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The Benefits of Inclusion in Early Childhood Programs

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By Ronnie W. Jeter, EdS, Director of Early Childhood Services and Supports

Ronnie Jeter is Director of Early Childhood Services and Supports for the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (CCBMR/DD). This department serves children with disabilities birth through five years and their families. Services are provided in the family home, center-based or community settings. Many programs service children with and without disabilities in inclusive environments.

Ms. Jeter received her Master of Education and Education Speicalist degree from Kent State University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech and Language Pathology from the SUNY at Buffalo. She has a thirty-two year year career working with children with disabilities and their families, starting as an outreach worker, teacher and assistant principal with the CCBMR/DD before becoming Director of the early Childhood department.

Inclusion in early childhod programs - the active participation of children with disabilities and typically developing children in the same setting - is becoming more common. Federal Law, most importantly the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), reauthorized this past November, encourages inclusive settings for students with physical, mental, emotional, or sensory impairments. Part C of IDEA, which covers birth to the age of three, requires early intervention services be provided to infants and toddlers with disabilities in natural environments to the extent appropriate to the child. "Natural" environment, which could be the family home, childcare centers, or community play groups, are those that are similar to environments for children their age without disabilties.

The decision to include children with disabilities, however, is not just a response to legal requirements; there is ample evidence that inclusion, done well, yields important benefits not only to the disabled child but also to typically developing children and to parents and families as well.

Studies have shown that when children with disabilities are included, those children demonstrate higher levels of social play, are more likely to initiate activities, and show gains in key skills - cognitive skills, motor skills, and self-help skills. Participating in activities with typically developing peers allows children with disabilities to learn through modeling, and this learning helps prepare them to function in the real world.

Typically developing children also have a lot to gain form being included with their peers who have disabilities. Researchers have found that typically developing children in inclusive classrooms are better able to accept differences and are able to see their classmates achieving despite their disabilities. They also seem to be more aware of the needs of others.

Sarah is a four-year old with severe cerebral palsy. She is in an inclusive preschool classroom. She uses pictures to make choices of activities, food, or clothing she would like to wear. One day at lunch Sam ( a child without disabilities) was holding up choice cards of foods. Sarah was concentrating very hard and drooled over Sam's hand. An adult visitor said,
"Oh she drooled." Sam nonchalantly commented, "That just means she's thinking hard about what she's doing." Just as nonchalantly, he reached up with a napkin and gently wiped away the drool.

Studies have shown that typical children in inclusive settings show an increased ability to help their peers. They learn how and when to help and when to assist a child with a disability to be independent. Helping is a positive experience for young children. It makes them feel good about themselves and what they can do, thereby increasing self-esteem.

Young children have not yet formed negative stereotypes toward people with disabilites. The development of attitudes begins during the preschool years. Early interaction increases the chances that as these children grow up they will feel more positive and less fearful of people with disabilties. This leads to more acceptance of diversity, which leads to less prejudice and a better understanding of others.

Research has shown, however, that enrollment in a classroom together is not enough to secure the benefits of inclusion. It is very important that the professionals structure the classroom environment and implement a curriculum that supports all children. This includes designing the physical space to encourage child integration, promoting engagement through play, providing small group activities that facilitate interactiion and exploration, and being a positive imitative adult model for the children.

Adaptations are often necessary in order to meet the needs of the child with the disability so that he/she can maximize participation in the classroom. The attitudes of typically developing children toward the child with a disability is closely associated with their awareness of the disabilty, the way the staff and parents treat that child in the classroom, and the amount and quality of interaction. The classroom staff - and parents - need to encourage the discussion of the similarities and differrences of the children and strive to encourage interaction.

Physical proximity is not enought; the professional must assist children in understanding the differences between all the children in the class. As they learn about these differences, they also learn how they are similar and view the child with a disability as doing things differently and not just as being different. Under the right conditions the inclusive classroom can be beneficial to both children with and children without disabilities.

Research studying parental attitudes toward inclusion has also been positive for parents of children with and without disabilities. Parents of children with disabilitses state that their child now participats in activities with typical peers and has a friend without a disability. Families have also reported that having their child in an inclusive setting makes them feel less isolated from their community. Families may develop relationships with the other families in the classroom. They also feel that inclusion promotes acceptance of their children in the community and hope that encouraging children to interact at a young age will lessen sterotyping in the future.

"I was in special education classes and was always teased by my classmates, I was afraid that my son would go through the same thing in a class with regular children. Now I know that if we start when they are little maybe when they get older the other children will understand them better." (Parent of De'Van, a three year old with physical disabilities).

"I wanted my daughter in a classroom with children with disabilities. I hoped it would make her more sensitive to people's differences and it has" (Parent of Jessica, a four year old without disabilities).

Young children take their cues from significant adults in thier life. It is therefore important for parents to support positive attitudes toward children with disabilities in addition to their child's enrollment in the inclusive classroom. Studies indicate that young children's attitudes are developed by both direct and indirect experiences. Both at home and in the classroom, reading books depicting children with disabilities can enhance the direct classroom experience. Parents can visit their local libraries or speak with classroom staff to find appropriate books for this topic.

Inclusion is a lifelong process. The goal of full inclusion is the participation of children and adults with disabilities together with typically developing peers in their education environment, their communty and their workplace. We hope that society will reap the benefits of this early inclusive environment as the children participating in these settings grow up.

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