• Sarah Vahed

A Step Closer to Inclusive Education: An Interview with an Experimental Economist

Dr. Jana Vyrastekova, Associate Professor of Economics, Policy & Behaviour at Radboud University

Past research has shown that students with special educational needs ('SEN students') perform better when they are in a regular school with non-SEN students. However, SEN students have also been found to be lonelier and more likely to be bullied in these classrooms. In this article, an expert helps explain what inclusive education means and why research on social inclusion is fundamental to help both SEN and non-SEN students.

Inclusive education means that every child is offered equal educational opportunities regardless of their physical or mental abilities. However, while inclusive education remains a high priority on the education policy agenda, in practice students with special educational needs (SEN students), including those with mental health condition(s), chronic disease(s) or those with visual, hearing, physical and/or cognitive disabilities, are still not adequately catered for or included in classrooms. One of the more fiercely debated topics among researchers and practitioners is how to include SEN students, including whether SEN students should participate in mainstream (or ‘regular’) schools with non-SEN students, or whether they should be segregated yet accommodated within ‘special’ schools. According to Dr. Jana Vyrastekova, Associate Professor of Economics, Policy & Behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, more extensive research from a wide range of fields is fundamental to understand and improve inclusion for all students.

As an experimental economist, Vryastekova draws on a wide range of fields and findings, including from economics, psychology, sociology, and neurocognitive studies, to explore human behaviour. By conducting controlled experiments, her expertise includes studying how our social inclusion (which is the extent to which we feel included within social groups and society) affects our behaviour. Speaking of the importance of this research, Vyrastekova notes that social groups are incredibly important in understanding people and what may drive their behaviour. Specifically, social inclusion has a significant bearing on every human’s identity and many aspects of their life. For children in particular, having the right social context (for example, feeling appreciated or having strong friendships at a young age) translates to credible social outcomes in adulthood, such as better health, income and education. “Making sure that kids have strong societal contexts when they are young is something all society should want to achieve” she notes.

“Making sure that kids have strong societal contexts when they are young is something all society should want to achieve.”

Studying social inclusion has taken Vyrastekova from examining behaviour across villages in Tanzania in East Africa to her now recently published study exploring perceptions of SEN students in the Netherlands. While this research has societal value, it also has a special personal relevance for the researcher who, as a mother of a child with a handicap, has experienced how valuable (and how damaging) inclusive practices can be for students. Vyrastekova said when deciding whether to undertake research with such personal significance that it required a large amount of courage but she ultimately “just had to do it”.

The debate regarding inclusive education appears to contain conflicting findings. Evidence exists supporting the positive impact of including SEN students in regular schools with non-SEN students. Studies have shown that academic achievements of SEN students are higher in regular, compared to special, schools and non-SEN students likewise perform slightly better in inclusive settings. However, one of the frequently cited reasons for excluding SEN students from regular schools is concern for their social inclusion. In particular, studies have shown that SEN students in regular schools are lonelier than their non-SEN classmates, have fewer friends and interactions with peers, and are more likely to be bullied. However, what struck Vyrastekova when exploring this literature was how these studies measure the important concept of social inclusion. She noted that studies often determine whether a student is sufficiently ‘included’ based on observational data capturing how SEN students are accepted and perceived by, for example, their teachers or peers. What this means is that research thus far has focused on comparing SEN to non-SEN students, but has not taken into account the perceptions of the SEN students themselves as well as how SEN students in special schools fair compared to SEN students attending regular schools. Accordingly, how the students themselves, including their parents, perceive their inclusion in different educational contexts is an often excluded, yet crucial, piece of information missing from studies and the larger debate of inclusive education.

Collecting data from 138 parents of SEN students (aged 4 – 20) in the Netherlands, Vyrastekova obtained information about their loneliness, friendships and social inclusion, and also recorded the inclusive practices of the schools they were attending. Inclusive practices included, for example, how welcoming the school was, how it protected each child’s well-being and how it made didactic choices for diversity and collaboration. Importantly, Vryastekova introduced a novel measure of social inclusion to capture the subjective perceptions of social inclusion of the SEN students themselves, as opposed to observational data which has traditionally been relied upon in this kind of research. “I hope this will motivate people to put subjective and objective measures next to each other and to recognise that number of friendships do not necessarily translate into perceptions of social inclusion”. The findings of her research do indeed shed light on the value of this kind of research.

In her study, Vryastekova found that not all schools faired the same on inclusive educational practices. It was also found that schools that had higher inclusive educational practices (which in this study was the regular and not special schools), predicted higher perceptions of social inclusion by the SEN students themselves. In summary, SEN students felt greater social inclusion not because of the category of the school they were attending (special or regular), but because of what each school actually did and what inclusive practices they expressed. “It’s not about what schools are called, it’s about what they actually do” Vryastekova concludes.

“For complex questions which can make our lives better or worse, we have to pull everything together. You have to be willing to put knowledge across fields together.”

This valuable information illustrates that the debate about inclusive education is one that requires us to understand students, as well as the educational institutions and systems in which they learn. For this, Vryastekova says more research is needed across fields. Commenting on the benefits that can be obtained from collaborations across research lines and with practitioners, she says “For complex questions which can make our lives better or worse, we have to pull everything together. You have to be willing to put knowledge across fields together.” Sticking true to this sentiment, Vyrastekova’s future research will investigate this topic further by looking into the role of educators and their beliefs about social inclusion across educational contexts.

While there is still much to be done in working towards inclusive education, exploring subjective perceptions of students across schools is a valuable step forward in understanding what elements improve the well-being of children. Ultimately, achieving inclusion for all children across social contexts benefits from multidisciplinary research (such as that done by Vyrastekova) to bring us a step closer to understanding how to achieve that goal.

To read the study referred to in this article, visit: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0250070

To learn more about Jana Vyrastekova and her research

at Radboud University, visit:


This article was written by Sarah Vahed

(Program Manager, Radboud Center for Decision Science)