Fostering an Inclusive Climate in an Alternative School


Inclusion is a buzzword that continues to take on many different meanings depending on who you’re talking to or where you’re located. In broad terms, it can be considered a global approach towards a more equitable and less discriminatory society (Booth & Ainscow, 2002). In schools, fostering a sense of belonging for all students and providing students with disabilities and social maladjustments the opportunity to learn with their non-disabled peers would qualify as inclusive practice. Similarly, inclusion may manifest via various pedagogical approaches such as differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 2012) or universal design for learning (Rose & Gravel, 2010) in classrooms. But what if your location is an alternative school specifically conceived to help children with behavioural problems in a specialized setting? What exactly does it mean to include students with a history of exclusionary experiences such as multiple suspensions and expulsions from one or more schools?

To our staff, the answers to the above questions did not come easily. Our students usually arrived with an array of not-so-stellar labels ranging from delayed and challenged to delinquent and challenging. On any given day they could be observed punching lockers, swearing at staff, throwing chairs across a room, walking out of school, committing vandalism, or any combination of these events. In our attempts to address these behaviours, discipline would often trump inclusion. Detentions, suspensions and even expulsions remained popular suggestions during staff meetings, even though these measures had clearly been ineffective in the past, hence the transfer of these students to our school. Eventually it became apparent that as an alternative school, we would have to start using alternatives and adjust our local definition of inclusion. Our first step consisted of dropping all the labels the students arrived with in the first place.

The Pygmalion Effect: Staff Perceptions and Expectations

In 1968, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson administered a test to a group of students with the goal of identifying the “intellectual bloomers” among them—at least that’s what they told the teachers involved in their experiment. In fact, the “blooming” students were randomly selected by the researchers, yet those perceived to be “in bloom” performed significantly better over the course of the study. The experiment showed that teacher expectations acted as self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, if the teacher expected enhanced performance from the student, those expectations were met, regardless of any real gift of genius. Likewise, if expectations were lowered, students were likely to perform accordingly.

The Pygmalion effect became of particular interest to me because students from low socio-economic backgrounds, visible minorities, and often boys are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of teacher expectations that are lowered (Demanet & Van Houtte, 2012; Mehan, Hertweck & Meihls, 1986). These groups of students can be over-represented, in what we as educators are now calling students at-risk. They also make up the majority of the student body of my school, which prompted me to question how my own perceptions and expectations were affecting their behaviours and performance.

We inevitably develop a culture within the schools we work in, which often results in shared beliefs about our students, especially regarding their teachability and their behaviour. We come to agreements on which students are going to be difficult to manage, who will be easy to teach, whose parents will cooperate, and who will show more effort, etc.

As caring and concerned teachers we would never dream of discriminating against our own students, but the harsh reality is that many of those seemingly casual and harmless conversations in the teachers’ lounge can very well inadvertently reinforce negative labels and perpetuate negative expectations based on our own personal and collective perceptions.

Unconscious labeling can also be enabled through something as simple as consulting a student’s record. Student files exist for the benefit of teachers as well as students. They inform us of past academic progress and aid in planning students’ educational programs. Although factual content such as grades, standardized test results, individual education plans and demographic information can be useful in helping students reach their potential, it can also have a direct impact on how they are perceived. The labels, codes, past infractions, previous performance and even demographic information can all make us vulnerable to falling into a preconception trap. By allowing these preconceptions to take root and develop, the risk is that these presupposed characteristics become crystallized, making it difficult to see the student in a different light subsequently. We are thus involuntarily propagating behaviour that supports the negative side of the Pygmalion prophecy.

Adapting to Students Instead of Adapting the Student

So, how do we deal with the Pygmalion effect and what do our perceptions and expectations have to do with creating an inclusive learning environment? Well, it all comes back to our approach, which has adaptability at its core. Adaptability refers to the capacity to respond to uncertainty, change and novelty (Martin, Nejad, Colmar & Liem, 2012). It became apparent that every student who ended up at our school had no choice but to adapt. However, as a staff, we didn’t appear to be as good at it as the students. By first consulting with them on areas and ways of improvement, we set out on a complete overhaul in terms of adapting our philosophy, policies, school environment, program and especially our attitudes and beliefs as educators.

We prioritized shifting our zero-tolerance policy to one of zero-exclusion. This means that all discipline issues are handled in-house, involving interventions with behavioural technicians who have access to pre-established cool-down techniques for each student, student consultations with a drama/art therapist, and a reintegration plan with a restitution component designed by students and staff conjointly.

In terms of our environment, our school felt like a jail. A fresh coat of paint and removing locks on public areas such as bathrooms solved this problem. New furniture with alternative seating (backward chairs, bench stools, standing workstations) also helped foster a more welcoming environment.

Based on student feedback, we also redesigned the schedule to offer stimulating academics in the morning and structured social, physical, recreational and skill-based activities in the afternoons. The afternoon activities included beehive maintenance and honey extraction, CPR training and certification, music production, DJ competitions and swimming lessons.

As a team, we’ve also learned to utilize student records in the development of strategies. We make it a point to avoid any form of negative discussion about students, or we ensure that we highlight a minimum of two positive aspects for every problem we identify. But most importantly, we did away with the labels. In our eyes, students are no longer delayed, delinquent, challenged, etc., and there is much evidence that the students are living up to our expectations!

Booth, T. & Ainscow, M. (2002). Guide de l’éducation inclusive. CEEI – Centre pour l’étude de l’éducation inclusive. Retrieved at: IndexFrenchQuebec.pdf

Demanet, J., & Van Houtte, M. (2012). Teachers’ attitudes and students’ opposition. School misconduct as a reaction to teachers’ diminished effort and affect. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28, 860-869.

Martin, A.J., Nejad, H., Colmar, S., & Liem, G. (2012). Adaptability: Conceptual and empirical perspectives on responses to change, novelty and uncertainty. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 22, 58–81.

Mehan, H., Hertweck, A., & Meihls, J. L. (1986). Handicapping the handicapped: Decision making in students’ educational careers. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press

Rose, D. H. & Gravel, J. W. (2010) Universal design for learning. In E. Baker, P. Peterson and B. McGaw (eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (ninth edition), pp. 119–124. Oxford: Elsevier.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart &Winston.

Tomlinson, S. (2012). A sociology of special education (RLE Edu ed.). London and New York: Routledge.


Tya Collins
Tya Collins is the head teacher of an alternative school in Montreal, Quebec, and a PhD candidate at the University of Montreal. As a teacher working in special education for over ten years, her primary interests in educational issues include diversity in the classroom, postsecondary education access and perseverance, and educational equity.

Corina Borri-Anadon
Corina Borri-Anadon is a professor in the Education Department at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières. Her academic work overlaps both special education and ethnic relations in education fields. It focuses primarily on ethno-cultural, linguistic and religious diversity in training school personnel, inclusion-exclusion issues in special education and paramedical personnel practices in schools.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue.

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