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Schools for all: Why 2021 is the year for inclusive learning


As we begin 2021, Understood is predicting changes ahead for people with learning and thinking differences and disabilities. This is part two of a four-part expert series on our 2021 predictions. (Read part one here.)

We all knew that distance learning would take a toll on students. Now, it’s becoming painfully clear how far behind some kids have fallen in 2020, especially students of color and those with disabilities.

It’s also clear that some students won’t bounce back right away. That’s why most educators will spend most of 2021 focused on helping students catch up. It’s going to be a tough task with typical learners. It’ll be even harder with kids who learn and think differently who have gone a long time without the supports they need.

The truth is, traditional schooling wasn’t designed for kids with learning disabilities and differences.

For too many years, special education students were taught in separate classrooms. Today, the majority of students who learn and think differently rightfully spend most of their time in general education classrooms, learning alongside their peers. But many schools still aren’t systemically set up to support these students.

Many general education teachers haven’t had the training and help they need — and deserve — to be able to support all students. And many classrooms and teaching approaches still aren’t inclusive.

Reimagining schools for all students

That’s the difficult situation teachers find themselves in for 2021: trying — without enough support — to help students catch up in an environment that’s never worked well for them.

Still, some educators see a reason to be hopeful.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended traditional teaching and learning. With the shift to distance learning, we’ve had a glimpse of what inclusive schooling could look like. That includes a renewed focus on meeting students where they are (both literally and figuratively) and engaging families as partners in learning.

Because of distance learning, teachers have created inclusive learning environments using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). They’ve used asynchronous videos that let students rewind and replay as needed. In other words, students have been able to learn at their own pace. Teachers have also provided technology supports, which might otherwise have only been used as accommodations, for all students.

At Understood, we see 2021 as being the year to redefine learning as we once knew it — to carry over new practices that work and to leave behind old practices that don’t. We’re envisioning what teaching and learning can look like when accessible to — and inclusive of — all learners, including the 1 in 5 students who have learning and thinking differences like dyslexia and ADHD.

Four paths toward inclusive education in 2021

As students return to in-person learning, school buildings will have to change. They’ll need to physically accommodate social distance and other safety protocols. Instruction, curriculum, and systems should change, too.

Here are four ways we predict schools will make education more inclusive of all students for next year and beyond.

1. Investing in training and the science of learning.

We know more than ever about the human brain and learning. That’s vital knowledge to apply to classrooms. Increased training for teachers and paraprofessionals will help them understand how students process information and make it their own. Areas that schools will begin to focus on include:

2. Supporting the use of diagnostic assessments.

When used the right way, these tools help educators make informed decisions about what can help the whole student. Knowing a student’s academic, emotional, and physical needs lets the school make learning more accessible. It’s important that schools:

  • Use multiple measures to assess students. Families and teachers should be included in collecting information. To provide the best support, schools need to know about students’ strengths, challenges, and interests, as well as how they’ve been doing socially and emotionally.

  • Keep in mind that screeners and assessments may be less accurate this year. The typical tools used to identify students who need special education services may identify more students as “at risk” because of widespread learning loss.

  • Be ready to act on new information. If assessments show that a student needs support, schools should be ready to provide interventions like a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS). New data can also help schools make changes to supports for students who already get special education services.

3. Being flexible about what “learning” looks like.

Distance learning has given both educators and students flexibility that the education system has long been missing. That flexibility can be key to helping students who learn and think differently thrive. Here’s our vision for flexible, inclusive learning in 2021:

  • Offering blended learning environments. Students often know when and how they learn best. Blended learning environments should continue to be an option for all students.

  • Being open-minded about engagement. Distance learning has shown us that being engaged doesn’t look the same for all students. Flexible learning means providing multiple ways to show knowledge.

  • Making supports a mainstay. Many teachers have found creative ways to include supports in distance learning — supports that look a lot like accommodations in traditional classrooms. Color-coding systems, visual checklists, modified break schedules, and recorded lessons are good practices during in-person learning, too.

4. Harnessing the strength of coalition.

Tackling the complex challenges that face students who learn and think differently requires us all to pull together. At the school level, we envision an even greater collaboration between families and educators who team up to support the same child both at home and at school. At the district level, we see increased collaboration between general education and special education programs.

At the state and national level, Understood is proud to already be part of several of these partnerships, including the Educating All Learners Alliance. We imagine even more cooperation between organizations that pool their expertise, resources, and efforts to shape schools — and the world — for difference.

Kim Greene, MA, is the managing editor at Understood. She has more than a decade of experience in the field of education, working in schools as well as writing and editing resources for teachers and school leaders.

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