Don’t talk about special needs – talk about inclusive capabilities

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Given the complexity of today’s classrooms, simply reacting to the needs of “deficient” pupils is not as useful as a collaborative approach. Per Skoglund, political scientist and R&D coordinator, discusses the need to change perspective.

During my 25 years of work and research in education and special pedagogy, denominations of pupils have varied from “handicapped” to “disabled”, “persons with disabilities”, “pupils with special education needs”, or “pupils in need of support to reach the expected goals”. But formulating the “needs” of one actor does not seem enough. It is more fruitful to formulate the issue in terms of the relation between the unique capability of the teacher and the unique capability of the pupil!

To illustrate, imagine we lived in a world that used such denominations one-sidedly: “handicapped schools” when teachers were unable to meet pupils’ needs, and “special needs education for schools” when teachers needed support to reach the expected goals.

This is the essence of it all. Pupils in need of support are most of the time connected to teachers in need of support.

How, then, could we improve education? Professor John West-Burnham writes that “we need to start with the learner as a unique individual and build their education around who they are.” I strongly support this and propose some tested actions that could help to improve our enterprises and results.

Consider what the focus of learning is really about; it seems to be about our ability to support children in growing and participating in life and society. Lone individuals cannot produce this support; rather, it has to be produced by real communities of neighbours, parents, professionals in school and others.

Therefore, stop thinking and talking about “inclusion” as a thing, a state or a question of placing all persons in the same “classroom”. Instead, think and talk about it as a matter of which qualities or “inclusive capabilities” we professionals need to create together: the capabilities to see, understand and support each pupil so they can become a well-functioning human being in a democratic society. The following conceptual model can help us to focus on real school improvements:

Per Skoglund's model of inclusion

This model suggests that teachers cannot handle the complexity of today’s diversity on their own. It seems necessary to create a stronger learning community among professionals, based on more constructive leadership that prioritises proactive development support for everyday activities like teaching and learning – rather than special resources focused on pupils who have failed and are then given reactive special support.

Therefore, the education system, heads of education, principals, support functions and teachers will hopefully join together and say:

 “We can do better together; we cannot compensate for everything alone, but together we can try to see, understand, adapt to and challenge each pupil in the best way.”

That is the challenge! It is not new, but it is all too easy to forget when we are busy handling our everyday lives. Therefore, reflect on everyday life and concentrate on what it is all about, at least one hour each week, together with your closest work companions. It is not about being “reactive” towards anything unique we encounter – towards “deficits” or “special” and “difficult” pupils versus “normal” ones. Rather, it is about encouraging each actor to understand the situation of their closest actor and support them by focusing on the question: “what works” according to research results and your own proven experience?


Per Skoglund is a political scientist and since 2002 R&D coordinator in the Swedish National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools. His focus is on how to support education systems and schools to increase their inclusive capability. From 2014 to 2016 he was adviser within the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education.