Inclusive education, the boost that our students and society need

Written by Pablo Morilla Portela, a primary teacher experienced in the field of inclusive education

In one of its latest reports (World Health Organization, 2020), the WHO reveals a worrying increase in mental health problems among young people; specifically, it warns us of adolescents who increasingly suffer from problems of irritability, anxiety and depression. This represents a proven impoverishment in their health that will increase as children grow into the generations of tomorrow.

Undoubtedly, we must be failing in something as a society and, although education systems cannot be solely responsible for taking action in this growing problem, we must consider alternatives to improve the mental health of our students and work preventively to improve their emotional and mental wellbeing.

My "psychologist" is at recess

In recent years, inclusive education has proven to be a transformative agent for the emotional state of our children. Research in this area (Morilla & Pichardo, 2017) has shown that inclusive education has different benefits ranging from the personal to the social, which we will see below.

One possible explanation would be a complex network of personal interactions between peers, enriched by diversity in its different spheres: social, cultural, functional, economic, etc.

I am satisfied with my life

The quality of childhood and adolescent life has been and should continue to be a key concept when undertaking changes and reforms in an education system (Shalock & Verdugo, 2017). Quality of life has a dual component and is defined by both objective and subjective aspects; in other words, if we imagine two children with the same material possessions, it is possible that one is satisfied and happy with them and the other is not.

Growing up surrounded by this diversity helps children and future adolescents to become aware of the different personal and social realities that surround them and, more or less consciously, to compare themselves with these surroundings, which can include dysfunctional families, functional diversity, economic precariousness, cultural and social poverty, etc. The implementation of inclusion measures favours children with difficult situations, potentially providing them with higher levels of well-being compared to their peers in other schools.

I love myself as I am

Depression is a mental disorder associated with lack of interest, feelings of sadness, guilt and low self-esteem. Numerous studies have found a strong connection between low self-esteem and the development of this disorder (Paxton, Neumark-Sztainer, Hannan & Eisenberg), from which many of our adolescents, especially girls, will suffer.

Inclusive education has been shown to increase the overall self-esteem of these adolescents, and this is particularly true for the dimensions of self-esteem that correspond to three domains: moral/ethical, social and family. When they reach this complex point in their development, children who have had the opportunity to grow up in an inclusive school value, from an ethical point of view, their behaviour positively, feel more competent and valuable to their peers, and experience greater satisfaction with their family relationships and the emotional climate of their home.

I put myself in your shoes

However, these benefits are not limited to the above-mentioned personal aspects; they extend to a social level. It is possible that the key to all these benefits is closely related to the fact that in inclusive schools one grows up learning to be more empathetic. Putting oneself in the shoes of other, different peers can lead to a higher level of empathy. This involuntary process of comparing oneself to the less fortunate in one area or another may be the key to the other benefits.

I am ready to help

Similarly, empathy seems to be the trigger for the development of pro-social behaviours (Allemand, Steiger, & Fend, 2015), that is to say, behaviours aimed at helping other people or groups without expecting anything in return. Being more empathetic seems to keep children more attentive to the needs of others, especially those who are most in need, and consequently more likely to engage in these behaviours to help them when needed. In an inclusive school, the development of this type of behaviour is inevitably part of everyday life, both in the classroom at an academic level, and outside the classroom at a more social or welfare level, especially during less regulated play times when it is the children who, thanks to the tools learned from the teachers, modify spaces, times or rules of play so that everyone can participate in the different activities that are being carried out.

We are all the same and different

Last but not least is the level of acceptance of people with disabilities. Pupils in inclusive schools not only accept diversity; they embrace it and are enriched by it, without being fully aware of how this will cultivate in them more humane ways of relating, thinking and being.

Building a diverse society

In the early days, science sought to demonstrate the advantages of inclusive education for traditionally segregated students; later it showed that inclusion did not have any detrimental effects on the rest of their peers, and today we know that it provides significant benefits for each and every student immersed in diversity.

In the light of all this evidence, inclusive education has not become an educational option, but it is and must be the path towards the future. Although openness to diversity began to be fostered in its origins thanks to the charity of private educational institutions, today it has scientific backing and a moral, ethical and legal foundation that leaves no room for doubt that it is the only possible form of education. This is the only way in which we will be able to make our young people healthier and happier people, while sowing the roots of a more tolerant, conscientious and just society. 

To find out more

  • Allemand, M., Steiger, A, E., & Fend, H. A. (2015). Empathy Development in Adolescence Predicts Social Competencies in Adulthood. Journal of Personality, 83(2), 229-241.
  • Portela, P. & Pichardo Martínez, M.C. (2017). Benefits of educational inclusion: implications from a personal and social perspective. Editorial Académica Española.
  • World Health Organization. (2020). Spotlight on adolescent health and well-being. Findings from the 2017/2018. International report. WHO Regional Office for Europe. Copenhagen.
  • Shalock, R. L., & Verdugo, M. A. (2007). The concept of quality of life in services and supports for people with intellectual disabilities. Century Zero, 224, 21-36.
  • Paxton, S., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Hannan, P. & Eisenberg, M. (2006). Body Dissatisfaction Prospectively Predicts Depressive Mood and Low Self-Esteem in Adolescent Girls and Boys. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 35(4), 539-549.

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