Inclusive education works: an Italian example
Inclusion Now hears from Paola Esperson, music therapist and school teacher: “As a pupil, I studied all my life in inclusive classes. As a specialised teacher, I have been working for 18 years in Italian state’s primary schools with Disabled and non-Disabled children. Like the vast majority of Italian teachers, principals, parents and school staff, I believe in inclusive education and consider every diversity a value.”
Italy’s Inclusive Education Background
In 2017, Italy celebrated 40 years of full inclusion. Research and experimentation on integrazione scolastica – ‘inclusion’ – were carried out after the first law that opened mainstream schools to Disabled learners in 1971. In 1975, the Falcucci Commission reported the conclusive results of these studies and the outcome was that the progress and development of Disabled children was significantly higher when they were attending regular school classes. Special schools and classes were abolished in 1977 (Law 517/77).
The aim was to overcome every form of exclusion of Disabled people, promoting change in school structure, in order to welcome every child and fully promote their personal development. Attendance in mainstream schools did not require Disabled children to achieve a set level of competence for each subject in the curriculum. The assessment for the school year was meant to consider progress in all developmental areas. The new legislation affirmed a more articulated concept of learning: to enhance all forms of expression through which pupils realise and develop their potential; and that inclusion is possible if accompanied by a change of environment and context. All school staff needed to learn and understand inclusion, and develop new didactic strategies, specific planning and teamwork.
Decades of inclusion contributed to changing society and there is still need for improvement. Today in Italy. less than 1% of disabled pupils are educated in segregated ‘special needs’ schools. The segregated schools that could remain open after 1977, were those specific for auditory/visual impairment. According to the Italian Ministry of Education, in 2020, special schools included: 2 pre-schools (total mainstream schools 27.797), 2 primary schools (total mainstream schools 17.369) and 8 high schools (total mainstream schools 17.665).
Definition of Inclusion
The word inclusion can change meaning depending on the culture and policies of a nation, but it must be defined with precision when we want to facilitate the inclusion of all learners. The observation, consequent goals and objectives must be pursued on the following different levels, to be considered in relation to the individual as well as the group:
- The structural level – related to barriers, environment and resources.
- The didactic level – related to the content of the topic/subject.
- The educational level – related to skills children need to learn to participate equally in society
We observe and assess each child’s strengths and what they need to develop. Additionally, we observe and assess when the group behaves in an inclusive manner, and what the group needs to develop to became more integrated and inclusive. The skills of the educational level are as important as the skills needed to achieve the highest grade in a class. Teaching inclusive values means working towards educating children to be open minded, and self-aware, to interrupt cultural patterns of prejudice.
Teachers can support this by helping each child to participate and contribute to the group, through the development of their abilities and potentials. Harmonising diversity in a group signifies planning an inclusive background, also called environmental facilitator, where diversity can be welcomed as an additional value. We can choose any subject to plan an inclusive background in classrooms. An inclusive background allows children to perceive themselves differently, express and develop their potential.
The case study below shows a section of initial observation and planning in which the inclusive background was created with music activities:
Case study background
Leo was six when he joined the first year of a primary state school. The neuropsychologist warned us to expect him to have the behaviour of a one-two year old child. He could not communicate verbally and used three – four spontaneous gestures to indicate his mother, father and primary physiological needs. The severe impairment was manifest in an insecure motor control and walk about, which was not entirely autonomous, this resulted in a tendency towards isolation. He did not allow any visual contact during communication, neither to people nor things.
The start of the first year of elementary school was very difficult for Leo, his family, classmates and teachers. The teachers were anxious – they had never had a child “so difficult to understand”. The majority of his classmates were afraid of him as he could explode in unexpected high pitch vocalisation. I imagine he was probably scared, too.
Information on the structural level
The class was on the first floor, with the children’s desks organised in a circle to allow each child to see everyone, plus the teacher and the board. A trolley with two trays, containing photos of all children, plus a board with augmentative visual communication was placed close to Leo’s desk and available for all children to share simple communication. One music room was organised with Orff instruments and mats.
In order to learn how to relate to and plan in the best interests of all children, the teachers had several meetings with parents and specialists who were working with Leo outside of school hours.
Aims for the year:
- To encourage the process of inclusion of the group
- To encourage the development of a sense of belonging to the group
Specifically, for Leo, the term inclusion referred to the following aims:
- Stimulate and motivate Leo to relate to adults and to his peers
- Stimulate eye contact
- Stimulate voluntary actions-reactions during musical activities
Specific aims for Leo’s classmates:
- To encourage the development relationship/ communication amongst peers
- To develop the ability to accept diversity, recognising similarity and differences in personal styles of communication and expression
- To develop attention, listening, memory, coordination
- To encourage communication/expression and listening amongst peers
The dedicated space of musical activities was chosen as the environmental facilitator. It was fundamental to help teachers, Leo and his schoolmates to get to know each other and trust one other.
Children became aware of Leo’s communication style and gestures, which they started to use with him during the school day. Leo started to make eye contact and look around. Children stopped fearing him and all of them would come close to Leo’s desk and engage in communication using the augmentative tools organised in the classroom. The group became very cohesive and supportive. All children, including those with difficult behaviours or different, specific needs, became more reflective, cooperative and active.
Beyond skills at an educational level, children developed many skills to perform better on a didactic level, such as attention, listening, global coordination, eye-hand coordination, concentration, memory.
Teachers started to create other inclusive backgrounds during the school day. The school created a supportive community, and the most significant evidence was visible out of school. For the following 4 years, Leo had a few close friends, families connected with each other and Leo was always invited to birthdays and celebrations. His birthday was also attended by all classmates.
Inclusive education works, for all children and all of society. It fosters empathy and cooperative attitudes, helps to reduce fear, exclusion, competition and isolation. Inclusive values support the development of tolerance and understanding of diversities, it helps to break patterns of structural discrimination, prejudice and intolerance. There is much to gain by such a path, walking together to explore what we need to let go of to truly achieve an inclusive education that enables the creativity and potential of both teachers and children. Something to remember as teachers is that inclusive values are the core-essence of education, to enable the expression of the full potential of educators and children.