Every child has the right to early childhood education, and disability should not rob them of it. Multiple studies show the advantages of an inclusive education from a very early stage. Children with disabilities learn like any other child, by participating in functional activities, by repetition of the strategies that help them develop autonomy abilities, independence and socialization. Diversity is enriching to every child, not only those who have a disability, since the learning experience is built through interaction with equals. In order to create societies that are more tolerant and respectful, we have to face the different realities, be them economic, social or physical. Children’s participation in their routines, with quality interaction with their parents and teachers, is the best way to foster childhood development.
In spite of its known advantages and the effort to promote inclusion made by the school system of many countries, it is not a very common practice in early childhood, from ages 0 to 6.
After the birth of a child with a disability, families have to deal with a health system that is far from the inclusive educational model. The current medical model of many countries pushes families to seek multiple hours of therapy and treatments that hardly allow for attendance to an educational institution.
At the same time, early childhood educational institutions generally lack the necessary support to aid students with special needs, and teachers do not feel qualified to tend to them adequately.
Because of this, it’s common for families to feel forced to relinquish early childhood education, therefore depriving children of the necessary interventions that take place in educational institutions, and instead seek adequate treatment in specialized centers.
Against that reality, evidence-based practices claim that intervention strategies that take place within the daily activities, at home or at education centers are the best treatment for children. This shift in focus implies that lunchtime is a suitable space to promote motor development and swallowing, or that outdoor playtime is an opportunity to work on motor skills, balance, social relations or adaptation to stimuli, etc.
It seems paradoxical to speak of inclusion when children with disabilities spend hours in individual therapies outside the classroom. We need to move to a conception in which the classroom is a space where all children can learn, with or without special needs.
When we speak of inclusive education, it’s not enough to count the amount of enrolled children with disabilities. Children need to share the same space during school hours, being offered equal opportunities to participate, which allow them to learn in equal conditions.
Children need to have an active role in learning and to achieve that, it is necessary for classrooms to have teachers that are adequately trained and that have the time to offer the best care to each child.
As an example, the regulations in Spain establish that a teacher should care for 20 children of 2-3 years of age. The current ratios in most countries do not allow for inclusive education. In response to teachers’ concern for their lack of ability to care for children with disability, families are prompted to seek external therapies and individual treatments that do not allow the child to interact with his peers.
Although these concepts and their limitations have been under discussion for decades, an effective implementation process of evidence-based practices has not always been carried out, and this makes them harder to apply globally.
Education systems need to design inclusive practices implementation plans for early childhood, including teachers, school authorities, politicians, families and other agents implied, like the health sector.
It is necessary to count on a personal and economic infrastructure. Teacher training needs to include instruction in direct care and real situations in which the advantages of inclusion in the first stages of education are experienced in situ. Teachers need to understand that inclusion does not mean that every child has to do the same or else seek therapy.
It is harder to achieve a shift in perspective than to draft or pass a law. Inclusion requires that everyone is seen in equal conditions and receives opportunities according to their possibilities.
Margarita Cañadas, director of the L´ Alquería Center for Early Childhood Education and Attention of the Catholic University of Valencia in Spain.