Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Teaching children how to be inclusion competent

Inclusion is not just a question of how we can accommodate all – or at least most – children in mainstream schools. Whenever we interact with other people, inclusion is inextricably linked to exclusion, and schools therefore need to equip children with inclusion competencies so that they can learn to handle this aspect of life.

Everyday life is full of examples of one of the basic laws of our social life with each other: inclusion cannot exist without exclusion. There is never room for everyone – at least not at the same time, in the same place and in the same context. We often talk about inclusion in the narrow sense, asking how children with diagnoses, disabilities or other special needs can be part of class teaching and the classroom community on an equal footing with everyone else. But we also need to view inclusion from a wider perspective, believes Lars Qvortrup, professor at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. The processes of inclusion and exclusion take place everywhere in life, so it is important that schools prepare children to deal with them.

He points to the implicit paradox contained in the concept of inclusion.

“It is not possible to include somebody without excluding others, because all inclusion processes involve setting limits. When you want to include a child in a class, you limit the class in relation to something outside the class. You cannot be part of a group of friends without somebody not being part of this group. The paradisal notion of an all-encompassing community with nobody outside it cannot be achieved in the real world,” he says.

Pupils have to learn inclusion

This means that teachers can add another task to their already huge pile of inclusion-related jobs in school. They need to work to create inclusive learning environments and communities, but, at the same time, they need to handle inclusion’s in-built paradox in their daily lives with their pupils. However, in the book Inklusion. Den inklusionskompetente lærer, pædagog og elev [Inclusion. The inclusion competent teacher, pedagogue and pupil], which Lars Qvortrup published with Ane Qvortrup in 2015, the two authors argue that inclusion competence is not only something that teachers and pedagogues require. It is also a competence that pupils need to develop.

“Inclusion is often viewed as a task incumbent on the teachers and pedagogues in collaboration with various professionals outside the school. We expect schools to strive to be accommodating and inclusive, but, at the same time, inclusion is one of the few activities in school with no learning objectives. It is obvious that pupils need to learn something in subjects like mathematics and English, and we also talk about pupils developing their social competencies and learning to work with others. I think it is strange that we don’t also talk about inclusion from a pedagogical perspective, as something that the pupils need to learn,” says Lars Qvortrup.

He thinks schools need to teach children to be able to handle the paradox that the individual can have simultaneous experiences of being included and excluded and that, when you include some, you inevitably exclude others. For example, when William asks Oliver if he wants to be friends, will Oliver be upset if William then asks all the other children in the class if they also want to be friends? Or will Oliver feel excluded if he wants to be friends with William but William does not ask him – but asks Tobias and Christian instead?

“Being part of a group requires that it is our group and that there are therefore others outside the group. As a pupil, you have to learn to cope with these inclusion and exclusion mechanisms. You have to learn to listen to the other pupils in the class and to realise that not everybody can talk at the same time – that there is an order to who has the floor, and that, while the others speak, you have to keep quiet. If Ella has a play date with Sofie, this doesn’t mean that everyone else in the class has the right to turn up. Our social community would collapse if everyone had the right to participate actively at the same time. Children’s lives are conditioned by more inclusion and exclusion mechanisms than we often realise, and it is therefore a huge pedagogical task to give children inclusion competences – which includes the ability to handle the exclusion they will inevitably face,” says Lars Qvortrup.

Inclusion should thus also have a learning perspective, because it is something children need to master if they want to succeed. But this goes beyond the school, thinks Lars Qvortrup. It is something you need to be able to do throughout your life.

“As an educated citizen, you need to be able to master the perpetual inclusion and exclusion processes that take place whenever you are dealing with other people – in the education system, on the labour market, in public life, and in your personal relationships. If you apply for a job, it does not mean you are entitled to the job. If you fall in love someone, it does not mean you are entitled to start a relationship with that person. If you join a political party, you cut your ties with the other parties,” says Lars Qvortrup.

When the idea of inclusion is expanded in this way, it is easy to assume that it is also diluted. But Lars Qvortrup emphasises that there are children with disabilities, diagnoses or other particular challenges and needs who are at the centre of the schools’ work on inclusion. And he also underlines that children should not be expected to deal with bullying and stress on their own.

“There are, of course, things that the teachers need to get involved with. My point is simply that it is a pedagogical misunderstanding to view inclusion as something school employees need to strive for but that children do not need to learn. As long as there are no two children the same and there is something that distinguishes you from me, inclusion will clearly extend beyond the task of accommodating children with special needs,” says Lars Qvortrup.

A question of education

In Inklusion. Den inklusionskompetente lærer, pædagog og elev, the authors suggest that knowledge, skills and education goals be linked to inclusion as a pedagogical task in schools. Knowledge goals can provide students with an academic understanding of the fact people are different, the ways in which they are different, and the fact that, across these differences, it is possible to identify universal human rights, explains Lars Qvortrup. Children must have knowledge of what characterises an exclusionary versus an inclusive society, and what it means to live in these societies – and it’s particularly important they are familiar with the ethical and political aspects of inclusion and inclusions processes.

Skills goals involve being able to act on this knowledge, in the same way that being able to cook requires acting on our home economics knowledge of taste and food science. In other words, along with others, you need to be able to create an inclusive community in which you deal with the fact – in an effective and dignified way – that the inclusion of some inevitably entails the exclusion of others.

Then there are the education goals. For Lars Qvortrup, an important quality of the educated citizen is being inclusion competent – being able to treat others in a dignified manner regardless of whether you include them in or exclude them from a given community.

“Being able to say to a friend: ‘I won’t be able to spend time with you today because I have arranged to meet somebody else’ in a kind way, even though it excludes the person, is an absolutely vital part of our character formation. So is being able to hold job interviews with five applicants and being able to say to four of them: ‘There were five applicants, we have chosen one of them, and unfortunately it is not you’ in a way that respects everybody. As a well-rounded, inclusion competent person, you know there are certain communities you cannot or do not have the right to join, even if you would like to. And you know that there is nothing wrong with this in principle, since social communities work precisely because they set limits,” says Lars Qvortrup, who also remarks that the ongoing domestic debate about immigrants and refugees can be viewed as an actualisation of the concept of inclusion competence.

“There is now general agreement across the political spectrum that the Danish community cannot admit all those who would like to be part of it. It would break down if we tried. The big question is: How should we handle the fact that there is not enough room for everyone whilst fulfilling our ethical duty to treat everybody with dignity and our political duty to contribute to finding alternative solutions, so that we do not just selfishly raise the drawbridge to protect ourselves? If children leave school equipped to address such questions, I believe we can claim they have gained important inclusion competences,” says Lars Qvortrup.

The diverse school

The notion of the inclusive institution will be replaced by the notion of the diverse institution. This is what Lars Qvortrup and Ane Qvortrup forecasted in 2015 in their book Inklusion. Den inklusionskompetente lærer, pædagog og elev, and, today, more and more municipalities and schools have begun to talk about diversity instead of inclusion.

“Most new concepts in school eventually wears out after a few years, and then people wonder what the new leading concept will be. I recommend diversity as the next concept. Diversity does not prevent inclusion and exclusion but ensures there are several contexts for inclusion. If you don’t fit into one context, you can be admitted into another community within the school framework. In fact, unlike private schools, which can have their own pedagogical or ideological profiles as competitive parameters, it is a defining feature of the Danish folkeskole that it is committed to social diversity. The folkeskole is the only – and perhaps the last – place in which different types of children from different backgrounds are all part of the same community,” says Lars Qvortrup.

In their book, Lars Qvortrup and Ane Qvortrup describe how the inclusion ideal emerged in the 1990s, after segregation and then integration had constituted the welfare state’s ideal approach to children with special needs. The period of segregation coincided with the founding of the welfare state in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was viewed as an expression of the state’s strength and responsibility to its citizens that it could offer them options in the form of specific services that matched their needs. The subsequent period of integration was based on the idea that there should be room for everyone in mainstream school, regardless of their background. However, according to Lars Qvortrup, the diverse institution does not represent a return to integration. There is a key difference.

“In the school that has integration as its guiding principle, you can be admitted into the community on the community’s terms, which are defined in advance: ‘You are welcome to join us, but, here, we do this and that’. The diverse community, in contrast, reveals itself as dynamic. It is defined from below by its members, and it is constantly re-defined as new members join. This clearly places huge demands on the teachers and children. But it is a more accurate image of what it is to be a citizen in a modern society. Unless you believe we can handle complexity – which, after all, is what it’s all about, whether we call it inclusion or diversity – by sorting people at the entrance to the kindergarten, the school, the workplace or the Danish society, depending on what type of community we are talking about,” says Lars Qvortrup. 

Limits to complexity

However, no amount of diversity can make diagnoses, dyslexia or physical disabilities disappear. Nor can it change the life circumstances of vulnerable children. The specific challenges inclusion has faced will live on in the diverse school.

“It’s easy to worry that the ideal of the diverse school is a utopia. It will require a lot of resources, and, in reality, the diverse school will thus likely consist of a combination of segregation, integration and inclusion. Even though we talk of diversity, we may still be required to grasp the nettle and offer some children special education options,” says Lars Qvortrup, who believes that the national, Danish inclusion act from 2012 sets expectations too high. If inclusion work challenges and exhausts employees to such an extent that it undermines the school from the inside, we have gone too far – to the detriment of all the children and those professionally linked to the school.

“My recommendation is that, in the diverse school, we do not view segregation, integration and inclusion as separate phases that mutually exclude each other but as a palette of options that complement each other. Diversity is an ideal, but it should be combined with the realism that lies in recognising that diversity is also an expression of complexity, and that there are limits to how much complexity you can accommodate and manage in school, both as a pupil and as an employee,” says Lars Qvortrup.


The three dimensions of inclusion

In Inklusion. Den inklusionskompetente lærer, pædagog og elev (2015), Lars Qvortrup and Ane Qvortrup argue that inclusion has three dimensions: the physical, the social and the psychological. Successful inclusion in a society requires that all three dimensions are present.

The physical
People should be able to participate in a community on a purely physical level. For example, wheelchair users should not be excluded because of a lack of ramps or chair lifts.

The social

People should not just have the option to participate but should actually actively participate in the community on an equal footing with others.

The psychological

People should feel that they are included and actually feel part of the community. It is this psychological dimension that often poses the most challenges for inclusion work.


Linus from the 5th grade is not very good at playing football. In sports class, he is the last to be chosen when the teams are created, but, nevertheless, he is still physically included when the match begins. When he gets the ball, he immediately loses it to the opposing team, so his teammates stop passing the ball to him. But the teacher intervenes and says they need to include him in the game, so they are forced to pass to him. It can therefore be said that Linus is participating in the game and that, as far as possible, he is socially included. But he of course knows that the others are only passing to him because they have to. He does not feel like an accepted part of the community and is thus not included on a psychological level.

Personal bio

Lars Qvortrup is professor at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. He conducts research into school management, teacher collaboration, inclusion and taste didactics. He teaches on the professional Master’s degree programme Educational Management, the Master’s degree programme Educational Psychology, and the Bachelor’s degree programme Education Studies at the Danish School of Education.

For more information:

Ane Qvortrup and Lars Qvortrup Inclusion. Den inklusionskompetente lærer, pædagog og elev. Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2015

Ane Qvortrup and Lars Qvortrup Inclusion: dimensions of inclusion in education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, vol. 2, no. 7, 2018