Inclusive Early Learning: Children with Disabilities & Challenging Behaviors

Aug 1 / IMPACT Team

What is Inclusion in Early Learning?

 According to the Joint Position Statement from the Division of Early Childhood and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, “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.” 

Simply put, inclusion means children of all abilities belong in the early childhood education classroom, where each child is valued for their own strengths and challenges and given the opportunity to learn together alongside their peers. 
Some children just need a little extra support to be successful. IMPACT’s focus is on Consultation and Training to support childcare providers and early learning educators to include children with disabilities and challenging behaviors in their programs. Let’s break down which children we’re talking about here:         

Children with developmental concerns or developmental delay:
  • This could be a delay in walking, talking, eating, problem-solving or a delay in any area of development.
  • Delays in social emotional development can also present as behavioral concerns or challenging behaviors. Children with behavioral concerns may need extra help being successful during classroom routines, learning to interact with peers appropriately, or they may have sensory needs. IMPACT’s online courses on Challenging Behaviors help childcare providers and early learning educators understand and respond effectively to challenging behaviors in their classroom. ·       
  • Children who have a medical need– this could be allergies, a feeding tube, seizures, or a medical diagnosis such as Cerebral Palsy. 
  • Children who have experienced trauma, or who have a mental health condition such as anxiety, attachment disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or others.

Keep in mind, a child doesn’t need to have a diagnosis in any of these categories to need extra support at school. We must also support children who may be at-risk. So this includes children who have had a recent change in family structure, like parental separation or a death in the family. It includes children who are experiencing a stressor, such as the birth of a new sibling or a sibling who has been diagnosed with a disability. True inclusion is about welcoming all of these children and individualizing for their unique needs.

Being inclusive also means being mindful of systemic inequities that undermine healthy development and inclusive practices. Children’s ability, race, socio-economic status, gender- all these factors impact children’s access to early childhood education, as well as how they are supported and served. It is also imperative that we as educators become aware of our own implicit biases and how these affect the children we serve. Research shows that our implicit biases affect which children are labeled as children with challenging behaviors, leading to children of color being overidentified, then overdisciplined and even expelled from preschool. Once a child is expelled from preschool, they are more likely to be expelled from school when they are older and more likely to be incarcerated as adults. This is known as the ”preschool to prison pipeline” and this is why inclusion in early learning matters. It’s important to acknowledge the intersectionality at play, so we can meet the needs of each individual child, based on their unique life experiences, strengths, and challenges. 

Research shows that inclusive early childhood education benefits everyone - children with disabilities and challenging behaviors as well as typically developing children, educators, families, and the greater community. Children with disabilities and challenging behaviors thrive – learning alongside their peers leads to gains developmentally, socially, and academically. Typically developing peers gain invaluable life skills like compassion and empathy. Educators also report increased empathy and compassion along with learning new skills, making them more capable of individualizing and differentiating for all children in their care. Families of children with disabilities and challenging behavior benefit from having high quality childcare for their child and the peace they experience, knowing that their child’s needs are being met and that they are making friends and learning vital social emotional and cognitive skills. And finally, there is a ripple effect for the greater community- when children can reach their full potential, they are more likely to be independent and successful in adulthood. Children from inclusive learning programs grow up to become inclusive adults. As adults, they are also more likely to encourage inclusivity in their workplaces and in their communities. They become advocates for inclusion, which can lead to long lasting change, at a systems-level, even generations from now. 

To be truly inclusive, we need to remember that inclusion in early childhood education is not trying to change the child to fit our practices or environments. Inclusion requires us to be flexible and think creatively to accommodate the individual needs of each child. Take IMPACT’s Introduction to Inclusion in Early Learning online course to learn more about steps you can take to make your program more inclusive and welcoming for all children. We hope you will join us on our journey to make high quality early learning accessible for all children.

If you're interested in learning more about inclusive early learning classrooms, check out these courses: