Rocking and Rolling. Promoting Inclusion in Infant and Toddler Settings
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Dunia sits with a notepad in front of her as the toddlers in her early learning program nap. She reviews information about Maddox, a new child joining the program, that has been shared by his family. They write that Maddox loves animals—especially dinosaurs—and enjoys stacking blocks. He smiles and laughs and likes to watch his two siblings play. His family shares that Maddox was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old. Now 27 months old, he requires support with communication, engaging with peers, and participating in group activities. He is not yet toilet trained and can sometimes have difficulty settling down for naps.
Dunia reads that he will also receive visits once per month from his early intervention home visitor in the early education setting. She is happy to see this; Dunia is confident that Maddox’s home visitor will have some tips for how she can effectively draw on his experiences and interests and be responsive to his needs. In the meantime, Dunia takes out her pen and draws several columns in her notebook, each with a different label: “Environment and Materials,” “Group Activities,” “Play and Peer Interactions,” “Communication,” and “Family Connections.” Underneath these headings, she labels a new row: “Strategies to Try.”Okay, Dunia thinks, I’ll start here.
In the opening vignette, Dunia has identified many factors early childhood educators must consider when planning to include a child with different abilities, developmental delays, or disabilities in the classroom. The tenets of inclusion underscore the importance of high expectations and research-informed practices to provide access, participation, and supports for children with disabilities. Inclusive practices ensure progress in a child’s development and learning across domains, including cultivating relationships and a sense of belonging in their learning community (HHS & DE 2015).
While inclusion is an important goal for many families and teachers and is a hallmark of a high-quality early learning program (DEC/NAEYC 2009; NAEYC 2020), effective implementation requires planning, intentionality, and collaboration.
Why Prioritize Inclusion?
Historically, the approach to working with children with disabilities has focused more on exclusion. Some educators, policy makers, and others argued that a child with disabilities was better served in environments exclusively with other children with disabilities. Some argued that a policy of inclusion would slow the progress of classmates without disabilities. This policy has gradually been replaced by the concept of and requirement for a least restrictive environment; that is, children with disabilities should be educated with children without disabilities whenever possible.
In practice, there are many benefits to including children with varying abilities in early education settings. For young children (including infants and toddlers) with developmental delays or disabilities, inclusive settings offer
- access to challenging curricula and learning experiences
- opportunities to develop age-appropriate social skills and early friendships and to build relationships with adults outside the family
- immersion in language- and literacy-rich environments
- the development of self-help skills (hanging up a jacket or backpack) that promote independence over the long term
Inclusive settings also have important benefits for infants and toddlers without disabilities. Children will
- develop appreciation for individual differences and the unique strengths and abilities of others
- benefit from different pathways to engaging and learning in the early education setting
- participate in and prepare for an inclusive world
Research has found that children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms are more likely to engage in peer interactions than children in special education settings, and both children with and without disabilities make significant gains in early literacy scores while attending an inclusive, high-quality early education program (Lawrence, Smith, & Banerjee 2016).
SNAP: Making Plans for Inclusion
When creating inclusion plans, remember the acronym SNAP to guide this process:
- Skills/Strengths: What skills and strengths does the child bring to this activity or environment? How might you build on those?
- Needs: What needs does the child have? How might those impact their ability to participate in the activity or environment?
- Adaptations: What can you change or adapt about the activity to ensure access? What resources do you need to achieve this adaptation? What training or support might be necessary to support your teaching?
- Partners: What partners can you turn to with questions about ensuring access? These might include the child’s families, early intervention provider(s), local agencies or nonprofits that specialize in a particular disability, or other colleagues with experience in developing similar adaptations.
Planning for an Inclusive Infant and Toddler Setting
For many infant and toddler professionals like Dunia, the big question is: How do I effectively plan for inclusion in my setting so that each and every child’s strengths are recognized and needs are met?
Early childhood professionals should also approach this planning process by prioritizing the three defining features of inclusion: access, participation, and supports (DEC/NAEYC 2009). It is important to partner with the child’s family and early intervention professionals to learn what supports are already being used at home and to identify activities that will align with the child’s developmental needs and goals. The following are suggestions and strategies for bringing these priorities to life in an inclusive infant and toddler classroom.
Access refers to “providing a wide range of activities and environments for every child by removing physical barriers and offering multiple ways to promote learning and development” (DEC/NAEYC 2009, 1).
There are many ways of providing access to learning experiences based on a child’s individual strengths, preferences, and needs. Teachers should consider the current skills and abilities of children and identify additional or different supports that may be needed for them to make progress toward learning objectives and to have access to all areas of their learning environment. For Maddox (from the opening vignette), Dunia might use dinosaur figures with him in a counting activity, rather than cube blocks. Using a child’s preferences to engage them is often an effective strategy for young children, including children with autism spectrum disorder (Weber et al. 2018). For a toddler with limited fine motor skills, for example, the teacher might adapt each page of books in the reading corner by gluing popsicle sticks to create “page turners.” These make it easier for grasping and turning pages independently, empowering the child to access literacy activities just like their peers.
Early childhood professionals should approach the planning process by prioritizing the three defining features of inclusion: access, participation, and supports.
In addition, educators should consider a “least to most” approach, starting with the least amount of adult involvement and letting the child do as much as possible on their own. This may result in some errors as the child attempts the skill, but it can lead to greater learning overall (Libby et al. 2008). For example, if a child is struggling to hold and place puzzle pieces, the child’s teacher can try verbally coaching the child first (least involvement). Then, the teacher can point to a space and prompt the child to “try putting the piece here.” As a last option, the teacher can engage in the most involvement—putting their hand over the child’s hand to place the piece. Other adaptations may entail offering a puzzle with fewer pieces or one with knobs rather than flat pieces.
Planning for participation involves tapping into a wide variety of practices to encourage active engagement during instructional activities and play (DEC/NAEYC 2009). One essential way that a baby or toddler participates in an early childhood classroom is through their emerging communication skills. Communication-related delays are the most common types of developmental delay (AAP 2021), and other diagnoses can also contribute to differences in how children communicate. For example, a child with low muscle tone may have difficulty coordinating muscles to smile—but still be quite happy and engaged in an activity.
To provide support for a child’s growing communication skills, teachers can observe and connect with families about how a baby or toddler currently communicates. Is it through gaze, sign language, pointing/gesturing, vocalizing (but not words), or spoken language? With this information, educators can partner with the child’s early intervention provider to use the same communication strategies that are being introduced and reinforced during home visits. (See Embedded Learning Opportunities for Children with and Without Disabilities by Christan Coogle et al. for more communication strategies.)
Participation also includes fostering relationships with other children. Toddlers with and without disabilities are just beginning to discover the pleasures of early friendships. Teachers can facilitate peer interactions for children with disabilities by considering the following:
- Plan for pairs to encourage parallel play. For example, in the toddler room, you can create “partner paintings,” with two children painting on the same large paper taped to the floor or wall.
- Incorporate adaptations to promote greater participation. For example, if a toddler has difficulty processing sensory information, fingerpainting may be challenging. Offering sponges or brushes can help. For children with difficulty grasping a paintbrush, try taping a thin block to the paint brush to make it easier to hold.
- Offer every child the chance to explore adaptations. By creating a rule that “only” one child can use a particular paintbrush, teachers can inadvertently stigmatize the use of that tool. Make an adaptation one more acceptable (and fun) choice for participating.
- Build on strengths to nurture relationships. For Maddox, his teacher can encourage a block construction activity with one or two other children; there, Maddox can shine.
- Increase engagement during large-group activities. Does the toddler need special seating to comfortably participate? Will proximity to you or a favorite classmate help? Will certain materials, such as preprogrammed lyrics into a child’s speech-generating device, foster greater participation?
- Model ahead of time or give one-on-one assistance for entering and sustaining play. For example, teachers can share play scripts like “Can I play?” or “My turn.” Or staff can teach the entire class the sign language for common phrases. Also, teachers can model or prompt new explorations of materials: “Now let’s pretend to give Teddy a bath.” Modeling can be for children without disabilities to ensure everyone can participate: “Let’s play with the blocks on the table so Devin can reach them from his wheelchair.”
Finally, adult-child relationships are critical for children with developmental delays or disabilities. The language environment experienced by infants and toddlers has been shown to significantly impact their language learning trajectories (Degotardi 2021), and early educators and caregivers are a primary source of rich, child-directed speech and back-and-forth conversations (Chaparro-Moreno 2019). Relationship-building strategies are the same for all children: make one-on-one time with each child each day; notice and follow the child’s interests; talk together and ask questions; and celebrate a child’s strengths and achievements.
Finally, supports refer to both child-specific and systems-level aids that educators can use to effectively implement inclusion in their classrooms (DEC/NAEYC 2009). They may include assistive equipment for physical support (accessible strollers, specially designed highchairs, easy-grasp spoons), digital devices and picture symbols to help with communication, and certain objects like weighted teddy bears to foster feelings of security and focus.
Related to assistive equipment and other child-specific supports, understanding how to use and maintain the equipment and materials safely is critical to ensure a child can access and actively engage in their learning environment and activities. It ensures the child can access learning and play experiences to their maximum potential.
Early educators need support too, with assistance ranging from individualized coaching and supervision tailored to successes, challenges, and problem solving to broader professional development trainings and materials focused on inclusion. Especially important for successful systems-level support are sufficient time for planning for inclusion and a sufficient budget for adaptations and modifications.
Families of children with disabilities are themselves a crucial form of support and knowledge. Families can share strategies that have worked in the home and can give insights into the child’s interests and preferences, approaches for soothing the child, and guidance on how the child communicates or uses cues. This relationship goes both ways—teachers can also share their observations and celebrations of the child’s strengths and progress with families.
If families agree, the teacher may find the child’s early intervention professional to be a significant source of support too. Early interventionists have worked with hundreds of children with different abilities and are well-versed in evidence-based strategies for including infants and toddlers in early childhood settings. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), early intervention professionals can visit the child while they are in the classroom setting to provide ideas or model strategies. With the family’s permission, they also can share the child’s Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which outlines what goals the child is working on and the activities that might support mastery of those targeted skills. (To learn more about early intervention professionals and processes, read When in Doubt, Reach Out: Teaming Strategies for Inclusive Early Childhood Settings, by Christine M. Spence et al. in the Spring 2021 issue of Young Children.)
Planning for inclusion means considering a variety of factors to ensure that every child has an opportunity to grow and learn in infant and toddler settings. Your relationship with them remains a central—and critical—factor. By connecting with each baby or toddler as a unique individual and ensuring the access, participation, and supports they need to thrive, you are building a model community that embraces all, supports all, and gives every child the chance to reach their maximum potential.
Think About It
- What experiences have you had caring for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities? How might you share your insights and questions with your colleagues?
- What are your hopes as you plan for inclusion in your classroom? What are your worries or anticipated challenges? Who might be key partners to help you address these concerns?
- What supports and resources will you need to include children with different abilities in your classroom?
- What are some actions you can take to build strong working relationships with the families of children with developmental delays or disabilities and with early intervention providers (if families agree)?
- Choose an activity that you have planned for your classroom this week. Follow the SNAP approach to plan how each and every child can access, participate in, and have supports for this activity.
- Take time to observe a child (with or without a disability or developmental delay) in your setting. What strengths do you see? What activities or routines does the child not have sufficient access to or participation in? What adaptations might you consider to make these moments easier?
- What questions about a child’s abilities, interests, and preferences might you have for their family? What stories, celebrations, or progress can you share with the family?
- Reflect on your relationships with each child in your setting. Which children do you feel most and least close to? What actions can you take to build a stronger relationship with children with whom you don’t feel as close?
Rocking & Rolling is written by infant and toddler specialists and contributed by ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization working to promote the health and development of infants and toddlers by translating research and knowledge into a range of practical tools and resources for use by the adults who influence the lives of young children. The column and references for this article can be found online at NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/yc/columns.
Photograph: © Getty Images
Copyright © 2021 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics). 2021. Language Delays for Toddlers: Information for Parents. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/language-delay.aspx
Chaparro-Moreno, L.J., L.M. Justice, J.A.R. Logan, K.M. Purtell, & T.J. Lin. 2019. “The Preschool Classroom Linguistic Environment: Children’s First-Person Experiences.” PLoS ONE 14 (8): e0220227. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220227
Degotardi, S. 2021. “The Language Environment of Infant Childcare: Issues of Quantity, Quality, Participation, and Context”. In Contemporary Research on Child Care in Early Childhood Education, ed. Olivia N. Saracho, 85–107. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
DEC (Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children)/NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2009. Early Childhood Inclusion: A Summary. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute. NAEYC.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/DEC_NAEYC_ECSummary_A.pdf
Lawrence, S., S. Smith, & R. Banerjee. 2016. Preschool Inclusion: Key Findings from Research and Implications for Policy. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED579178.pdf
Libby, M.E., J.S. Weiss, S. Bancroft, & W.H. Ahearn. 2008. “A Comparison of Most-to-Least and Least-to-Most Prompting on the Acquisition of Solitary Play Skills.” Behavior Analysis in Practice 1 (1): 37–43.
NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2020. “Developmentally Appropriate Practice.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC. NAEYC.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/dap-statement_0.pdf
US Department of Health and Human Services/US Department of Education. 2015. Policy Statement on the Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs: Executive Summary. https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/earlylearning/joint-statement-executive-summary.pdf
Weber, S., L. Mays, A. Luebrecht, E. Beltz, & E. Seuss. 2018. An Early Childcare Provider’s Guide to Managing Challenging Behaviors: Managing Challenging Behaviors with Intervention Strategies and Positive Behavioral Supports. Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/2018-09/Early%20Childcare%20Providers%20Guide%20to%20Managing%20Challenging%20Behaviors.pdf
Rebecca Parlakian is the senior director of programs at ZERO TO THREE. She has developed a video series on early STEM and coauthored a recently released early math curriculum supplement. Rebecca has also coauthored five parenting and professional curricula and published articles on topics ranging from dual language development to the impact of screens on very young children. Rebecca holds a master’s degree in education and human development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her most important work in child development, however, is her two children, Ella and Bennett.