Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Quality of Early Childhood Programs in Inclusive and Noninclusive Settings

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Quality of Early Childhood Programs in Inclusive and Noninclusive Settings

Article excerpt

Recent years have witnessed an increase in the number of preschool children with disabilities who are enrolled in nonspecialized, early care and education programs designed primarily for nondisabled children (Odom et al., 1996; Wolery et al., 1994). The full participation of young children with disabilities in early childhood activities and classrooms designed for typically developing children reflects recommended practices in both the early education and early intervention fields (DEC Task Force on Recommended Practices, 1993; Wolery & Wilbers, 1994). While many of the instructional practices used in general early childhood education programs are also appropriate for young children with disabilities, adaptations in the classroom environment and teaching techniques are often necessary to meet the individual needs of children with disabilities. Stated another way, quality standards addressing the early care and education of typically developing children in group settings may be insufficient for young children with special needs (Wolery & Bredekamp, 1994; Wolery, Strain, & Bailey, 1992).

Reflecting on how educational systems have responded to the philosophical and technical challenges of inclusion, Guralnick (1993) noted the proliferation of model demonstration programs and research projects developed over the past several decades to support inclusion. These initiatives have demonstrated that, under the right conditions, early childhood inclusion is feasible and can be beneficial for both children with and without disabilities. A significant challenge for future research on early childhood inclusion, however, will be to understand more clearly how the right conditions translate to practice in community-based early childhood settings. To date, much of the research on outcomes related to early childhood inclusion has been conducted in model or university-based programs (Buysse & Bailey, 1993), limiting the generalizability of these findings in real-world settings. Additional studies are needed to delineate aspects of early education experiences and environments that contribute to high quality community-based inclusion.

Research assessing the quality of community-based early childhood programs enrolling young children with disabilities would contribute to our current understanding of inclusion in several ways. First, the limited availability of high quality early childhood programs has been cited repeatedly as a significant barrier to implementing inclusion (Bailey, McWilliam, Buysse, & Wesley, 1998; Buysse, Wesley, & Keyes, 1998; Odom & McEvoy, 1990; Smith & Rose, 1993). It has been argued, for example, that inadequate child care quality poses a dilemma for many professionals and families who endorse the concept of inclusion, but are forced to use lower quality placement options to achieve the goal of inclusion (Bailey et al., 1998). Despite these concerns, no data currently are available documenting the actual quality of early childhood programs that serve as inclusive placements for young children with disabilities. Among the general population of typically developing preschoolers who participate in group care arrangements, the quality of early care and education has been shown to be associated with early language development, cognitive growth, and social competence (Bryant, Burchinal, Lau, & Sparling, 1994; Burchinal, Lee, & Ramey, 1989; Burchinal, Roberts, Nabors, & Bryant, 1996; Cost, Quality, & Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995; Howes, Phillips, & Whitebook, 1992; Lamb, 1997; Phillips, McCartney, & Scarr, 1987; Whitebook, Howes, & Phillips, 1989). Even though we can expect child outcomes to vary as a function of quality programming, the proportions of children with disabilities placed in early childhood programs of poor, mediocre, or high quality are unknown.

Another reason for conducting research on the quality of inclusive programs is to examine our notions of quality and to consider how the meaning of quality might differ in the context of inclusion (Bailey et al. …

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