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?

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. Here, in Part 3, Dr. Falvey explains the important role that adults — teachers, assistants, therapists, and parents — play in inclusive preschools, and uses helpful examples to illustrate what teachers and parents alike can do to facilitate and model inclusion. Read the highlights from part 1 on what inclusion actually is, and part 2 on what inclusive preschool looks like in practice


For Parents: Inclusion Questions to Ask When Choosing a Preschool


  • Are the children engaged, or quiet and still?
  • Are staff involved with children at eye level? 
  • Are rooms bright and cheerful without being overwhelming? 
  • Do adults speak positively about all children?
  • Are all children receiving individual attention
  • Do adults call children by name
  • Are there sufficient personnel to respond in the event of an emergency? 
  • Is the “time-out” tactic overused?
  • Are caregivers trained in early childhood special education? 
  • Are teaching staff available to attend school district meetings (such as IEP meetings)? Even if the child is going to a local or private school, the teacher should contribute to the IEP, as they see the child every day.
  • Do classroom staff receive positive support
  • Do you see and hear a variety of developmental activities taking place? 
  • Do the children have opportunities to control events and objects in their environment
  • Are activities based on a child’s level of functioning
  • Are learning materials accessible to children with disabilities? 
  • Will staff help you develop goals for your child and plans to achieve them? 
  • Do classroom personnel provide parents with regular schedules of activities and events? 
  • Do teachers and caregivers describe their communication practices as “open”
  • Do parents actively participate with their child or children? 


Strategies to Guide Staff, Teachers, and Therapists in Creating an Inclusive Preschool Environment


Adapt classroom space, materials, and equipment

  • Every child should be able to access their classroom’s physical space, materials, and equipment. Children who use walkers, wheelchairs, braces, and AAC equipment need to be able to move fluidly around the classroom.
  • Scaffolding strategies can help children access and use materials in meaningful ways: this starts with adults giving them access and gradually fading out support over time as the child becomes able to proficiently use the materials themselves.
  • Teachers and assistants should set up classroom areas and materials in a way that’s accessible to all children, but organize the physical space, equipment, and materials to encourage children’s independence and social skills.



Facilitate Peer Interaction


  • Interaction in the classroom should not be dominated by adults; while adults in class play a critical role, such as planning and implementing daily social play and learning activities, there should be a good balance between adult involvement and spontaneous social interactions. 
  • Facilitate problem-solving between children; we don’t necessarily want to fix everything for them, but help them resolve issues. 
  • Peer teaching is in some ways more powerful than adult teaching. Make sure that peers have enough information to be role models.




Guide free-choice activities and play


  • In free play, adults model enjoyment and engagement with their tone and quality of voice, and with enthusiasm that’s different from academic-based language.
  • Children have many opportunities to choose activities, playmates, and play topics during free-choice activities. Making choices is an important communication skill. Nonverbal children can also make choices by looking or pointing.
  • Observe children’s engagement while playing and consistently support their play using individualized strategies such as verbal/nonverbal prompting, modeling, commenting/asking questions, and enlisting other peers.



Facilitate conflict resolution


  • Set clear rules and behavioral expectations that are consistently communicated to children to encourage social behavior and prevent conflict. We must use both visual and auditory communication. For example, we could show pictures of what we expect children to do and pictures of what we don’t want them to do covered with a big red X. 
  • When children have difficulty resolving differences on their own, adults can help by listening to everyone’s perspectives and acknowledging their views and feelings.
  • Try to focus on helping children find more positive ways to negotiate their differences. Individualized strategies can help children generate solutions.



Encourage membership


  • Work together with other adults in the classroom to create a community where all children feel that they belong, regardless of their individual differences.
  • Help develop a sense of belonging by planning activities and creating opportunities to help children understand and accept individual differences. For example, some kids may not be able to walk independently to the front of the classroom, but with the use of mobility equipment, they can participate in the activity.
  • Opportunities exist for all children to assume equal roles and responsibilities in the classroom. 
  • Intervene to prevent bullying or persistent teasing among children in the classroom. We need to teach children to respect one another.
  • Use positive and inclusive strategies for responding to children’s individual differences.




Encourage adult–child relationships


  • Seek many opportunities during the day to engage in social interactions with children in the classroom that are positive, reciprocal, and sustained. Show enjoyment when interacting with children.
  • Be responsive to children’s interests as well as their emotional needs. Get to know the children and what is important to them. For example, if a student’s mother just had a baby, use a baby doll to help them make a connection to their new sibling.
  • Use visual supports and additional classroom resources for supporting children’s emotional needs and development. 




Support all communication styles


  • Be responsive to children’s communication styles, whether it’s gesturing, pointing, making a noise, grimacing, or smiling in reaction to what’s going on.
  • Actively facilitate social communication with children using a variety of scaffolding strategies, including visual supports, books, classroom resources, and alternative means of communication — for example, using pictures of available toys to show their classmates what toy they want. Alternative means of communication enable children to communicate and participate in classroom activities with their peers.




Adapt group activities


  • Ensure that children have opportunities to participate with their peers in planned whole-group and small-group activities. 
  • Plan and monitor embedded strategies and adaptations to support children’s needs and adjust activities as needed to encourage the participation of all children in the group. 




Provide transitions


  • Activity transition may be difficult for some kids, especially if they are new to the school.
  • Share responsibilities with other adults in the classroom and adjust roles as needed to prepare for daily activities and promote smooth transitions.
  • Specific, individualized strategies (such as visual supports) are used for children who experience greater difficulty making the transition between activities. For example, use cards that depict circle time, recess, snack time, and playtime to show kids the schedule. If their highly preferred activity is on the schedule, they’ll be motivated to stay engaged. Show visual schedules with a timeframe so students understand when an activity is ending.




Provide feedback


  • Give children sensitive, positive feedback (both verbal and nonverbal) on their efforts, behaviors, and learning. Make sure the feedback is clear, and that children understand what is being reinforced.
  • Use different types of feedback (such as corrective feedback and positive reinforcement) to support important goals such as positive behavior, learning, and engagement.
  • Use feedback that focuses on children’s efforts and the process of doing things rather than solely on results. (For example, “I am so proud of you for trying so hard.”) 




Facilitate partnerships with families


  • Implement daily procedures for encouraging bidirectional communication with families about children’s IEPs and progress. (Parents should share the feedback they receive about their child’s learning with their child at home.)
  • Encourage staff to participate in meetings with families.
  • Give families opportunities to share their priorities. What is important to the family may not be important to the school, so try to get on the same page. Educators should listen to what the family’s priorities are and adapt to them.
  • Invite families to provide feedback on the quality of the school program.




Monitor children’s learning


  • Use multiple assessment methods for monitoring children’s progress on individual goals. (You do not want to rely on a developmental checklist every six months or annually.)

  • Use a combination of research-based formative assessment tools, observation notes, behavioral assessment checklists, and various other teacher-made assessment tools.
  • Develop an individualized intervention plan for each child based on identified needs and specify how interventions and supports can be embedded into classroom activities. Special education and general education teachers should collaborate and share this information.
  • Ensure that all classroom staff have access to assessments, intervention plans, and progress reports from specialized therapists, and can use this information for their own planning. Therapists should provide information to staff on an ongoing basis.
  • Ensure that planning includes interventions that support children’s needs in their home and community.
  • Use progress monitoring data to adjust interventions and instruction.


Is your child currently attending an inclusive preschool, or have they in the past? Are there things you loved about the program or wished the school had done differently? We’d love to know!

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