Colouring outside the lines: Using the full palette of our diversity

Colouring outside the lines: Using the full palette of our diversity

Debra Rader, International Educator, Author and Consultant

First publiched in TAISI Magazine, January 2021.

This is a hugely pivotal time in our world and in education. We have come to value our humanity anew, and to look for and see the humanity in one another. There is a renewed commitment to anti-bias and anti-racist education, and to promoting equity, diversity and inclusion in our learning communities. Intentionally teaching about human relationships, and the ability to live, learn and work together with understanding, compassion and positive regard is central to this commitment. Sharing our identities, cultures, personal histories and stories is part this work. Teaching and learning for intercultural understanding enables us to colour outside the lines using the full palette of our diversity.


Equity, diversity and inclusion


The aim of education is to develop the full and unique potential in every student and enable each person to contribute in purposeful and meaningful ways to shaping a better world. Towards this aim schools strive to create equitable and inclusive learning communities where all children and adults, with the rich diversity they bring, are affirmed, valued and thrive.

With a wide range of cultures, languages, identities, life experiences, and personal and cultural histories schools must work intentionally to embrace their diversity and ensure that everyone is seen, heard and included. We aspire to provide a safe and welcoming environment where everyone is represented, engaged, feels protected and cared for, and has a sense of belonging.

Our schools are tasked with establishing and sustaining equitable, diverse and inclusive environments for all members of the learning community, and also nurturing the values of equity, diversity and inclusion so students, as engaged world citizens, will continue to work towards creating more just and sustainable societies.


What is equity, diversity and inclusion?


Equity is a state of fairness and is the continuous goal of inclusion. Equity aims to provide all members of the school community with equal access to the opportunities and resources available and ensure their full participation in the life of the school. This includes students, faculty, staff, parents, caregivers and board members, and it is reflected in the practices, programmes and policies in the school.


Equitable schools aim to identify and eliminate biases and barriers to inclusion, and respect the dignity and worth of each individual. They aim to eliminate inequality and discrimination of any kind. Equity recognises that people bring their individual strengths and needs to the school community and these are ever changing. Achieving and sustaining equity is therefore a continuous process of recognising and responding to the diversity that exists. Equitable pedagogy, practices and policies are developed to ensure fairness in teaching and learning, in the admissions process, and the hiring and retention of faculty and staff.


Diversity refers to the mix of people and the wide range of differences and identities they bring to our communities. These include race, ethnicity, cultures, languages, socioeconomic, ability, gender and gender identification, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, body shape and size, secular and faith-based beliefs, and all other forms. It includes diversity of values, ideas and perspectives. Diversity strengthens and enriches our communities, and provides resources and opportunities to enhance our learning and understanding. Diversity alone does not necessarily lead to inclusion. Inclusive school communities are developed intentionally when all members of the school community, children and adults, work together to live inclusive values and practices.

All schools should actively recruit and retain students, faculty and staff across a wide range of differences that reflect the community they serve.


Inclusion is an approach to education that embraces diversity in all of its forms, increases participation and opportunities for all, and welcomes and values the contributions of each member. Inclusion work is about how we create connection and community in our schools where all members feel a deep sense of belonging.

Inclusion requires respect and appreciation for all forms of diversity, the willingness and ability to engage with difference, openness to different ideas and perspectives, the ability to listen well, and a commitment to ensuring human rights and dignity for everyone. As schools engage in the work of inclusion they consider ways to establish and sustain an inclusive environment that is respectful and responsive to the changing complexity and needs in their community. Inclusion is a feeling of belonging, being seen, heard, valued, and represented and engaged in making a contribution. Inclusion is an ongoing process and involves all members of the school community. We are all both learning and leading. It is critical that supportive and trusting relationships are developed with and between students, faculty, staff, families and board members in our schools. In inclusive schools children and adults work together to create an environment where everyone can contribute fully and learn with and from each other. It is through working together that they can create a culture of inclusion.


Inclusive beliefs, values and attitudes


The work of inclusion is informed by our beliefs, values and attitudes that guide the way we live, learn and work together. In order to engage in the work of inclusion schools must identify and actively promote the shared beliefs, values and attitudes in their community that guide and support all they do. These are reflected in the mission, vision and philosophy statements, written curriculum, strategic plans, newsletters and other published documents in the school. Inclusion is also a disposition and when we value inclusion we help create inclusive spaces for one another. This is the responsibility of all members of the community.

Beliefs, values and attitudes that promote inclusion in schools recognise our common humanity, value relationships and include compassion, empathy, kindness, trust, appreciation and respect for diversity, curiosity and an interest in others, human rights and dignity for everyone, and social justice and equity.


Looking forward


The work of equity, diversity and inclusion requires ongoing commitment, collaboration and reflection. It is exciting work. It is challenging work. It is vital work. Given the inequities highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, inequality and ongoing racial injustice, this work is ever more timely. Teaching and learning for intercultural understanding promotes this work and provides a way forward.


Intercultural understanding is the bridge between diversity and inclusion


A diverse community is not necessarily an inclusive one. Intercultural understanding is the bridge between diversity and inclusion. Inclusive learning communities are developed intentionally when all members, students and adults, work together to ensure that everyone is valued, and feels a deep sense of belonging.


Intercultural understanding is a disposition and competence that enables us to engage with all forms of difference and diversity with appreciation and respect, establish inclusive relationships, and work to create inclusive learning communities. We continue to develop intercultural understanding throughout our lives, and as we move through our lives we come to understand it more deeply and live it more fully.


As a disposition it is a mindset or orientation and includes beliefs, values and attitudes; as a competence it includes knowledge, understanding and skills. Together they provide a way of being in the world that enables us to approach and engage with difference in mutually respectful and affirming ways.


In my book, Teaching and Learning for Intercultural Understanding: Engaging Young Hearts and Minds, I present a Framework for Developing Intercultural Understanding (Rader, 2016), which contains these four components:


KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING of topics including culture, language, identity, beliefs and global issues


TRANSFORMATIVE BELIEFS, VALUES AND ATTITUDES including appreciation and respect for diversity, compassion, empathy, curiosity, human rights, social justice and equity


ESSENTIAL INTERCULTURAL, INTERPERSONAL AND LIFE SKILLS including intercultural awareness and sensitivity, communication, adaptability, collaboration, creative and critical thinking, resilience, and the ability to recognise, challenge and resist stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination and racism.


ENGAGEMENT IN POSTIVE ACTION that puts into practice what we are learning, aligns our beliefs and values with the ways we live our lives, and makes a positive contribution to our world


These components of the Framework need to be intentionally taught, modelled and practised, and embedded in the curriculum and life of the school. I provide detailed lesson plans based on compelling children’s literature, that integrate the Framework into pedagogical practice.


I invite you to bridge diversity and inclusion in your learning communities through teaching and learning for intercultural understanding, and to colour outside the lines using the full palette of our human diversity.


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your feedback.




Debra Rader is an American/British dual citizen and lives in Lucca, Italy. She has worked  as a teacher, principal and educational consultant for over 30 years. Debra has taught special educational needs, and primary and middle school children in the United States and England, was Primary and Middle School Principal at Southbank International School in London, Junior School Principal at the International School of Florence, and the Founding Director of Teaching and Learning of the Bilingual School of Lucca. Debra is experienced working with enquiry-based learning, the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB PYP), US curriculum and dual language approaches to education.

Her own mobile experiences and her work with internationally mobile children, families, and colleagues have inspired and informed her work with transition and mobility. Debra developed a Model of Transition Education (1998) and is a specialist in this field. She is a strong advocate for supporting children, their families, and school communities in transition. Debra presents at international conferences and works with students, parents and faculty on developing transition education, transition programmes, and intercultural understanding and international-mindedness in schools.

Debra is the author of Teaching and Learning for Intercultural Understanding: Engaging Young Hearts and Minds (Routledge, 2018). She is co-author of New Kid in School: Using Literature to Help Children in Transition (Teachers College Press, Rader and Sittig 2003) and was a contributing author (‘Addressing Transition and Mobility Issues with English Language Learners in the Early Childhood Years’) in Welcoming Linguistic Diversity in Early Childhood Classrooms: Learning from International Schools (Multilingual Matters, 2011). She has also written for the International Schools Journal, International School magazine and the Journal for Research in International Education.

Debra is a licensed Qualified Administrator (QA) for the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), a developmental assessment tool used worldwide to measure group and individual capacity for intercultural competence and promote its further development.

Education has been a lifelong passion and Debra is deeply committed to ensuring optimal learning for all children, developing their unique potential, nurturing their creativity, and actively developing intercultural understanding and international-mindedness. Debra is dedicated to promoting the wellbeing of children and adults, and to creating caring, compassionate and inclusive school communities.


Building a Culture of Inclusion

Anu Monga, Founder & Chairperson at TAISI, Former Head of School, Bangalore International School


When we speak of inclusive education, we refer to an approach in which children with different skills, needs, strengths and weaknesses learn together. The school adapts and integrates the specific learning requirements of students. Not only are differences valued but, more importantly, they are celebrated. As an administrator, I have been trying my best to put inclusiveness into action. While the word ‘inclusion’ can easily be found in every international school setting as part of the vision, mission, curriculum, or learning principles, we need to ask ourselves whether it is reflected in the school itself.


Journey to inclusion


I could say that my journey began very accidentally twenty years ago, when on the day of my interview for the position of Head of School, while walking around the school to get a feel of the space, I saw a boy sitting outside the classroom and felt that something was not right. When I asked the teacher why he was excluded from the classroom, she mentioned that the child was not able to understand anything and that handling him was beyond her capacity. Later on, I got to know that he had cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment. Shaken by the incident, I went inside the office and expressed to the School Board that if I was hired, I would like to ensure that this would not happen again, after which they gave me a green signal to initiate a change.

The first thing I did was to hire special educators, which marked the beginning of the Learning Centre journey. The most important change, however, was to move away from the idea of ‘handling’ children, which we perceive differently to ‘nurturing’ them, and creating real learning opportunities. I could say that was where my journey began, but truth be told, it began when I, myself, was a child growing up in Kashmir. I remember my teachers treating me different merely because I was left-handed. Teachers used to tie my left hand forcing me to use only my right hand.


The inclusive education environment


Although inclusive education is built and advocated on the principles of equity, more than anything else, experience has taught me that it requires a commitment of care. Apart from providing resources such as hiring the right staff, building facilities, and professional development opportunities, it is about building a culture of inclusion which is founded on awareness, sensitivity and resilience.

Every child in my school has an individual lesson plan; in some cases, students are fully integrated into all the classes, and in other cases it is a mix of integration and having their needs met through an individual lesson plan by specialised teachers. The needs can include visual impairment, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder and learning difficulties, along with emotional, behavioural, language, speech, and communication disorders. Students who are unable to cope in the mainstream educational set-up can participate in the IGCSE and open schooling programme.


Cultural change


Working in India especially requires one to be very sensitive since awareness about inclusive education is still very much in its initial stages. The Hindi film Taare Zameen Par (‘Stars on Earth’), which addressed dyslexia, helped in creating more general awareness and acceptance about this, but there is still a long way to go. What we eventually need is patterns to be changed, and I believe that success is connected to our intrinsic motivation. While advocacy is important, we have to be careful not to overlook what drives us. Let us be honest with ourselves: why are we doing this? Is it because it is a trend, because it looks good, or because policies demand us to do so? The reason why this matters is because sometimes the motivation can mould the pattern, and when that happens there is a stronger force that drives change.

There are many instances where I faced parents in tears because they found it difficult to accept their child’s situation, or where parents persistently refused to accept certain learning interventions, or situations in which I or the staff had to deal with anger outbursts. I remember an incident when a parent refused to accept that his child had autism. The child was exceptionally talented in music; whatever anyone would hum the child would be able to translate into notes. I even ensured that the child was admitted into one of the top music schools in India, but all was in vain. The parent did not want this and persisted on his child taking the IGCSE exam which he kept on failing, and slowly we witnessed the child’s confidence fading away. One day the parent called me up in tears: “Who will take care of him after I die?”

Nothing can prepare you for this. However difficult it may be, I always try to keep an open mind, visualise the child and remain compassionate. As an educator you know that acceptance and harmony at home makes a real difference for each child.

Inclusive education includes much more than we initially think of. Once, parents came to meet me and told me that their two children were not getting accepted into any international school because of their gender identity. I chatted with the kids and accepted them on the spot. Today, one of them is a famous artist and the other one runs a chain of beauty salons. Over the years I have witnessed many beautiful stories: from a visually impaired child getting acceptance into Brown University, to a child with severe dyslexia winning the Princess Diana Cup for Art.


Developing a skilled professional community


To build a culture of inclusion takes work and a community-wide approach. The growing demand for Learning Needs trainers led me to develop the professional development platform under the TAISI umbrella where we curate regular, ongoing learning events for teachers, leaders and students within the region. We have organised workshops and training for schools across India to build a culture of inclusion. Beyond India, I am part of the Advisory Board of Next Frontier Inclusion, which supports schools across the world on their journeys towards inclusion. My next step is a new initiative I’m working on called ‘Structures of Joy’, of which one of the main pillars is to promote inclusive education. The journey continues.



Anu Monga is recognised for her leadership of international and inclusive education in India. She has led schools in New Delhi, Kodaikanal, Mumbai and Bangalore.

Contact Anu at or on LinkedIn