Inclusion is a necessary component of social-emotional learning (SEL), and effective SEL is a vehicle for successful inclusion. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (1), a leading organization in SEL research and implementation, defines SEL as the process of acquiring the “knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions”(2). For students with disabilities, SEL targets many skill deficits manifested by cognitive and emotional disabilities. Authentic social-emotional learning necessitates the inclusion of students of all forms of diversity, especially students with disabilities, to meet the objectives outlined within this definition of SEL. This article shares the importance of inclusive education from a sociopolitical perspective, explores the relationship between SEL and inclusion, and summarizes how inclusion benefits all students.
The inclusion of students with disabilities within general education has significant implications for society as a whole. The community for people with disabilities is historically among the most marginalized and oppressed. In the 19th century, many persons with disabilities in Western society were either euthanized or abandoned in institutions that subjected them to poor living conditions, abuse, and in some cases, experimentation(3). This treatment of persons with disabilities reflected values and stigmas held by broader society, which in part was misinformed by the eugenics movement. History demonstrates the consequences of widespread prejudice, discrimination, and the need for deliberate action to reduce societal stigmas. As attitudes towards persons with disabilities evolved throughout the 20th century, a culmination of global initiatives and policies have advanced the cause of inclusive education, which in turn promotes SEL values.
For decades, the United Nations (UN) has emphasized the need and importance of inclusive education, its societal implications, and social-emotional benefits. The 1994 Salamanca Statement states that schools with an “inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society, and achieving education for all”(4). The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that educational systems must foster “an attitude of respect for the rights of persons with disabilities” and that persons with disabilities should have access to “an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live”(5). Affirming these proclamations, goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development initiative asserts that societies must “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”(6). Target 4.7 specifically aims to provide students with the skills necessary to advance these sustainable development initiatives, including promoting peace, global citizenship, and appreciation and respect for cultural diversity(7). International policy is clear in its emphasis on inclusive education and the societal benefits it brings. Fostering welcoming communities, promoting equity and equality, combating discrimination, and developing respect for others are all objectives aligned with SEL.
Social-emotional learning supports inclusion by providing students the skills they need for inclusive education to be effective. There are five core competencies within the SEL framework: Self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Social awareness is defined as empathy and understanding of diverse perspectives and cultures(8). Social awareness skills include considering the viewpoints of others, engaging in compassionate acts, and expressing gratitude or concern for others. Relationship skills involve forming and sustaining healthy, supportive relationships, successfully navigating social situations with people of diverse backgrounds, and demonstrating cultural competency(9). Responsible decision-making is defined as demonstrating open-mindedness and making constructive decisions across various settings(10). Including students with disabilities in general education, classrooms allow developing students to demonstrate these skills by expressing compassion and respect towards members of the disability community and considering their unique perspectives.
Research indicates that placement in an inclusive setting enhances social-emotional skills for typically developing students to a greater extent than placement in non-inclusive settings(11). Utilizing a sample of 1,115 Austrian students, a 2015 study found that students had more friends in inclusive classrooms than in non-inclusive classrooms. A 2016 literature review examined the social impacts of inclusive education and found that students with disabilities faced less animosity, bias, and discrimination from their peers(12). A 2021 review of the literature reached similar conclusions: developing students in inclusive settings have more of an inclination to play with students with disabilities and have fewer prejudices towards them(13). Furthermore, inclusive settings enhance social skills such as acceptance, respect, and tolerance towards individual differences(14).
Students with and without disabilities acquire social-emotional benefits from education in inclusive settings. Values taught through SEL programs promote the aspirations of inclusive education, making SEL an essential vehicle for promoting inclusion. Shifting the educational paradigm for successful, long-term inclusive education will require a systemic approach. This approach may involve developing inclusive educational curricula, model school sites, reexamining educational funding, and providing professional development on practices for working with students with disabilities and other diverse backgrounds. These systemic challenges must be faced if society is to meet the Incheon Declaration’s call for “making the necessary changes in education policies and focusing our efforts on the most disadvantaged, especially those with disabilities, to ensure that no one is left behind”(15). Implemented together, SEL and inclusive education further the promise of an equitable education system that promotes sustainable peace and global citizenship.