Early Childhood Inclusion

What is meant by “inclusion”?

The Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offer the following definition of early childhood inclusion. You can find more helpful information and recommendations in their full statement, “Early Childhood Inclusion.”

“Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, and practices that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society. The desired results of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential. The defining features of inclusion that can be used to identify high quality early childhood programs and services are access, participation, and supports.” (DEC & NAEYC, 2009)

Evaluating Inclusive Environments

Inclusivity begins with high-quality adult-child relationships. To understand more about the degree to which a child care program has considered inclusivity, you may want to ask the following questions:

  • How is the topic of inclusion addressed in your program philosophy, policies, and practices?
  • What supports and resources do you need to build your confidence and ability to provide care for children with special needs? How can you work together in your program to make sure each caregiver and staff member gets the support they need?
  • What systems do you have to support child care providers in giving quality care to infants and toddlers with disabilities? (via Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services)

The Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Learning also provides a list of strategies that parents and professionals can use to promote successful early childhood inclusion.

Strategies to Support Children with Delays or Disabilities

There are a number of modifications and accommodations that can be made in the classroom to adapt activities for children with disabilities. This list from NAEYC provides a few examples:

  • Painting and drawing: Some children have a hard time painting or drawing on a tabletop because it involves using very small muscles in the hands and wrists, which may not be developed yet. Try also setting up easels, which allow children to stand and use bigger arm movements that originate from the shoulders, which often is easier.
  • Books: Make board books available, and add jumbo paper clips to regular book pages to make them easier for children to turn. These modifications help children with motor delays but are also fun for everyone.
  • Environment: Arrange the classroom furnishings so all children—including children with visual or physical disabilities—can move and maneuver around the room and learning centers by themselves. Make sure materials are within reach. Watch for classroom clutter and unstable flooring (throw rugs that move easily) that make the classroom space inaccessible for some children.
  • Routines: The best routines have a predictable beginning, middle, and end. Use visual supports, such as pictures or props, to teach children routines, help them stay engaged, and aid them in transitioning between different activities.
  • Peers: Peers who do not have disabilities can model positive prosocial and communication skills and demonstrate everyday routines that young children with disabilities can imitate. Classmates can also help children develop social relationships and increase their motivation to be part of classroom activities.
  • Noise: Managing noise in the classroom plays an important role in both learning and behavior. Loud classrooms affect a child’s ability to understand increasingly complex language. Carpets and other sound-absorbing materials, like wall hangings, heavy drapes, felt, and chairs with tennis balls on the bottom of metal legs, all help reduce classroom noise.
  • Materials: Modifying materials in the classroom can have a big impact on independence. Add pencil grips to crayons and markers to make them easier for children with motor difficulties to hold. Gluing small knobs to puzzle pieces make them easier to pick up.
Image: Three early learning professionals sit together on the floor, each looking at a digital device.

Series Navigation

The Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series highlights several early childhood topics to support parents and caregivers who are caring for young children. Use the list below to navigate through each series topic:

Learn more about the series.

Request free printed materials from our Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series.


Picture: A young baby looks up at the camera.
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