For this week’s column I’d like to explore what it takes to create an environment that is inclusive, with a focus on being inclusive more holistically, which would mean acknowledging age-related inclusion, gender inclusivity and social inclusivity as well.
Let’s first investigate what creating an ‘environment’ here can mean.
Firstly, an inclusive environment would mean following basic infrastructural mandates like ramps and railings along staircases. In addition to that, the people of a school make for this environment so does the school ethos and culture. Various school spaces like the library, the playground and even the display boards add to the environment of a school. Each of these elements need attention and action to be able to truly create an inclusive institution.
The people who are part of a school play an important role in making it an inclusive space. Those working in a school space must be aware that education is about offering a place to children for learning while exploring life and the world they inhabit. It is then our responsibility to ensure that this exploration happens within an environment that is sensitive, non-judgmental, and unbiased. If this becomes the core understanding of the purpose of education, every action and every decision will organically be inclusive in nature. It won’t matter if a child cannot reach a switch because they are not tall enough or because they are wheelchair bound, the ‘environment’ and its people will ensure the child reaches the switch either way.
While inclusivity is primarily about a shift in mindset towards being more sensitive to those around you, it can also be specifically driven by building capacities, both, of teachers as well as the support staff. For instance, the practice of pausing in silence for a few minutes when a teacher asks a question, instead of raising hands immediately, gives everyone a chance to think, even those who may take a while longer than the average child in the class. Another way is to move away from stereotypical examples of ‘mothers cooking’ and ‘fathers driving’ in everyday math problems and grammar sentences, which will take care of gender biases that must be broken at an early age. A very tall child must get a chance to sit on the first few benches, for some part of the year, for them to feel included. It’s completely unfair that they must spend their entire school life in the last row! This is truly being inclusive, and these small everyday decisions lie in the hands of the people who have the responsibility to create an inclusive environment in a school.
Spaces for all
Children are in a constant process of becoming. They are continuously accessing and discovering the world around them. However, it is important for them to discover a world that they connect with and feel they belong to. To create this world must be, once again, the responsibility of a school, which is designed keeping the child in mind – children who range from 6 to 16 years of age. Here, I specify the age because schools must be designed keeping all age groups in mind and this is where we must be more inclusive in our approach.
Imagine yourself as a six-year-old entering a library where you can barely see the books because the shelves begin above the level of your head. Or worse, a laboratory where everything is out of reach, out of sight and unsafe to touch! Display boards across corridors are all placed at a height that can be enjoyed only by students in the secondary years. Even the playground, at most times, is crowded with older children (who you recognize only from their knees!) playing rough games with hard balls. If this is the world a younger child is continuously navigating, they grow up always wanting to be older, taller, stronger. How can true learning happen when the mind is not invested in what one is surrounded by? You grow up thinking that you can enjoy books only when you are older, experimenting happens when you are even older and playing on the ground becomes a reality only if you are older and stronger! Slowly, the process of education starts becoming irrelevant because we get used to living in the future and we are unable to discover the joy in what we are surrounded by in the now.
If school spaces are designed keeping different age groups in mind, every space has the potential to provide the required age-appropriate stimulus and offer immense possibilities to all children who visit, explore, and discover it.
As mentioned earlier, being inclusive is a way of life. It is about being sensitive to differences, different people, different ways of life and living. Considering schools have a large number of students, teachers and support staff, all coming from various backgrounds, it lays the perfect ground to practice true inclusivity as part of the school culture, ethos and vocabulary. Below are a few ways in which we can build sensitivity towards inclusivity.
While addressing adults in children’s lives, schools must mention both ‘parent’ and ‘guardian’ in all official communication. It is important for schools to show that they acknowledge and are respectful to varied family structures. How we address the support staff in the school is another area that displays sensitivity. Do teachers and students know their names? Their birthdays? I remember our school security guard had tears run down his face when the children of class 4 celebrated his birthday and inundated him with cards and snacks. Talking about birthdays, wearing coloured clothes to school on birthdays and distributing sweets, is something many schools are doing away with, because it takes away one level of social disparity which children can decipher with ease.
Sensitive, non-judgmental and unbiased
A school environment sets the foundation for a child’s understanding of the world around them. Thus, it is essential, and I would like to reiterate, that this environment is designed to be sensitive, non-judgmental and unbiased. Children who grow up understanding that differences are not an anomaly, but a way of life will be adults who are loving, compassionate and at peace with themselves and those around them. At the beginning of this new academic year, let’s try and bring in small changes in our schools, in our vocabulary and in our actions to set ways of being that make inclusion of all kinds, a way of life.
The author is an arts-based therapist, educator and children’s author. She has been working with children from different backgrounds for the past 15 years and is an advocate of ‘inclusive education’. She is currently the Executive Director of an inclusive not-for-profit ICSE school in Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.