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. In Part 2, Dr. Falvey dives into what inclusive preschool looks like. Read the highlights from part 1 here (which includes a great explanation of what inclusion is), and read part 3 here

Wooden letters of the alphabet sit in a wooden tray on a table surrounded by jars of Play-Doh

What Does an Inclusive Preschool Look Like?

  • All students should feel welcomed in their environment, feel that they belong, and participate in the classroom so they can learn and reach their potential. 
  • An inclusive preschool is a shared learning space for children with and without disabilities. Typically developing children who learn alongside children with disabilities are better able to respect differences, demonstrate acceptance, understand diversity, be less prejudiced, and have more positive attitudes. 
  • Everyone contributes something that compliments their strengths and abilities and is respected, valued, and appreciated. Every child participates in meaningful ways.
  • Staff members have a “can-do” attitude and work as a team with parents and providers; all are supported by resources and training. Teachers recognize that all preschoolers should learn and have access to the same standards. 
  • In the Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin, students with disabilities attend the same community- and school-based programs as their typically developing peers. This short video gives a great overview of meaningful inclusion in early childhood. Some of the benefits that Sun Prairie demonstrates include:
    • The environment is accessible to every child, and is set up so that every child is getting exactly what they need.
    • Staff and parents have high expectations for all students.
    • Services like speech, OT, and PT are embedded in the classroom through routines. 
    • Service providers come into the environment and work with kids while they’re doing what they’d naturally be doing, which is in the children’s best interest.
    • Teachers learn from other teachers; when special education teachers and therapists are in the classroom, they model different behaviors that might be helpful for general education teachers.
    • Students are given the opportunity to show and tell you what they need.
    • Kids with disabilities can make true friendships in class, and their peers often show empathy and softness toward them. 
    • Young children need a variety of rich experiences with all of their peers, and children with disabilities need the opportunity for meaningful participation in their classrooms and communities.

Accommodations and Modifications That Help Ensure Inclusion in Preschool Settings

  • Physical and motor development
    • Build handles/add rubber grips to toys 
    • Ensure accessibility with Velcro or hand splints (elastic cords can help the child obtain the toy again and not have to wait for someone to pick it up for them)
    • Allow extra time (students should not be kept in situations if they are uncomfortable)
    • If a child uses a wheelchair, make sure there is space for them to safely maneuver
  • Sensory issues and social-emotional growth
    • Make sure lighting is consistent
    • Move distracting visuals away
    • Monitor noise level and physical arrangements
    • Seating arrangements should encourage participation and involvement
    • Allow for calming breaks
    • Provide support for transitions (five minute warnings or visual warnings); practice and model or role-play transitions
    • Label and discuss feelings (“It looks like you’re having a difficult time right now; what can I do to help you?”)
    • Encourage children to solve problems by themselves
  • Communication and language
    • Simplify and repeat directions, but do not over-repeat or overwhelm the child
    • Use visual supports and cues
    • Provide verbal prompts for vocabulary they understand
    • Use words constantly that are in their environment
    • Understand that kids sometimes point, gaze, or use songs to demonstrate knowledge in their own way
    • Use increasingly complex words in context and explain meanings along the way; don’t assume they every student understands
    • Help English language learners connect to their primary language and connect concepts in the English vocabulary
    • Use colors and shapes as they come up in real-life situations (for example, use household objects that represent shapes to help establish a connection with everyday objects)
    • Limit the amount of words used in a book to simplify the main items of action
    • Have the child turn the page while reading to combine fine motor and literacy skills
  • Sequence tasks from simple to complex (add more complex steps with each success).
  • Give repeated opportunities to practice.
  • Provide immediate and positive, descriptive feedback (not just “good job”). 
  • Use concrete manipulative and sensory materials.
  • Schedule breaks.
  • Offer choices, including preferred activities; when the activity is not the child’s favorite, engage in it for a few minutes and then move to a preferred activity.
  • Allow time for students to process information and their experiences.
  • Do not use modifications or accommodations if they aren’t needed.
  • If doing an alternate activity, do it in such a way that the student doesn’t feel segregated or denied; recognize it as a different station only.

Adapting Toys and Materials

  • Extend or enlarge materials (for example, add cardboard tabs to help students page through books).
  • Create boundaries for toys (use hula hoops, plastic swimming pools, trays with raised edges, or box lids; tell children this is the boundary for their toys).
  • Stabilize toys using Velcro, suction cups, small clamps/clips, non-slip shelf lining (a magnetic strip attached to a toy can stick to a baking sheet); put toys in putty or Play-Doh; provide toys with wide bases.
  • Add knobs to puzzles that don’t have them.
  • Extend paint brush handles, crayons, and silverware using tape, putty, or sponge to make it easier to hold.
  • Add something to the toy to make it more appealing (add a swatch of sandpaper or other texture to blocks, food coloring to water tablets, paint to shaving cream).
  • Simplify by performing part of the activity (like a puzzle) and leaving the last part for the child to complete.

The Importance of Play

  • Play builds social skills as children begin to move around in their environment, use fine and gross motor skills, identify objects, use language and communication skills, and begin to understand cause and effect (“If I do this, this happens”). 
  • Play supports pre-literacy and math skills, as well as language skills and creativity.
  • Play helps kids understand ideas (for example, wet sand creates mold, and too much sand can make the bucket fall over).
  • Kids learn from watching their classmates play.

Creating a Student-Centered Classroom

  • Student’s voices are heard: they participate in a conversation about what their day looks like and initiate and make choices in the classroom. 
  • Place emphasis on active learning as well as collaboration among students, teachers, and specialists. 
  • Focus on differentiation (every child learns in a different way, at a different rate, and using different materials; see more on this in the section below).
  • Importance is placed on social-emotional learning.
  • Technology is integrated into classrooms.
  • Give students the benefit of the doubt — assume they have competence. Look for highlights; if they do something out of the ordinary, reinforce it with specifics about what was done so they may repeat it. 
  • Reduce reliance on skills that highlight student’s deficits; give them the opportunity to build on their strengths. 

Differentiation in the Classroom

  • Designate varied learning areas (some are quieter, some are more active; some should have a lot of toys and activities and others should have minimal stimulation so that kids with different learning needs can respond differently).
  • Allow students to develop their skills in different ways.
  • Use materials that can be used in more than one way.
  • Model the use of materials based on how the child is using it.
  • Give learners a variety of ways to gain information and content.
  • Demonstrate what they need to know and maintain their interest.
  • Provide multiple ways for students to show what they learned (for example, instead of responding verbally, they can point).

How to Find Inclusive Schools

  • Look for schools that have something in their description about welcoming students with disabilities as part of their guiding philosophy.
  • Try to find a neighborhood school so the child can make local friends.
  • Learn about your child’s rights (Regional Center is a great resource); schools may only offer a segregated classroom, but it is your right to discuss other options at your IEP meeting.
  • Network with other parents of children with disabilities, as they have likely already talked to preschool directors and visited sites. Join your district’s special education advisory council (SEAC), which is made up of parents. They meet once a month or every other month and advise parents about resources and available services. It’s important to get involved early on; contact your district’s director of special education to find out when and where the meetings are happening.

Form Your Inclusion Team and Make an Action Plan

  • Bring in a team of significant players, such as the preschool teacher, special education teacher, paraeducator, service providers (OT, PT, speech), administrators, and significant others and those who play an important role in the child’s life. (When the child is getting ready to graduate from preschool, include their kindergarten teacher and the administrator from the kindergarten setting.)
  • Create an action plan that includes relevant family health and educational background information; focus on the student’s strengths and likes.
  • What are the student’s goals, fears, and dislikes? What are things to avoid?
  • What are your dreams and hopes for your child? What is needed to achieve these goals?
  • Does the Regional Center need to get involved? What does the school need to do? Who else in your circle (grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles) can help meet the child’s needs and your family’s dreams?
  • If a student is struggling, there are two sites that provide training across the state on the MTSS (multi-tiered system of support) framework, which offers solutions to keep children in the environment with additional support. MTSS aims to address behavior and academic issues and intervene early so students can catch up with their peers as quickly as possible.


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