Date: November 1, 2008
Like the majority of children in North Carolina younger than 6, children with disabilities often need child care. Determining which program best meets a child’s needs can be a challenge for any parent, but when a child has special needs, the task has an added complexity.
Federal disability legislation guarantees the right of children with disabilities to be cared for and educated with typically developing peers, which is known as inclusion. Most early childhood special educators and professional organizations recommend that children with developmental delays and disabilities participate in inclusive environments rather than segregated programs.
In North Carolina, 45 percent of licensed child-care centers and homes that participated in a recent survey enrolled at least one child with diagnosed or suspected special needs, according to “Children with Special Needs in North Carolina Child Care Programs,” a 2007-2008 survey by Partnerships for Inclusion, a program of the FPG Child Development Institute of UNC-Chapel Hill.
When done well, inclusion produces significant results for children across a range of abilities. Research shows that children with disabilities make developmental gains in inclusive classroom. They engage in more positive behaviors. Parents report gains in social skills, acceptance by peers and developmental gains.
Typically developing children also benefit. In one study that was published in the Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs in 2004, parents reported that their child was more accepting of human differences, more aware of other children’s needs, had less discomfort around people with disabilities, and had less prejudice about people who behaved differently.
The FPG Child Development Institute provides the following tips on what to look for when considering child care or preschool for children, especially those with special needs:
Sound early childhood practices
Children with disabilities need everything that typically developing children need. Sound early childhood practices provide the foundation for effectively including children with disabilities. Some signs that a program is incorporating sound early childhood practices include:
* The room has clearly defined spaces that provide visual cues as to what to do in a particular area.
* Toys and materials are easily accessible to children.
* Children are offered choices.
* Areas of the classroom are labeled. Labeling provides another visual cue to help children see choices and is especially important for children with special needs who may need additional support and structure to appropriately use toys.
* Classrooms have a variety of toys and materials for different ability levels and skills. In programs serving children with special needs, the range may need to be greater to ensure areas include materials children have mastered, items they can use with minimal assistance and items that present reasonable challenge.
* Duplicate materials are available so children don’t compete for favored items. This is particularly important for children who have or are at risk for challenging behaviors and may not yet be able to wait for a turn.
Commitment to inclusion
A commitment to inclusion should be reflected in written information about the program as well as in staff actions.
Some questions to ask include:
* How does the program define inclusion?
* What is the staff’s experience with children with disabilities?
* Are teachers provided with ongoing professional development to meet the needs of young children with disabilities and their families?
* How do the written materials about the program promote and describe the inclusion of children with disabilities?
Ongoing evaluation and planning
An early childhood program should provide ongoing assessment and contribute to the development of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) for children birth through age 2 or an Individual Education Program (IEP) for children age 3 and older with special needs. The North Carolina Infant-Toddler Program has information about ISFPs.
Some questions to ask are:
* How does the program monitor children’s progress?
* In what ways does the program staff participate in the development of the IFSP or IEP?
* How does the program collaborate with the North Carolina Infant-Toddler Program and the Preschool Disabilities staff to monitor the child’s progress on his IFSP or IEP?
In a quality inclusive program, staff and administrators collaborate with families to address a child’s needs. Collaboration with specialized therapists within or outside of the program may be necessary as well.
Some questions to ask include:
* Are specialized therapists welcomed and allowed to provide therapy within the daily routines and activities of the program?
* Is the classroom staff encouraged to talk regularly with specialized therapists about what they can do to support the child’s therapy?
* Does the classroom staff provide opportunities for a child with disabilities to practice skills and behaviors reflected in an IFSP or IEP?
In a quality program, learning opportunities are embedded into daily routines and activities. In addition, providing effective inclusion involves modifications and adaptations to the early childhood environment.
Some examples include:
* Curriculum is modified to change activities or materials to increase a child’s engagement.
* Materials are modified to increase a child’s independence.
* Special equipment should be available to increase access to activities and play areas.
* The program supports embedded learning opportunities. For example, a child’s speech and language therapy goals are incorporated into his daily activities instead of addressed in isolation in a therapy room.
* Adults model other ways to play or ways to expand on the child’s play.
* Teachers facilitate problem-solving.
* Teachers join a child’s play, creating opportunities to build a relationship and encourage her efforts.
* Teachers pair a child with another child who can act as a helper.
Other important areas to consider when selecting a child-care program include licensing and accreditation, staff-to-child ratios, overall atmosphere, whether children seem happy and engaged, the balance of activities between active and quiet play, policies and procedures for discipline and sick children, and parent involvement in the program.
Resources for special needs child care
Everyday Children’s Learning Opportunities Institute www.everydaylearning.info
Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center, North Carolina Parent’s Center www.ecac-parentcenter.org
Families’ Information Resources Support & Technology (F.I.R.S.T.) www.firstwnc.org
Family Support Network of North Carolina www.fsnnc.org
FPG Child Development Institute www.fpg.unc.edu
North Carolina Early Intervention Services www.ncei.org/ei
North Carolina Public Schools Exceptional Children’s Division www.ncpublicschools.org/ec
Compiled by Crickett Gibbons with assistance from the FPG Child Development Institute.