Inclusive education in early childhood education
Recent New Zealand research about including children with special needs in early childhood education highlights current thinking about inclusive practices as well as identifying barriers to inclusiveness.
What is inclusion?
Inclusion begins with recognising that all children and their families have the right to access high quality early childhood education. This right is not affected by disability. Inclusive practices are intended to identify and remove barriers to full acceptance, participation and learning for all children. Inclusion recognises that many challenges associated with disability are embedded in socio‑cultural attitudes and practices. Inclusive practices aim to alter policy, organisation, structure and pedagogy so children with special needs can take their rightful place as full and valued members of their education communities. Inclusion does not entail a one‑size‑fits‑all “mainstream” approach,
 but seeks to recognise and respond to diversity, without isolating children with special needs and removing them from everyday activities at the service. Inclusive practices allow educators to “support individual needs within the regular context.”
 Inclusive educators think about the child as a learner.
What does inclusion look like?
In ECE, inclusion involves educators taking steps towards actively identifying barriers to learning and participation, and adapting aspects of their practice to resolve these.
 This might involve altering the physical environment to facilitate inclusion, or using teaching approaches not typically found in education settings, for example, sign language. The aim is to not only help children with special needs take part in the regular activities, but also challenge negative attitudes toward disability.
Recent research about ECE providers in New Zealand has characterised successful services as ones where staff “were not simply tolerating or accommodating [children with special needs and their whānau] but communicating an ethos of equality, fairness and providing a service underpinned by the principles of inclusion and provision of a quality education for all.”
 Rather than viewing disability as the defining feature of the child’s experience and identity, high quality inclusive education involves seeing all children as children first and foremost. An educator interviewed in a research project exemplifies this attitude: “You don’t think of them as special needs. They’re just part of the group.”
 To think this way, educators need more than an acceptance of an inclusive philosophy. They also need knowledge of inclusive practices.
An important part of this process of creating an inclusive environment is to develop collaborative relationships within a community of practice, made up of educators, specialists, and parents and whānau that support one another in promoting inclusion.
 In particular, “it is important that parents of children with special needs are viewed as experts [about] their children, and are thus treated as equal and valued members of the ‘teaching’ team.”
 Parents of other children at the service also have an important role, as their acceptance and valuing of children with special needs is vital to the full sense of community and inclusive participation.
What barriers are there to inclusion?
Despite the principles of inclusion underlying legislation and policy and its inherent presence in Te Whāriki, research suggests that inclusion in actual practice varies widely from service to service.
 Children with special needs are often seen as requiring special education separate to the mainstream. This limits their attendance and full participation in the regular life of the service. Separation gives rise to a number of barriers to inclusion, including hostility from other children’s parents, resourcing issues, and a lack of knowledge about how to include children with special needs.
Research indicates that some parents of children who attend services where there are children with special needs enrolled held the view that “if children with disabilities were deemed to be too different, too difficult or too disabled to teach, or their participation in centres was seen as interfering with the learning of other children, and as taking up time, money or attention from the deserving ‘normal’ children, then their enrolment, attendance and participation in early childhood education should be questioned.”
 Such attitudes can present a very significant deterrent to children with special needs and their families’ sense of belonging and acceptance.
Some services in research studies considered themselves insufficiently resourced to provide the kinds of intervention necessary for effective inclusion. In this case, the attendance of children with special needs was seen as a resourcing issue rather than a human rights issue. Researchers have suggested that some services use resourcing as an excuse to exclude children with special needs who they would prefer not to teach.
 However, there is also acknowledgement of external constraints by researchers who state that evidence “highlights the facts that inadequate resourcing, especially funding... is one of the main barriers to inclusion.”
Even when these tangible barriers were not present, researchers say educators sometimes lacked an understanding of how to effectively adapt their environment and pedagogy to be inclusive. This can lead, for example, to ‘velcroing’,
 whereby education support workers (ESW) attach themselves to children with special needs, which works against inclusive measures and can isolate these children. Educators may also abdicate their responsibilities to ESWs, and fail to interact effectively with children with special needs.
Research about inclusiveness in New Zealand early childhood services highlights the need for educators to go beyond an inclusive philosophy to inclusive action that ensures all educators have appropriate knowledge and strategies to be inclusive of children with special needs and their whānau.