What Is Inclusive Child Care?

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.

Benefits of Inclusive Child Care

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:

  • Chances to learn by observing and interacting with other children of similar ages.
  • Time and support to build relationships with other children.
  • Chances to practice social skills in real-world situations.
  • Exposure to a wider variety of challenging activities.
  • Opportunities to learn at their own pace in a supportive environment.
  • Chances to build relationships with caring adults other than parents.

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:

  • Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences.
  • Increased empathy for others.
  • Preparation for adult life in an inclusive society.
  • Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others.

The Role of the Teacher

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:

  • Creating an environment, both physical and emotional, where everyone is invited to participate as much as they want to and everyone is treated with respect and kindness.
  • Answering children’s questions with simple, straightforward honesty and encouraging open dialogue about disabilities (and abilities) among children (and parents).
  • Helping children feel comfortable with each other and develop friendships based on their shared interests.
  • Facilitating interactions and play between children who are differently abled, especially if the child with special needs has difficulty communicating in a way that another child can understand.
  • Creating a sense of community in the classroom, where every person is valued as a unique individual who has something to contribute and where everyone is responsible for caring for one other.
  • Giving children the freedom to explore their ideas about disabilities through play and conversation, while guiding them to be aware and respectful of the feelings and perspective of the child with special needs.

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.

Planning for Successful Inclusion

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:

  • Models a positive attitude toward inclusion and toward children with special needs and their families.
  • Stays attuned to the quality of the day-to-day experiences of all of the children in the classroom and provides on-the-spot feedback and coaching to the teacher based on her/his observations.
  • Is sensitive to the ongoing attitudes and perspectives of all of the parents of children in the room, stepping in to address possible concerns before they become full-blown problems.
  • Puts supports in place, such as a “relief” staff member, to help teachers when the challenges become especially difficult.
  • Seeks out helpful community resources and professionals, and ensures that teachers and parents have opportunities to connect with and make use of them.
  • Creates opportunities for children and parents to get to know one another in relaxed, family-friendly environments so that relationships can be built on the ways that they are similar rather than different.

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?

Challenging but Worthwhile!

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. 

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