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maroon hand in heart iconWhat is Early Childhood Inclusion?

In 2009, the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) issued a Joint Position Statement that gave a much needed definition to the term Early Childhood Inclusion. 

  1. "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."
  2. The desired results of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families should include, a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential.
  3. The defining features of inclusion that are used to identify high-quality early childhood programs and services are Access, Participation, and Support.

The Defining Features of Inclusion

Create accessible learning environments (Access)

Access means providing the children in your program with a wide range of learning opportunities, activities, and environments that accommodate and respond to individual differences. This can be done by:

  1. Removing barriers and making sure all items and materials are reachable and available
  2. Offering multiple ways to engage with toys, materials and activities (see examples below for making adaptations or modifications) 
  3. Providing different ways for children to express what they know (see link to UDL below)
  4. Providing flexible learning opportunities for children who have different ways or styles of learning
  5. Using technology, tools, and devices that support a child's play and learning (see assistive technology information below)
  6. Making individualized adaptations and/or modifications to support a child's learning


Additional Resources

Improving access and participation using assistive technology

Assistive technology (AT) is any tool or device that a child uses to perform a task that they may not otherwise be able to do. It may be a simple "low tech" device such as a pencil grip or an expensive "high tech" device such as an iPad or specialized communication device. Many programs have found creative solutions to problems by making inexpensive adaptations to toys and materials using items that are readily available.

It's important to remember that before making any significant adaptations or introducing an assistive technology device into a child's daily routine, you should first discuss the decision with the family, as well as any specialists (e.g., special education teacher, physical therapist, etc.) that work with the child. 

The following resources can help providers with assistive technology questions:


Encourage play, learning, and membership (Participation)

Participation means using a wide range of teaching approaches to promote engagement, learning, interaction and a sense of belonging. This can be done by:

  1. Designing activities based on a child's interests, as well as abilities
  2. Providing opportunities for children to interact and work together
  3. Supporting and guiding a child as they learn or acquire a new skill (see scaffolding and task analysis below)
  4. Teaching specific skills to a child in naturally occurring activities and routines and alongside their peers (see embedded learning below)


Additional Resources

Helping parents and providers find information and assistance (Support)

Support refers to the broader early childhood system and services that assist parents and providers in supporting the practice of inclusion, as well as the opportunities available for collaborating and for building partnerships.  Support may consist of:

  1. Locating Professional Development (PD) opportunities for you and/or your staff in order to learn about best practices for supporting children with various abilities
  2. Collaborating with parents or specialists who play an important role in the child's life
  3. Requesting training to gain information that will help you improve the way you work with and support the children in your program


Additional Resources


Joint Policy Statement on Inclusion

On September 14, 2015, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education released a Joint Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities In Early Childhood Programs. The purpose of the statement was to set a vision and provide recommendations for increasing the inclusion of infants, toddlers, and preschool children with disabilities in high-quality early childhood programs. It states that the path ahead lies in a community-wide partnership that brings together families, early childhood programs, schools and State leaders to build a nationwide culture of inclusion, supported by the legal foundations of inclusion.

Building A Culture of Inclusion in Your Program

What Does Inclusion Look Like?

Inclusion is the practice of educating and caring for children with disabilities in the same environment or setting as their typically developing peers. In an inclusive program, children with and without disabilities learn and participate in the same daily activities and routines. The true measure of inclusion comes from a teacher's or provider's ability to support the child by making adaptations and modifications to their day so that they seamlessly become an equal participant and member of the group.

Every adult that cares for children should strive to provide them with the following:

  • A sense of belonging where they are valued for their abilities and potential
  • Support and accommodations so that they can participate as equal and active members of their class and/or peer group
  • Acceptance, patience and support for those things they are still learning how to do
  • Opportunities to participate independently in all aspects of their day (e.g., outdoor and indoor play, snack, lunch, circle time, bathrooming, etc.)


Where Do I Start?

The easiest way to get started is to continue doing something you are hopefully already doing, and that is getting to know the children in your program. Learning as much as you can about the children in your program will provide you with valuable information about their personality, their favorite activities, who and what they like to play with, etc.  Answering these simple questions will allow you to better understand what skills the child needs to practice, as well as when and where to embed additional practice opportunities.


Answering the "what" question requires you to have a basic understanding of how children progress developmentally. By knowing the sequence for how a child learns certain skills, you will be able to adapt an activity to appropriately meet their current and future needs. The most important thing to remember is that you are looking to present opportunities that challenge the child, but are also achievable. Tasks that are too difficult or too easy for a child often times result in the child becoming frustrated or bored and this is often times displayed through challenging behaviors.

Answering the "when" and "where" questions begins with looking at your daily schedule of activities and routines. You will have the most success if you are able to find naturally occurring times within a child's day to practice new skills. This is also where taking the time to know what the child likes to do will come into play. If a child likes building with blocks, then think about how to embed skill practice into that area of the classroom. Be creative and think outside the box when trying to find times and ways for a child to practice a skill. Click below to learn more about the practice of embedding. 

Embedding Learning Goals into Everyday Activities and Routines

When designing activities for the children in your program, it's important that you take into account what skills each child is learning, what their interests are, and the way they learn best. This can, at first, seem like an overwhelming task, but the more you get to know each child in your program the easier it will become.

The best way to begin is to think about where in your daily schedule (e.g., free choice, snack, circle time, etc.) or where within your room (e.g., sensory table, art, dramatic play, etc.) you could embed a learning opportunity or a time for the child to practice a particular skill. For example, if a child needs added opportunities to practice fine motor skills, such as picking up small pieces or using utensils (e.g., painting with a paintbrush, eating with a fork, coloring, etc.) then you can think about where in your daily schedule you could embed extra opportunities for them to practice. If the child likes to play with Legos then make sure you have them available during free play. Try making a game out of snack time by having all the kids use a fork to pick up fruit snacks or a spoon to pick up fish crackers. Make the opportunities fun, interesting and as naturally occurring as possible.

The key features for embedding:

  • Know the learning goals for each child in your program
  • Think about where in your day you could provide opportunities for the child to practice the learning goal or skill
  • Think about what the child enjoys doing and what interests them most
  • Find naturally occurring times where the skills can be embedded and practiced (e.g., meal time, transitions, free play, routines, etc.)


Additional Resources

What Skills Do I Need?

There are a number of skills that will help you to become a more inclusive program, but one of the most important things that impacts how you see the practice of inclusion and, more broadly, people with disabilities, is your attitude.  It is reported that the biggest barrier to inclusion continues to be a person's attitude and beliefs (DOE/DHHS Joint Policy Findings - pg. 6). Individuals that are able to see a person's abilities instead of just their disability, will have an easier time understanding the benefits of inclusion and implementing inclusive practices into their program. 

Reflect On Your Own Attitudes and Values (Self Reflection)

As you work to support children and their families, make sure you take the time to reflect on how things are going. As early childhood educators it is important to demonstrate the ability to think critically about one's work, through self-assessment and self-reflection. Working with children of varying abilities and diverse backgrounds requires you to consider multiple points of view, some of which may be quite different than your own. It takes a special person to be able to understand that one's own culture, educational background, experiences, and values directly affect how you interact with and view each child and family in your program. 
Do you think your cultural values could negatively impact the expectations you have for some children? How about children with disabilities?  What are the expectations you have for them?  If they're different, why are they different? These are important things to explore as you start to implement more inclusive practices into your program.


Another important thing you can do to create a culture of inclusion in your program is to build a strong relationship with the families in your program. The knowledge and experiences that a family can share with you should never be taken for granted. Taking into consideration a families ideas and values when creating learning goals for the child, as well as when planning activities, will not only help the child to be successful, but it will positively impact your entire program as well.  Greater family involvement is essential to the inclusion process.

Family Engagement

Share the Responsibility
Families and child care providers have a shared responsibility in making sure that children are given opportunities that allow them to meet their full potential. Positive results occur when families and early childhood educators work together to identify, plan and work toward the outcomes that are best for the child. During this process it is extremely important that two-way communication is encouraged. Sharing information in an honest and caring manner will help to build relationships that are based on trust and respect.

Welcome Differences
It is important to remember that families, even individual family members, may have a different set of beliefs and/or opinions about what they feel is most important for their child, as well as how best to support their child's needs. Child care providers should be careful not to assume that all families have similar values to their own.  Taking the time to listen to and understand the family's perspective and why they may feel a certain way will not only help to build a trusting relationship, but it will ultimately impact the success of the child.  Welcome information from the family on all aspects of the child's life and development, especially the ideas and expectations they have for their child.

Work Toward Shared Learning Goals
As you build a relationship with the family, make sure that you are taking the time to discuss the child's development and learning.  Work together to identify specific strategies that will support the child's development and learning at home and in your program.  Just because the child has a disability or special need doesn't mean that there aren't goals that the child and family are working on.  In fact, if the child has an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or Individualized Education Program (IEP), there is likely a team of people that have already set learning goals for the child.  This is important information for you to know about and discuss with the family.



Taking the time to build relationships with the other adults that are in the child's life is another practice that will help you and your program become more inclusive. Children with disabilities often times have therapists that they see and/or special education staff that work with them. Finding ways to communicate and collaborate with these individuals will help you to better understand the child's needs and the strategies that are being used to support and accommodate the individual needs of the child.

Building Relationships with Specialists and Special Education Professionals (Collaboration)

Collaboration among key individuals in a child's life is a cornerstone of high-quality early childhood inclusion. These key individuals can be anyone from family members, child care providers, grandparents, specialists, special educators, teachers, directors and/or administrators, etc. Collaboration among these people is necessary in order to make sure everyone is on the same page and working together.

Teamwork among child care providers, early childhood educators, and specialists can be difficult for a number of reasons (e.g., lack of time, transportation, district obligations or rules, etc.), some of which may be beyond the control of those directly involved.  In order to provide quality care and education for the child, it's vital that any obstacle is addressed and worked through, as best as possible, by the team.

One reason for building strong relationships with specialists comes from the recommendation that special education services should occur in the child's "natural learning environment" or the setting in which the child spends a significant portion of their day.  If time is not taken to build these relationships, the person impacted the most is the child. If everyone involved is truly working for what is best for the child, then building strong relationships should be a top priority.

For the benefit of the child, child care providers, special educators and therapists must be open to listening to and learning from each other. This relationship also includes discovering each other's skills, helping one another when necessary, and respecting each other's point of view.  And most importantly, this team should not only include, but take much of its direction from, the family. 



And finally, to create a culture of inclusion within your program, it's important that you are a flexible thinker and willing to step outside the box. We often think of working with children with disabilities as specialized and complicated, but you might be surprised at how many adaptations or modifications can come from simple, creative brainstorming. Remember that every child has a lot more abilities than they do disabilities; incorporate those things they can do into how you see and plan for the child's success.

Program Practices

Developing an Inclusive Attitude is one of the first steps your program should take as it moves toward a culture of inclusion.  As mentioned in Mark Sweet's, "A Thinking Guide to Inclusive Childcare," an inclusive attitude begins with genuine curiosity about children. It means creating a program that wants to think about and learn as much as it can about the unique ways that children grow and develop.  It's about accepting the fact that all children learn and develop at varying speeds and in varying ways. The following are different practices that you can use to incorporate an Inclusive Attitude into your program.

Developing an Inclusive Philosophy and Program Policy

Every child care program should, if it hasn't already, think about and discuss what its philosophy is towards caring for children with disabilities.  By law, it's really not an option to say you won't care for them, so what do you believe? 

  • Do you believe that all kids have the ability to learn?
  • Do you think that children with disabilities should have the same opportunities as the other children in your program? 

Your beliefs around these questions (and a number of other ones not listed here) impact the way in which you run your program.  Creating a mission or philosophy statement for your program is a great first step toward becoming more inclusive.  This statement will ensure that your staff operate under an agreed upon set of information, values, and beliefs for how your program will support and interact with the infants and young children with disabilities and their families.

Your program's philosophy statement should drive the creation of program policies and impact how you run your program. These policies (e.g., health and safety policy, behavior policy, expulsion/suspension policy, enrollment policy, etc.) should be directly connected to those things you value most as a child care provider. If you have an inclusive philosophy, that means that your program policies will also be inclusive in nature. 


Professional Development

Consistent and ongoing professional development gives staff the opportunity to think about their teaching practices, as well as gain information to help them feel more confident in using new practices that support children with disabilities. As often as possible, both child care staff and administrators should attend trainings in order to ensure that there is continuity throughout the program.  It's also important to think about providing staff with some form of coaching following a training to assist with the implementation of the new skills and practices. Take the time to work together as a team to make sure you and your program get the most out of the trainings you attend.

In Wisconsin there are number of training opportunities to support early childhood professionals, such as Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards training, as well as Wisconsin Pyramid Model for Social and Emotional Competence training. 

For other training opportunities related to inclusion and caring for children with special needs and disabilities, see the "Training Calendars" menu on our Inclusion Training page.

Program Evaluation and Assessment

Program evaluation and assessment should be used as ongoing tools to improve the quality of your program. Program assessment that is done on a regular basis can greatly improve the practices and procedures that impact the children, families, and staff within your program. There are numerous factors that contribute to the quality of a child care program, for example, the organization of physical space, developmentally appropriate materials and toys, teachers training and education, teamwork among staff and families, teaching practices and modifications or adaptations that are made to support children within their daily routines. Regular program evaluation helps programs identify the quality factors that are strengths, as well as those areas where additional training or support is necessary.

Benefits of Inclusion

Often times, when people discuss the benefits of inclusion, they focus on how the practice of inclusion is great for the child or children with disabilities.  Unfortunately, that narrow understanding overlooks how valuable and beneficial inclusion is for the families of the child with disabilities, the typically developing peers, the families of the typically developing peers, the teachers, the program and the community.  It's so important that we learn about all the benefits of inclusion so we can educate those people that ask us questions about caring for and educating children with disabilities in inclusive programs and settings. 

Here's just a few of the many benefits:

  • Meaningful friendships
  • Diverse and shared play opportunities
  • Greater academic outcomes for both the children with and without disabilities
  • Increased appreciation for diversity and difference
  • Respect for all people
  • Higher expectations for all
  • Preparation for adult life in an inclusive society
  • Improved persistence in the face of obstacles
  • Additional access to peer role models for academic, social, and behavioral skills
  • Opportunities to meet and learn about the experiences of families with a different story
  • A feeling of connectedness and support



If you have questions or concerns about a child's development (physical, social-emotional, or cognitive), contact: Well Badger Resource Center (formerly First Step Wisconsin) at 1-800-642-7837.  Information about Early Identification/Screening, Child Find and other early childhood topics can be found at the Collaborating Partners website.