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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Inclusivity

Inclusivity is the process of intentionally encouraging a positive, engaging, robust and socially cohesive environment (1-2).


Inclusivity is the process of intentionally encouraging a positive, engaging, robust and socially cohesive environment (1-2). An inclusive learning environment is one in which all students feel a sense of value and belonging. Crucially, this is enabled by teaching and assessment practice that does not create barriers to learning due to prior experience, disability, identity, gender or age (3). Inclusive learning environments benefit all students by creating sense of community, belonging and psychological safety in which to explore and learn.

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The literature clearly demonstrates that a sense of belonging is crucial to learning and student wellbeing (4-6). Sense of belonging has been defined as the extent to which students perceive being personally accepted, respected, included, and supported within the academic environment (7-8). When students feel a genuine sense of belonging, they tend to experience increased motivation, improved learning, more positive learning experiences, positive emotions and better academic performance (8-9). An appreciation of the importance of a sense of community also includes the recognition of the importance of social identity, group membership, and shared connections which can differ significantly for specific groups of students (see, for example, Black Students Talk). Inclusive educational initiatives in the long-term can foster academic aspirations in students who are likely to feel a poor sense of belonging where they are traditionally underrepresented (10).

Conversely, a lack of belonging has been found to be related to depression, anxiety, alienation, interpersonal conflicts and physical health for university students (11-12). A lack of belonging can also impact negatively on cognitive functioning, thereby reducing learning and academic performance (13). A key factor in this is that in environments in which individuals feel the need to adapt or hide their identity, this adaptation process uses up cognitive load, reducing capacity for learning, as well as negatively eroding wellbeing.

Inclusivity recognises, accepts and values diversity and difference; it does not require students to fit in or be the same. Inclusive learning environments will therefore support learning and wellbeing, while a lack of inclusivity will undermine learning and wellbeing.

There are a number of ways in which curriculum design and delivery can enhance inclusivity. In design, space can be deliberately created for activity that builds shared community through the academic discipline and recognises the value of diverse experiences, opinions and identities. Where appropriate for the discipline, assessment can create space for students to draw upon and see the value in their own experiences and value.

Pedagogic approaches can also heighten inclusivity through the ways in which curriculum is taught and assessed. For example, Universal Design for Learning is an evidence based pedagogic approach which has been shown to enhance learning, inclusivity, reflection skills, confidence in technology skills, application of learning strategies, participation in discussion and knowledge acquisition (14). Based on principles designed to maximise accessibility within the physical environment, UDL is based on seven principles: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use (14). UDL has also been found to lead to an improvement of learners' perceptions, increased positive attitudes towards learning and increased engagement. Importantly, the effect of this is seen in all students (15). It also reduces the need for adjustments for individual students or intervention from Disability Services. Evidence based inclusive approaches improve outcomes for all.

Key lessons

  • An inclusive learning environment is one in which all students feel a sense of value and belonging and in which teaching, and assessment practice does not create barriers to learning
  • Inclusive learning environments benefit all students by creating sense of community, belonging and psychological safety to explore and learn.
  • Particular attention should be paid to the experience of students from under-represented or minoritized backgrounds.
  • Belonging benefits both learning and wellbeing. A lack of belonging and active exclusion are harmful for wellbeing and reduce learning and academic performance
  • The design and delivery of curriculum can support inclusivity by deliberately seeking to create inclusive learning environments and by employing evidence inform, inclusive pedagogies such as Universal Design for Learning

Top tips

  • Provide lecture notes before class and use accessible slides and materials to support better learning for all students
  • Take time to agree social rules in learning spaces, to establish agreed upon guidelines for discussion of potentially contentious topics that allow for genuine academic debate without creating a sense of exclusion for some
  • Link where possible to institutional strategies and plans around decolonisation/inclusive education practice to enable consideration of the sense of belonging amongst diverse groups of students.
  • Take opportunities to recognise and value prior student experiences
  • Explore the principles of Universal Design for Learning


  • Master and Meltzoff (2020)
  • Black Students Talk (2021)
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  1. Read CY, Vessey JA, Amar AF, Cullinan DM. The challenges of inclusivity in baccalaureate nursing programs. Journal of Nursing Education. 2013 Apr 1;52(4):185-90.
  2. Zlotnick C, Shpigelman CN. A 5‐step framework to promote nursing community inclusivity: The example of nurses with disabilities. Journal of clinical nursing. 2018 Oct;27(19-20):3787-96
  3. Saunders S, Kardia D. Creating inclusive college classrooms. A guidebook for University of Michigan graduate student instructors. 2004:46-56.
  4. Dimitrellou E, Hurry J. School belonging among young adolescents with SEMH and MLD: the link with their social relations and school inclusivity. European Journal of Special Needs Education. 2019 May 27;34(3):312-26.
  5. Ostrove JM, Long SM. Social class and belonging: Implications for college adjustment. The Review of Higher Education. 2007;30(4):363-89.
  6. Baumeister RF, Leary MR. The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin. 1995 May;117(3):497.
  7. Ma X. Sense of belonging to school: Can schools make a difference? The Journal of Educational Research. 2003 Jul 1;96(6):340-9. Available from: doi:
  8. Goodenow C, Grady KE. The relationship of school belonging and friends' values to academic motivation among urban adolescent students. The Journal of Experimental Education. 1993 Jul 1;62(1):60-71. Available from: doi:
  9. Çivitci A. Perceived stress and life satisfaction in college students: Belonging and extracurricular participation as moderators. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2015 Oct 9;205:271-81.
  10. Master A, Meltzoff AN. Cultural stereotypes and sense of belonging contribute to gender gaps in STEM. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology. 2020 Apr 23;12(1):152-98.
  11. Hagerty BM, Williams A. The effects of sense of belonging, social support, conflict, and loneliness on depression. Nursing research. 1999 Jul 1;48(4):215-9.
  12. Becker BE, Luthar SS. Social-emotional factors affecting achievement outcomes among disadvantaged students: Closing the achievement gap. Educational psychologist. 2002 Dec 1;37(4):197-214. Available from: doi:
  13. Baumeister RF, Twenge JM, Nuss CK. Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2002 Oct;83(4):817
  14. Seok S, DaCosta B, Hodges R. A systematic review of empirically based Universal Design for Learning: Implementation and effectiveness of universal design in education for students with and without disabilities at the Postsecondary Level. Open Journal of Social Sciences. 2018 May 24;6(05):171.
  15. Smith FG. Analyzing a college course that adheres to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 2012 Sep;12(3):31-61. Available from: