Research-to-Practice in Inclusive Early Childhood Education

Article excerpt

Early childhood education is changing. Inclusion is expanding the roles of both general and special educators in meeting the needs of all young children (Wolery et al., 1993).

Fortunately, over the past several years, researchers have provided helpful information for practitioners on including children with disabilities in inclusive early childhood programs. But are educators making use of this research? As Fullan & Stiegelbaur (1991) noted, translating research knowledge into classroom practice is rare in any area of education (Fullan, 1991).

This article provides links from research to practice in several key areas of inclusive early childhood education: teachers' knowledge base and beliefs; communication, physical environment, activities and materials, social interactions, and curriculum and instruction.

The Foundation: Educators' Knowledge Base and Beliefs

Both special and general educators have a responsibility to continually increase their knowledge about early childhood education-and examine their beliefs and attitudes.

Acquisition and Dissemination of Knowledge. Early childhood special educators must take responsibility for sharing information with their colleagues in general education. The changing role of the early childhood special educator includes the ability to create, advise, and provide resources for the inclusion of young children with disabilities.

These specialists also have the opportunity to read, synthesize, and disseminate valuable research to colleagues. The Council for Exceptional Children's Division of Early Childhood (DEC) recommended that early childhood special educators have the ability "to access, read, and understand current literature and research related to young children with disabilities and their families" (Task Force, 1993, p. 114). As consumers of the wealth of information published in books and journals, special educators can serve as a valuable link between research and practice (see Figure 1) while providing an avenue for collaboration and two-way exchanges of information.

Examining Beliefs and Attitudes. The research on inclusion consistently emphasizes the teacher's role in supporting positive inclusive experiences for children. Of primary importance, and an overriding factor in all the areas we discuss here, is what teachers know and believe about disabilities and teaching children with disabilities. These beliefs are a constant influence on teachers' actions and the foundation on which the other characteristics influencing positive inclusive classroom experiences are generated.

An attitude that reflects acceptance of diversity is critical to communicating the willingness to educate all children and work collaboratively with others on behalf of children. The teacher's ability to respond to the individual needs of children with disabilities by offering additional support as necessary during classroom activities reflects a positive and accepting attitude about disabilities.

Beyond attitude, however, other characteristics extracted from the research literature are valuable to the success of including young children. The first of these has to be communication. (Table 1, page 59, provides a summary of these areas, along with a sampling of references for further information.)


Manner and style of communication reflect the teacher's attitudes and beliefs about disability.

With children: When the teacher approaches a child at eye level, there is a sense that the teacher is ready to communicate with the child-not to the child. Communication may be useful in providing additional instructions for completing a task, direct instruction, or positive feedback regarding the child's accomplishments.

Wt With colleagues: Teachers with good communication skills enhance collaboration through relaying and receiving information from a variety of sources supporting the child and the educational program. For example, collaborative teachers welcome visitors into the classroom.

Wt With related service personnel: Effective early childhood educators maintain regular communication with related service personnel, beyond annual or biannual discussions at individualized education plan (IEP) meetings. A study by Giangreco, Dennis, Cloninger, Edelman, and Schattman (1993) described the negative feelings of teachers toward the presence of increased numbers of support personnel in the classroom when appropriate communication is lacking.

With parents: Communication with parents and other professionals needs to be open and frequent, involving both formal (e.g., scheduled conferences) and informal (e.g., spontaneous phone calls or notes) types of discussions about individual children. Communication is particularly important in facilitating a smooth transition to the next educational setting.

Physical Arrangement

The teacher is responsible for physically arranging the classroom to ensure that all areas and materials are accessible to all children, including children with physical or sensory impairments.

Organized areas: Teachers can create functional boundaries by establishing designated areas of the classroom for specific activities and storing meaningfully grouped materials in those areas. For example, one area of the classroom may be occupied by a small rug with math manipulatives or toys stored in nearby shelves; another area of the room is set up for dramatic play and includes clothes, plastic foods, and dolls occupying that designated space. When children recognize a level of organization in the arrangement and materials, they feel safe and comfortable within this teacher-made environment.

Arrangements for interactions: The physical arrangement of the classroom may promote interactions among children (Hanline, 1993). A child with a physical disability, who is not independently mobile, is unable to interact with peers and participate in sand box play unless he or she is placed in the sand box by a teacher or other adult.

Flexible rearrangements: Classrooms that are easily rearranged allow for flexible planning, as well as large- and small-group activities. Classroom setup should not determine the existence or absence of such activities, but should be conducive to a variety of group sizes. Occasionally rearranging the classroom also provides a sense of novelty that can be refreshing for adults and children alike.

Comfortable seating: Appropriate seating that is comfortable, conducive to table work, and relaxing must be available for all children. In addition to soft chairs and specific areas for relaxation, small chairs that are upright, sturdy, and fully support the child at the hips, knees, and back will be essential for good posture and will facilitate fine motor control. Teachers should feel that their classroom is a "safe haven" where children feel secure and ready to encounter their day.

Activities and Materials

Classroom activities and materials, including toys, must be developmentally appropriate and must allow for participation and interaction by children with disabilities.

Chronologically and context appropriate materials: Developmentally appropriate materials refer to those that are both chronologically age appropriate and individually appropriate. This is crucial for children with disabilities. Teachers should design activities and choose materials for the children with disabilities in their classrooms that are appropriate for the context of the environment. For example, a 4-year-old child with severe cognitive disabilities should have toys available that are appropriate for all 4-year-olds.

Adapted materials: Adapting materials and toys helps ensure meaningful interaction and engagement between children with disabilities and their peers without disabilities. Adaptations can be simple or complex, teachermade or commercial.

Appropriate scheduling and choices: Scheduling of activities includes time for large- and small-group instruction, outdoor play, opportunities for children to make choices, and related services (e.g., physical, occupational, and speech therapy) for children with disabilities. Teachers facilitate choice making by setting up a variety of appropriate and interesting activities. This appropriate use of scheduling activities and managing available materials supports incidental learning by allowing all children to be actively engaged in an activity, encouraging peer interaction, and avoiding conflicts related to many children wanting to use the same materials.

Nonintrusive related services: Scheduling related services should also promote the inclusion of children with disabilities into classroom activities. For example, the integrated therapy model allows related service providers to work with children in the classroom where there are natural opportunities to practice certain skills (Rainforth, York, & Macdonald, 1992).

Social Interactions

One of the most important components of successfully including young children with disabilities in early childhood classrooms is teacher-facilitated social interactions. Social interactions between children with and without disabilities do not occur spontaneously (Guralnick, 1981).

Heterogeneous groupings: Promoting social interaction can begin with heterogeneous grouping of children (i.e., a broad range of abilities) in activities that emphasize a common goal. Teachers may arrange groups so that children who are more socially skilled are included with children whose disabilities have interfered with social development. Within cooperative learning groups, multiple types and levels of play and learning may occur.

Teaching social skills: A key component to the success of any cooperative learning strategy is that teachers plan for and support appropriate social behavior. Peer mediation, guided by teachers, can be used to enhance the social interaction skills of all children. Teachers must ensure that children with and without disabilities have ample opportunities to interact, that interactions occur, and that children enjoy them. Peers may then be taught specific techniques to engage children with disabilities and to maintain interactions with them.

Providing positive feedback: Teachers can provide support for social interactions by observing and giving positive feedback to the children involved. Encouraging interactions in free play: Social interaction occurs more often during less structured activities such as free play (whether teacher or child directed). Certain toys and materials are also more conducive to interaction than others. These include dress-up, housekeeping, cars and trucks, and block play. Meanwhile, easel painting, computer games, writing centers, and play-dough or clay modeling are examples of activities that tend to encourage independence but are less conducive to interaction with others. Considering group sizes and quantity of materials: Children are more likely to interact in small groups than in large groups. However, group size is not the only factor to consider. The availability of appropriate quantities of materials for each center or activity will help prevent conflict while promoting skills related to sharing and turn-taking.

Curriculum and Instruction

In keeping with the philosophy of developmentally appropriate practice, the early childhood curriculum emphasizes play, discovery, and problem-solving as primary means of skill mastery and fostering independence.

Adapting curricular materials: The teacher ensures appropriateness for all children by making adaptations or using commercially adapted curriculums while keeping as close to the curriculum guide as possible. The focus of instruction is on promoting meaningful, generalizable outcomes that emphasize the learning process.

Using activities in instruction: Planning instruction using an activity-based approach is an effective way to promote meaningful learning.

Individualizing goals: Teachers can use instructional strategies that allow for incorporating the IEP and other individualized goals into early childhood curriculum.

Using the teachable moment: The instructional procedures collectively known as "incidental" or "milieu teaching" have been shown to be very effective (Warren & Kaiser, 1986). These procedures allow the teacher to capitalize on teachable moments to facilitate learning across a number of developmental domains. While numerous articles have documented the effective application of naturalistic teaching (e.g., teaching that occurs in a natural environment, is child initiated, and uses natural consequences), some professionals continue to question the ability of this model to meet the specific intervention needs of young children with disabilities (Fox & Hanline, 1993).

Disseminate, Discuss, and Develop!

Janney, Snell, Beers, and Raynes (1995) recently found that general education teachers preferred that specific information about disabilities and strategies for inclusion come from the special education teacher. They also felt that this was best accomplished through informal team meetings and personal exchanges.

Including opportunities for discussions offers teachers collegial support that may facilitate the use of research-based practices (Gersten & Brengelman, 1996; Malouf & Schiller, 1995). Lovitt and Higgins (1996) described a program specifically designed to help teachers translate research into practice. Such programs can provide a foundation for collaboration, consultation, future dialogue and communication, and improved personnel preparation.

The past decade has seen many changes in early childhood education, beginning with the emphasis on developmentally appropriate practice. Today's teachers may assume roles never conceived of some 10 or 20 years ago (Winn & Blanton, 1997). The transmission of research into practice is an important link to collaboration and to best practice.


Former setting: Segregated, self-contained early childhood education programs for children with disabilities.


Current setting: Increasingly inclusive classrooms, day care centers, and community-based programs that enroll children both with and without disabilities.




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[Author Affiliation]

Hazel A. Jones, Assistant Professor, and Mary Jane K. Rapport (CEC Chapter #382), Assistant Scholar, Department of Special Education, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Address correspondence to Hazel A. Jones, Department of Special Education, G-315 Norman Hall, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611-7050 (e-mail: