Skip to main content
A teacher on the floor with students in a classroom demonstrating inclusive practices

4 Inclusive Practices to Welcome All Students to Your Classroom

It’s all about creating a physical space where students feel seen, understood, and welcome.

September 12, 2023
Christian Polizzi, educator, author of an article about inclusive classrooms

Christian Polizzi


Christian Polizzi, educator, author of an article about inclusive classrooms

Christian Polizzi


I was excitedly sipping my coffee in my first classroom on the first day of school. I looked around my classroom with its 40 desks lined up nicely in rows, my data board ready to welcome student work, and my posters with general platitudes about resilience and “hanging in there.”

It looked exactly like a classroom I would want to walk into, and, I presumed, one my students would likewise feel at home in. 

But I was wrong. My students did not see a classroom that was a welcoming space representative of them, but rather a space representative of my priorities. They saw desks that did not encourage student voice or conversation, posters that held empty phrases, and data boards that did not share what I know or want to know about my students. I could see within the first week that the classroom was an underdeveloped resource in supporting student success. 

Throughout the year, I grew with my students and learned about who they were, who they wanted to become, and what role I could play as an educator in their lives. The physical classroom transformed into a space where students could feel seen, understood, and welcome. Policies, procedures, and expectations changed to meet the needs of my students as I began to get to know them. It wasn’t always easy; in fact, it was one of the most difficult processes I had to go through as an educator. But it was worth it because students could see themselves in the classroom.

As you are actively developing and creating lessons, setting up your classrooms, and planning out classroom environments, take a minute to reflect on your students. Every teacher invests a great deal of time and effort to ensure their classroom environment is a warm and welcoming place. However, an inclusive classroom requires an extra step. Taking time to develop and foster an inclusive environment must be done with  intentionality and purpose. It requires setting up protocols for student voice and agency, and authentically getting to know your students. Taking these steps will transform your classroom before the year even begins.

Represent Your Students in Classroom Decor

Walking into your classroom on the first day sets the tone for students. What will they see on the walls? Will they see representations of themselves? Consider how your classroom decor encompasses diversity in ability, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and beyond.

Developing your space with intentionality and ensuring equal representation will make your classroom more inclusive. Putting a quote by Stephen Hawking on the wall with a picture of him will send a message to students with disabilities that they have a voice in the classroom. Likewise, ensuring culturally relevant quotes, materials, and posters on the wall will start the year off on the right foot.

Viewing your classroom as a means to provide social and emotional well-being to students can be the mechanism for building a relationship with your scholars. Acknowledging students’ interests, feelings, anxieties, and insecurities and positively addressing them can make your classroom a haven for all students.

To help plan out your classroom, rely on teachers and counselors who have previously taught your students, consult student information from the registrar, or survey parents about what they want you to know about their child. Setting the year off on a positive note means that the classroom can grow with your students as your space will build on student rapport.

Encourage Student Voice and Agency

As students come into your classroom, having an established plan for student agency and voice shows that the teacher values each student. Setting up time for students to create group norms, expectations, and ways they want to express themselves shows students that you value each and every one of them. This should also be represented in the physical layout of your classroom, with seating arrangements that encourage dialogue and discussion. Your intention behind an inclusive environment will be the catalyst for students to invest themselves in your classroom.

Similarly, creating outlines for an inclusive classroom and sharing them with students on day one sets a positive tone. This can include creating academic discourse guidelines for students in middle and high school, which allows the teacher to capitalize on discussions right away. In elementary classrooms, this can mean asking students how they prefer to express themselves and then creating those spaces and methods.

Setting up these norms for students’ voices will foster student agency. Students will feel more comfortable in their individual learning styles and preferences. Take advantage of the times when your students open up to continue to understand their learning styles, interests, and what is important to them.


Get to Know Your Students

Intentionally developing icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities that help you learn your students’ authentic selves is key during the first few days of the school year. Students may not want to be vulnerable, so ensuring that the classroom they walk into looks inclusive will give you the benefit of the doubt and encourage  students to open up. 

Learning not only your students’ interests, cultures, and abilities, but also their hopes and dreams, will show that you care about them as human beings, not just as students. Setting up activities that are designed for the whole group, mixed with personal activities like journaling or reflective writing posts, will help you understand your students. 

Try more complex get-to-know-you activities rather than superficial questions such as asking, “If you won a million dollars, but could only use it to make the world a better place, how would you use it?” Put the onus on students and ask them to provide questions for their peers to build on the agency you are cultivating with your students. Lastly, provide opportunities for students to not only share their answers verbally but also visually and kinesthetically to get a more holistic understanding of who your students are.

Be Flexible in Your Instruction

You have invested time and energy into setting up a truly inclusive environment for students of all backgrounds. Now you need to take what you have learned and apply it to your classroom instruction.

Nurture your students’ interests and cultures and have them represented in your lessons. Knowing your students’ abilities also means that you properly scaffold and differentiate to meet their needs. Set up lessons based on student learning styles and seek continuous feedback. This requires a great deal of flexibility as lessons you have used in previous years might have to change to meet the needs of your new group. Take advantage of your professional network to support your flexible instruction by asking for examples of texts, assignments, or assessment techniques that are inclusive of all students in your classroom.

Being purposeful and intentional in designing an inclusive classroom will benefit the students, the school, and the community. These efforts will benefit the students, school, and community.


The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

Sign up to receive articles like this in your inbox!

Thanks for signing up!