High-quality preschool inclusion: A few basics to help get you started

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Inclusion of children with disabilities is in the best interests of all children and is most effective when enacted as early as possible

Consider this: It has been more than 35 years since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act passed in 1975, but only 50% of preschoolers with disabilities in the U.S. are being included in general ed settings for more than 80% of the time.

First Steps to Preschool Inclusion

First Steps to Preschool Inclusion






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This is surprising when you consider that preschool inclusion studies uniformly demonstrate positive benefits for all participants.

But, as we all know, preschool leaders are busy. And any successful program must be systematically planned and built, with sufficient resources to adequately train and support staff.

Preschool leaders ready to get started will find invaluable guidance in First Steps to Preschool Inclusion. This handbook will walk you through everything you need to know—beginning with the laws governing the education of children with disabilities, and getting you started with an assessment of where your program currently stands—to put in place a sustainable high-quality inclusion program.

13 frequently asked questions about preschool inclusion

Take a peek of some of these preschool inclusion program basics drawn from First Steps to Preschool Inclusion. Refer to individual chapters for details, suggestions, and specific examples of steps that will work in your program.

How do DEC and NAEYC define inclusion?

“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.”

Refer to Chapter 1: What Is Inclusion?

What are the three features of high-quality inclusion?

  • Access. Children have access to all learning opportunities, activities,and experiences.
  • Participation. Children are meaningfully included in daily routines.
  • Supports. Infrastructure and/or programmatic supports are in place to engage families, teachers, and staff in promoting inclusion.

Refer to Chapter 1: What Is Inclusion?

What does research say about early childhood inclusion?

The National Professional Development Center on Inclusion (2009) at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill synthesized the research into nine points (summarized here):

  1. Inclusion takes many forms.
  2. There has been some progress in efforts to ensure access to inclusive programs for children with disabilities, but universal access for all children with disabilities is far from a reality.
  3. Children in inclusive programs generally do at least as well as those in specialized programs. Inclusion benefits children with and without disabilities, particularly with respect to social development.
  4. Factors such as policies, resources, and beliefs influence acceptance and implementation of inclusion.
  5. Specialized instruction is an important component of inclusion that affects child outcomes.
  6. Collaboration among parents, teachers, and specialists is a cornerstone of high-quality inclusion.
  7. Families of children with disabilities generally view inclusion favorably, though some express concern about the quality of early childhood programs and services.
  8. Limited research suggests that the quality of early childhood programs that enroll young children with disabilities is as good as, or slightly better than, the quality of programs that do not. Most studies, however, have focused on general program quality, not the quality of inclusion for individual children with disabilities and their families.
  9. Some evidence suggests that early childhood professionals may not be adequately prepared to serve young children with disabilities in inclusive programs.

Refer to Chapter 1: What Is Inclusion?

How does IDEA support inclusion?

  • Through the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision, which states that children with disabilities are to be educated with their peers without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate
  • Through regulations stating that public agencies must ensure that a child with disabilities must be educated in the school or program he or she would attend if he or she did not have a disability unless the child’s IEP requires otherwise

Refer to Chapter 2: What Federal Laws and Policies Govern Inclusion?

In what ways do children with disabilities benefit from inclusion?

  • Children with disabilities who are included in general education settings are more likely to exhibit positive social and emotional behaviors than their peers in segregated settings.
  • Students enrolled in inclusion programs in their early years are likely to demonstrate increased social interactions with all peers, fewer feelings of stigmatization, and academic gains via test scores and high school graduation rates.
  • Higher expectations ultimately lead children with disabilities to achieve more, gain confidence and independence, and develop a stronger sense of self.

Refer to Chapter 3: How Do Children Benefit from Inclusion?

How do typically developing children benefit from inclusion?

Typical peers develop self-confidence and leadership skills as they become models for their peers with disabilities. They also demonstrate

  • more positive attitudes toward diverse peers
  • increased social skills (e.g., initiating interactions, negotiating, sharing)
  • fairness and equity in play
  • modeling of both prosocial and academic behaviors to peers with disabilities
  • maturation into natural, confident leaders who are less likely to view disability as an impairment
  • an increased likelihood that they will initiate friendships and assist individuals with diverse needs and qualities

Refer to Chapter 3: How Do Children Benefit from Inclusion?

What environmental factors should I consider before implementing inclusion?

Classroom space, furniture, schedule and routine, centers and activities, number of adults, number of children, and ratio of adults to children

See the Inclusion Readiness assessments in Chapter 4: Is My Program Ready for Inclusion?

What’s the first step in preparing a program to include children with disabilities, and how does one get buy-in from busy staff?

  • Empower staff with knowledge and shared ownership in the decision-making process.
  • Staff should hold expectations for children’s learning that are grounded in both a knowledge of child development and each child’s current level of functioning. With this knowledge staff can develop specific measurable goals for guiding and supporting the child in a way that will lead to improved outcomes.
  • Use resources such as Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs for staff to learn how to collect information about children’s abilities and needs and then use that information to embed intervention in daily activities.

When staff monitor chidlren’s interests and development, they will be more likely to see growth or evidence that children with disabilities can make great gains.

Find more suggestions in Chapter 4: Is My Program Ready for Inclusion?

What concerns might families have about inclusion?

  • Why should inclusion be implemented?
  • Will my child receive an appropriate amount of attention?
  • Does it promote positive outcomes in diverse populations?

Find suggestions for addressing these concerns in Chapter 4: Is My Program Ready for Inclusion?

How are the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 relevant to my early childhood program?

  • Although more broadly based than IDEA, the ADA and Section 504 safeguard children with disabilities’ access to programs and services that are federally funded.
  • They prohibit discrimination based on service availability, accessibility (e.g., no ramps), and delivery.
  • Under both Section 504 and the ADA, programs cannot deny a child with a disability the opportunity to participate or benefit from a program’s services.

Find resources to help you understand how IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA have an impact on your early learning program in Chapter 5: What Are My Program’s Inclusion Requirements and Resources?

What is an inclusion leadership team and who should be involved?

Also known as an ILT, the team includes individuals who will work together to implement and sustain high quality inclusion.

See Chapter 6: How Will I Support Key Program Changes? Tools for Collaboration.

How should I prepare for the first ILT meeting?

The first meeting is critical and will set the tone for future activities. The goal is to establish a trusting, collaborative, and efficient environment. Develop an agenda, plan activities, and draft guiding questions to develop a shared vision statement. Promote respectful communication and cultivate a commitment.

See Chapter 6: How Will I Support Key Program Changes? Tools for Collaboration.

What potential roadblocks might a program encounter as it begins inclusion efforts?

  • Lack of knowledge. Individuals may not understand what inclusion is, how it looks, how it benefits children, and that it is guided by federal law.
  • Attitude. Staff and parents may have negative attitudes or low expectations toward individuals with disabilities.
  • Resources. Inclusion requires adequate time, training, collaboration, planning, and idea sharing to be successful.
  • Support. Program policies may not support inclusion. Administrators may feel their programs and staff are not adequately equipped to support children with disabilities.
  • Familiarity. Leaders and administrators may be unfamiliar with child development or disabilities and may not feel comfortable taking responsibility for children with disabilities.
  • Collaboration. Differences of opinion are likely to emerge.

See helpful free resources and specific steps you can take to address these challenges in Chapter 7: What Are the Barriers and How Can I Address Them?

For the complete set of FAQs about establishing a high-quality preschool inclusion program, see Chapter 8 of First Steps to Preschool Inclusion.

 (Originally published: August 2014)