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

What Do We Mean by "Early Childhood Inclusion?" Finding a Shared Definition


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

Today, ever-increasing numbers of infants and young children with and without disabilities play and learn together in a variety of places – homes, early childhood programs, and neighborhoods, to name a few. Promoting development and belonging for every child is a widely held value among early education and intervention professionals and throughout our society. Early childhood inclusion is the term used to reflect these values and societal views. However, the lack of a shared national definition has created some misunderstandings about inclusion.

In 2007, two major organizations serving young children – the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) – began a thoughtful journey toward creating a shared position statement on early childhood inclusion that can be used nationwide. The process, which was orchestrated by the National Professional Development Center on Inclusion, included input from a joint DEC/NAEYC work group, discussion by the governing boards of both organizations, and an extensive national validation process that yielded over 700 individual inputs.

In April 2009, Early Childhood Inclusion: A Joint Position Statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was officially approved by both organizations. The position statement offers a definition of early childhood inclusion, as well as recommendations for how the joint position statement can be used to improve early childhood services for all children throughout the United States.

Definition of Inclusion

The definition of early childhood inclusion provided in the position statement is not designed as a litmus test for determining whether a program can be considered inclusive, but rather is a guide for identifying the key components of high quality inclusive programs. That definition is as follows (DEC/NAEYC, 2009, p.2):

Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, and practices that sup-port the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society. The desired results of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relation-ships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential. The defining features of inclusion that can be used to identify high quality early childhood programs and services are access, participation, and supports.

Those three defining features – access, participation, and supports – were further described as follows:

  • Access: This means providing a wide range of activities and environments for every child by removing physical barriers and offering multiple ways to promote learning and development. Inclusion can take many different forms and can occur in various organizational and community contexts, such as homes, Head Start, child care, faith-based programs, preschool, public and private pre-kindergarten, early elementary education, and blended early childhood education/early childhood special education programs. In many cases, simple modifications can facilitate access for individual children. Universal Design for Learning approaches are another way to use principles and practices to ensure that every young child has access to learning environments, to typical home or educational routines and activities, and to the general education curriculum.
  • Participation: This means using a range of instructional approaches to promote engagement in play and learning activities, and a sense of belonging, for every child. Adults promote belonging, participation, and engagement of children with and without disabilities in inclusive settings in a variety of intentional ways. Tiered models in early childhood hold promise for helping adults organize assessments and interventions by level of intensity. Depending on the individual needs and priorities of a child/family, implementing inclusion involves a range of approaches to promote learning and participation for all children – from embedded, routines-based teaching to more explicit interventions.
  • Supports: This refers to broader aspects of the system such as professional development, incentives for inclusion, and opportunities for communication and collaboration among families and professionals that assure high quality inclusion.

Using These Concepts to Improve Early Childhood Services

The ideas put forward in the inclusion position statement can be used by families and professionals to shape practices and influence policies related to inclusion. First and foremost, an agreed-upon definition of inclusion such as that offered here should be used to create high expectations for infants and young children with disabilities, and to shape educational policies and practices that support high quality inclusion in a wide range of early childhood programs and settings. Recommendations for using the position statement to accomplish these goals include:

  • Create high expectations for every child to reach his or her full potential. The definition of early childhood inclusion should help create high expectations for every child, regardless of ability. Shared expectations can, in turn, lead to the selection of appropriate goals and support the effort of families, practitioners, individuals, and organizations to advocate for high quality inclusion.
  • Develop a program philosophy on inclusion. The agreed-upon definition of inclusion should be used by a wide variety of early childhood programs to develop their own philosophy on inclusion. Programs need such a philosophy as part of their broader program mission to ensure shared assumptions and beliefs about inclusion, and to identify quality inclusive practices.
  • Establish a system of services and supports. Shared understandings about the meaning of inclusion should be the starting point for creating a system of services and supports that respond to the needs and characteristics of children with varying types of disabilities and levels of severity, including children who are at risk for disabilities. The goal of services and supports should be to ensure access, participation, and the infrastructure of supports needed to achieve the desired results related to inclusion.
  • Revise program and professional standards. The definition of inclusion should be used as the basis for revising program and professional standards to incorporate high quality inclusive practices. Because existing early childhood program standards primarily reflect the needs of the general population of young children, this would be an opportunity to incorporate dimensions and considerations to address the individual needs of every child.
  • Improve professional development across all sectors of the early childhood field. Keys to improving professional development include deter-mining who would benefit from professional development on inclusion, what practitioners need to know and be able to do in inclusive settings, and what methods are needed to facilitate learning opportunities related to inclusion.
  • Influence federal and state accountability systems. Consensus on the meaning of inclusion could influence federal and state accountability standards related to increasing the number of children with disabilities enrolled in inclusive programs. The current emphasis on quantity as a measure of accountability (i.e., the number of children who are participating in an inclusive setting) ignores issues of the quality and anticipated outcomes of the services that children experience. The shared definition of inclusion could be used to revise accountability systems to reflect both the need to increase the number of children with disabilities enrolled in inclusive programs, as well as to improve the quality and outcomes of inclusion.

Early Childhood Inclusion: A Joint Position Statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) will be influencing conversations, presentations, and professional development efforts for years to come. In the coming months, the National Professional Development Center on Inclusion will be hosting blogs and rolling out related products and information in hopes that families, practitioners, and administrators will engage in thoughtful discussions of how to support quality inclusion for each and every child. The most important question remains: How will you incorporate these ideas in your work?

  • DEC/NAEYC. (2009). Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Retrieved from