had economic, social, and health cost and implications for the government and society where segregation led to exclusion, underachievement, juvenile delinquency, and a pathway to the prison system costing the government in areas of social security, criminal justice, and health.
At a global level, Mukherjee (2017) identified that exclusion in the South was affected by the colonization of different countries and political and geographical tensions such as changing borders of nation-states. These changes resulted in the oppression of local and Indigenous peoples by dominant cultural and ethnic groups by denying them access to education. This author highlighted how different cultural values impact on the success of inclusive education in the region and how these values further marginalize minority groups and work against inclusive education. Mukherjee (2017) argued against viewing inclusive education from a Western and linear historicist approach of “North,” “South,” “East,” “West,” and “First World, Second World, or Third World” countries and instead promoted a contextual and cultural approach to inclusive education.
The Student Voice on Inclusion/Exclusion
Stiefel et al. (2017) attempted to fill the gap in research on whether students feel more included upon receiving inclusive or exclusive forms of education and state that previous quantitative research has primarily focused on academic outcomes of inclusive education. Feeling included was examined across five areas in response to students’ feeling welcome, bullying, harassment, being known, and overall inclusion of students with disabilities in the school environment. The findings from Stiefel et al.’s (2017) study revealed little difference between students with disabilities and students without disability feeling included in regular classroom settings, despite receiving different services. Students indicated they felt only slightly less included with their peers but more included with their teachers.
Transitioning to Society
Inclusive education can be confronting for teachers, parents, and students because it prompts and challenges people to confront stereotypes and preconceived notions about humanity and to reconsider their belief systems, attitudes, and values toward people who demonstrate difference or deviant behavior. Peter (2007) referred to the philosophy of inclusive education as “the right of all individuals to a quality education with equal opportunity – one that develops their potential and respects their human dignity” (p. 99). The next step after the education system is for students with additional or special needs to transition into society.
There are a range of transition strategies and programs on offer for students with additional needs (Richardson et al. 2017) to transition into employment and the community; however, to be truly inclusive, it is advocated that inclusion starts from the beginning and with the hearts and minds of people living alongside each other every day, in the home and wider society.
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