Creating inclusive environments for children with a disability

Dr. Jane Warren from the University of Wollongong, discusses how to create inclusive environments for children with disability in early childhood education and care, and why this benefits everyone.

17 March 2021

The focus of Quality Area 5 is relationships, and 5.1 looks specifically at the important relationships so all children feel secure, confident and included. How can we ensure that words like ‘dignity’, ‘rights’, ‘meaningful’, ‘respectful’ and ‘equitable’ are really addressed and not just holistic words without practical application?

While inclusion is about all children being included, this feature article addresses creating inclusive environments for children with a disability. It is important to begin by saying that enrolment does not equal inclusion. To ensure all children feel secure, confident and included there are a number of important, relevant and essential things to consider, irrespective of the environment you are in:

  • rights of the child
  • valuing individuality and uniqueness
  • benefits of inclusion for everyone
  • building collaborative teams around a child
  • creating a ‘culture of inclusion’.

Rights of the child

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989) brought a historic commitment to recognise children as individuals and ensure every child has every right (UNICEF, n.d.).

There is nothing stating that the rights apply to some children and not others! In fact, Article 2 focuses on non-discrimination, stating:

‘The Convention applies to all children, whatever their race, religion or abilities; whatever they think or say, whatever type of family they come from. It doesn’t matter where children live, what language they speak, what their parents do, whether they are boys or girls, what their culture is, whether they have a disability or whether they are rich or poor. No child should be treated unfairly on any basis.’

No child has less right than another. When we consider the diversity of children within our ECEC services, we must remember that even based only on UNCRC, inclusion is not optional. Inclusion ensures everyone’s uniqueness is valued.

Valuing individuality and uniqueness

In addition to the UNCRC, The Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability (CRPD, 2008), follows significant work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to people with disabilities. The purpose of the CRPD is ‘to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity’ (UN, n.d.).

Benefits of inclusion for everyone

When considering the benefits of inclusion, the focus is often on the child with a disability. While inclusion certainly benefits that child, the benefits extend well beyond one child or one family. Everyone benefits from inclusion – the child with a disability, that child’s family, other children in the ECEC centre, other families, the educators and broader staff, and the wider community.

We know from the research that the foundations laid in the first five years of life can have a significant impact on the trajectory of lifelong learning (NSW Government, 2020). This can also apply to attitudes. Young children will often question difference, but these questions do not come from a place of judgment. When honest and respectful answers are given, children develop further knowledge and understanding that not everyone is the same. Children will then often be the ones to educate their parents and others about inclusion! Early childhood educators have a significant responsibility to help shape the beliefs and values of all children, as what children learn in the first five years of life will have a significant impact on later attitudes and learning.

Building collaborative teams around a child

Educators understand the importance of working collaboratively with families and carers to provide consistency and stability for children. For children with disabilities, the child’s team may extend to a number of other professionals and support services.

Families/carers should be consulted and make decisions regarding how they want the team to work for their child. For example, if a child has speech therapy, the parent may want the therapist to come and work with their child within the centre (of course, subject to COVID-19 restrictions as relevant). This provides opportunities for educators to learn from therapists, as well as embedding therapy into play, and the family not having to squeeze appointments in at another time.

For another family however, this is not what they would choose. Ensuring open communication with every child’s family allows educators to respond to the family goals and provide optimal support. The more communication that can occur with a child’s team, the more everyone can be ‘on the same page’.

Educators can obviously learn from families as well as other professionals, just as they can all learn from each other. Be open to learning new things and new approaches. Other children can also assist with supporting children with more complex needs if they know how. This is not a ‘charitable’ approach – but rather children learning how to support and help their friends - empathy is a great quality for everyone to learn! Having a collaborative approach with children, families and other services ensures learning environments are more inclusive.

Creating a ‘culture of inclusion’

Creating a ‘culture of inclusion’ means not just practicing the principles of inclusion when a child with a disability attends. It means embedding these principles in the fibre of the centre. Reflect on your centre practice. Do you ensure all children, regardless of their background or ability, are given the chance to play, learn and interact together? Is every child valued, supported and given access to equal opportunities and learning experiences? Does your centre reflect diversity within your program?

Think about your displays, books you read, songs you sing, language you use, experiences you plan and how you challenge children’s biased statements. The personal nature of play ensures it is the ideal way for all children to be included; and is such a ‘leveller’ as it does not have to rely on skills with which a child might have difficulty. Participation can look different for every child. It is also important to recognise individuality and remember not everyone needs the same support, even if there is a similar diagnosis.

To encourage participation throughout the day, sensory toys can be beneficial for children who find it difficult to participate in a group activity such as story time, or mealtime. They may respond by holding a toy of choice when they are sitting as part of the group, or any time you feel the child needs help to regulate. Do you have a sensory space/box which children are free to use?

AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) refers to any communication aside from verbal communication, and includes things like signing and visual supports. Learn some basic key word signing and create some visuals. The important thing is to embed signing and visual communication into your daily practice. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes, and the more natural it is for children – so when a child attends your service that relies on it, everyone is already comfortable and competent at using it. If you had a child in your centre that only spoke Mandarin, you would ensure you learnt some key words to communicate. For a child who does not use speech to communicate, you need to learn their language.

ECEC educators are good at recognising children as individuals, so why does this become harder when children have a disability? Remember:

  • Start with a positive attitude.
  • Do not expect to do everything perfectly all the time! One step in the right direction is still a positive step. Start by doing one thing tomorrow that is more inclusive than yesterday and if you continue with that, it will soon become standard practice.
  • If you focus on the difficulties a child presents with, that is what you will see. Every child is a child first. Disability is one part of that child but does not have to define everything.
  • Rights of children and families are not dependent on ability or behaviour.
  • Ensure open and effective communication with families.
  • Allow everyone to achieve – but remember not everyone needs to achieve the same things.
  • Ensure access is not just about physical access – but suitability of spaces and places.
  • Things do not always have to be expensive – be creative.
  • Ensure ongoing training and support within your team to build capacity in everyone.
  • Create inclusive learning environments through everyday strategies
  • Authentic inclusion means all children are welcome, valued, and supported to achieve.

Inclusion should not be something you ‘do’ – it needs to be part of who you are.

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid" Albert Einstein.

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