Together we can move forward — with inclusive minds

Tim Shriver, Special Olympics

Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver participates in a New Jersey event activating Unified Champion Schools programming.
Photo by Heather O’Connell
  • For more than 50 years, Special Olympics promoted a model of inclusivity focused on getting people together on playing fields, ball courts and running tracks.
  • But over the last two decades Special Olympics, through its Unified Champion Schools program, has worked in schools to foster an “inclusive mindset” in students.
  • Students who participate say that the program has helped them be more inclusive of others, be more respectful, and become more understanding.

You don’t have to be a particularly close observer of America’s social and political discourse — or even of any particular politician — to know how crude, vicious, and divisive we have all become. Leaders in politics and media model bullying, boasting and ridicule with a perpetual undercurrent of disgust. Leaders lead that way, and followers follow, and down into the depths of division we all sink. In the long run, shaming and exclusion have only one certain outcome: more anxiety, more anger, and more exclusion.

This pattern of scapegoating and divisiveness has a particularly destructive effect on children. Anxiety is at epidemic levels among young people, damaging relationships and achievement. Behavior problems, disengagement, and emotional distress are all serious challenges among all groups of children and interfere with both learning and flourishing. 

Neuroscience makes the case even more starkly:  social connection drives learning and the brain has a social filter:  if relationships are weak or damaged, learning is too. On top of these challenges, schools are increasingly diverse and rightly responsible for optimizing the chances for all children to feel welcome and supported. If a pattern of bullying and divisiveness exists, children of all backgrounds will suffer.

For over a generation, educators have been working to make schools into places that offer children a path to resisting being a part of this cycle of anxiety, bullying, and despair. That’s what schools need to do now more than ever—teach and model the skills and values that will reduce stress and promote positive relationships and success in school and life. To do so, educators are welcoming efforts to promote the skills, values, and beliefs that reduce divisiveness and isolation and promote learning, belonging, and purpose for all.

While some doubt that schools can handle yet another responsibility, research shows that it is not only possible but also necessary for schools to integrate social, emotional and cognitive approaches to learning. Research shows, for instance, that in the face of bullying and discrimination, students can learn to be inclusive, welcoming, and empathetic —  and learn more effectively too.

Teenagers can learn — and teach one another — not to be reactive, violent, and destructive when they encounter pain but instead develop the inner strength and social agency to respond effectively. And they can do better than tolerance or passive acquiescence. They can learn to be actively, even courageously, inclusive—to develop skills that enable them to be aware of, understanding of, and able to overcome, the exclusion and humiliation of others while at the same time, increasing their own sense of purpose and responsibility.

Special Olympics, an organization built for and by some of the most excluded people in the world—those with intellectual and developmental disabilities—has spent more than 50 years tackling the problem of exclusion and intolerance by inviting people to play sports together and come to recognize their common humanity through the challenges and triumphs of competition.

In the last two decades, Special Olympics turned its attention to schools and to the challenge of teaching inclusive attitudes in children before discriminatory and exclusionary attitudes develop and harden. Over that time, thousands of educators have collaborated with Special Olympics volunteers, parents, coaches, and athletes themselves in developing the design, implementation, and evaluation of a school-based program to promote inclusivity and end bullying and discrimination. 

The program, “Unified Champion Schools,” brings students with and without intellectual disabilities (ID) together and challenges them to be agents of change. Students learn inclusive leadership skills and apply them in and out of the classroom, in assemblies, extracurricular clubs and activities, and especially in inclusive Special Olympics unified sports teams all with one central goal: to create a culture that respects the dignity and gifts of all students.

Dramatic changes in attitudes toward others

The results have been promising and in some cases startling: thousands of young people — both those who had formerly been excluded and those who had been the excluders — report dramatic changes in their attitudes toward others and in their perceptions that their schools can be safe and successful communities for all.  Annual evaluations demonstrate that the increased visibility of, and social interactions with students with ID lead to more positive attitudes and perceptions of school as a socially inclusive community. Students who participate say that the program has helped them be more inclusive of others, be more respectful, and become more understanding.

More recently, assessments have examined the value of the program in providing opportunities for students to gain or enhance social and emotional competencies and have found improvements in social awareness skills such as how to work better with others, and in relationship skills such as making friends with people who are different. These program evaluation findings give further evidence to the important role young people can play in creating inclusive environments if they are given both the opportunity and the skills to lead.

But perhaps more importantly, these evaluations led us to believe that there are specific and measurable ways to promote inclusivity by teaching and modelling key skills and beliefs that promote the development of a stable and potentially lasting “inclusive mindset.” 

Tim Shriver, Special Olympics

Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, right, greets student leaders at a New Jersey schools event celebrating Unified Champion Schools programming.
Photo by Heather O’Connell

Looking deeper: The inclusive mindset

Three years ago, I asked our teams of scholars and educators to look beneath the data of our program effectiveness to ask a new question: “what are the psychological or personality qualities of students who take risks to include?” Our research revealed a set of common qualities among inclusive children and leads us to suggest that some children—and surely adults too—have an “inclusive mindset.”  

A “mindset” is a term used in a number of fields to describe an orientation or lens that guides how one interprets experiences and surroundings. A mindset can influence one’s perception of stress or well-being. Perhaps most notably, the psychologist Carol Dweck has done seminal work on what she calls the “growth mindset.” She found that students who have it are more motivated, do better academically and handle challenges better than those who display a “fixed mindset.” 

We suggest that an “inclusive mindset” is a critically important disposition that enables children and society more broadly, to reduce bullying, anger, and inequity. We define it as a predisposition to empathize with, understand, welcome, and accord dignity to those who are socially excluded. Our analysis of thousands of young people’s attitudes and behaviors suggests that this mindset is guided by two underlying skills, one value set, and one character strength: the skills are empathy and cognitive perspective taking; the value is that of universal dignity and equality; and the character strength is moral courage.  

Young people who are more inclusive are more likely to prioritize the dignity and welfare of those who have been excluded or marginalized, more likely to act to change unjust norms, and less likely to demonize or threaten others as a way of solving problems. Our work suggests that these qualities, when seen together, are the key to transforming not just the lives of individuals, but also the norms of groups and institutions. 

But how do the parts of an inclusive mindset fit together? Let’s take them one by one.

Value: Universalism

A core dimension of an inclusive mindset is the value of universalism or universal dignity. Universalism is defined as “understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.” This value seems to be a powerful motivator of young people who are likely to be inclusive. It fuels the desire to promote others’ sense of belonging, to recognize the worth of all individuals, and to seek equitable opportunities for all.

Universalist values appear to guide adolescents to be attuned to situations in which someone is being left out. In recent assessments of the impact of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, students described these values in terms of fairness and equality. As one student put it: “I feel like, just because they do have some type of disability, they shouldn’t be looked at any other type of way. I just feel like – I treat them just like my friends. And I’ll treat them just like I treat anyone else.”

An adolescent who values helping others and sees the inherent worth in everyone may be more likely to notice exclusion in their school and community. When adolescents are guided by this and other Universalist values, they view their social world as a series of opportunities to help those in need and to include the excluded. One student noted: “Lots more people seem like they are more comfortable with talking to students with disabilities, because they have figured out that they’re just like us, they’re not any different.”

Students with these values appear to be more likely to use their skills proactively—to practice empathy and cognitive perspective-taking to reach out when a student with a disability is sitting by herself in the cafeteria, for example, or when a new student is alone on the sidelines of a gym class.

Beyond simply being more attuned to others’ welfare, adolescents with these values may also be more likely to feel personally responsible for ensuring others’ well-being and sense of belonging and then act on it by engaging in inclusive behavior. Universalist values help guide an adolescent’s decision to act inclusively, because the taking of action affirms and shapes the qualit ies at the core of their identity.

One student at a Unified Champion School remarked on the shifting values in her school: “I notice that things have changed around the school, that kids became more considerate, and they watch what they say, and they are willing to accept kids with intellectual disabilities, sit at their tables. They talk to them more in the hall than they used to…”  Change, consideration, acceptance, communication—these are all marks of the shift toward mindsets that are driven by Universalist values.

Empathy and perspective taking

Universalism alone cannot ensure inclusive behavior. Adolescents must also be able to recognize when a student is being discriminated against, is isolated and lonely and would welcome an invitation to join a group. This requires social and emotional skills of empathy and perspective taking. 

Affective empathy, the ability to understand another’s emotions based on one’s own experiences, real or imagined, has been clearly linked to prosocial and helping behavior. Teachers evaluating the qualities of adolescents in Special Olympics school programs frequently note the importance of affective empathy. “I think (empathy) allows them to … put themselves in another person’s shoes,” one physical-education teacher said. “It’s great when you realize how similar we all are.”

If adolescents draw on their own experiences of being new at school, they may be more likely to understand that a transfer student alone in the cafeteria may feel lonely and left out. A student may not be able to directly relate to a peer’s experience—such as having a disability or being from another cultural background—but a strong sense of empathy can help overcome their discomfort and make a connection anyway.

In addition to affective empathy, includers have another fundamental social skill: cognitive perspective taking. Perspective taking involves understanding multiple aspects of another person’s experience–their thoughts, motivations and behaviors.  Includers need to be able to interpret and predict others’ reactions so that they can make decisions about how to behave appropriately. As one student put it, “I think people didn’t understand before. And I think when students understand disabilities, it’s not so scary. … I think there’s a lot to be said in educating. … I think when you develop that awareness, it increases humanity.”

When noticing someone alone in the cafeteria, a student with cognitive perspective taking will try to understand the causes and conditions. Is she eating alone because she prefers to or because she hasn’t been invited to sit with a group? What patterns led her to being alone? What might have happened to her earlier? What factors or individuals might have excluded her? An adolescent with well-developed perspective taking skills will be able to evaluate the experiences and situational factors to decide how best to respond.

In some constructs, empathy and cognitive perspective-taking have been conceived in similar ways, but our inquiry suggests that they are distinct. If adolescents relied on empathy alone, for example, they might not be able to predict someone else’s reaction and thus be guided only by emotion and not by situational factors. Conversely, if children understand another’s thinking and motivations but do not empathize with their feelings, they may not be drawn to act.

These cognitive and affective skills work in combination to give adolescents the tools to understand when others feel excluded and thoughtfully consider how to respond. One student noted, “People do nowadays need to realize that there are people who aren’t like them and they should start appreciating them instead of, like, backing off. So, I decided to take the opportunity (to learn).”

The last piece: Courage

Skills and values alone cannot insure students’ inclusive behavior. In a world of intense peer pressure and social risk, in the emotional minefield of high school, young people who have value others, have empathy, and perspective need one additional strength: courage. Courage can be defined as the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain despite anxiety or fear. 

Our work suggests that students who approach the world with an inclusive mindset have a strong level of courage. Those with courage are more likely to engage in inclusive behavior even at the risk of their social status or belonging. We found that inclusive students understand and value courage and know it is an essential ingredient in being willing to “be the difference.” They often note the importance of their role in challenging social norms: “I wanted to make sure I chose to pursue a profession where I could advocate for people who may not be able to speak up for themselves. As a (student) journalist, I have the ability to make a difference by exposing problems in the news that might otherwise be unseen.” Another student recounted the ridicule she faced from sophomore boys when she chose to sit at a lunch table with peers with special needs. “They make fun of you, but it’s more important to me to follow my heart.” 

Teachers too often note the importance of courageous moments of challenging existing patterns of behavior. One teacher recounted her work promoting a more inclusive school culture noting, “It forces us to confront stereotypes and makes kids think about the words that they use.” Other teachers introduce examples in history of the “upstander,” the person who resists being complicit with group think and acts against injustice even at risk to their own life.

Conversely, an adolescent who is not challenged to think and act with courage may be more likely to passively or actively exclude others. Courage helps guide an adolescent’s decision to act inclusively, in a way that affirms and continues to shape the values at the core of their identity.

Implications for the world beyond school

Mindsets are not static or fixed. An inclusive mindset is malleable, and thus teachable and measurable. Our work suggests that the qualities that make up an inclusive mindset develop as a person grows and can be supported—or undone—by a school environment and its social norms. Inclusive mindsets can be strengthened or weakened, built up or torn down.

The elements of an “inclusive mindset” are a framework not just to educate children more effectively but also to reduce the scourges of injustice and intolerance that are so prevalent in our country today. For young people, learning and modelling inclusive mindsets can be a central strategy for reducing bullying, promoting an inclusive culture, and aiding the development of a more welcoming and just community for all.

There are already promising pathways for teaching inclusive mindsets. Inclusive mindsets could be taught in SEL curricula and infused into teaching strategies across the curriculum. They could be reinforced by restorative-discipline policies, unified sports programs, creative arts experiences and other school activities. And they could be shared with families and youth-serving organizations as a central strategy for promoting self-worth, belonging, and equity. Because inclusive mindset is both an individualized and context-dependent concept, it should be implemented as part of a systemic commitment to social and emotional learning, academic achievement, and work and life success.

Some school reform efforts already include elements of inclusive mindset thinking. Many SEL programs teach skills like empathy and perspective taking, and some have embedded these skills within social studies, history, and language arts curriculum. Some schools emphasize service-learning in programs like Students Taking Action Together, or STAT, which helps social studies and civics teacher in middle and high schools integrate inclusivity and civil discourse into their classes.

Other schools that focus on social justice themes like the Chicago Freedom School, place emphasis on universalism and moral courage. Character education and purpose-based approaches have also been successful at focusing on qualities like empathy and universalism, especially within middle schools. Through these programs, schools are empowering young people with elements of an inclusive mindset, equipping them to address inequities and promote belonging, thereby improving the school community for all. 

Ideally, schools will take a comprehensive approach and engage the entire school community in adopting a mindset that sees all children as having needs and abilities and sees the school as a central resource for promoting their development. It will take everyone—not only students and teachers, but also parents, community leaders, faith leaders, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, youth development workers, artists, coaches, administrative staff and more. Perhaps most importantly, it will take an inclusive mindset that enables them all to have empathy for one another, to see another’s perspective, to believe in the value of each person, to act with courage in pursuit of that value. 

But I feel more confident every day that we are on the right track by imagining—and building—the inclusive way. People with inclusive mindsets are all around us, and are ready to lead. Some are acting on the world’s stage to try to heal our divisions and create a new birth of equality and peace. And some are in our schools, on our playgrounds, and in our cafeterias, 8 or 12 or 18 year olds, quietly making the biggest difference any one of us can make: welcoming the outcast, being a source of belonging for others, changing the eyes with which we see from fear to love. They are already stepping up and changing the world. It is time for the rest of us to follow them.

Tim Shriver is Chairman of Special Olympics and recently, the Founder of Unite.

LoadingSomething is loading.

More: Education inclusive mindset Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools

Chevron iconIt indicates an expandable section or menu, or sometimes previous / next navigation options.

Read More