In the field of early childhood education, inclusion describes the practice of including children with disabilities in a child care setting with typically developing children of similar ages, with specialized instruction and support when needed. Federal law says that children with disabilities have a protected right to be educated in the least restrictive environment. For many children with special needs, being able to enjoy the experiences and relationships in a child care program isn’t out of reach.
Research has shown that inclusion, when done well, can be a very positive experience for both young children with special needs and their typically developing peers. Child care providers can play an important role in making inclusive child care successful.
Inclusive child care can be beneficial, both for the child with a special need and for the other children in the inclusion classroom. Some of the benefits of inclusive child care for children with special needs include:
Typically developing children can also benefit from interacting with a child with a special need in their child care program. Benefits of inclusive child care for typically developing children include:
Children learn as much, and sometimes more, from the unintended example that adults set as they do from the learning activities that are planned. The same is certainly true when a child with disabilities is enrolled in the classroom. Children will form their knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes about individuals with disabilities based largely on the attitudes, words, and actions that they see from the adults around them. When providers and teachers are purposeful about what they are modeling for children, they can be more confident that they are having a positive impact.
Providers/teachers make inclusion a positive experience for everyone by:
Teachers in an inclusive classroom have a wonderful opportunity to help shape children’s attitudes and behavior toward people with disabilities. Studies have shown that children who have had repeated experiences with children with disabilities develop attitudes of acceptance and understanding that usually aren’t there in children who haven’t had that exposure. Shaping children’s attitudes while they are young is a tremendous responsibility and privilege that can have long-lasting effects.
Teachers can have the best of intentions for providing good experiences in an inclusive classroom, but other supports are usually needed for those intentions to turn into reality. Studies of inclusive classrooms have shown that inclusion is most successful when:
Teachers/providers have specialized training. Many teachers are reluctant to have a child with a delay or disability in their program because they don’t feel confident in their ability to provide learning opportunities and support for that child in addition to meeting the needs of the other children in the group. Studies have shown that providers who have participated in specialized professional development opportunities feel more confident in their knowledge and skills and provide higher quality experiences for all of the children.
Teachers/providers have the support of the administrator(s). For center staff, a supportive administrator can make all the difference in the success of inclusion. A supportive administrator:
Teachers/providers collaborate with early childhood special education professionals. Support professionals are a tremendous value to providers when a child with special needs is in their program. Specialists can provide a wide range of services and supports within the group setting. They can talk with teachers about what they can expect from the child and help teachers adapt the environment and curriculum so that the child can be fully involved throughout the day. They are a vital source of accurate information about specific disabilities and intervention strategies. When caregivers and specialists can establish a respectful, positive working relationship, everyone benefits.
The child’s primary caregiver/teacher also should be involved in the formal process of creating and implementing the plan required by federal law for any child with an identified disability: the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) for children younger than three and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for children three and older. For more information about IEPs and IFSPs, see What Do Child Care Providers Need to Know About IEPs and IFSPs?
There is no doubt that including a child with a disability or delay in an early childhood program can be challenging. But including a child with special needs in a classroom with typically-developing children can be extremely worthwhile, not only for the child with a disability or delay, but for all the children in the classroom.
To learn more about inclusion, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles, or browse our section on Child Care for Children with Special Needs.