Last October we attended a course in Prague, the Czech Republic, to gain more knowledge on how to make a school environment more inclusive. The course was mainly focused on non-violent communication and conflict management, values and moral education and psychosocial development.

The course was held as part of the Erasmus project and attended by educators from other various countries, and we learnt about the different approaches the countries adopt in their education system regarding inclusion.

We liked the way how we were divided into groups during the course. We were divided according to marbles of different shapes and colours that were given by the teacher to each member. Irrespective of the language barriers of members of each group, in some way or another we still manage to collaborate very well together.

It is a nice way to divide children in the classroom in this manner. Using this strategy, students, irrespective of their level, learn how to collaborate, support and motivate each other from a very young age. When students are allowed to choose their own group, usually they choose the same group of friends, causing students with lower abilities and special needs to stay on their own.

Many times, students are not aware that even a simple incident can have a great impact on students, especially those that are aware of their special needs. Sometimes we observe that in class, students who consider themselves high achievers do not to involve themselves with students with special needs.

However, bringing all students together in the same group is not enough. Each classroom must provide facilities that allow equal opportunity to learn. Inclusion means creating both physical and emotional accessibility. Integration cannot lead to inclusion unless the school culture is also one of acceptance.

All students in a classroom are different. All have different needs, either because of their culture, religion or maybe abilities. Despite this, everyone is good at something. We as educators must look at these unique capabilities that each student possesses and focus on that.

Despite their differences, everyone deserves respect and must be involved in any kind of activity. For example, during a sports day, even a person in a wheelchair can participate by being given the role to give directions when to start or to stop using the whistle. By being involved, every individual can feel valued.

We need to focus more on adapting the curriculum for special needs students to reach their potential, rather than integrating them into our classrooms

While working in groups, we noticed that schools abroad do not have learning support educators (LSEs) in class, so this accessibility is all catered for by the teachers. Students diagnosed with down syndrome are cared for by the parents at school instead of an LSE.

Children who are diagnosed with severe autism attend special schools. On the other hand, schools in Malta try to accommodate all learning disabilities according to their respective needs.

In our classes we do not have children from other countries, but we do celebrate foreign countries traditions at our school. Example of this are special assemblies in different languages. When Erasmus foreign students join our classes, children welcome them and are very eager to learn more about their country and their perspective. Group work with these students can be very helpful for our students as they can integrate with them, and they could teach and learn from each other.

We also discussed non-violent communication and conflict management. We learnt that feedback should contain specific information rather than generalisation, factual and clear, unprejudiced, and given as soon as possible after completion of work.

We tend to give generalised feedback and at times instructions are given in a negative way. We are now focusing more on positive behavioural strategies with our students, which is helping us achieve more cooperation.

Non-violent communication enables safety and trust as it gives children, parents, families, teachers, and school staff the advantage to be heard deeply and experience a community of support. Non-violent communication is about understanding our and others’ needs and provides empathy.

Conflict management must be targeted from the very first day by setting ground rules. Active listening is crucial to identify a specific issue. Once the issue is identified one must brainstorm and evaluate different options.

It is crucial to help our students in distinguishing between good choices and bad choices. Through this they can avoid making mistakes that could have serious consequences. Moral evaluation helps to reinforce virtuous values and prompting critical thinking. The focus is on respect for others and helps us to teach students how to respect the feelings, opinions, and rights of others in order to cultivate empathy and compassion in the classroom.

Sometimes in class we focus too much on the academic subjects rather on what is important and effective for the students. We need to listen to our students and give them time to speak up. Sometimes even just observing them and showing that we really care for them is also a form of effective communication.

Typically, parents and educators put all their effort to help students achieve good grades without understanding what the real needs of their children are. Many students, especially adolescents at our school, suffer a lot from negative feelings and emotions. Some of them may be bullied and no one notices.

Behind low marks or careless work there may be hidden much more information about a particular child. Many individual students struggle a lot in silence and those who are supposed to be taking care of them may be continuously ignoring them.

During our discussions, we all agreed that at times school systems around Europe focus on integration rather than inclusion. We need to focus more on adapting the curriculum for special needs students to reach their potential, rather than integrating them into our classrooms. We need to help these students feel part of the lesson rather than integrating them only in the classroom.

During the course we become more aware that although sometimes we try to be inclusive, we may easily be practising integration instead. Many a time, subject teachers at our school let students with special needs join their lessons, but they do not provide adapted work or levelled handouts for these students. Therefore, the students still feel lost as they are not being catered for in class. We as LSEs typically prepare these adaptations so that our students can manage and be able to integrate with others in class.

The course participants during an excursion in Prague.The course participants during an excursion in Prague.

As part of our activities, the tutor read a story to us, and as a team we all had to rank the characters of the story in order of the best character to the worst. Everyone had different opinions of this, which in turn helped us understand that to actually take decisions you need to: Define the problem; Explore the alternatives; Consider the consequences; Identify your values; Decide and take action; and Evaluate your decision (DECIDE). This exercise helped us participants consider all aspects when taking certain decisions at school that would impact our day-to-day lives at school with our students.

Erasmus courses give participants the opportunity to think outside the box. At school or during other local courses we typically hear the same examples and procedures. By communicating and interacting with counterparts from different countries we as educators are now able to change our viewpoint and move further from the traditional way. We feel more confident to look for strategies that we might never have thought of before or that we might have thought are not adequate.

The authors are learning support educators at Immaculate Conception School, Tarxien.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us