Back to basics
For more than two decades, early care and education teachers have become increasingly aware of the need to welcome children with disabilities and developmental delays. Programs that eagerly and earnestly serve this population know the benefits that go beyond the legal requirements: We learn that everyone is unique and can be appreciated, respected, and accepted.
In inclusive classrooms, children with disabilities and delays have more realistic role models and are perceived as less different because they play and learn with typically developing peers, each with unique strengths and weaknesses across developmental domains. All children learn to accept their own differences and gain a sense of themselves as essential parts of the community of young learners.
Inclusive programs and classrooms are built on the following principles:
Each child’s growth and development is influenced by cultural background, parental expectations, and genetics—including the biologically governed aspects of temperament and personality.
Parents and families have a key role in determining the best care for their children. These determinations are often made with the support of a medical and therapeutic team and social interactions with the community at large.
All children learn in environments that provide warm, supportive, knowledgeable, and developmentally appropriate activities and interactions with adults and other children.
Children with disabilities and developmental delays need assistance to perform major life activity tasks that are within the chronological range of typical development. For example, Mr. Duncan uses the same toilet training techniques with Marcus, a 3-year-old with Down syndrome, that he uses with other children, except perhaps with more patience and support. Life activity tasks touch all developmental domains, and many require the integration of skills across domains—cognitive, social, emotional, language, and physical.
During early childhood, children first confront the challenges they will work on for the rest of their lives, such as interacting with the world, learning new things, regulating behavior, and getting along with others. Children—across abilities, cultures, socioeconomic levels, and geographic areas—face the same developmental tasks. To meet these challenges, every child must discover unique strengths and learn to draw on those strengths to reach full potential. Five-year-old Eugenia, for example, is learning to coordinate the use her right hand with the stump of her left arm to grasp objects. She is also becoming a star on the soccer field.
An inclusive classroom helps children understand and accept differences among individuals. It encourages respect for all people, while fostering a caring and understanding society. The 6-year-olds in Ms. Rodriguez’s classroom, for example, have learned about wheelchairs from Daniel, who has cerebral palsy. They no longer gawk at people in wheelchairs when they go to the mall or church with their parents.
All children benefit from exposure to creative activities and environments, learning new skills through observing and interacting with other children; engaging in hands-on learning; recognizing and understanding the abilities of others; and developing opportunities for friendships.
Further, inclusive classrooms respect and support the basic needs of all children. When these needs are met, all children are more likely to build the skills necessary for future learning and achievement in society.
Acceptance. Children need affection and genuine positive regard. A teacher’s challenge is to abandon or overcome cultural or racial biases and to accept children as human beings, regardless of abilities, personalities, or behaviors. Ms. Stewart is moving toward acceptance, for example, by observing and reflecting on individual and group needs to plan nurturing activities for her 2-year-olds. In the classroom, teachers give all children respect and use consistency and fairness to build trust.
Safe and healthy environments. Children need a clean, safe environment with materials that are in good repair and appropriate to children’s needs, interests, abilities, and developmental stages. A healthy environment reflects basic hygiene and universal health precautions—frequent and routine hand washing, clean and dry diapers, clutter-free floors and work spaces, and carefully prepared meals. To help 4-year-old Ian, who has autism, focus on eating lunch, Ms. Bennett uses a communication board with pictures depicting such requests as “more,” “water,” and “I’m finished.”
Nurturance and guidance. All children need to feel supported in their developmental efforts, including interactions with other people, physical mobility, use of learning materials, and self-help tasks. They need consistency in their relationships and support in building an understanding of the basic rules of socialized behaviors, including cooperation and honesty. To discourage a frustrated 4-year-old from throwing puzzle pieces, for example, Ms. Schmidt guides him to the sand table for calming. The next day in the manipulatives center, she hands puzzle pieces to him one at a time and gradually adds more pieces.
Socialization and affiliation. All humans—including children—require contact with other humans. Children need friends; they need to feel their own value in society, knowing that their contributions support a common goal and are appreciated. Ms. Adams, for example, understands that a cognitive disability hinders 3-year-old Nicole in making friends, so she seats Nicole next to Tameka who is gentle and talkative during circle time. Most important, adults should never humiliate or condemn a child because of differences in ability.
Opportunity for active learning. Children learn most and best from hands-on activities that encourage them to ask questions, form judgments, experiment, discover, and evaluate results. They need activities that are appropriate both to their age and their abilities, and routine interactions with other children and adults to discuss and compare their experiences. For example, Ms. Morgan, observing that 4-year-old Michael finds the art center too unsettling because of fine motor delay, tapes foam to markers and paintbrushes to make them easier to hold and provides sticky paper as backing for a collage activity.
Family expectations, cultural values, developmental delays, and personality affect how children master developmental milestones. While most children follow a typical developmental sequence, rates of development vary. Without these variations, programs and classrooms would resemble an orchestra composed only of violins. Instead, we welcome a full orchestra in our classrooms where differences among children enrich each other and ourselves.