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As educators, we want to meet the needs of all students, particularly those who require our extra efforts to ensure successful learning. Schools aim to be inclusive, yet for such a widely held and legally mandated principle, the term inclusive has been challenging to accurately define in academic literature and practical implementation.

Australian young people with disabilities have the same rights to education as any other young people. They have the right to attend government, independent or Catholic schools. These rights are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005. Florian (2014) defines inclusive pedagogy as teaching and learning that supports teachers to respond to individual differences between learners but avoids the marginalisation that can occur when some students are treated differently.

The vast majority (89%) of students with disabilities attend mainstream schools, and 71% of those students only attend general education classes (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare n.d.). Inclusion, therefore, is an ethical focus for all educators. However, the classroom has long been acknowledged as a challenging environment for some students, including many with disabilities (Garnett, 1996; Picard, 2015).

Integration is not inclusion

My experience working in the education sector for nearly three decades is that many classroom practices fit more cleanly into the definition of integration than inclusion. Consider the student on the autism spectrum who is placed in a busy, overwhelming mainstream classroom, issued with noise-cancelling headphones and assigned an education aide who provides behaviour support. This more accurately describes an example of integration. Integration is often business as usual with add-ons, where adjustments are made for individual students to be educated within mainstream settings (Graham, 2020).

Inclusion requires teachers to go steps beyond integration. When aiming for inclusion, we must consider much diversity in the student experience. Some students present with challenging behaviours at school and do not have a diagnosis, while many students with diagnosed disabilities do not engage in challenging behaviours. Students who have experienced trauma often struggle at school, yet do not get the individualised support they require. We also recognise that none of these circumstances can be understood in separation from patterns of structural inequality in our society. Students from Australia’s low-income and under-resourced communities are more likely to be diagnosed with a disability or learning disorder, be educated within segregated settings, or struggle to have their needs met when learning in mainstream settings (Boyle & Anderson 2019).

Neurodevelopmental disabilities are chronic disorders that affect the central nervous system during the development of motor skills, cognition, and communication (Ismail & Shapiro, 2019). Students with neurodevelopmental disabilities (NDD) are more likely than their neurotypical peers to find mainstream school environments challenging. Many teachers, despite their efforts and good intentions, often struggle to achieve inclusion goals. We would not ask a student with vision impairment to "try and see better", but young people whose neurodevelopmental disability impacts their executive functioning are regularly asked to "calm down and focus" and "don't get distracted." Asking students to act like they do not have their disability is not inclusion. Inclusive practice is much more than managing problematic behaviours. Instead, it is about supporting each student to feel a sense of safety, belonging and support that allows them to learn and thrive.

Envisioning inclusion through trauma-informed practices

An ever-growing body of research supports the idea that the goals of inclusive education can be better realised through a trauma-informed approach (Ayre, 2017; Nordhoff, 2019). Trauma-informed education emphasises understanding and soothing the stress response, alongside a robust social and emotional curriculum delivered via purposeful, relational work (Brunzell et al., 2019). Informed by a neuroscientific approach and drawing from the research around wellbeing, trauma-informed educators use practical, school and classroom-specific strategies to reach and teach all young people (Brunzell et al. 2015). When this occurs throughout the whole of a school or, even better, across school systems, we can move closer to our goal of inclusion.

We can make great strides towards inclusion when more attention is directed to the sensory needs of young people with NDD (Dellapiazza et al., 2020; Ohta et al., 2020; Parks et al., 2020). Little and colleagues (2017) found that young people with NDD respond differently to sensory stimuli, and that sensory processing differences impact learning. Research on the commonalities between behavioural symptoms of both autism and ADHD may indicate shared neural mechanisms for both conditions. Both autism and ADHD are associated with impaired executive functioning (Miranda et al., 2017), and both groups are at increased risk of academic underachievement (Mayes et al., 2020). Students with neurodevelopmental disabilities are also significantly overrepresented in disciplinary data (Armstrong, 2021).

We need to question the assumption that improvement in behaviour leads to improvement in educational attainment (Purdie et al., 2002). Classroom management strategies to support positive behaviour support us to create and maintain a calm and predictable environment. However, we must also enact educational interventions using strategies such as effective and engaging teacher instruction, chunking of lessons, reduced noise levels, structured classroom activities, frequent breaks from learning, social skills instruction, cooperative learning and peer tutoring (Purdie et al., 2002).

Trauma-informed education responds to the needs identified within this literature. It acknowledges that many students encounter challenges that impact learning, and that schools can provide specialised strategies to meaningfully support those students (Brunzell et al., 2015). Trauma-informed education responds to students' neurological, biological, psychological, and social needs. Trauma-informed educators work with students holistically, with consideration of their life experiences and home and school environments (National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, n.d.).

Brunzell, Stokes and Waters (2015) found that trauma-informed education focuses on two themes: (1) strengthening regulatory abilities and repairing dysregulated stress responses; and (2) rebuilding relational capacities through nurturing strong student-teacher relationships. Emotional regulation activities help the young person identify, acknowledge, label, understand, and work with difficult feelings, and acquire and practice strategies for de-escalating emotions (Stokes et al., 2016). Physical regulation activities align the body through sensory integration and rely heavily on rhythm, repetition, and routine.

Relationships with teachers are critical: to self-regulate, we must have ample opportunities to learn from adults who help us regulate. Co-regulation describes how adults can adapt their own behaviours to support the regulation of a young person (Butler & Randall, 2012). Teachers who consciously enact co-regulation help students through difficult moments in ways that build their capacity to manage independently in the future.

Fundamental to trauma-informed education is unconditional positive regard. Unconditional positive regard separates the student from their behaviour. We aim to eradicate racism, but we would not call a young person a racist. The goal is to create relationships and environments that encourage prosocial behaviours. To achieve this goal, we must see every young person as having inherent value and capable of growth and development.

There are commonalities between the needs of students who have experienced trauma and the needs of students with NDD. Creating environments that support all young people starts with considering the impacts of trauma, disability or structural inequity. We also need to recognise and respond to the complex ways these impacts combine and overlap in our school communities. Living with a disability is traumatic for many young people due to stigmatisation and interacting with systems not designed for their needs and preferences.

Students with NDD and students who have experienced trauma benefit from similar approaches to teaching and learning. A meta-analysis of challenging behaviour interventions for students with developmental disabilities in inclusive school settings, found significantly stronger effects for interventions using natural intervention agents such as teachers and school staff (Lory et al., 2020). This finding accords with a trauma-informed approach. A trauma-informed school provides a routine-rich, predictable and safe environment that is attentive to meeting students' sensory needs and soothing stress responses that arise in moments of difficulty (Brunzell et al., 2015; Taylor, 2020).

When we reframe our understandings of behaviour, we can better respond to the needs of students. A student not following instructions is not disobedient or stubborn when we see that they don't understand the task or are struggling with translating our directions into actions. A student not completing work or ignoring instructions is not undisciplined or lazy if we know they struggle with organising mental tasks. A student who requires extra support is not attention-seeking when we understand they are feeling unsafe or overwhelmed due to a poor fit between the environment and their needs. Stimming, fidgeting, ritualised behaviours, and intense focus on special interests are behaviours associated with autism and ADHD that are increasingly understood as mechanisms to support self-regulation (Delahooke, 2020). Rather than correcting these behaviours, we should ask: Why are these coping mechanisms presenting? What is upsetting this student's nervous system? What can I do to help them feel safe? (Burgess, 2018).

When we acknowledge the impact of NDD or trauma on executive functioning, we see better ways to support students who find school challenging. We can create classrooms that support authentic inclusion. We all benefit from building inclusive environments that meaningfully action our values of kindness, fairness and social justice.

To cite this article:

Langton, G. (2022). Realising Inclusion Goals through Trauma-Informed Practice. Berry Street Victoria, Australia. Retrieved from,

*Person-first language has been used in this piece, reflecting the following advice from People with Disability Australia (PWDA):

PWDA, other Disabled People's Organisations, governments, government and non-government institutions predominantly use 'person-first' language when referring to people with disability. Generally, this is on the basis that a person's disability should not be unnecessarily focused on. Both person- first and identity-first language are used in Australia to refer to people with disability, or disabled people. People with disability often have very strong preferences for either identity-first, or person-first language. Non-disabled people need to be led by, respect and affirm each individual person with disability's choice of language they use about themselves (PWDA n.d.).

Senior Trainer of the Berry Street Education Model Grace Langton

Grace Langton

Master of Special and Inclusive Education (Emotional Disturbance/Behavioural Problems) | Graduate Diploma Secondary Education | Bachelor Youth Studies | Diploma Community Services (Youth Work) | Diploma Performing Arts | Certificate IV Training and Assessment

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