Learning to Become a Community

Cooperative Activities in Inclusive Classrooms

By Mara Sapon-Shevin

Four children are gathered on the floor doing a cooperative learning lesson on animal habitats. The children’s task is to sort a set of picture cards into appropriate habitats and then write sentences describing who lives where and why. Kara, who has cerebral palsy and has been identified as having a significant intellectual disability, is a member of the group. Her Individual Educational Plan (IEP) objective includes moving from a standing to a sitting position, indicating objects by pointing to them, using a pincer grasp to pick up small objects, and getting others’ attention by tapping them on the shoulder. When the group begins the task, it is her job to go get the materials off the shelf. One of the group members holds the picture cards up for Kara to point to as the group makes sorting decisions. When Kara tries to get the attention of other group members by making noises, they gently remind her to tap them on the shoulder and guide her hand in the proper motion.

When the group has agreed on its results, all of the group members sign their finished product; Kara uses a name stamp with her signature on it, practicing her pincer grasp and other muscle coordination skills. When the group presents its finding to the rest of the class, Kara has the responsibility of holding up each card as it is talked about.

In the last 15 years, schools have been moving away from segregated special education settings for children with intellectual, behavioral, and physical challenges towards the creation of inclusive classrooms. Inclusive classrooms are those designed to meet the educational needs of all their members within a common environment. By rethinking and restructuring curriculum, pedagogy, and teacher roles, inclusive classrooms and inclusive schools break down the barriers between “special education” and “regular education,” between handicapped and typical children, and between special and regular education teachers. Kara is a member of such a classroom.

Although Kara’s skills are far from “grade level,” she is a full member of her third grade class. She is engaged every day in activities and relationships which contribute to her growth and development within the broader community of which she is, and will continue to be, a member. Her individual education needs are not being neglected nor disregarded in the classroom; instead, she is meeting her objectives within an inclusive community. Rather than learning sitting and standing with a physical therapist, she works on those skills through carefully structured situations which require that she move around the classroom and handle objects. She acquires social skills as she learns appropriate ways to get her classmates’ attention, and as she practices waving, “giving five,” smiling, and signing “thank you” to her peers. Equally important, the other students in her inclusive community are learning how to support Kara as classmates, as learners, and as friends,

Inclusive classrooms (Stainback & Stainback, 1990) are based on three key principles. First, all children are entitled to learn with their chronological age peers. Children do not have to earn the right to be in a “regular” classroom: it is up to us as educators and administrators to change what constitutes a “regular classroom” so that all students do fit in.

Second, all children in a classroom need to be engaged in learning that is appropriate to their skills and needs. There is no such thing as “third grade work,” preordained, lock-stepped, or rigidly conceived. Third grade work is whatever you do in the third grade, and this may vary widely for different children.

Third, all children need to take responsibility for helping each other to learn and grow. It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach the social skills necessary to make this happen. Proponents of inclusive education believe that all children profit from learning in heterogeneous settings; learning about human interconnectedness, caring, and responsibility is an important as learning math, reading, and writing.

How do you help a classmate who doesn’t understand the math? What should you do if a student starts screaming in the cafeteria? What’s the best way to support a classmate who doesn’t have any friends? Learning to function in an inclusive classroom presents the opportunities for challenging children on many levels: teachers must teach not only a caring “attitude,” but the cognitive and academic skills involved in negotiating, problem solving, conflict resolution, and peer tutoring.

Since cooperative learning promotes heterogeneous student grouping to allow children with different backgrounds and experiences to learn from and teach one another, it is not surprising that teachers of students with learning and behavioral challenges have found that cooperative learning provides an ideal structure for integrating these students. Initial attempts at mainstreaming (selectively placing children with exceptional needs into regular classrooms on a part-time basis) sometimes resulted in children being present in the classroom but not engaging with other students. Those working for meaningful inclusion have much higher expectations.

Inclusive educators want all children to learn together, to help one another, and to recognize and accept individual differences. What better way than through cooperative learning and cooperative classroom communities?

Unfortunately, many of today’s classrooms have a difficult time meeting the individual needs of so-called “typical” students, much less addressing the far more discrepant or significant needs of special students in a unified setting. How can we use cooperative learning as both a philosophy and a pedagogy to work towards inclusive classrooms?

Curriculum Changes

Ms. Lorenzo has set up a classroom store. All children work in the store completing various tasks, including bookkeeping, inventory, sales, promotion, etc. Tasks are assigned to children based on their particular educational needs and skills: Betty is in charge of advertising, using her considerable artistic skills. Susan is learning to make change, and Maria is working on social skills involved in meeting and greeting customers.

We must rethink the notion of what constitutes “the curriculum.” Many educational reforms, including cooperative learning, are broadening and diversifying what constitutes appropriate learning.

Moving away from lock-step, skill-driven deficit models of reading and language, for example, towards whole language approaches to reading and writing lets children work at different levels. Literacy broadly defined allows us to recognize that a child learning to point to and recognize different dinosaurs may be meeting a valid educational objective, as may be a child working to put together a three-piece dinosaur puzzle and then sharing it with the class.

The development of more interactive, participatory curriculum projects is also conducive to both cooperative learning approaches and the inclusion of children working at many levels. In the animal habitat unit described earlier, Kara was meeting her educational objectives while other children in the group were meeting their related, although somewhat different, objectives. She was not sent out of the room or even into a separate corner to work on some parallel activity.

Not only must we address changes in the curriculum, but also teachers’ decision-making about that curriculum. How do we meet students’ individual educational needs without tracking them inappropriately into lower-level activities? How do we continue to hold high expectations for all students, stretching and challenging them to work at important tasks while still maintaining a student-centered perspective on learning? A flexible, responsive curriculum must not be allowed to become the vehicle for operationalizing low expectations and teacher bias, but should result in a richly stimulating, highly interactive classroom in which all students are engaged in valued, valuable (although not identical) activities.

Changing Teacher Roles

Ms. Chang, the speech therapist, used to work with students by removing them from the regular classroom for individual therapy three times a week. Now, she works in the regular classroom, meeting students’ needs on a “push in” rather than a “pull out” basis, enlisting not only the regular classroom teacher, but also other students in her teaching and therapy activities.

Creating inclusive classrooms requires teachers who have worked in isolation to learn to work together. Territorial barriers and roadblocks presented by different preparation and areas of expertise must be overcome in order for teachers to work together. Just as cooperative classrooms model the principle that “none of us is as smart as all of us,” teacher collaboration is based on the principle that teachers working together cooperatively are better prepared to handle the challenges of inclusion than any one teacher (no matter how skilled) working in isolation. Teacher collaboration and teaming requires changes in how teachers are prepared and in how schools are staffed. The new Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Teacher Preparation Program (IESEP) at Syracuse University, for example, has been explicitly designed to prepare teachers for inclusive, heterogeneous schools. Rather than offering two different teacher education programs for dual certification (regular and special education), the IESEP provides teachers with a unified preparation program so that they can teach in purposely heterogeneous classrooms. Instead of taking a math methods course and then a separate course on mainstreaming, prospective teachers learn about teaching math to all students as part of an integrated sequence which acknowledges that even within a typical classroom, the wide range of mathematical abilities demands a broad set of instructional approaches.

Inclusive schools are organized so that teachers are no longer identified as “special” or “regular,” each serving discrete groups of youngsters. For example, two former “regular class teachers” and one former “special education teacher” might become the fifth grade TEAM, serving 60 kids, some of whom require special educational services. When teachers plan cooperative lessons for their students, they must also learn to cooperate with each other, exercising many of the same social skills required in children’s cooperative groups: they must learn to listen, to give constructive feedback, to share what they know, to negotiate and compromise, and to respect each others’ experience and expertise.

It is difficult to teach students to cooperate if their teachers are unable to do so. A climate of collaborative respect and cooperation must infuse the school as a whole. Inclusive classrooms are much like blended families in that they bring together adults and children who have previously been separated. Individual histories and ways of doing things must be merged, and trust established.

Changing our Values

Mark is a student with extensive behavioral challenges. He has been know to bite, scratch, and fight. Mr. Nichols, the sixth grade teacher, has carefully led his whole class through a process of problem solving and open discussion about Mark’s behavior and ways in which they can be his friends and support his positive behavior changes.

To embrace the notion of inclusive classrooms and inclusive schools, we must wholeheartedly believe that diversity enriches students and teachers and that learning to function in heterogeneous communities is a valid, if not central, goal of schooling in a democracy. As our society becomes increasingly multicultural, we must recognize that learning to celebrate differences is critical for cohesive communities. Teachers recognize that all students differ; they cannot be divided into “typical” and “handicapped.” Our students vary along many dimensions: race, class, gender, ethnicity, family background and make-up, religious, academic skills, motor skills, and interests. The list is endless. Julia is the child of recent Hmong immigrants and speaks little English; Joshua is the son of two gay parents; Tina’s mother is away from home in an alcohol rehabilitation program; Todd’s parents are divorced and he is living with his grandmother. Cooperative, inclusive classroom communities meet the needs of this variety of children because they create supportive educational environments for all children.

All students need a supportive community in which their differences are accepted and handled sensitively. We must not let traditional ways of thinking about and labeling children get in the way of recognizing that inclusive communities should mean all children, including those previously segregated because of apparent or perceived behavioral, academic, and physical differences. Isolation and segregation not only fail to provide children with the support they need, but also deprive all students of the opportunity to develop caring and compassion, understanding and empathy.

All of the suggestions contained in Nancy Graves’ excellent article, “Creating a Cooperative Learning Community” (Cooperative Learning, Vol. 11. No. 2, December 1990) for example, apply equally to classrooms that include children with disabilities.

But we’re not there yet! In addition to the areas outlined above, there are numerous other aspects of our educational system which we need to examine and reconceptualize if we are to achieve inclusive, cooperative schools which meet the needs of all students within a unified setting. We need to ask ourselves, “What do we really want for our students and our schools?” and then contrast that vision with current policies and structures.

What, for example, should be the role of assessment and evaluation in the educational process? What will be the effects of a National Student Assessment project on the ability and willingness of teachers to plan and implement responsible curricula designed to meet students’ individual educational needs? On the capacity of teachers to be accountable to children, rather than accountable to a test?

What kinds of preparation and on-going support will teachers need in order to teach in multi-age, multi-level classrooms in collaboration with other teachers and school staff? How can schools be restructured to allow teachers to cooperate and support one another in the same ways that they encourage such support for their students? Eliminating or minimizing “special education” as a “place” should not mean the elimination of support services, resources, or consultative help. Such support might include teacher release time for inter-disciplinary planning, team teaching arrangements so that teachers can actively support one another, and the use of teacher aides, older students, parents, and volunteers in the classroom.

Promoting Cooperation

How can schools be organized to promote maximum peer teaching and cooperation? Typical patterns of segregating children by age and ability may prove to be highly dysfunctional in creating schools which model respect for diversity and the need for interpersonal responsibility. Although the majority of examples in this article detail inclusive classrooms at the elementary level, inclusive high school classrooms are also possible. Implementing cooperative, inclusive teaching in high schools involves flexible thinking about the curriculum (multiple goals in an organic chemistry class), student-student relationships (students supporting a classmate with behavioral and intellectual challenges) and teacher scheduling and responsibility (interdisciplinary, team teaching and other support teaching arrangements).

The biggest challenge to creating inclusive, cooperative schools will come, I believe, from a conflict of values, from a failure to articulate and agree about why children go to school and what they learn there. The recent controversy about the education of students identified as “gifted” provides evidence of the need to reevaluate our assumptions about what we want our children to learn and experience. Some argue, for example, that students labeled as “gifted” need to be separated from less academically able students in order to receive an appropriate education, because the progress of gifted children is academically compromised in typical classrooms, and multi-ability, de-tracked classrooms “exploit” gifted children as tutors.

The principles of full inclusion and cooperative learning for students with disabilities apply equally to students whose progress is above average; we must reinvent “regular classrooms,” rethink curricular and pedagogical models so that all children are appropriately challenged, and prepare all teachers for heterogeneous teaching environments.

In an even larger sense, we must examine schools as moral communities, communities in which children (and adults) learn how to value, respond to, and take responsibility for people who are different. We must ask ourselves what lessons children learn when those who are different in some way (read faster, read slower, speak differently) must leave their classroom community in order to have their needs met. We must ask questions about the desirability of creating inclusive cooperative communities that have less to do with curriculum and pedagogy and more to do with our vision of a socially just and equitable world. We must ask ourselves not, “Are inclusive schools possible?” but, “What gets in the way of our making such schools possible?” The answers will force us to be conscious and articulate about the choices we make, and the impact of those choices on all children.


Stainback, William & Susan Stainback (eds.) (1990) Support Networks for Inclusive Schooling: Interdependent Integrated Education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks.

Sapon-Shevin, Mara (1991). “Celebrating Diversity, Creating Community: Curriculum that Honors and Builds on Differences” in Stainback & Stainback (eds.) Adapting the Regular Curriculum: Enhancing Student Success in Inclusive Classrooms. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks.

Mara Sapon-Shevin is a professor at Syracuse University and works in the Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Teacher Preparation Program. A version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 1991 issue of Cooperative Learning magazine, a quarterly publication of the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education. Individual sub./$25.Write Box 1582 Santa Cruz, CA 95061.