Dunia sits with a notepad in front of her as the toddlers in her early learning program nap. She reviews information about Maddox, a new child joining the program, that has been shared by his family. They write that Maddox loves animals—especially dinosaurs—and enjoys stacking blocks. He smiles and laughs and likes to watch his two siblings play. His family shares that Maddox was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old. Now 27 months old, he requires support with communication, engaging with peers, and participating in group activities. He is not yet toilet trained and can sometimes have difficulty settling down for naps.
Dunia reads that he will also receive visits once per month from his early intervention home visitor in the early education setting. She is happy to see this; Dunia is confident that Maddox’s home visitor will have some tips for how she can effectively draw on his experiences and interests and be responsive to his needs. In the meantime, Dunia takes out her pen and draws several columns in her notebook, each with a different label: “Environment and Materials,” “Group Activities,” “Play and Peer Interactions,” “Communication,” and “Family Connections.” Underneath these headings, she labels a new row: “Strategies to Try.”Okay, Dunia thinks, I’ll start here.
Historically, the approach to working with children with disabilities has focused more on exclusion. Some educators, policy makers, and others argued that a child with disabilities was better served in environments exclusively with other children with disabilities. Some argued that a policy of inclusion would slow the progress of classmates without disabilities. This policy has gradually been replaced by the concept of and requirement for a least restrictive environment; that is, children with disabilities should be educated with children without disabilities whenever possible.
In practice, there are many benefits to including children with varying abilities in early education settings. For young children (including infants and toddlers) with developmental delays or disabilities, inclusive settings offer
Inclusive settings also have important benefits for infants and toddlers without disabilities. Children will
Research has found that children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms are more likely to engage in peer interactions than children in special education settings, and both children with and without disabilities make significant gains in early literacy scores while attending an inclusive, high-quality early education program (Lawrence, Smith, & Banerjee 2016).
For many infant and toddler professionals like Dunia, the big question is: How do I effectively plan for inclusion in my setting so that each and every child’s strengths are recognized and needs are met?
Early childhood professionals should also approach this planning process by prioritizing the three defining features of inclusion: access, participation, and supports (DEC/NAEYC 2009). It is important to partner with the child’s family and early intervention professionals to learn what supports are already being used at home and to identify activities that will align with the child’s developmental needs and goals. The following are suggestions and strategies for bringing these priorities to life in an inclusive infant and toddler classroom.
Access refers to “providing a wide range of activities and environments for every child by removing physical barriers and offering multiple ways to promote learning and development” (DEC/NAEYC 2009, 1).
There are many ways of providing access to learning experiences based on a child’s individual strengths, preferences, and needs. Teachers should consider the current skills and abilities of children and identify additional or different supports that may be needed for them to make progress toward learning objectives and to have access to all areas of their learning environment. For Maddox (from the opening vignette), Dunia might use dinosaur figures with him in a counting activity, rather than cube blocks. Using a child’s preferences to engage them is often an effective strategy for young children, including children with autism spectrum disorder (Weber et al. 2018). For a toddler with limited fine motor skills, for example, the teacher might adapt each page of books in the reading corner by gluing popsicle sticks to create “page turners.” These make it easier for grasping and turning pages independently, empowering the child to access literacy activities just like their peers.
Early childhood professionals should approach the planning process by prioritizing the three defining features of inclusion: access, participation, and supports.
In addition, educators should consider a “least to most” approach, starting with the least amount of adult involvement and letting the child do as much as possible on their own. This may result in some errors as the child attempts the skill, but it can lead to greater learning overall (Libby et al. 2008). For example, if a child is struggling to hold and place puzzle pieces, the child’s teacher can try verbally coaching the child first (least involvement). Then, the teacher can point to a space and prompt the child to “try putting the piece here.” As a last option, the teacher can engage in the most involvement—putting their hand over the child’s hand to place the piece. Other adaptations may entail offering a puzzle with fewer pieces or one with knobs rather than flat pieces.
Planning for participation involves tapping into a wide variety of practices to encourage active engagement during instructional activities and play (DEC/NAEYC 2009). One essential way that a baby or toddler participates in an early childhood classroom is through their emerging communication skills. Communication-related delays are the most common types of developmental delay (AAP 2021), and other diagnoses can also contribute to differences in how children communicate. For example, a child with low muscle tone may have difficulty coordinating muscles to smile—but still be quite happy and engaged in an activity.
To provide support for a child’s growing communication skills, teachers can observe and connect with families about how a baby or toddler currently communicates. Is it through gaze, sign language, pointing/gesturing, vocalizing (but not words), or spoken language? With this information, educators can partner with the child’s early intervention provider to use the same communication strategies that are being introduced and reinforced during home visits.
Participation also includes fostering relationships with other children. Toddlers with and without disabilities are just beginning to discover the pleasures of early friendships. Teachers can facilitate peer interactions for children with disabilities by considering the following:
Finally, adult-child relationships are critical for children with developmental delays or disabilities. The language environment experienced by infants and toddlers has been shown to significantly impact their language learning trajectories (Degotardi 2021), and early educators and caregivers are a primary source of rich, child-directed speech and back-and-forth conversations (Chaparro-Moreno 2019). Relationship-building strategies are the same for all children: make one-on-one time with each child each day; notice and follow the child’s interests; talk together and ask questions; and celebrate a child’s strengths and achievements.
Finally, supports refer to both child-specific and systems-level aids that educators can use to effectively implement inclusion in their classrooms (DEC/NAEYC 2009). They may include assistive equipment for physical support (accessible strollers, specially designed highchairs, easy-grasp spoons), digital devices and picture symbols to help with communication, and certain objects like weighted teddy bears to foster feelings of security and focus.
Related to assistive equipment and other child-specific supports, understanding how to use and maintain the equipment and materials safely is critical to ensure a child can access and actively engage in their learning environment and activities. It ensures the child can access learning and play experiences to their maximum potential.
Early educators need support too, with assistance ranging from individualized coaching and supervision tailored to successes, challenges, and problem solving to broader professional development trainings and materials focused on inclusion. Especially important for successful systems-level support are sufficient time for planning for inclusion and a sufficient budget for adaptations and modifications.
Families of children with disabilities are themselves a crucial form of support and knowledge. Families can share strategies that have worked in the home and can give insights into the child’s interests and preferences, approaches for soothing the child, and guidance on how the child communicates or uses cues. This relationship goes both ways—teachers can also share their observations and celebrations of the child’s strengths and progress with families.
If families agree, the teacher may find the child’s early intervention professional to be a significant source of support too. Early interventionists have worked with hundreds of children with different abilities and are well-versed in evidence-based strategies for including infants and toddlers in early childhood settings. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), early intervention professionals can visit the child while they are in the classroom setting to provide ideas or model strategies. With the family’s permission, they also can share the child’s Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which outlines what goals the child is working on and the activities that might support mastery of those targeted skills.
Planning for inclusion means considering a variety of factors to ensure that every child has an opportunity to grow and learn in infant and toddler settings. Your relationship with them remains a central—and critical—factor. By connecting with each baby or toddler as a unique individual and ensuring the access, participation, and supports they need to thrive, you are building a model community that embraces all, supports all, and gives every child the chance to reach their maximum potential.
Great information for providers and links to inclusion information.