Thea Renda Abu El-Haj is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her diverse experiences as an elementary school teacher, researcher and teacher educator have shaped her primary commitment to teaching and research that fosters the development of just and equitable educational practices for all children. Her writing is focused in two areas: how equity is conceptualized in everyday practice; and the meanings and practices of citizenship education in the context of globalization.

When my daughter was five she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It was clear from the first moment that my daughter returned to her kindergarten class that, as a parent advocating for a child with a medical disability, the stance I took toward difference would matter greatly. One approach, perhaps the obvious one, would have focused on her physiological disability and understood the “problem of difference” as an individual one, making the fewest possible demands on the school community. The simplest way to manage her diabetes would be to pack her snacks and lunch daily and to provide special treats that she could eat when the classroom had birthdays or holiday celebrations. This solution would make it reasonably easy to calculate my daughter’s insulin requirements; however, it would also burden her with the sole responsibility for the challenge her difference posed. She would be constantly marked as different, excluded from routine classroom activities such as the sharing of daily snacks and lunches and the pleasure of special foods on festive occasions.

Instead, drawing on my work as an educational anthropologist and teacher, I sought an alternate solution that took what I call a “relational approach to difference.” I asked my daughter’s teachers to reconsider their routine classroom practices¾how they served snacks to children, how they supervised the playground, what kinds of snacks parents prepared for special celebrations¾in order to ensure that my daughter could participate in the normal routine activities of kindergarten. Essentially, they had to consider how the normative practices of the classroom were structured for people without diabetes.

I tell this story to offer a tangible example of what I mean by taking a relational stance toward difference. It means shifting from thinking about “difference” only in terms of what we believe children and youth bring to the classroom, to thinking about how our classrooms are structured with some students, but not others, in mind. Thinking about difference from a relational standpoint requires that educators make visible the assumptions embedded in everyday practices that exclude some individuals or groups. Equally importantly, it requires that the community make the substantive inclusion of all its members its primary value, whatever that takes in terms of reconfiguring practice. This is no small task.

I also do not tell this story to suggest that the problems of educational inequality would be simple to solve if we would only take a relational stance toward difference. Nor do I wish to imply that being left out of the routines of classroom meals and special celebrations represents an educational inequality of comparable weight or consequence to those that are the effects of the systemic oppression of people on the basis of race/ethnicity, gender, class, disability, and sexuality. However, my story of advocating for a child with a medical disability is useful in illuminating four key observations that I propose are essential for making educational justice a reality in our schools.

First, inclusion in an educational community must be substantive. By substantive I mean that all students must be included as full members of the community, able to participate in all aspects of the life of the classroom and school. Substantive inclusion asks us to notice whether the opportunities we offer reflect real opportunities from which all students can truly learn and benefit. Substantive inclusion depends on my second and third observations: that we must simultaneously focus on the equality of all members in the community and we must recognize their differences. This focus certainly drove the advocacy position I took as a parent.

The stance that my daughter must be valued as an equal member of the classroom community led me to the conclusion that there would be no acceptable reason for excluding her from any of the routine activities of the classroom. At the same time, being an equal member of the classroom required focusing on, rather than ignoring her difference, and doing so from a relational perspective. Critically, while I believe that we need to focus on, rather than ignore difference, I caution us to think very carefully about how we do this. Achieving substantive inclusion requires understanding that difference always signals a relationship between people and groups. In educational practice, taking a relational stance toward difference means that we must be vigilant in constantly examining the underlying norms, assumptions and values that guide our work so that we might see how these work to include some students and exclude others.

This brings me to my fourth observation: when we take a relational stance toward difference, everyone is included in the process of change, often with clear benefits for all. In the case of my daughter, the changes required to include her in the routines of the community led to a healthier diet for everyone and fostered a climate in which everyone was equally involved in creating an inclusive environment.


Abu El-Haj, T. (2006). Elusive Justice: Wrestling with difference and educational equity in everyday practice. New York: Routledge.

McDermott, R. & Varenne, H. (1995). Culture as disability. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 26 (3): 324-248.

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One Response to “Creating Inclusive Environments by Taking a Relational Stance Toward Difference by Thea Abu El-Haj”

  1. Danielle Justin on 9/25/11 3:26 AM US/Eastern

    I like this idea of “taking a relational stance toward difference.” I am currently a middle school special education teacher and the story about your daughter made me think about how I can plan instruction for all of the students in the classes that I co-teach. Instead of accommodating the assignments just for the students with special needs, why not change the way the lessons and assignments are designed, so that all students can fully participate? I think this is the true essence of inclusion. Educators must realize that all students have different needs and plan activities that are suitable for everyone. Just as changing the foods and snack routine due to your daughters needs led to all of the students in the class eating healthier, planning lessons that accommodate varying learning styles leads to greater understanding by students with and without learning disabilities.

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