Inclusion, Language, Labelling, Needs, & Belonging


An illuminating interview with the founder of Global Inclusion Consultancy, Inclusion Expert, author and trainer, Daniel Sobel, who himself has ADHD and has turned it into his ‘superpower’.


At a time when ECIS has been reflecting deeply on inclusion from an international perspective and reflecting on its own practice, it felt opportune to discuss the topic with Inclusion Expert, Daniel Sobel to learn more about how his work connects with the work of UNESCO, ECIS and its membership community.


In this interview, Daniel openly shares his thoughts around some focused questions asked by Leo Thompson, an education consultant who designed the widely used Inclusion Umbrella and specialises in international school development and accreditation for a leading agency.



Q1: Daniel, besides your global inclusion consultancy, you have written a number of very successful books on the topic of inclusion in schools, but I wondered what this well-travelled word means for you. Is there a concise way of grasping the essence of the concept?


My team and I have been privileged to work with thousands of schools and I am fortunate to run an organization that supports inclusion in schools in approximately 130 countries. If there is one thing I can say for absolute certainty about inclusion it is that the word itself is hardly very inclusive. No two schools or two regions or two countries really agree on what inclusion actually means in reality – or even in theory for that matter.


‘Inclusion’ is a broad a spectrum that involves anything from physical issues to social, emotional and mental health issues and through all the neurological and cognitive aspects to gender, race and cultural issues – and the list goes on. Because this list is intimidatingly long, schools generally home in on the specific issues affecting them. 


For many, the term inclusion implies more work, effort, more money and resources and possibly admitting to facets of our responsibility we have failed at.


To sidestep all of the big issues above, there is one thing that inclusion as a verb brings about and that is a sense of ‘belonging’. This is something that all of us humans can relate to – it is inherent to the way we have evolved as beings who require a group. The group gives us safety and hope and all things nice. Unfortunately, the group can also be something like out of Lord of the Flies, or very subtly maligning or marginalising, something I experienced painfully as a child.


But effective inclusion brings us all to a sense of feeling like we belong just like everyone else does. This bypasses the need for any labels, expensive programmes or extreme shifts. It unites all of us humans regardless of where we may or may not be on a spectrum, disfigurement or skin colour.


Q2: You lead an organisation that has worked with thousands of schools in supporting inclusion and another organisation that supports inclusion in numerous countries. What are the biggest challenges and barriers to inclusion the world over and are there any catch-all starting points for all schools?


The biggest barriers to inclusion are the money, time and stress it presents to people as I describe above. There’s another barrier which is harder to describe because it always rubs up against an ill-defined ceiling. There’s a video I show of people with Down’s Syndrome who have university degrees, run a business, are married with children and have professions. It’s not that they were so unusual. It’s their teachers who believed in them that were. Belief-in is always fettered by assumptions and genuine limitations.


Where is that balance?


That’s the hard bit – to be aspirational and realistic.


The starting point is always to know your students as individuals. It is easy to say this and of course every school in the world will tell you they do already. But there is knowing and there is knowing, in its fullest sense, and some schools are oriented and more equipped to capture and utilise the soft data that tells the story behind the hard data that most schools use to track progress. Nearly all effective practices are through the doorway of this soft data and I wrote a whole book on this very theme. I think many schools I come across haemorrhage money on interventions and staffing which are surplus to requirement because they are led by the hard data results and sadly not what the child actually needs.


Q3: You recently launched the Global inclusive Teaching Initiative which is an online course for millions of teachers all over the world to enable all teachers to teach all children. Adapting the classroom to meet the needs covers a broad range of issues. How did you go about deciding what to include? What do you prioritise for teachers?


That was the juiciest, nerdiest and most enjoyable process for me and my co-authors, who included the renowned Professor Carol Tomlinson, and Scandinavian expert, Helena Wahlberg. We loved every moment of that series of discussions and debates. We had all written books and between us we are privileged to have worked with thousands of schools the world over. Actually, our debates were more nuanced and sometimes about what we should leave out. We all agreed on the phases of planning the lesson, delivering the lesson and understanding children. If we’d had to have completed the exercise in 10 minutes, I think we would have been able to easily, because there is broader consensus on what good inclusive teaching looks like nowadays than before.


Q4: Can you share 5 of the most effective practical inclusion strategies or approaches that educators can use in their classrooms and say when and in what situations they may be useful?


There are 5 most common fault lines where lessons can go wrong and they are often due to a lack of understanding and engaging the student effectively. These are easily preventable and just being aware of these can be really helpful. The majority of behavioural issues have something to do with these fault lines and that does make us rethink the whole topic of behaviour.


1) How a child enters a lesson has everything to do with how they settle. How do you make them feel and how do you know? Feelings of nervousness, dread or discomfort will lead to a lack of engagement. It is important to check in informally and listen to students here at an individual level.


2) Inevitably the teacher will engage with the class and this is nearly always initially done in a verbal delivery. But do all students fully understand the verbal delivery? This point is where students will get lost and simply checking and using other visual aids will help engagement.


3) Splitting into group work is an under-researched topic and it can lead to isolation and hiding within the group, avoidant and fractious behaviours. This group scenario is more easily managed through a framework of roles and checking children with variable profiles all can contribute equally and are welcomed into the group.


4) Similarly, when setting work for quiet, individual time, children may simply be too afraid to clarify or declare they do not understand and are not sure what is going on and what they need to do. Many students would prefer to appear naughty and thus avoid the work than appear ‘stupid’ in front of their peers.


5) One of the most neglected parts of the lesson is the very end. Interestingly, this can not only have a serious knock-on effect to the next teacher but actually, to how the child perceives the whole class and their anticipation of their next time with you. So, just as they enter the classroom with positivity, so they should leave it with a feeling of success.


The above focus is on understanding of the child, but it relies on the understanding and awareness of the teacher about what is going on for the child and their capacity to quickly notice and adapt. Underlying this is the relationship between teacher and child and that, I hope unsurprisingly, is the key to inclusive learning.


Some people may think that inclusive teaching is about elaborate scaffolding and differentiated work sheets. Actually, it is more about how a child feels, the relationships and the aspiration that is born out of this cocktail. Cumbersome technical additions are nowhere near as valuable as simple tweaks, checking of understanding and reinforcement based on genuine care.


Q6: What role does school culture, or atmosphere, play in inclusion, and do you have any tips for how to prevent marginalisation?


School culture is a very important issue and one which most educationalists are simply not trained in, and neither was I when I was in schools. I wrote a chapter about this issue in my second book comparing how out of touch we are compared with many other sectors and industries about the culture of our organisation down to the granular details of how it feels to step into your school.


For instance, banks and supermarkets usually think a huge amount about layout and design of their buildings, the processes customers go through as they engage with the organisation and they know this hugely effects their bottom line. This is also true of schools and yet not enough of them invest time and money into this. Banks and supermarkets also think about their staff culture – from uniform to language they use, to protocols and all manner of communications which will again, be carefully aligned to meet the needs of their bottom-line aspirations.


This is often not taken seriously by some schools and is thought of being peripheral. However, something that becomes obvious when you visit hundreds of schools is that like any other organisation, you feel the culture in the air the moment you walk through the door. Culture is ignored at a school’s peril.


Q6: Schools and their teachers differ hugely in their level of access to resources and training globally and yet everyone is expected to educate inclusively around very diverse needs. Are there any lessons from you work with UNESCO, that may be valuable to international schools?


Let me say two symbiotic things which may cause significant financial relief to some schools and cause others to scratch their heads. As a general rule, nothing does inclusion better than great teaching. You can reduce most interventions that cost time and money – aside from the ones that help the social and emotional aspects of children’s lives, keep those! Many of the withdrawal and remedial interventions are often just a distraction away from good teaching, and I say that noting their very positive intent.


So, this is a blanket approach which, when my team and I have carried out SEN audits with hundreds of schools, we find in general savings of many tens of thousands of pounds as well as an uptick in outcomes.


However, and here is the kicker, teachers need to be up to scratch on how to effectively teach all kinds of students in their classroom at the same time. Is it possible? Of course, and it is not even as hard as it sounds. But I wouldn’t want to be in charge of building a bridge if I was a chemical engineer and similarly, I don’t think it is fair to ask teachers to teach children they are not qualified or capable of teaching because they have not been supported by effective professional development.


It was because of this very skills gap that we noticed all over the world that we produced the Global Inclusive Teaching Initiative. As we are rolling this out for millions of teachers across 130 countries, also in support of UNESCO, we hope this will not only have a huge impact on children and their outcomes but also on the classroom lives of our teachers.


Q7: One of the topics picked up all in your latest book (The Inclusive Classroom) is the use of language and labels, and this goes back to stigma, glass ceilings and limitations, perhaps the unintended consequence of positive intent around inclusion. In this context, where is language useful and where is it not in inclusion for belonging work and for supporting student needs and enhancing their self-belief and independence?


I find that in general, adults who struggled at school and parents who struggle with their children are relieved to get some sort of diagnosis because they feel that one term explains so much to them and they can share it with others.


I am very quick to tell people that I am ADHD, I am proud of it and I think of it as a super power in many ways. But here is where it can go very wrong. Some people think that a label means something limiting or negative. The word ‘disorder’ and all of the problems associated with it usually accompanies such descriptors rather than the many gifts that these labels can imply.


But more than that, I think there is a risky sloppiness that comes into play when we teachers use labels. Just to state the obvious, Psychologists and medical professionals diagnose and treat and therefore they need a specific label as an identifier for a course of action. Teachers don’t diagnose or treat, they teach and create environments where purposeful learning can happen. In this circumstance, a label is actually a decoy and often hides the real issues.


For example, 3 children in a class may have Autism but each can present extremely differently – one being loud and disruptive, the other quiet and distant, the other being a model student who is extremely studious to the point of gifted. Similarly, you can have 3 completely different diagnoses, for example one child with Speech and Language issues, one with inattentive ADHD and one with Asperger’s and they all present very similarly to the classroom teacher.


So, the label doesn’t help here, it actually eclipses the real truth – which is that the only thing that helps the teacher adapt the classroom well for students is to personalise to meet the needs of individuals – and this means knowing the child; their quirks, strengths, hobbies and interests and their frustrations. I often say that we have been through one phase, which is to help all teachers understand the basics of things like Dyslexia and Trauma and the like and now we need to move on to a new epoch where we ditch the labels in the classroom and think about individual children.


I opened my latest book with a chapter on this issue going through all the research and practical issues that come up in classrooms and the publishers and advisors around me were expecting a backlash. In fact, I am very pleased to say that there have been no complaints or comments so far. I am glad to have stuck to my guns on this point and I make it a talking point wherever I go.


Daniel Sobel will be a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator at the ECIS Inclusive Education conference in Athens in March 2023. His recorded conversation with Sarah Kupke can be seen on the ECIS YouTube Archive. Daniel has written books, founded the Global Inclusion Consultancy, developed the Global Inclusive Teaching Initiative and is hosting the Global Inclusive Schools Summit, with UNESCO in September 2023.


Leo Thompson works closely with Daniel Sobel. He is an educational consultant whose “Inclusion Umbrella” graphic has become something of an icon for visualising how discriminatory catagorisation of difference can be converted into strengths if we embrace diversity and truly strive towards creating cultures of belonging for every child.


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