Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs: US Policy Statements

A preschool age girl with a prosthetic leg is at a medical appointment. The child is meeting with her physical therapist. The child is sitting on the floor building with wooden toy blocks. The medical professional is sitting on the floor assisting the girl.

Posted in Development and Learning Disability Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Early Childhood Policy  |  Tagged ,

by Kristina Mish & Susu Zhao, April 15, 2018

When American society implements policies for inclusion of people with disabilities during early childhood, a tremendous growth will be seen in the social awareness and empathy of the next generation. Teachers and early intervention service providers should be aware of new policy because ultimately it is up to education providers to implement these policies in their classrooms and lay the groundwork for normalizing disability within their students’ everyday life. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education’s 2015 policy statement on the inclusion of children with disabilities in early childhood programs provides an overview, guidelines, and recommendations for such action.

The underlying reasons for inclusion are backed by scientific studies and legal foundations, as well as economic benefits to society. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires equal opportunities for children with disabilities from birth to age 21. Part B of IDEA mandates special education services and related services for children with disabilities aged three to 21 delivered in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Part C of IDEA provides legal basis for early intervention services for all qualifying infants and toddlers in natural environments, such as the home and the community. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 further prohibit discrimination due to disability. The Head Start Act and the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act also support inclusion opportunities for children with disabilities. These laws already dictate the requirements of schools to provide their students with disabilities with equal educational services in the least restrictive environment possible, and the 2015 policy statements reinforces and provides direction for schools to follow through with these services in early childhood programs.

In addition to the scientific and legal foundations for inclusion, the economic benefits to society are significant. Teachers and early intervention service providers also play an integral role in ensuring this aspect of inclusion. Studies conducted on children with disabilities have shown that when children are included from an early stage of development, their social-emotional skills, developmental abilities, and academic prowess are positively impacted. Inclusion of children with disabilities starting from early childhood has been shown to correlate with a greater likelihood of adult employment and higher salaries, a significant return for an early investment in these children. By investing in services and trainings, the government can ensure better outcomes for children with disabilities through inclusion with their peers in educational and community environments. Many lawmakers fear the large up-front costs of programs, but in the long run the government will be saving money in sectors such as unemployment, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The impact of programs that support children with disabilities will last over time which is what makes them so valuable.

Children without disabilities also benefit from inclusion of children with disabilities through greater empathy and better understanding of diversity and no determent to developmental, academic, social, or behavioral progress. When children with disabilities are segregated into separate environments, disability becomes a foreign concept to their peers. By making inclusion the standard, teachers and providers destigmatize what it means to have an impairment. Implementing the visions of this policy lays the groundwork for creating a new culture that accepts disability and celebrates diversity both in the school system and the broader community.

The policy also outlines clear standards and definitions for the meaning of inclusion of children with disabilities. Teachers and service providers should promote inclusion of children with disabilities with their peers without disabilities. The policy expects providers to encourage participation in all activities, both within the classroom and extracurricular social activities. The use of accommodations, modifications, and scaffolding to address the differing individual needs and abilities is another facet of inclusion. The policy equates inclusion with high-quality childcare and education to emphasize that if a school or care program is not requiring inclusion of children with disabilities, then it cannot be high-quality. The policy also places responsibility upon the states to provide their families comprehensive policies that are sensitive to their cultural needs and streamlines their individualized programs to remove unnecessary burdens that disrupt the child’s progress. Additionally, the policy emphasizes the development of a mixed delivery system for this high quality education through partnerships with private early education program and technical assistance (TA) efforts that reach family child care programs as well as center-based programs to have each early education program equipped to adapt to the specific needs and learning styles of each student.

The process of implementing inclusion, however, comes with its challenges. There seems to be a disconnect between the services provided to the family through early intervention and center-based programs such as preschool special services and child care services as many families struggle to maintaining child care. There is also difficulty in the transition between Part C and Part B, section 619 of IDEA. Although logistics proves a major hurdle for inclusion, one of the prominent obstacles is demonstrated through the resistant attitudes of many providers. Teachers have been inclined to use the special education preschool classroom as a first strategy for children with disability when it should instead be the absolute last resort. Teachers are concerned that the presence of the children in a “typical” or standard classroom setting would disrupt the learning of their peers which has not been supported by research. The bottom line—More needs to be done to equip teachers with the skills they need to be able to teach ALL children, including those with disabilities. Much still needs to be done to be able to achieve the goal of inclusion in every classroom nationwide, but policies such as this one go a long way to making that happen.

Kristina Mish (C’19) and Susu Zhao (C’19)