Last month’s blog covered four elements of high-quality preschool programs: effective interactions, curricula, assessments, and family engagement. As noted in the blog, we all want the same thing: access to quality for ALL young children!
In Virginia there are nearly 6,500 four-year-olds and 4,300 three-year-olds with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in our public schools.
Yet, we as a Commonwealth (and a nation) still have a long way to go.
Did you know: Although the inclusion of children with special needs with their typical peers has been happening for over three decades, inclusion nationwide has only increased 5.7%?
In Virginia, the data is even more disheartening, with inclusion of children with IEP’s in school-based preschool programs falling far below the national average.
Research indicates that state and local administrators and other program leaders play a pivotal role in making inclusion work.
In this blog, we will discuss 4 critical roles that program administrators play in developing and maintaining inclusive early childhood programs.
Role 1: Understand and Convey What Inclusion Is
What is inclusion, really? Can you (and your staff) define it?
According to the Virginia Cross Sector Professional Development Inclusion Task Force,
Inclusion supports the fundamental right of every infant, child and family to actively participate in all learning and social activities as a full member of their community.
At the heart of it, this definition seems simple enough. It is every child’s right to participate in all activities. Yet, despite laws that expect inclusion, advancements in education, and research supporting benefits, inclusion for many young children with disabilities is still just an ideal.
Watch this video [3:15] developed by Virginia’s Integrated Training Collaborative titled, “Inclusion Means Everyone!”
Role 2: Set the Tone and Philosophy
While it may come as a surprise, research indicates that beliefs and attitudes are the primary barriers to inclusion.
Inadequate or misleading information can drive fears and contribute to personnel, and even families, being reluctant to include children. Inclusion will not occur without intentionally building shared attitudes and beliefs across staff and the community at large.
It is important for program administrators to establish a program philosophy and provide information on the importance and benefits of inclusion to set a positive tone.
Do you (and your staff) know the numerous benefits of inclusion shown in research?
(An entire blog could be devoted to this topic, but only a few highlights are provided!)
- Children with disabilities as it helps them reach their full potential, including improved social emotional skills and language and cognitive development.
- Children without disabilities as they appreciate diversity more and grow up to be more empathetic.
- Families as they report feeling more connected and a part of their natural community. When a family experiences a high degree of belongingness with their child during the early years, it positively shapes their expectations for the future.
- The entire community as all children are better equipped to learn, live, and work in inclusive communities.
Role 3: Know (and Follow) the Laws
Three main federal laws related to services for children with disabilities:
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal education law, ensures all children and youth with disabilities access to a free, appropriate public education.Each eligible child has an IEP outlining the range of services needed. Children with disabilities are to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) alongside typically developing peers to the extent possible.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that provides people with disabilities equal rights in employment, state and local public services, and public accommodations, such as schools and early childhood programs.
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against children and adults on the basis of a disability by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
To learn more about these laws, see the Virginia Early Childhood Inclusion Guidance Document (page 12).
Did you know?: These 3 laws apply to preschool programs provided in our public schools, including the state-funded Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) and federally-funded Head Start. In these programs, children with disabilities are expected to be included. Head Start takes this a step further by requiring that 10% served are children with disabilities.
Role 4: Convene an Inclusion Planning Team – and Start Taking Steps
The keys to the success and longevity of inclusive placement opportunities are systematic planning, commitment, and execution of critical action steps by program leaders that will support a unified early childhood program.
It is imperative to develop an inclusion planning team who can plan how to make inclusion work in the school division and in the community. The team should be diverse, composed of school division representatives, child care, Head Start, families, and others (like division fiscal and transportation reps) to collaboratively make decisions and take steps.
There are 5 key stepsto Plan for Inclusive Practices outlined on the Virginia Early Childhood Inclusion Guidance Document (page 24). These steps include convening stakeholders and planning to conduct ongoing Professional Development jointly across early childhood and early childhood special education.
For aligned, in-depth planning guides and accompanying resources see the Inclusive Placement Opportunities for Preschoolers (IPOP) manual.
There is no longer a question about whether or not to include children with disabilities.
The question is how and where to begin.
In addition to knowing following the laws, you as an early childhood administrator have critical roles in being educated about inclusion, setting the tone and philosophy, and leading your inclusion planning team toward measurable improvements.
For support and guidance on how to take a step forward, explore the linked resources above (VDOE Guidance Document and IPOP manual) and reach out to your regional T/TAC provider!