By Nikki Heiman

I Believe in Meaningful Inclusion

Hi! I’m Nikki from I’m so happy that Think Inclusive invited me to post here! I am an experienced special education teacher and Mom to a young man with Down Syndrome. I believe passionately in inclusion, but only meaningful inclusion.

Inclusion isn’t placing a child with a disability inside a general education classroom alone. Real inclusion, quality inclusion, involves well trained, open-minded staff members who have made a solid commitment to collaboration, communication, and the success of each and every student in their classroom.

Often there are very well meaning teachers who want to provide a complete, cohesive instructional plan but they lack the support network to facilitate it. Here, I will show you how to overcome some of the most common barriers to successful inclusion.


It’s a common myth that only specialists can teach students with disabilities. While specialists are a fabulous resource and invaluable to offering support in the inclusive classroom, unfortunately with budget cuts to public education they are not always on staff at every school.

Thanks to social media and resources like Facebook Live, these specialists are offering professional development to teachers all around the world in small tidbits for FREE. They are often also more than willing to answer specific questions. One of my favorites is Autism Classroom News. Dr. Christine Reeve has a weekly Facebook live show with great tips you can use right away. I also have a Facebook live show and you can follow me HERE. Another great resource to follow is Sasha from The Autism Helper.


To reinforce point #1- there is a LOT to know when implementing successful inclusion. That just emphasizes the importance of having a team based approach. If I am to think about what that looks like in my school, the general education teacher knows the grade level standards inside out, my specialty is behavior and modifications, then we consult with the speech pathologist for communication strategies. If we need to we have access to occupational therapists, physical therapists and a school psychologist for even more specialized support.

In order to have successful inclusion, the entire team has to be committed to communication. The entire team also has to have a mindset that we all have a lot of to learn from each other as professionals in order for it to work.

We use shared folders in Google drive to share tools and strategies with each other. It saves so much time because we can just drop information in it when we have time and the others can read it when they have time. Since we never have plan time during the school day at the same time this is a great alternative.


In all fairness, each of these barriers builds on one another. Curricular modifications can be easy when the team works together and there is extreme organization. For example, if the general education teacher has shared the curricular expectations and the special education teacher has helped to figure out what the basic expectations for that student are, and that is well documented, it should be perfectly natural to make modifications. For example, (I like to use my son as an example because his teachers really work hard to make inclusion work) my son is 13 and he has Down Syndrome. He is in regular education for science and social studies. Since he is reading at an early elementary level, the skills in 7th grade science and social studies are pretty high for him. What our team decided on was that for every lesson he would be responsible for only 1 or 2 key concepts. This is usually some vocabulary and we create images to match using Google Slides. It’s fantastic because he is easily distracted and in Google Slides you don’t even have to click out of the app to research information.


Behavior…. possibly the biggest challenge in including students who are neurodiverse is managing behavior. Students who are neurodiverse process sensory input differently than the neurotypical student. Coupled with challenges with communicating those sensory processes and the challenges of self-regulation, that can result in behavior that is difficult to understand.

Every time I’m asked a question about chronic behavior, my first question is always “What is the function of the behavior?” What I’ve found is that behavior is always a communication. Once we figure out what the function of the behavior is the next step is to find a solution for the student to communicate their need that works for them but it also works for you.

The challenge with functional behavior assessments, though, is that it requires detailed and continuous data collection. Our solution to that has been to create Google Sheets. In Google Sheets, I’ve created a simple form to document the duration, latency and frequency of behaviors as well as narrative reports for the behavioral antecedent, the behavior itself and the consequence to the behavior.


Tying all of these barriers together is collaboration. Usually it’s just a matter of time for the team to collaborate. It’s rare for all members of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to have plan time at the same time so that usually leaves only before school and after school times to meet. This is a practical issue- some members may not be able to be at school early because of daycare issues and others may not be able to stay late because they coach sports teams. Parents are vital to the success of the student and having their input is so important when planning a student’s instructional day! When parents have hectic work schedules it is hard to expect them to balance their professional life, raising a child with a disability and frequent meetings at school.

Google Docs is a fabulous tool for increasing collaboration amongst all of the IEP team members. Everyone can access the tools and comment, share, etc. when they have time. If you need to video call, there are Chrome extensions to use within Google Docs, or you can use Google Hangouts.

To get you started, I wrote a free ebook titled “Time-Saving Tech for Teachers.”
That ebook is available for download by clicking the button below!