December 2023
A young student who uses a wheelchair interacts with his fellow students in a general education classroom.

TIES Center researchers are working with several large U.S. school districts to boost the quality and quantity of learning time spent in inclusive classrooms among students with extensive support needs. Their aim: Enhancing students’ life-long choices and outcomes.

The customized work with individual states and districts follows extensive expertise the TIES Center gained as a national technical assistance center focused on inclusive education practices and policies. Key takeaways and resources developed for the center are available free on the TIES website. Among them: Inclusive “Big Ideas” for standards-based lesson plans that remove common barriers to learning, universal design learning modules, briefs geared to parents of students with disabilities, and bite-sized, collaborative planning sessions for busy educators to fit inclusion concepts into their day.

TIES, a program within the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, stands for increasing the time students spend in grade-level, general education classrooms; educators’ instructional effectiveness; engagement with age-grade peers; and the support for inclusion by state and district education leaders, all of which leads to better student outcomes.

“These tools take a lot of very solid research and put it into practice in a way teachers and others can use,” said Gail Ghere, a TIES Center research associate. “The content fills a niche that has not been widely available, and the volume of traffic on our website shows there is an important need there for helping educators enhance their strategies to support inclusive practices. After the TASH Conference this fall, people kept coming up to us to talk about the quality of the materials on the site and how important it is for TIES to keep supporting districts, schools, and families.”

Feedback from participants in customized professional development training in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and other states has also been gratifying, said Kristin Liu, principal investigator for the TIES Center.

“One educator shared how happy she was to see her district embracing these tools after years of false starts in trying to create inclusive classrooms that work for all students,” Liu said. “When one of our facilitators pointed to solid evidence that having no students in segregated programs is the best model, she loved it and said that kind of mindset is where they need to be.”

Helping schools navigate various “pain points” of building more inclusive classrooms has been integral to the TIES resource offerings, said Jessica Bowman, a TIES research associate.

Lack of time for teachers to collaborate on strategies for students who are English learners, those who may communicate using a device, or who have learning disabilities is the most common logistical barrier to inclusive classrooms, Bowman said.

“Beyond what’s available online, we’re interested in working with states and school districts on addressing these barriers in a way that meets their unique challenges,” Liu said. “We support administrators, teachers, and parents to build a commitment to inclusive education; help them assess their needs; plan their role in supporting inclusive education in their schools; and provide resources and training for general education, special education, and English-language teachers who need support in their classrooms.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. The law provides for research, technical assistance, and other services to improve the educational results of students with disabilities. And yet, a huge research-to-practice gap exists. Decades after the law was signed, fewer than 2 in 10 students with intellectual disability are in integrated classrooms with their grade-level peers for 80 percent or more of their time in class.

Despite pervasive beliefs and practices that keep students with extensive support needs separate and unequal in myriad ways, Ghere believes examples of strong inclusive programming are increasing and that individual champions of this work are creating positive outcomes. In her presentations, she often includes a picture of a pebble falling on a puddle and quote from the Dalai Lama: “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into the water, the actions of individuals can have a far-reaching effect.”

The online tools and the individualized training have the potential to create that effect, Ghere said.

“To be able to share with districts and with teachers the specific successes we’ve had in various situations helps them understand that while this work is hard and complex, they can do it,” Bowman said. “These insights give them the confidence and the backing of research they need to take a step forward for their schools.”

Schools that are just beginning to take that step toward inclusion often have to overcome the feeling that they can’t get started because they don’t have everything in place.

“We often hear, ‘My school isn’t to this point yet, so I can’t do anything,’” Liu said. “A lot of our materials focus on schools that are ready to make a change, but there are things they can do even before then. There’s a lot of power in getting teams to work together on small changes. Pretty soon, the change gets bigger.”

To learn more about the supports the TIES Center provides, including suggestions for funding strategies that districts have used successfully, contact