Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Empowering Preservice Teachers to Embrace Diversity

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Empowering Preservice Teachers to Embrace Diversity

Article excerpt

Introduction

Both internationally and nationally, legislation and educational policies associated with inclusion have been developed to maintain the rights of all children in educational contexts. Such trends endorse the inclusion of children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. However, although the principle of inclusion is now broadly accepted, the practice of inclusion is fast becoming a contentious issue, especially in instances where inclusive practices continue to marginalise children with disabilities.

Inclusion implies adaptations to all Levels of education. including preservice education (Evans, 2004). Teacher educators now face the challenge of preparing preservice teachers to work in increasingly inclusive settings. In the Western Australian (WA) context, the importance of working with diverse student populations within regular classes is particularly heightened and clearly articulated in the recently published WA government report, Pathways to the future (Department of Education and Training Western Australia, 2004). WA teachers are required to include and support children with disabilities in their regular classes so they can access the curriculum and become actively involved in the school community. This means teachers require additional knowledge, skills and competencies specific to a wider range of diverse needs (Engelbrecht et al., 2001; Forlin, Jobling & Carroll, 2001).

The way teachers respond to this change will be critical. As indispensable agents of change, teachers are capable, at will, of enhancing or obstructing its success (Stamopoulos, 2003a).Teachers' attitudes and behaviours are closely interconnected and act as significant predictors of their willingness to implement inclusive practices (Opdal, Wormnaes & Habayeb, 2001). Problems emerge when teachers are directed to embrace inclusion, regardless of their own personal beliefs (Forlin, 1995). Teachers whose beliefs and values clash with principles of inclusion, and who are unwilling to adapt their pedagogy to meet diversity of learning, often become a threat to the inclusion movement (Evans, 2004). Negative attitudes become barriers to inclusion because of their impact on children's sense of belonging and acceptance (Gilmore, Campbell & Cuskelly, 2003). This frequently leads to interpersonal conflict, isolation and reluctance to approach others for assistance (McDougall et al., 2004; O'Brien, 2003).Teachers develop the climate of an inclusive classroom through their attitudes and interactions with children with disabilities (Carroll, Forlin & Jobling, 2003). When negative attitudes prevail, alienation, a sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness and social estrangement are frequent consequences of exclusion (Mau, 1992, cited in McDougall, 2004). In such instances, access does not always result in social acceptance or equal opportunities.

Closer collaboration among all stakeholders and people with disabilities is essential when developing an inclusive climate and culture of understanding, belonging and acceptance (Bennett, Deluca & Bruns, 1997; Forlin, 2004: McDougal et al., 2004; Opdal et al., 2001). Bramston, Bruggerman and Pretty (2002) endorse the importance of positive relationships and community integration as an effective means of promoting meaningful experiences and understandings of people with disabilities. They believe that, in order to achieve this, collaboration and partnerships with families, community agencies and other stakeholders are imperative. A study conducted both in South Australia and New South Wales reported that teachers required specific training in collaborative skills and processes in order to build quality partnerships with schools and the outside community. Insufficient training related to team-working skills impeded inclusion (Westwood & Graham, 2000).

Liaising and collaborating with people and organisations within and beyond the school context requires confidence, proficiency and a positive attitude towards inclusion (Carroll et al. …

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