Part 4: Creating inclusive classrooms – norms and acceptance

Outdated classroom rules can be problematic for neurodivergent students because they have been written with a neurotypical lens.

In part 3 of this article series we discussed how teachers can create inclusive classrooms by considering the classroom environment, the resources the students use and curriculum instruction. This fourth article centres on fostering inclusivity through classroom norms.

Outdated classroom norms 

When we talk about norms we are describing the teacher and students’ shared expectations about attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that everyone should display.  We can all agree that rules are important because they keep everyone safe and allow all students the opportunity to learn. There are, however, outdated rules which become problematic for neurodivergent students because they have been written with a neurotypical lens. 

For example, many schools and teachers still use the 5L’s of listening and learning, which when looked at more closely are unrealistic and unnecessary.

1. Looking 

There are instances where looking is required, for example where there is a visual concept present, but there are equally many other occasions where a student does not need to be looking to listen or learn. For many neurodivergent students the visual sensory input (especially eye contact) can get in the way of paying attention to auditory content. Forcing a child to look you in the eyes can have the opposite desired effect, meaning the discomfort is so great that they don’t listen even though they appear to be doing the right thing.

Inclusive options – simply allow students to use their gaze as they desire without forcing them to look at you. Where possible provide content as a handout so that students can refer to it.

2. Listening

Auditory input is just one way to learn, and yes it is the most common way students take in information because that’s how teachers deliver information. For students with auditory processing difficulties this expectation excludes them from learning to the best of their ability.

Inclusive options – for a truly inclusive classroom, verbal information, where possible, should be supplemented with another format. In fact, having content in multiple formats helps all students.

3. Lips still

What this is actually saying is no talking. Most kids but especially neurodivergent kids take things literally, and asking them to keep “lips still” can feel like an impossible task. So instead, the challenge for teachers is to keep children from interrupting, and there are better ways to do this than asking them to keep their lips still.

Inclusive options – use visual cues like a talking stick/a microphone to show who has the floor, visually sign post “no talking” so students can be reminded not to interrupt, and always give students an option to write down their questions or comments while someone else is talking.

4. Hands in laps

The expectation that an adult let alone a kid can keep their hands on their lap for longer than a few minutes without moving is unreasonable. The actual point to be made is that kids shouldn’t use their hands in a way that disrupts the rest of the class. Hands on laps is an expectation that automatically fails kids who fidget or who need to move their hands to focus.

Inclusive options – depending on a student’s movement and regulation needs, teachers can offer quiet fidget tools or a pad and pencil for doodling. Some neurodivergent kids listen better when their hands are occupied, so if they aren’t disrupting their peers why not support that need?

5. Legs crossed

Keeping one’s legs crossed is ok for a few minutes, but it starts to become very uncomfortable for kids to keep the body in that position for extended periods, neurodivergent or not. Again, the real request is that students don’t disrupt the class by moving around the room or by bumping/touching/kicking peers. Redirecting and containing movement are much more inclusive options to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Inclusive options – wobble cushions are a great way for kids to direct excessive energy without impacting those around them. Some kids may benefit from sitting at the back of the class with more space to stretch. Personal floor mats are a great way to ensure all the kids have enough personal space to move and adjust their bodies without disrupting peers.

Old expectations like the 5L’s of learning/listening are almost impossible for some children to meet, and it sets them up for constant failure. 

Inclusive classroom norms

When we adjust classroom norms so that everyone is able to meet them, we also change how students feel about themselves and how their peers see them. Results from recent studies revealed that inclusive classrooms norms predicted students’ sympathy and intended inclusion toward hyperactive children. The most encouraging takeaway is that the positive effects of inclusive school norms extend to out-group attitudes, especially in contexts where peer groups are likely to exclude others who don’t fit the mould. 

Inclusive classroom norms are critical in creating an environment that promotes positive social connections, supports regulation and nurtures efficient learners. Classroom norms should be clear, achievable and always visible. Having classroom norms written from a positive perspective encourages students to follow them. Some examples include:

  • Everyone has the right to feel safe
  • Everyone has the right to be heard
  • Everyone has the right to participate
  • Everyone has the right to learn

Teachers may also ask students to review classroom norms to increase their understanding and commitment to following them.

For classroom norms to work, students need to understand what they mean and know how to follow them. Students also need to have clear boundaries and directives for dealing with disagreements, giving and receiving feedback, looking after the property of others, accepting different ways of thinking and communicating, etc.


  1. Enhancing Teachers’ Capacity to Manage Classroom Behavior as a Means to Reduce Burnout: Directed Consultation, Supported Professionalism, and the BASE Model
  2. “I want to help kids like me be heard!” A survey about schooling from the perspective of adolescents with ADHD
  3. Teacher Behaviors Toward Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Predict Peers’ Initial Liking and Disliking Impressions in a Summer Camp Setting | Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology
  4. Review: typically-developing students’ views and experiences of inclusive education
  5. Teacher behavior and peer liking and disliking: The teacher as a social referent for peer status.
  6. Effects of disability type, prior contact, and school setting on attitudes toward peers with disabilities among Saudi female students aged 7 to 12 years – PMC
  7. Reviewing the literature on integration
  8. Creating Classroom Rules for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: A Decision-Making Guide
  9. What Successful Teachers Do in Inclusive Classrooms: 60 Research-Based Teaching Strategies That Help Special Learners Succeed
  10. How Inclusive Interactive Learning Environments Benefit Students Without Special Needs – PMC
  11. Social Acceptance in Inclusive Classrooms: The Role of Teacher Attitudes Toward Inclusion and Classroom Management
  12. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Classroom Management Strategies and Classroom Management Programs on Students’ Academic, Behavioral, Emotional, and Motivational Outcomes – Hanke Korpershoek, Truus Harms, Hester de Boer, Mechteld van Kuijk, Simone Doolaard, 2016
  13. EDUCATORS & SCHOOLS – Dr Ross Greene CPS
  14. Teachers’ attitudes towards inclusion, perceived adequacy of support and classroom learning environment
  15. Social Acceptance in Inclusive Classrooms: The Role of Teacher Attitudes Toward Inclusion and Classroom Management
  16. Neurodiversity is Human Diversity, an Equity Imperative for Education
  17. Competitive classroom norms and exclusion of children with academic and behavior difficulties – ScienceDirect


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