Embracing inclusive education in the ESL classroom: What students and parents have taught me.

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

― Chinese Proverb

This post is dedicated to all the caring and patient teachers out there who  help their students have meaningful experiences learning a second language regardless of any limitations they may have. This post is also dedicated to all the parents who have kindly shared their stories with me over these five years I’ve been involved with the Special Needs program in my language school.

Parents-to-be often dream of well-behaved, talented, high-achieving children who say ‘please’ and make the grade. However, many parents soon find out that together with the joy of having a baby come many challenges. Sometimes it’s the child’s delayed speech and response to the outside world that set off alarm bells, and what could be simply a minor delayed speech turns into an autism diagnosis. Other times, it comes through the words of a pediatrician during a routine check-up. Suddenly,  a young mother’s world turns upside down. And along comes a long search for answers to questions that are probably too hard to make and whose answers might be way too daunting to hear. But then there’s love. And along comes courage.

“Happy would be just perfect,” said the mother of a teenage boy, as she described her expectations for her son.  The parents of a twelve-year-old girl with a rare syndrome added: “If learning English is what makes our daughter happy, then we are happy, too.” What these parents have taught me more than anything else is that it’s little milestones that count when it comes to their very special children. Sometimes it’s when their child puts  their best effort into doing their homework assignments; sometimes it’s when their child spontaneously says their first English words at home. Unfortunately, there are some parents who don’t share any information  with us at all. We’re left in the dark, but this doesn’t stop us from doing our best to accommodate their needs.

We live in a highly competitive society where  time has become a valuable asset. We have very little time to give others, so children with special needs are sometimes a great challenge — and unfortunately are seen as a burden to others,  because they may need more time to get their work done; they may need more time to assess their roles in their group; some may need more time to adjust their emotions and actions in new situations. My heart sank a couple years ago when a mother told me that her daughter had been refused enrollment in other language schools. Unfortunately, many Brazilian schools are still not ready for  students with special needs despite our country’s inclusive education laws. On the other hand, if we don’t commit ourselves to inclusive education, when are we ever going to be ready for our special needs children?

In fact, great challenges call for great achievements however small they may seem to most people. However, whether we have chosen or not to work with children with special needs, these are compelling reasons to embrace inclusive education. What’s more: All children learn, and their  achievements are nothing short of amazing. Actually, all children  greatly benefit from inclusive education. They learn that people have individual needs and operate in the world in different ways. Children with special needs also help other children get rid of preconceived notions such as the idea that dyslexic children are stupid or that autistic children cannot think for themselves.  Ultimately, children learn to be tolerant towards others and to value diversity. However, we can only make these things happen if we help them build these concepts through our everyday actions in the classroom.

As teachers, we  learn that by no means do labels account for a child’s infinite possibilities and that dyslexic children are totally different from one another. We also learn that ADHD has nothing to do with disrespectful behavior or bad manners; we learn that we need to seek continuous development in this area to become better teachers. Last but not least, we learn that we need to demand that schools equip us to meet our students’ needs.  After all, they’re just  children who are as open to learning as any other children, but they need opportunities to develop. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. In some cases inclusive education is not the answer for a specific child. There will be times when nothing seems to work despite our effort and  dedication, but when it finally does, it will surely be an immensely rewarding experience for all of us, teachers, students, and parents.




Stephen Greene
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Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a Master's Degree in Language Studies from PUC-Rio, a B.A. in Linguistics from USP, and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in Systemic-Functional Linguistics, identity studies, visual literacy, and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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