An inclusive early learning environment doesn’t just benefit children with disabilities or special health care needs — it also benefits their classmates, families and the community as a whole, including employers.
In an inclusive classroom, children with physical and developmental differences learn and play side-by-side with typically developing children. Both thrive as a result: kids with challenges in speech or eating expand their vocabularies and try more food simply by watching and participating in activities with their peers, while their classmates learn empathy, acceptance and the value of individuality from a young age.
When early learning staff are able to offer inclusive classrooms, they also help reduce the epidemic of preschool expulsions. Children are expelled from preschool at rates three times higher than any K-12 grade, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services data, and many of those expelled are children with disabilities and challenging behaviors. Those expulsions have been shown to have devastating consequences for the kids: greater risk of academic failure, dropout and incarceration. For parents, lack of inclusive care for their kids can cause them to drop out of the workforce, further straining family resources.
What’s an inclusive classroom like for the students?
One of the biggest advantages of being in an inclusive classroom from an early age is that it becomes second nature for children to accept a wide range of abilities. Most children at Northwest Center’s inclusive downtown Seattle early learning center start out in the infant room, says Katrina Caron, director of Early Learning.
“It’s what they know — that there are kids with different abilities,” she says. “It just becomes part of the classroom. It allows for a lot of open conversation.” For example, Caron says that many children enrolled at Northwest Center Kids use feeding tubes, and their classmates often ask questions. NWC Kids teachers answer at the appropriate developmental level for the kids, she says, responding with something along the lines of, “This child eats differently than you do, but they’re still at the table and enjoying being with friends.” When answering questions are a natural part of the school’s environment, Caron says, it’s a way for teachers to educate kids naturally.
Amy Bender, Early Learning Operations director and IMPACT Program supervisor at Northwest Center, shares another common question.
“What I love about kids is they’re not shy and they’re going to ask, ‘Why is my friend in a wheelchair?’ ” Bender says. This is an excellent opportunity for a conversation, she says. If adults shy away from these topics, that can send kids the message that they’re taboo and they should avoid the child in the wheelchair. Instead, Bender says, answer kids’ questions honestly and in a manner that’s appropriate for […]