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The Basics of Inclusion in Early Learning

The topic of inclusion has become very popular in early learning. Many preschool programs are moving towards a curriculum that welcomes all children, rather than separating typically developing children from those with disabilities.

Inclusion is a big, complex topic with many variables to consider. In this article, we share a few basics to help you start thinking about how to create more inclusivity and  equality in your program. The information shared below will help you start to think about possible first steps towards creating a classroom that welcomes children with varying abilities, gifts, and behaviors.  Future Good2Know Network articles will delve into more specific inclusion topics.

What is Inclusion?

Inclusion in early childhood is defined in many ways and will look different from one program to another. When educators use the term “inclusive classroom,” they are typically referring to a classroom that has children with special needs learning alongside their typically developing peers.

NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) and DEC (Division for Early Childhood) describes inclusion the following way:

“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.” 

This definition highlights the defining features of inclusive programs: access to a variety of learning opportunities; accommodations in the curriculum and environment enabling each child to fully participate; and systems-level supports such as services and therapies. Click here to view NAEYC’s entire Early Childhood Inclusion Statement.

What are the Benefits of Inclusive Classrooms?

For a long time, it has been incorrectly believed that children with special needs are better supported in a learning environment that is separate from that of their typically developing peers. Research finds that this is actually not the case, and that inclusive classrooms, comprising children of varying abilities, is beneficial for all children involved.

Children who learn in inclusive environments will have opportunities to form relationships with children who might be different from themselves. Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant, Schelly Engelman, M.Ed., shares that “friendships develop among all children in and out of school, and are associated with important developmental outcomes and academic achievements. Through those friendships, children with and without disabilities learn how to cope with challenges, find alternative paths to success, and social and communication skills.”

Below you will find an infographic from Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning with more information about the benefits of inclusive education in early learning. Click here to download a printable version of the infographic in English and in Spanish.

Shifting our Thinking

Inclusion goes beyond physically including children in a classroom. It digs deeper to create a place in which every member of the community feels loved, welcomed, and important. Inclusive education means ensuring that learning is accessible to every child. For educators, it means adjusting our lens to notice each child’s special talents and abilities, rather than letting a child be defined by what he or she cannot do.

Our commitment to inclusion should inspire us to be always rethinking how we can shape our environments to include and welcome all members of our community.

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