Creating inclusive classroom environments: Practical advice & ideas

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
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How can we best support pupils who struggle with behaviour or emotional wellbeing? What does a positive, inclusive classroom environment look like? Virtual school headteacher Darren Martindale offers some advice and ideas

I have heard it said that nobody really teaches anybody anything. This particular philosophy states that true knowledge and understanding – the lessons that really matter – are always the things that we teach ourselves. All a teacher can do, ultimately, is to create the best possible environment for that learning to take place. Discuss...

Teachers often tell me that the emotional and behavioural needs of some of their pupils are becoming increasingly complex, requiring a very different approach or more specialist support than ever before. In such cases, some schools (understandably) are not sure where to turn for help, or how to respond wisely or appropriately to such disruptive, “difficult” or even dangerous behaviour.

This is not always about very disruptive pupils, either. Pupils who exhibit anxious, withdrawn, depressed or self-harming behaviour can be just as worrying. Emotionally based school refusal, for example, can be an extremely difficult problem to solve, once it has become firmly entrenched. How to respond?

Remember that all behaviour occurs within a particular context – never in isolation or for no reason – and that context can profoundly influence the behaviour. Some of this stimulus is intrinsic and outside of school’s sphere of influence. There may be certain factors in the pupil’s background or home life, for instance, that you are powerless to control, but which help to drive their presenting behaviours.

However, immediate situational factors can also play a crucial part. As a teacher or school leader, the classroom and school environment are the things that you have the most control over, and if we are mindful of how that environment can affect pupils (vulnerable children in particular), we can help to prevent many problems from reaching crisis point.

If we think about supporting pupils with challenging behaviour in terms of managing the learning environment, it can assist us in identifying interventions which are less invasive. It can help teachers to avoid more conspicuous strategies which might lead to their pupils being made to feel “different” or singled out (already an issue with many disadvantaged children).

Nobody will argue against the importance of quality first teaching. When working with pupils who really struggle with behaviour or emotional wellbeing, teaching should include pedagogical approaches that support the development of emotional literacy and encourage authentic participation. We want to develop a sense of connectedness, respect, purpose and belonging among pupils.

However, all of that requires the right environment, a classroom atmosphere which promotes that crucial sense of connection with learning, with others, and with oneself. The school environment, therefore, requires particularly careful consideration in relation to vulnerable or disengaged learners, due to the additional barriers they may face.

As David Mitchell asserts in his 2014 book What Really Works in Special and Inclusive Education, “a positive classroom climate is a significant determinate of learners’ achievement. They learn better when they have positive perceptions of the classroom environment, particularly of you, the educator”.

So, what does a positive, inclusive classroom environment look like?

A positive learning climate is a multi-dimensional strategy. It involves both individual lessons and classrooms, and the wider school environment and context.

It means creating a good place to be physically, but also emotionally and psychologically. Here, I am referring to (and there is considerable overlap between these areas):

  • The physical environment of classrooms and corridors, etc.
  • The pedagogical environment – how the curriculum is delivered and learning is nurtured, including the implicit and explicit teaching of emotional literacy, classroom expectations and how behaviour is managed around the school.
  • The social environment of relationships with and between pupils and staff.

The physical environment

The classroom environment: The obvious questions need to be asked: are furniture and equipment arranged to the best effect? Is equipment stored in a way that is conducive to focused, purposeful activity within the very small timeframe of a lesson, or is there a lot of unnecessary movement and opportunities to become distracted? At the same time, is there enough personal space and ease of movement? Are the temperature, light and ventilation adequate? Can everyone clearly see and hear everything that they need to?

Then, ask yourself (as an ex-art teacher, I have been looking forward to this one): How does your classroom or department look? Is it a place where learners, as soon as they walk in, should feel valued and excited by what lies ahead? If the answer is “hmm, not really”, then get to work on improving your shop floor.

Your room should be a celebration of your subject, your students, and of learning itself. One of the most depressing things to see in a classroom is the unmounted piece of work, stuck to the wall with a single drawing pin.

What is education about, after all? Is it just training for tests, or is it about authentic, critical enquiry? Education should be an adventure, an exciting voyage into a bigger, undiscovered world.

It is of fundamental importance that the classroom is a stimulating environment that communicates that message. This does not necessarily mean that everything has to be louder than everything else. The visual surroundings of your classroom may be very calm and neutral, but the crucial thing is that it says to pupils, whenever they enter it: “You matter to me, and learning matters to both of us. This is where I take my opportunity to give you something really important, and where we take that journey together.”

The school environment: Movement around corridors and social areas can become a big issue for pupils who struggle with boundaries, routines or behavioural expectations. Are these areas well managed and supervised? Are there any particular bottlenecks or problem zones?

I have seen pupils crushed up against each other in crowded corridors on their way to lessons – through no fault of their own – squeezing and shoving like they are on the London Underground. How can we expect any child to arrive at that next lesson in the right frame of mind to learn?

Children who struggle with social and emotional wellbeing often find unstructured periods particularly difficult, and may need additional support with transitional times such as breaks and moving from lesson-to-lesson, including explicit preparation at the start of and throughout the day.

Another lifeline can be a safe place to go when a pupil is struggling, or they feel themselves close to dysregulating (or losing control of their emotions). Pupils with attachment or trauma-related difficulties (in particular) may need that quiet, neutral space where they can quickly retreat, under appropriate staff supervision, and engage in calming, distracting activities until they are able to rejoin their class mates.

The physical elements of the pedagogical environment: Take care of the basics first. Do teachers meet pupils on arrival and welcome them into the classroom (being sure to pay special attention to those more challenging students)? Is equipment prepared in advance, tasks and expectations explained clearly, lessons appropriately paced and varied, and work differentiated so that all pupils have an opportunity to succeed? Where pupils need additional support to follow instructions, ensure that strategies such as visual aids, cues, extra time, pre-learning (and preparation for learning) and recapping are consistently employed by teaching staff throughout school.

With regard to pupils with more complex needs, however, it can be particularly helpful to involve them, at every opportunity, in the setting of their own goals and targets. Make them architects of their own learning. This can be particularly powerful for young people who struggle with feelings of powerlessness or loss of control, by encouraging their active participation and giving them frequent opportunities to experience success.

In his book, David Mitchell recognises the value of this approach for learners with SEN: “(They) often experience the emotions associated with failure. Such learners have been the recipients of rejection and even hostility from others. Many have learned neither to trust their learning environment nor their ability to survive it. These learners are at risk for lowered self-concepts, depression, anger, anxiety and fear. In turn, these emotions negatively affect their learning.”

A learning environment that fosters a sense of agency and belonging, emphasising positive emotions and relationships, can help educators to break that negative cycle.

The pedagogical and social environments

Target-setting is an important strategy itself. Make those goals clear, SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-related) and task-specific, based on a proper understanding of a pupil’s prior attainment, needs and strengths. Refer to them often. Provide frequent, constructive feedback and encouragement. Break goals down into smaller chunks, if necessary, but also relate them to a child’s longer-term aims or ambitions.

Use those personalised learning targets, as part of your wider Assess, Plan, Do, Review strategy, to plot a pathway through the complex journey of a child’s learning.

Speaking of consistency, it can be especially important to establish clear and consistent routines. Again, this applies particularly around transitions – entering and leaving the school and classroom, for example, or changing task, starting and ending lessons, or asking for silence/attention or clearing up at the end of a lesson.

Rewards and consequences, of course, should be very clearly and consistently applied. As David Mitchell puts it, “be authoritative not authoritarian”. He continues: “Striking the right balance between firmness and permissiveness for individual learners with behavioural difficulties is one of the major challenges. Given that their behaviour often fluctuates, it is important that you understand their ‘signals’, particularly the early warning signs of disruptive behaviour.”

Disadvantaged or struggling pupils also often miss out on opportunities for group work and collaborative learning – how often do children who struggle with social and emotional wellbeing end up being put in isolation? Try to avoid exclusion as a response to disengagement or disruptive behaviour (and above all, never use shaming as a strategy).

Peer support and mentoring opportunities should be made available and actively encouraged, with staff trained in managing restorative conversations between pupils when arguments and difficulties do arise between them.

Already, the pedagogical environment is blending very naturally with the social environment, as we see that the skills to manage human relationships need to be taught, and some children require more support with social learning than others.

Particularly pertinent for pupils who really struggle with behaviour or emotional wellbeing, therefore, is the explicit and implicit teaching of emotional literacy.

Children often need to be helped to understand their powerful feelings and emotions, so that they can develop coping strategies. Give them the language to describe or express those emotions. If you can name something, it can help to make it more manageable, e.g. “I can see that your feeling angry ... you seemed anxious at the start of the lessons ... did you feel worried? How could you have reacted differently to that situation? How might that make you feel? How would it make me feel if you expressed yourself differently?”

If staff have been trained to “co-regulate”, or respond to very challenging behaviour in emotionally intelligent ways (which starts with understanding and managing their own emotions), and if teachers are given the support they need and not blamed when things go wrong, this sets the right emotional temperature for the classroom, with educators leading by example.

Whole-school structures

A final note: A positive, supportive learning environment is a mindset and a culture, as much as it is a physical space. But to really succeed, it needs to be firmly embedded within wider school structures and processes.

Behaviour policies, including the use of rewards and sanctions, should be clearly and regularly communicated to pupils, staff and parents/carers, as well as reviewed regularly. They should be designed to promote positive behaviour, however, rather than simply “punish” or sanction children for breaking the rules, and on both sides of that coin, the needs and circumstances of disadvantaged pupils, or those with additional needs around social and emotional wellbeing, should be very carefully considered.

Speaking of communication, close partnership working with parents/carers, and any other key agencies can be critical. This can be for all manner of caring, planning or safeguarding reasons.

On a simple level, however, the communication of positives, as well as concerns, can be so powerful. I enjoyed watching Daniel Sobel, who has often written for this publication, speaking at a conference recently. Daniel described a strategy that he had seen used in school to great effect: contact the parent(s) of a vulnerable pupil, once every day, and tell them something positive that their child has done or experienced that day.

A brilliant idea. Another unfortunate reality of some disadvantaged pupils’ lives is that their parents and other family members did not have a positive experience of education themselves. That daily jewel of good news could help, little by little, to change their mindsets and foster positive home-school relationships.

On several levels, the right learning environment is crucial in breaking those negative feelings and cycles of disengagement, both within and outside of the school gates.

  • Darren Martindale is service manager: vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. Read his previous Headteacher Update articles at

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