By Jani Kozlowski
I started out in the early childhood education field more than thirty years ago as a teacher for a diverse and spirited group of four-year-olds. I found that each child came to my classroom with unique strengths and abilities that unfolded before my eyes over the course of our time together. At that time, I didn’t think about my classroom as being inclusive. In my mind, children were children. All different and wonderful in their own way. Reflecting back, I remember some of the children who would likely have received special education services if we had collaborated with the school system on their behalf.
I remember Danny who used to gaze up at me blankly through thick, smudged glasses. His hair was “as red as a copper penny,” as they say in the South. I remember constantly cleaning those glasses for him. When his glasses got especially dirty, he would just let them slide down his nose and would peer over them at me like a freckle-faced librarian. Even after I cleaned his glasses, he would still bump into the furniture in the classroom. I remember keeping him up close to the visuals during circle time so that he could participate in our daily routine together. A vision impairment?
I remember Caleb and his strong, clinging hugs. He seemed to love fiercely but also acted impulsively, sometimes with aggression toward other children. I felt concerned for their safety. His parents once asked me to join them on a visit to their family therapist to describe Caleb’s behavior at school and problem solve together. A case of attention deficit disorder?
I remember Ashley with her love of dinosaurs and preference for outdoor play in the sandbox. Her skin was like porcelain, and I remember her wide-set almond-shaped eyes and flattened nose. Ashley did not speak at four years old, and I had to put my hand on her shoulder to get her attention. A case of Down syndrome?
A child with ongoing toileting issues? A child who rocked and swayed in the book area when she became overstimulated? I can think of countless examples. Of course, these diagnoses of children from thirty years ago are completely irrelevant. I would argue that it would not have mattered back then either. Would I have gained special knowledge to know the label that might have been used to describe Caleb? Absolutely not! I only share those memories because they are a reminder that an inclusive early childhood classroom is just like any other classroom. We never questioned whether or not a child belonged in our program. Everyone belonged. Everyone was welcome.
Those early career experiences in the classroom shaped my passion for early childhood inclusion. Children have approximately 1,825 days from the day they are born until they enter kindergarten. What happens during this journey lays the foundation for their school and life success. Inclusion in early childhood leads to inclusion in elementary, middle, high school, college, and the workplace. As noted in the 2015 Joint Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs, early childhood inclusion leads to inclusion “in all facets of society throughout the life course.”
In addition to this guidance from federal agencies, we also have a strong body of research that shows that inclusion benefits children with and without disabilities and educators in the classroom. Inclusion is a model supported by our special education legislation as well. IDEA requires that when making classroom placement decisions, IEP teams must first consider where the child would be if they did NOT have a disability. However, for children aged three to five in the United States, the special-education system provides services for children with disabilities in segregated classrooms more often than not. Rather than providing special education services in early childhood classrooms alongside peers without disabilities, such as Head Start or community child care programs, children are more likely to receive services in segregated settings.
This is not a realistic approach. As a person with a disability myself, I work alongside people with and without disabilities. I spend my free time in my community around people with and without disabilities. We are fortunate that our world is a place of diverse abilities, races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexualities, and everything else that makes us unique individuals. Our world is inclusive, and our schools, early childhood education programs, and other community spaces should be too. Let’s get it right from the start. To my fellow inclusionists: Will you join me in this work to promote inclusion in early childhood education? Together we can make it happen for each and every child.
Jani Kozlowski, MA is an author, keynote speaker, and technical assistance provider working at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her book, Every Child Can Fly: An Early Childhood Educator’s Guide to Inclusion was published by Gryphon House/Kaplan in June 2022.