Defining, teaching and fostering inclusive mindsets

Within schools, many students with disabilities still experience social isolation and rejection and even victimization in the form of bullying. To foster better inclusion, Special Olympics and the EASEL Lab developed a framework with the core pillars of an inclusive mindset as a guide for curricula and pedagogy.

November 30, 2023 by Jacqueline Jodl, Special Olympics International
5 minutes read
The three pillars of inclusion.
The three pillars of inclusion.
Credit: Special Olympics International

Realizing an inclusive future where stigma and isolation no longer plague the marginalized depends on fostering empathetic, inclusive mindsets, willing to accept and embrace those who are different.

Within schools, many students with disabilities still experience social isolation and rejection and even victimization in the form of bullying. In some cultures, young people with disabilities are educated separately from peers without disabilities or do not attend school at all.

Policies and practice often focus solely on physical inclusion without recognizing the need to teach students how to learn and live together. The need to support youth participation in creating inclusive schools, communities and societies is recognized around the world echoed by the United Nations’ (UN) call to “Leave No One Behind.”

At Special Olympics we understand physical inclusion is not enough. Full inclusion in education requires a commitment to social inclusion—where young people of differing beliefs, backgrounds, creeds and ability levels come together to become teammates, partners, allies and friends.

Special Olympics’ mission is simple: by teaching children to play together, they can learn, grow and ultimately thrive together.

Emerging evidence suggests shared learning experiences are transformative because they develop an “inclusive mindset1.” As Stephanie Jones, lead researcher from the EASEL Lab at Harvard University, has found, an inclusive mindset enhances our ability to empathize and to see things from another’s perspective. It strengthens our sense of courage to stand up for others, and it supports our belief in the universal dignity of every individual.

Special Olympics Egypt unified pair of youth leaders
Special Olympics Egypt unified pair of youth leaders
Jacqueline Jodl

A mindset is a set of beliefs that shape how you make sense of the world and yourself. Your mindset influences how you move through the world, how you think, feel and behave in any given situation.

Importantly, evidence suggests an inclusive mindset is malleable2, meaning it can be developed, that is to say teachable, to young people regardless of whether they have an intellectual disability, and it can be measured.

Developing inclusive mindsets are thus an important way to advance educators’ goals of reducing between-group tensions, bullying and loneliness, while also increasing a sense of safety in schools.

Unlike many approaches to diversity, equity and inclusion, the process of teaching and inclusive mindsets has been found to reduce fear and shame among young people without disabilities, making them more likely to stand up for their peers with disabilities.

The ripple effect these “includer” students generate creates a more positive culture and climate for everyone, resulting in stronger, more cohesive learning communities.

Why are some youth welcoming to others when so many of their peers may not be and when bullying and exclusion are often the norm?

A framework for scaling inclusion

Special Olympics and the EASEL Lab partnered to develop a framework that defines the core pillars of an inclusive mindset to guide curricula and pedagogy3 supporting the social inclusion of children with disabilities. We began with an extensive review of the literature on mindsets, values, empathy, agency, self-efficacy, perspective-taking, physical activity, sport and inclusion, social cohesion and connectedness and youth leadership.

Research generally treats inclusion as a singular dimension, such as empathy or tolerance, but the framework presents inclusive mindsets as a multi-dimensional concept made up of the interaction among values, beliefs and specific skills.

The framework also offers concrete solutions for meeting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 by clearly defining and operationalizing the teaching and scaling of inclusion in schools, sports and other learning settings. It’s designed to be easily adapted and contextualized for any organization or program seeking to promote greater social inclusion.

Special Olympics Senegalese young athletes
Special Olympics Senegalese young athletes
Jacqueline Jodl

Three pillars of inclusion

The framework is based upon 3 “core concepts” that serve as pillars that emerged from EASEL’s research.4

  • Pillar 1: Universal Dignity recognizes that everyone is worthy of respect and that everyone has value regardless of their personal beliefs, identity or circumstances. It’s a belief in the intrinsic worth of others and in the importance of protecting the rights of all, an openness toward people with disabilities and a valuing of individual differences.
  • Pillar 2: Empathy & Perspective Taking is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s feelings (empathy) and point of view (perspective-taking). Empathy and perspective-taking are important because they help individuals pay attention to, understand and ultimately care about others, especially those who may be different from oneself, and therefore serve as a foundation for inclusive behaviors and actions.
  • Pillar 3: Courageous Action is a willingness to speak up or act when something wrong or harmful happens, despite the potential costs to oneself. It includes acting outside one’s comfort zone, looking out for others, behaving ethically despite potential costs, working toward what is right and weighing multiple factors when making decisions. Courageous action empowers individuals to transform entrenched, unjust norms and conditions in pursuit of more equitable, inclusive communities.

Realizing quality education for all

SDG 4 is a global vision for quality education for all. But this ambitious goal will remain just that—a vision—until we clearly define, teach and foster inclusive mindsets in our schools and on our playing fields.

Despite all the noise in the world around what inclusion really means, it turns out that most young people, regardless of their identities and experiences, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, use remarkably similar words to explain what being included looks and feels like: being treated with dignity, respected for their differences and valued for their contributions to their school or community.5

Capturing these elements in a framework provides a roadmap for the teaching and learning of inclusion, and ultimately elevates the shared experiences through which young people learn to include.


Read all the blogs in this series on inclusive education

  1. EASEL Lab at Harvard University (2022). The Evidence Base for Inclusive Mindsets & Behaviors, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge MA.
  2. EASEL Lab at Harvard University (2022). The Evidence Base for Inclusive Mindsets & Behaviors, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge MA; Jones, S.M (2022); Localizing Research Phase 1 Report (power point slides). EASEL Lab at Harvard University
  3. ibid
  4. ibid
  5. ibid

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