Why is there is a gap between the percentage of children 0-5 with significant disabilities and the percentage attending early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings in Australia? Children with disabilities have a right to access the same educational services as those without disabilities. International and national policy documents support this position, and legislation in Australia makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals with disabilities. In addition, there is evidence that there are potential benefits for children with and without disabilities in inclusive early childhood settings.
Inclusion in the early years is not new. From the establishment of the first early childhood intervention programs in Australia in the 1970s, young children with disabilities have been supported in mainstream early childhood settings. However, there are now, and always have been, many barriers to successful ECEC inclusion. Attitudes to inclusion, lack of additional staff and/or failure to use additional staff appropriately, failure to implement family centred practice and resistance from families of children without disabilities have all been cited in the Australian literature as contributing factors. A review of the Australian research over the past 15 years would suggest that the greatest barriers to inclusion at the early childhood level are lack of staff training and lack of skilled support for inclusion.
So are these barriers real? Some parents are either not seeking inclusive placements or are finding it difficult to find suitable placements. Parents have reported concerns that their child will not be accepted in an inclusive setting and may feel isolated if their child is the only one in the centre with a significant disability. They have also reported concerns that their child’s developmental needs may not be met in an inclusive setting. Like parents of typically developing children, these parents want the option of accessing childcare and/or preschool services and, above all, want their children to have positive social experiences in those settings.
The skills and knowledge of the early childhood staff will be of paramount importance when including a child with a disability in an ECEC centre. Managing the concerns of parents of children with and without disabilities is essential. Despite the general positive attitude towards inclusion, some parents of typically developing children may believe that their child will be disadvantaged by the presence of a child with significant disabilities. These concerns should be acknowledged and addressed by keeping the families informed and involved, and celebrating the many gains made by all children in the centre.
For children with disabilities, inclusion must provide opportunities for engagement, participation and development. In order to include children with complex needs, particularly those who are difficult to engage, early childhood educators may need the support of professionals with skills specific to the needs of the child.
A skilled early childhood intervention workforce supporting competent early childhood educators has the potential to enhance the success of early childhood inclusion. In addition to their initial pre-service training, early interventionists must have a working knowledge of instructional science in addition to skills in collaboration, family-centred practice and a focus on functional skills that can be practised within the inclusive setting. The ECEC educator will be responsible for integrating interventions into the routines and activities of the centre and, therefore, along with the child’s family, should be involved in the selection of priority goals and the design of planned interventions. It will not be surprising that where successful inclusion has been identified in the Australian research literature, it has been led by an outstanding and committed early childhood educator.
Dr Coral Kemp is an experienced practitioner, consultant, program director, teacher trainer, and researcher in the field of early childhood intervention. She is a member of the coordinating committee for the International Society on Early Intervention, Honorary Fellow at Macquarie University and member of the management committee of the STaR Association, which supports children with disabilities in regular childcare. She developed the STaR model following the establishment of two earlier models, reverse inclusion at Macquarie University and a cluster program in a private childcare centre. Dr Kemp has published her research on early childhood inclusion in peer-reviewed journals.