Most importantly, all parents should be aware that excluding a child from a program because they have a disability or special need is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, simply accepting a child into a program is not practicing full inclusion. When Growing Together Preschool was founded in the early 1980s, inclusion was a new idea with little evidence behind it. But, the parents who started our program knew that this could be the ticket to success for their children, and they were right.
There are many terms used in discussing opportunities for children with special needs to spend time with children who are typically developing. Mainstreaming refers to the placement of children with special needs into programs designed to serve children who are typically developing. Integration is the practice of supporting interactions between children with special needs and children who are typically developing so that all children can participate to their fullest extent. Full inclusion means that children, regardless of their disability or special need, receive specialized services in whatever setting is appropriate, typical and available to other children of the same age. Growing Together Preschool accomplishes this by facilitating on site therapy services, working with each family as a team to meet every child’s individual needs and implementing whatever is necessary to meet those needs to ensure the child’s success.
Placing children together is not enough. Placing children in the same program, but in separate classrooms is still discrimination. Inclusion means that the program adapts to meet the individual needs of ALL of the children as opposed to putting children into a box of what’s “normal” and pushing both children with are typically developing and those with disabilities and other special needs to fit into that box as much as possible. Teachers skilled at meeting the individual needs of children with disabilities and other special needs are also better able to provide for the individual needs of any child. Therefore, all children get what they need to grow, develop and learn. And all kids benefit from his quality teaching. In other words, Inclusion is simply being a good teacher.
Inclusion is about belonging. Children and families need to belong to their community, and they need to be accepted and included. As disability rights advocate Norman Kunc said, “People do their best work when they are in environments where they feel valued and where they feel they belong.” This sense of belonging and acceptance supports social and emotional development, which is the beginning of brain development and foundation for cognitive learning. Much of the recent push in early childhood has been toward preparing young children academically for school; however, children must achieve fundamental social-emotional milestones to effectively apply their knowledge in a kindergarten classroom. And, evidence exists that strong social and emotional beginnings reduce the achievement gap by the time children begin kindergarten and can lead to academic success and future employment. In other words, these social and emotional skills gained in early childhood have a great impact on an individual’s success in school and life for the rest of the life.
Children in inclusive settings have a chance to interact with peers who demonstrate a broad spectrum of social-emotional abilities. When typically developing children are taught strategies to communicate and problem solve with their classmates with disabilities, the quality and quantity of social interactions between them are likely to increase. As a result, children continue to build their self-esteem and sustain positive feelings toward those who are both similar and different from them. Frequent, quality interactions with peers and adults throughout early childhood result in improvement across multiple areas of development. Inclusive environments that not only embrace, but seek out diversity increase the program quality for all participants because each member of the community brings resources to the table that can be shared by all. Quality childcare is evident when each child grows and learns, families feel confident and secure and providers are qualified and stable. Thus, inclusion increases the quality for all children by providing quality interaction, emotional support and diverse resources that can be shared by all.
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. – NAEYC and DEC Definition of Early Childhood Inclusion
BENEFITS FOR ALL
Children with Disabilities and Special Needs
- Being seen as a child first, with special needs secondary
- Observing and imitating peers who are developing at a higher level
- Becoming more independent and self-reliant
- Learning to cope and problem solve with many different individuals
- Learning appropriate social skills
- Building a positive self-concept
Children Who Are Typically Developing
- Learning to accept and become comfortable with individual differences
- Learning to cope and problem solve with many different individuals
- Increasing self-esteem through helping others
- Recognizing strengths and abilities in children who are “different”
- Exploring new ways of being a friend
- Decreasing fears and prejudices regarding individuals with special needs
- Gaining new awareness of ability to express caring, concern and compassion
Parents and Family Members
- Expanding the variety of social situations for themselves and their child
- Increasing awareness of resources for young children
- Looking at their child’s strengths as well as needs
- Learning about normal development and observing typical behaviors that occur with each stage
- Experiencing a connection with a larger group of families within their community
- Reducing fears and increasing acceptance of people with special needs
Caregivers and Teachers
- Broadening teaching and personal experiences
- Expanding techniques for individualizing activities
- Helping prepare children for future integrative experiences
- Learning more about available resources
- Understanding and observing typical development and expectations in children
- Broadening their understanding of child development and group dynamics
- Seeing their efforts extended into the child’s daily routines and activities
- Preparing the next generation for life together
- Increasing individual’s ability to contribute to society
Since pioneering inclusion in the bluegrass over 30 years ago, many other programs have attempted to practice inclusion. Our goal was to be a model program so that all other programs serving children would practice full inclusion. Some have succeeded in their efforts. Others provide services to specific populations of children. But, without intentional inclusion and diversity they’re missing out on the resources, interactions with diverse populations and individualized teaching that happens in a fully inclusive environment. Other programs provide only those services they deem necessary for success in the program instead of evaluating the needs of the whole child and working with families as a team toward achieving goals necessary for success both in the program and out in the real world. The data for these programs show that they are not successful. While we certain understand that no program is perfect and that trying is better than not, it reminds us that even 30 years later our mission is still necessary and that there are many kids and families in our community who need our services just as much now as in the beginning.