Inclusion is so much more than a word — it’s a daily practice and a dream, and it’s what we as parents want for our kids when they go out into the world (and for society as a whole). It’s also the backbone of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: that children with disabilities should be educated with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent possible. Research shows that children with and without disabilities perform better academically, socially, and generally when participating in inclusive classrooms, and that children who have gone to school with non-disabled peers from preschool through 12th grade have better post-secondary outcomes than those who are in segregated classrooms or schools. And the earlier inclusion starts, the better. So what does inclusion look like in practice? How can you know if a school that claims to be inclusive really is? 

Dr. Mary Falvey, a national authority on inclusive education for students, hosted a three-part webinar series for the Westside Regional Center about the importance of inclusion for preschoolers with disabilities. She explains what inclusion is (and what it isn’t), what it looks like in practice, how to ensure that assessments are meaningful, ways that parents can advocate for inclusion, and more. (HINT: You may want to earmark a few of her very quotable points to use at your next IEP meeting.) Dr. Falvey is professor emerita of special education at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), where she taught and provided leadership for more than 38 years while working with schools and districts to create inclusive educational programs. We’ll be sharing highlights from each of the three parts of the series. (Read part 2 here and part 3 here!) 

A young Asian child with dark hair and bangs holds up a drawing of a mermaid and smiles

What Is Inclusion?

  • Inclusion is a human right — children learn from each other in important and significant ways. Inclusive education has been researched for more than 50 years, and research has shown that children with and without disabilities do better academically, socially, and generally in life when participating in inclusive classrooms, and that inclusive education should begin at a very early age.
  • Research has shown that children who have gone to school with non-disabled peers from preschool through 12th grade have better post-secondary outcomes (employment and higher education) than those who are in segregated classrooms or schools.
  • People with disabilities are experiencing higher quality of life than they did in decades past, but this improvement is happening slowly. School desegregation of students with disabilities has been very slow, and when inclusion does happen, it often results in “dumping and hoping.” For example, a parent drops off their child at a “regular” preschool or general education classroom and hopes it goes well. This is not really inclusion. Inclusion is not just about moving the student into the gen ed setting, but moving the resources as well and individualizing the supports along the way.
  • Inclusion is celebrating diversity and individuality, and the needs of the whole community — it’s not an add-on or afterthought. It’s more than just a policy — it’s about providing for everybody. Teaching and learning are planned with all students in mind. 
  • Inclusive education does NOT promote lowering the standard of education for other children. It may mean that some students have additional accommodations or modifications to support them in the classroom.
  • Inclusive education is a bigotry repellent: kids learn to live together in a world that creates a better and safer place for us all. A happy extension of this fact is that children who learn together while being supported are less likely to fear judgment by others.

IDEA and the Least-Restrictive Environment

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that schools are required to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least-restrictive environment (LRE) that is appropriate for the individual student’s needs. LRE is not a place, but a principle that guides your child’s individual program. 
  • It is not acceptable to segregate children and adults based on how they look, the language they speak, or how they learn. Just because a child learns more slowly than others or needs a sign language interpreter does not mean they have to be in a separate space from their nondisabled peers.
  • LRE also refers to providing educational support such as teachers, therapists, or adaptive physical education. These resources are usually provided in segregated environments and need to be spread out.
  • LRE includes social support. For example, we need to find ways for nonverbal children to interact with peers, such as tapping the shoulder of a friend to get their attention, or showing a picture of a toy they are interested in so that others in the classroom understand what they’re trying to communicate. 
  • Inclusion is not a legal term and is not part of the law, but it is a philosophy about fully belonging to a community. We want to make sure that children with disabilities have the same access in schools as they do in the community. 

Early Childhood Inclusion

  • Early childhood inclusion takes place inside the child’s home and in child care programs, community early education, Head Start programs, state and private preschools, and public schools.
  • Service delivery models include:
    • Itinerant (direct service): A special education teacher or speech therapist works with the child directly
    • Itinerant (collaborative): Staff works collaboratively for the child
    • Team teaching/co-teaching: General education and special education teachers work together to meet the needs of the whole class
    • Reverse mainstreaming: Inviting non-disabled kids to join the classroom
    • Dual enrollment: Children spend half of the day in one program and half of the day in another program

Meaningful Assessments

  • Assessments are performed to screen for diagnosis and eligibility, for curriculum and program development, and for evaluation of instructional effectiveness (are we doing what we need to be doing?). 
  • They are performed through direct testing (which provides the opportunity to respond to specific stimuli), observation in the child’s natural environment (natural conditions and settings with typical distractions and materials), and interviews with teachers, family, and staff.
  • Whatever assessment or test is used must have some purpose or meaning for the child.
  • Assessments are a process (they are not done in one day), and they must use adequate instruments and procedures with validity and reliability. This is not found in many standardized tests across populations of children with disabilities.
  • Changes in assessments reflect changes in the field and in beliefs. Changes in definitions (such as intellectual disability) are not considered as much an issue or characteristic of a child as much as what is needed to support the child with this disability label. Parents, teachers, and educators must make sure that we provide what the child needs to be successful.
  • We must assume competence. If a child is unable to talk, we still give them the benefit of doubt that they understand. If we assume they cannot, we will never get anywhere. 

IQ Tests

  • IQ tests may be inappropriately used to make decisions about services or the level of progress students are making. Intelligence cannot be reliably measured because it cannot be generalized.
  • The old paradigm falsely assumes that students with intellectual disabilities (ID) do not know, never will, and have nothing to say. There is also an assumption that a child with ID lacks prerequisite skills to learn core academic curriculum, so they often spend their life learning these prerequisite skills and not the real curriculum. 
  • Differences in learning are seen as opportunities for individualized intervention.

Measuring Student Behavior

  • Document the occurrence and the variables for a behavior’s occurrence. Did the behavior occur because of the time of day? Was the light on or off? Is it because different materials were used?
  • We measure student behavior to understand when and why learning is occurring or not, and to be accountable and understand the findings and implications of published research.


Examples of accommodations and modifications include:

  • Making text bigger
  • Audiobooks
  • Graphic organizers
  • Larger font
  • Shortened assignments
  • Single step directions (simplify instead of giving all the steps at once) 
  • Provide a completed sample
  • Visual cues 
  • Repeated directions
  • Partial completion
  • Extended time
  • Pointing at answers
  • Reduced answer choice
  • Dictation
  • Preferential seating
  • Breaks, including sensory
  • Headphones

Placing labels on objects around the classroom will give children opportunities to learn to read and distinguish these objects. Even if they come in not being able to read, you are providing the opportunity to learn. Children must be put in environments that are rich with literacy.

How to Support Competence 

  • Provide what is needed to support the student, such as:
  • Ensure that inclusion in schools and community is the norm. Talk to people around you and in your community. This must be a conversation with everyone, not just with other caregivers and parents raising children with disabilities, as everyone benefits from inclusion equally.
  • Support peer friendships in all aspects of life. Play is an important part of development and growth, and the power of peers makes a difference for children.

How to Support Inclusive Preschool Programs

  • Show your child’s school staff what inclusion looks like.
  • Present your child realistically but emphasize their strengths (for example, he loves books and blocks).
  • Demand that your child receives the needed support, including accommodations and supports.
  • Build relationships with other parents.
  • Support school activities. 

Your child having a disability does not mean you cannot have a dream for them. Recognize that we do not know everything, and that there are opportunities, technologies, and learning experiences. Also recognize that it takes courage to walk into a private preschool and ask to have a conversation with the director about enrolling your child with a disability. There will be a time when all doors will open.

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