Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities

Supporting Inclusion Through New Approaches to Professional Development


Camille Catlett is Investigator with the Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

My first week as the new infant-toddler speech-language pathologist in a large school district in the late 1970's is still a very vivid memory. I had envisioned this period of orientation as a time to get to know colleagues, children, and families. My supervisor, however, had a very different idea. And so I joined hundreds of other school district employees for endless days of lecture about policies and procedures. The thoughtful colleague beside me gave a name to this unique form of torture when she said we were being "inserviced."

This early and unpleasant experience has led to a lifelong fascination with what we can do to make sure early childhood colleagues are comfortable, confident, and capable to support each and every child. One barrier to implementing quality inclusive programs and practices remains the fact that many early childhood teachers may not be ready to work with children with disabilities. Recent surveys of preservice early childhood programs (Chang, Early, & Winton, 2005) revealed less than adequate preparation in preservice programs related to supporting young children with disabilities. As we consider the importance of preparing teachers, administrators, and other personnel to support quality inclusive programs and practices, our thoughts must turn to evidence of the most effective approaches.

What Do We Know About What Works and What Doesn't?

The evidence about what doesn't work is quite clear. Researchers have documented that one-time "spray and pray" approaches to professional development are only minimally effective (Guskey, 1986; Fixsen, Naoom, Blase, Friedman, & Wallace, 2005) and rarely result in changes in actual classroom practices (Joyce & Showers, 2002). Despite these findings, a recent national survey of Part C (early intervention) and 619 (early childhood special education) coordinators indicated that workshops were the primary method for delivering training and technical assistance (Bruder, Mogro-Wilson, Stayton, & Dietrich, 2009).

So, what do we know about effective approaches? Recent research syntheses on adult learning strategies and teacher development have provided some answers. They indicate that effective professional development is: 1) intensive and ongoing, with multiple, sequenced, active learning experiences; 2) grounded in specific practice-focused content; 3) provided in conjunction with learner self-assessment and feedback; and 4) aligned with instructional goals, learning standards, and curriculum materials (Trivette, 2005; Trivette, Dunst, Hamby, Richardson, & O'Herin, 2009; Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009). These are approaches that incorporate"knowledge acquisition"and"knowledge application,"both of which, according the definition of professional development provided by the National Professional Development Center on Inclusion (2008), are essential for effective professional development.

New Terminology and Frameworks

Recently, the National Professional Development Center on Inclusion (NPDCI) has proposed some new ideas. First, NPDCI suggests that we use the umbrella termprofessional developmentto recognize the many different approaches to the growing knowledge, skills, and dispositions of adults in the early childhood field. These approaches range from coursework and workshops to relationship-based approaches (e.g., coaching, mentoring, technical assistance, consultation, supervision). Second, NPDCI has defined professional development as "structured teaching and learning experiences that are formalized and designed to support the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions as well as the application of this knowledge in practice" (NPCDI, 2008). This definition acknowledges that while one-time workshops may be an effective way to begin the process of knowledge acquisition, they will most likely not be an effective way to support the ongoing translation of new information into practice.

Beyond workshops, professional development colleagues in the early childhood field are increasingly moving away from workshops as the primary mode of delivery to the more promising approaches described above.Relationship-based professional development (RBPD)is a term that is being used to describe types of professional assistance that use professional or collegial relationships as the foundation. Four commonly mentioned approaches to RBPD are mentoring, coaching, consultation, and technical assistance.

These new approaches require new skill sets. Skillful practitioners of relationship-based professional development need to be competent in areas that range from adult learning to communication (see Table 1).

Using New Approaches to Professional Development

Growing a workforce – teachers, specialists, administrators, assistants, and early childhood/early intervention leaders – with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to build opportunities for quality inclusion will require differently prepared personnel. Specialists need to be knowledgeable about what goes on in each child's life and how to support learning and development by integrating specialized approaches into daily routines and learning opportunities.

Teachers and assistants need to draw on their expertise in ways that support each and every young child. Administrators need to understand the benefits, barriers, and facilitators as the basis for promoting quality inclusive programs and practices. Early childhood/early intervention leaders need to test, implement, scale up, evaluate, support, and sustain effective and multi-faceted approaches to professional development that build shared knowledge acquisition and knowledge application. All adults need time and skill in working collaboratively with families to build culturally and individually responsive approaches.


None of these capabilities can be built through a single workshop. Instead, thoughtful, collaborative professional development efforts are needed to grow and sustain the collective capability of all the adults working together. The time for "inservicing" is over. Instead, our efforts and resources should be directed to supporting evidence-based approaches that can make quality inclusive programs happen.

Table 1. What Does It Take to Provide Effective Relationship-Based Professional Development?

Competence in...

Requires knowledge and skills for...

Adult learning

  • Using diverse approaches to knowledge acquisition and knowledge application that are tailored to the learning styles and preferences of participants
  • Understanding how to support the learning of both individuals and groups
  • Incorporating meaningful goals
  • Providing meaningful evaluation and feedback

Building relationships

  • Facilitating respectful and responsive interactions
  • Demonstrating culturally responsive approaches
  • Building on the interests and strengths of participants

Assessment and planning

  • Offering meaningful ways to assess progress and improvement
  • Supporting self-reflection and self-assessment in participants
  • Providing relevant and objective feedback to support continuous improvement and adjustments to personal and professional goals


  • Effectively using a range of verbal, non-verbal, and written techniques
  • Listening actively and responsively
  • Asking questions and requesting clarification
  • Summarizing, restating, and facilitating


  • Understanding continuous improvement
  • Understanding, responding to, and facilitating change
  • Managing and resolving conflict

Professional responsibilities

  • Demonstrating knowledge, skill, and dispositions in the specific area in which professional development is being provided
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Behaving in an ethical and professional manner
  • Using reflective practice to examine and continuously improve the process and progress of relationship-based professional development

Based on MnSMART, 2007; Buysse & Wesley, 2005; and Rush & Shelden, 2006.

  • Bruder, M. B., Mogro-Wilson, C., Stayton, V., & Dietrich, S. (2009). The national status of in-service professional development systems for early intervention and early childhood special education practitioners. Infants and Young Children, 22(1), 13–20.

  • Buysse, V., & Wesley, P. W. (2005). Consultation in early childhood settings. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

  • Chang, F., Early, D., & Winton, P. (2005). Early childhood teacher preparation in special education at 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education. Journal of Early Intervention, 27, 110–124.

  • Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Dallas, TX: National Staff Development Council.

  • Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blase, K. A., Friedman, R. M., & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute.

  • Guskey, T. R. (1986). Staff development and the process of teacher change. Educational Researcher, 15(5), 5–12.

  • Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

  • MnSMART. (2007). General core competencies for all relationship based professional development strategies. Retrieved from

  • National Professional Development Center on Inclusion. (2008). What do we mean by professional development in the early childhood field? Retrieved from

  • Rush, D., & Shelden, M. (n.d.). Coaching practices rating scale for assessing adherence to evidence-based early childhood intervention practices. CASETools: Instruments and Procedures for Implementing Early Childhood and Family Support Practices, 2(2).

  • Trivette, C. M. (2005). Effectiveness of guided design learning strategy on the acquisition of adult problem solving skills. Bridges, 3(1), 1–18.

  • Trivette, C. M., Dunst, C. J., Hamby, D. W., Richardson, N., & O’Herin, C. E. (2009). Characteristics and consequences of adult learning methods and strategies. Winterberry Research Synthesis, 2(2).