What is Early Childhood Inclusion?

Children playing with toys on floor

"It's the right of every infant and young child...regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members."

- 2009 NAEYC and DEC Joint Position Statement

High quality inclusion is built around:

  • Belonging and membership
  • Social relationships and friendships
  • Opportunities for development and learning

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 was to:

  • Set a vision for increasing inclusion in high-quality early childhood programs
  • Bring together families, early childhood programs, schools and state leaders to create a community-wide partnership
  • Build a nationwide culture of inclusion

The Defining Features of Inclusion


Access means providing a range of learning opportunities, activities, and environments that are adapted to meet a child's individual differences.

Some examples include:

  1. Removing barriers to learning
  2. Offering multiple ways to play with toys, materials and activities
  3. Providing different ways for children to express what they know (see Universal Design for Learning)
  4. Using assistive technology to support in depth play and learning
  5. Making adaptations and/or modifications to support a child's learning



Participation means using different teaching methods to engage a child in their learning, interactions and play.

Some examples include:

  1. Creating activities based on a child's interests and abilities
  2. Providing opportunities for children to interact and work together
  3. Supporting a child as they learn a new skill (see Scaffolding and Task Analysis below)
  4. Teaching skills in naturally occurring activities and routines (see Embedded Learning below)


Additional Resources


Support refers to the larger early childhood system and services that work together to promote and encourage inclusion.

Support may consist of:

  1. Locating Professional Development (PD) opportunities for you and 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. Partnering with teachers to come up with new strategies for supporting the children in your program


Additional Resources

Assistive Technology (AT)

Any tool or device that a child uses to complete a task that they may not otherwise be able to do. 

Assistive technology is an important way to support a child's learning , as well as increase participation in activities and routines.

  • "Low tech" or simple device - pencil grip
  • "High tech" device - iPad or specialized communication device

* Be creative when looking to solve a problem!  Inexpensive adaptations to toys or materials can make a big impact.

Remember: 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 sites can help providers with AT questions:

AT Examples

Your Program as a Culture of Inclusion

What Does Inclusion Look Like?

An inclusive classroom shouldn't look much different than any other classroom. You'll see children with and without disabilities learning together and participating in the same daily activities and routines. The real difference is in how the provider/teacher plans and adapts for each and every child regardless of ability. The goal is for all children to become equal participants and member of the group.


What Skills Do I Need?

Reflect On Your Own Attitudes and Values

One of the skills that impacts how you see inclusion and people with disabilities, is your attitude. A person's beliefs continues to be the biggest barrier to successful inclusion. (DOE/DHHS Joint Policy Findings - pg. 6). Individuals that are able to see a person's abilities instead of just their disability, have an easier time seeing the benefits of inclusion and implementing inclusive practices into their program.

Working with children of varying abilities and backgrounds requires you to consider multiple points of view, some of which may be quite different than your own. It takes time and practice to see how 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 impact the expectations you have for children? What about children with disabilities? If your expectations are different for a child with a disability, why is that? Should they be different?

These are important things to explore as you start to implement more inclusive practices into your program.

Listen to Families

Listening to a families ideas and values when creating learning goals for a 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.

Shared Responsibility - Families and child care providers have a shared responsibility in making sure that children are given opportunities that allow them to develop and grow. Positive results occur when families and early childhood educators work together to identify and work toward the outcomes that are best for the child. Honest and respectful communication is where it all begins.

Welcome Differences - Families and family members may have a different set of beliefs and/or opinions about what they feel is most important for their child, and 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. 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.

Shared Learning Goals - As you build a relationship with the family, make sure you are regularly discussing the child's development and learning. Work together to identify strategies to support the child's learning both at home and in your program.

Build Relationships and Collaborate with Specialists

Collaboration among the key individuals (e.g., family members, child care providers, grandparents, specialists, special educators, teachers, directors and/or administrators, etc.) in a child's life is a cornerstone of high-quality early childhood inclusion. Teamwork among child care providers, special educators, and specialists can be difficult for a variety of reasons (e.g., lack of time, transportation, district obligations or rules, etc.). 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.

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 process includes discovering each other's skills, helping one another when necessary, and respecting each other's point of view.

Be Flexible in Your Thinking

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. Creating a culture of inclusion often requires you to be a flexible thinker and willing to step outside the box. 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 their success.

Where Do I Start?

Getting started is easy. The first thing to do is get to know the children in your program.

  • What are their favorite activities?
  • What things are they still learning how to do?
  • Who and what do they like to play with?

This information will allow you to better understand what skills the child needs to practice, as well as when and where to embed additional opportunities for practice.


What do I start with?

To answer this question you to understand how children develop and learn. 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.

When and Where do I begin?

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.)


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.

eveloping 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? 
  • Do you have the same expectations for each and every child in your program?

Your beliefs around these and other questions 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, your program policies will be inclusive as well. 

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. 

  • Visit the Inclusion Training page for training opportunities related to inclusion and caring for children with disabilities.

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, teacher 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 both 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.