Editor's note: This week the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released a policy statement highlighting the importance of making sure that all young children with disabilities have access to inclusive high-quality early childhood programs. In this guest post, two directors of AIDD-funded University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs) explain why it is critical that children with disabilities learn in integrated settings from the earliest time possible.
The two of us have a lot in common. We are both from the Bronx (and were born in the same hospital!); we are both Directors of AIDD-funded UCEDDs on opposite sides of the country (Seattle, WA and Farmington, CT); and we both have had the privilege of spending our professional lives in the company of infants and young children with varying abilities and needs (and their families, too!). The most important thing we share, though, is an unwavering commitment to the inclusion of all young children in high quality infant, toddler, and preschool programs.
We are delighted that the federal government shares this commitment. The policy statement released by ED and HHS this week is a comprehensive guide of well-orchestrated recommendations for states, local education agencies (LEAs), preschools, and public and private early childhood programs.
The idea of inclusion in early childhood education is not new. The implementation of this practice over the past 40 years has resulted in many documented benefits for children with and without disabilities. This is why the joint statement deserves our full attention. It is particularly important given the current emphasis in research on the developmental significance of early childhood experiences. Limiting these experiences for any child could constrain their future development and diminish their quality of life throughout their lifespan.
A child's initial experiences with the early childhood education system determine the degree to which she and her family feel connected to their natural community. This framework is perhaps best captured by the term "degree of belongingness." A child's degree of belongingness during this period establishes expectations about relationships of all forms well beyond the early childhood years. When a family experiences a high degree of belongingness with their child during the early years, it positively shapes their expectations for the future. And, inclusion during the early years benefits society as children grow up. Students of all abilities who attend inclusive early childhood programs are better equipped to learn, live, and work in inclusive communities.
The availability of high quality inclusive early care and education programs is a goal we have for all children, and we are well aware of the components that must be in place to create such environments. While we have made progress toward this goal, we still have much to accomplish. In particular, we see a growing need in the area of workforce development. A range of early care and education professionals must receive training and support to meet the individual instructional needs of children with disabilities within inclusive programs.
We feel this policy statement provides a long-overdue roadmap for future action in early childhood inclusion. The systems-level approach described in the statement creates a model of synergy between federal, state, and local programs. UCEDDs and the entire disability community can play a strong and definitive role in promoting this synergy across research, education, policy, and practice to promote the availability and growth of inclusive early childhood programs in their state.
Early childhood inclusion and early childhood intervention are inextricably linked. This relationship is recognized and accepted. Now we need to work on making inclusion a reality for all young children.
As with all guest contributions to the ACL website, this blog reflects the experiences and thoughts of the author. Find more information about guest content on the ACL site.