Understanding Inclusive Early Childhood Education

By Molly Breen

Understanding Inclusive Early Childhood EducationIs your program ready for inclusion? Does your program promote the right of every child and family to participate in high-quality and accessible early learning?

If you think this doesn’t apply to you, think again! “Program” includes home childcares, center-based care, early learning centers, and all other institutions that provide care for and nurture young children. The questions above are for families, educators, and other stakeholders to consider in the landscape of early learning and in the quality of early learning for all. Like any educational philosophy, approach to learning, or program mission, inclusive practice should be an integral and researched component of high-quality programs.

Until fairly recently, most learning environments and curricular plans in preschools were designed for a “typically developing child.” We now know that this mythical “typical” preschool child does not exist. In fact, each child’s disposition toward learning (whether or not the child has a developmental disability) is as unique as a fingerprint. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) released a joint position statement in 2009 on inclusive practice in preschool. This summary gives some insight into the core values of inclusive practice and its importance:

Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, and practices that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society. The desired results of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential. The defining features of inclusion that can be used to identify high-quality early childhood programs and services are access, participation, and supports.*

Most early childhood educators are aware of developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) and the intentional observation and differentiation of instruction to help each child grow and achieve through appropriate challenges and experiences. (If the Copple and Bredekamp book in the above link isn’t in your school or personal library, it should be!) Inclusive practice requires educators to expand the definition of DAP to include kids that may have developmental disabilities. This safeguards against the separation and isolation of certain children and their families that may otherwise occur without an intentional plan for inclusion of these children in community programs. And, with proper supports and systems in place, early childhood stakeholders are prompted to adapt environments and curricula to be accessible so all kids can participate. Inclusive practice is like DAP on steroids.

If your setting is anything like mine, you are likely hearing the inner voice of doubt creep in. How can we possibly accommodate all children and adapt our curriculum to suit such a wide variety of abilities? I’m already maxed out managing the students I have, and none of them have a developmental disability!

This is where that third component of the position statement—supports—becomes so critically important. What, exactly, does support mean in terms of inclusion, and what does it look like in different settings?

For an inclusive approach to work well, the program must first establish a set of shared expectations among families, staff, and the community. A good baseline is a program philosophy that has a provision for access for and participation of all families. If inclusion is a new concept for you in your setting, do the research required to put supports in place:

  • Learn more about inclusive practice. The Inclusive Schools Network is an excellent resource for linking current research to practice. They even provide a course called Inclusion Basics that teaches a baseline understanding of the why and how of inclusive practice.
  • Read the full position statement from NAEYC and DEC on inclusive practice.
  • Visit an inclusive program in your community to do an observation visit and, if possible, interview administrators and teachers to better understand how they successfully implement their program.
  • Plan an information night to share information and to begin a dialogue with families in your program about the importance of inclusion.

Once a unified set of expectations have been established and a mission statement on inclusion has been developed, it will be important to provide structural support within the program and to create professional development standards and continuing education opportunities for you and your staff. In programs with only one staff member, you may want to consider adding an assistant teacher or partnering with a school district for specialized support. For program administrators, redesigning of professional development standards to increase expert knowledge on inclusive practice may be needed. Internal structural supports can include:

  • Universal Design for Learning
  • DECAL: preparing teachers to meet the needs of children with different experiences, cultures, abilities, and languages
  • Environmental modifications that create ease of access for all students and ease of instruction/adaptation for teachers
  • Tiered levels of support and intervention within the program or through partnerships with outside programs and families

With the proper supports in place and a shared set of expectations between program, families, and community that are rooted in research developed, inclusion is possible in any setting. As with any new approach, it is important to stay open to iteration, retooling, and refining as issues arise and to have a mindset for learning. By remaining truly responsive to the needs of all children and families, and with a guiding philosophy and program supports, we can be ready for inclusion.

*DEC/NAEYC Early Childhood Inclusion: A Joint Position Statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute, 2009.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed a broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, MN, with her husband and three kids.


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