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

Universal Design for Learning:
The Building Inclusive Child Care Project


Robin Cunconan-Lahr is Coordinator of the Building Inclusive Child Care Project at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Facilitating inclusive practices in early learning environments by emphasizing the role of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and family perspectives is the goal of the Building Inclusive Child Care Project (BICC) in Pennsylvania. Funded by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council and administered by Northampton Community College, BICC utilizes UDL policies and practices to support children of varying abilities in early childhood environments.

The project was initiated in 2005, in part to respond to the experiences of families who continued to be denied access to inclusive quality child care. Despite legal and policy mandates found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children and families are still confronted with barriers that prohibit successful early childhood inclusion. Additionally, it was clear that not only do early childhood providers need support to make changes toward inclusion, but the various "systems" that support early childhood structures also need to break barriers, find common grounds of best practices, and design environments that support quality inclusion. UDL creates an opportunity to do this.

UDL is a teaching approach responsive to diverse classrooms with students of varying abilities, backgrounds, and learning styles. In contrast to traditional approaches, UDL recognizes that by designing and implementing programs that are accessible and beneficial for all children from the beginning, the need to make modifications or accommodations later for specific children may be decreased or even become unnecessary. UDL provides multiple, flexible, and varied ways of presenting content, expressing knowledge, and engaging children in active and meaningful participation. Through UDL, including all children becomes an inherent part of the early learning environment.

The BICC project educates the early childhood community about UDL and demonstrates how its application can create inclusive early childhood environments. The project focuses on three areas: Professional Development, Family Mentoring, and Systems Change.

Professional development opportunities are offered in various ways. Reibman's Children Center, an early childhood education program located at Northampton Community College, is a UDL Demonstration Site and provides an opportunity for local child care providers to tour the Center and learn about UDL. BICC provides training on-location to child care staff and early childhood and special education personnel, as well as higher education faculty. It works collaboratively with early childhood consultants to increase the quality of child care provided to children and families.

Under the BICC Family Mentor model, family members of children with disabilities provide local child care staff with disability-related resources, strategies for fostering positive communications, and family-focused perspectives. Family Mentors also collaborate with early childhood and special education faculty at Northampton Community College to provide preservice teachers with family perspectives, resources, and practical family-friendly strategies. The BICC Family Mentor model creates an awareness and understanding that family perspectives play an invaluable role in the successful inclusion of young children with disabilities.

Systems change through state and national dissemination of the project's resources promotes a conscientious and intentional thinking around inclusive practices. A DVD developed by the project entitled, Building Inclusive Child Care Through Universally Designed Programs can be viewed on the project's Web site ( This video provides a "virtual tour" of the Reibman Children's Center and demonstrates how inclusion of young children can be facilitated through the integration of UDL approaches. Early childhood providers and others can use the DVD to learn about UDL and observe strategies used in early childhood settings. Free DVD copies are available upon request.

Available also is a checklist and list of questions for early childhood educators to use in the development and expansion of universally-designed environments. These documents, entitledQuestions to Consider in UDL Observations of Early Childhood Environments and Early Childhood Inclusion/Universal Design for Learning Checklistare intended to be used in conjunction and act as a guide to discover how to increase UDL policies and practices and to identify those that already exist. Finally, BICC participates and partners with various state and national entities to affect policy and systems change that work toward ensuring all children have equitable access and meaningful participation within the constructs of early childhood environments.

Project outcomes have demonstrated changes in attitudes, policies, and practices that are reflected in action-oriented steps to increase and improve inclusive practices on behalf of children with disabilities and their families. Centers have reported an increased number of children being included and specific changes in curricular approaches consistent with UDL. The BICC project hopes to expand awareness and understanding of UDL principles as a vehicle for developing and maintaining quality inclusive early childhood environments.