How inclusive is the service of children with moderate to severe special needs?
ERO made an overall judgement about each service’s inclusiveness. Figure 1 shows that 44 percent of services were very inclusive of children with special needs, with a further 49 percent mostly inclusive. Seven percent of services were somewhat inclusive, and no services were not inclusive in any way. Kindergartens were over‑represented in the group of services that had children with moderate to severe special needs enrolled when compared to the national sample. However, there were no statistically significant differences between service types and their inclusiveness.
The main characteristics of services that were very inclusive of children with special needs included:
The main characteristics of services that were mostly inclusive were similar to the very inclusive group. However, some variability of practice often meant that inclusion was not as good including:
Services that were seen as only somewhat inclusive often had the right attitude to inclusion, but lacked the skills and knowledge to put this into practice. These services were characterised by a lack of procedures for identifying and celebrating children with special needs’ strengths and interests. Overall, they could not show how well their programme supported children’s learning and development and they needed to improve the quality of planning and assessment for all children rather than just for children with special needs.
How well do transitions ensure the continuing wellbeing, learning, and development of children with moderate to severe special needs?
ERO’s focus was on transitions into and within the service, and transitions from the service to another service or school. ERO based its evaluative judgements around four sets of indicators: 
As shown in Figure 2, transitions at almost all services ensured the continuing wellbeing, learning and development of children with special needs. Forty‑eight percent transitioned children with special needs very well, and a further 49 percent transitioned them mostly well. Three percent of services were rated as transitioning children with special needs only somewhat well. There were no statistically significant differences between service types. 
Forty-eight percent of services were judged as ensuring children’s continuing wellbeing, learning and development very well during transitions. Adults at these services knew the child and their parents, whānau and aiga well. By listening and responding to parents’ wishes and concerns, leaders in these services ensured that transitions were planned and responsive to individual needs, including flexibility in timing and the length of transition processes, with the child dictating the pace. They stated it was important to have continuous conversations with parents, whānau and aiga to be non‑judgemental and supportive.
The child had come to the service after the parent had been asked to remove him from another service. The manager worked to ensure that the child was transitioned into the service in a sensitive and supportive manner. Staff made sure the child had a number of settling visits prior to commencing. They made contact with the agencies that had started to be involved in the child’s life. The manager and head teacher made sure that the staff at the service were aware that they were enrolling a child that would need ongoing support.
When children with already identified special needs were transitioning into this group of services, a number of factors were identified as good practice. These included:
Transition would not have been as successful for the continuing wellbeing, learning and development of the child without external support from appropriate ESW funding. Special Education has been very supportive during the transition with weekly phone calls and ongoing learning support. The services appreciated the speed at which access to funding and an education support worker was gained.
In cases where the child’s special needs had not already been identified, services said good transition practices were important for parents to feel confident about sharing concerns about their child’s development. Sharing of information meant leaders and educators could advocate on behalf of parents with agencies, such as Special Education,  to apply for funding and timely support.
Many of these good practices were also apparent in transitions within and out of services. Written transition plans, developed with parents, set out strategies for transitions between groups within the service/sessions, or to another service or to school. In particular, this group of services were proactive when children were transitioning to school, often helping with ORS  funding applications, contacting schools, planning meetings, preparing information, and accompanying the child and their whānau and aiga on school visits. In some cases, school teachers were invited to attend IP meetings to learn about the child’s needs and to discuss strategies for working with the child.
The service has strong professional relationships with the school and has effective ways of communicating face to face through reciprocal visits, planned meetings, telephone calls, and sharing documentation. Staff from the school are invited to attend and participate in individual planning meetings at the service prior to the child’s transition.
Many of the factors mentioned above were present in the 49 percent of services where transitions mostly ensured children’s continuing wellbeing, learning and development. Educators were welcoming. Most services had appropriate processes and policies to ensure good transitions including talking sensitively with parents new to the service; collaborating with parents, whānau and aiga about transitions, and liaising effectively with schools. Many also had good relationships with other professionals and agencies working with the child.
However, ERO found variable practice in particular areas. Mostly this was in transitions where generic processes were apparent, especially transitions to school. Some of these services, while inclusive, did not document shared understandings of inclusive practices for educators and parents to use. In a few services, parent involvement in decision‑making was variable. In one service, educators believed that management did not adequately access external funding and support to help them provide appropriate programmes and resources for children with special needs.
The continued wellbeing, learning and development of children with special needs during transitions was not ensured in three percent of services. These services were welcoming, but had no specific transition practices. Parents were informed about decisions made, but not included in conversations. Special Education help for providing appropriate resources and support was not adequately accessed. This lack of collaborative relationships places parents outside the teaching team, rather than as an equal and valued member. Involving parents, whānau and aiga in this way is essential to inclusive practice.
Good relationships between children with special needs and adults and other children in the service were seen as critical to ensuring successful transitions for children with special needs.
In the services with very good transitions, educators strived to know the child and their strengths and needs, were aware of other professionals working with the child, and fostered good relationships between the child and other children and their parents.
In these services educators worked hard to maintain a positive and inclusive tone. All educators were involved in supporting the child and understanding their needs and strengths. To enable this collective responsibility, educators were involved in developing and using IPs to support the child, as well as, in some cases, undertaking professional learning and development (PLD) to implement strategies outlined in the IP. Educators also responded to parents’ need to receive positive support and be listened to.
Educators modelled positive interactions with all children, and encouraged them to be inclusive. In these services, children with special needs had close relationships with the educators and other children. In some, assessment was used as a way to help other children understand the strengths and interests of children with special needs, as shown in the second extract below.
The educators talked with other children about this child’s needs, which have heightened the children’s level of understanding and tolerance.
The educators create photo books that star the child and that are shared with other children. These are positive ways of recognising their strengths and interests.
Educators were proactive in facilitating the ongoing success of children with special needs. They fostered manākitanga, and other children were accepting of children with special needs.
The head teacher related one occasion of physical bullying which was dealt with carefully but firmly. She spoke with the group of children responsible in a non‑threatening way, praising them for telling her about the incident, then explaining why they should not harm someone. She also talked to the parents of this group so they knew what had happened and how the head teacher had dealt with it in a no‑blame way. She had to tell the parents of the boy, which she found extremely difficult. She also used mat time to talk to the whole group about caring for others. This was handled sensitively and effectively.
Educators modelled appropriate and effective strategies to help other children engage with children with special needs and acknowledged them as competent learners who had strengths to build on.
Parents at many services with very good transitions acknowledged the educators’ teamwork that ensured they knew and understood their child, and the work they did to advocate for them when working with key agencies. Most of these services had strong links with Special Education and the other professionals that worked with the child. They shared information and collaborated on strategies for working with the child.
Relationship development between service staff is a key to success, especially the relationship between the supervisor, parents, the child, the education support worker, and outside agencies (speech‑, occupational‑ and physio‑therapists). Educators acknowledge that if relationships and communication are not open, honest and regular this could prove a challenge for the service to ensure the continuing wellbeing, learning and development of the child.
There is a lot of ongoing face‑to‑face communication between the families and the teaching team. Information about the child, health needs, support services and development is shared in partnership.
Families show a deep sense of trust in the educators and are confident to share information with them, and to seek support and advice. The educators are advocates for the child and the family in enquiring about and securing support services. Educators are experienced and have strong knowledge and connections in the local area to enlist specialist help.
In the services with mostly good transitions, collaborative planning with parents and agencies for IPs and learning about strategies and approaches helped the child in their learning and development. Most of these services also had good relationships with agencies and parents, with both formal and informal communication as appropriate. However, practices to help other children and their parents get to know and understand children with special needs were more variable. Less evident was the modelling of appropriate strategies to facilitate these relationships and to celebrate the child’s strengths and interests so they and other children could develop positive relationships.
In the very few services with poor transitions, there was limited understanding of the need to use different strategies and approaches to help educators, parents, children and other professionals to develop positive relationships to ensure transitions were successful.
Transitions are eased when the environment is welcoming, respectful and inclusive. Services are also required to provide a physical environment that is appropriate to the abilities of the children attending.  In the services with good or very good transitions, educators were patient and understanding. A purposeful, supportive and nurturing tone was apparent. The layout of the physical environments in these services was appropriate, with ready access to resources. Services had installed equipment that was needed to facilitate inclusion such as ramps, handrails and the placement of furniture and resources.
Most services did not undertake self review of the impact of their transition practices on the inclusion of children with special needs and the outcomes for these children. In the small number of services that undertook self review focused on transitions for children with special needs this mainly centred on transitions to school. In half of these services, self review was informal and spontaneous as issues arose.
Teachers were reflective about their practices, but had little or no documentation to refer to in the future. In the remaining few services, self review was ongoing and planned, as well as spontaneous. Educators, parents and specialists were involved in this self review through surveys and meetings. This overall lack of self review focusing on transitions for children with special needs hampers services’ ability to provide a highly inclusive environment that successfully creates a community of practice for each child with special needs.
This evaluation identified some challenges for services in effectively transitioning children with special needs to ensure their continued wellbeing, learning and development. The vast majority of challenges were identified by leaders at services, and clustered around the service provided by Special Education. Leaders commented on:
Other challenges identified included the availability of ESWs, and some parents’ unwillingness to recognise their child’s special needs. The comments below exemplify some of these challenges.
The biggest challenge relating to the transition of the child with cerebral palsy is that education support workers are not employed during the school holidays. This means that the child is unable to attend the service for six weeks during the school holidays.
A child identified as having developmental delay was referred to Special Education once they were enrolled. It took a long time to receive funding, and be allocated funded support hours and an education support worker. This was difficult and disappointing for the child’s parent.
As this child is in the process of transitioning to school, one of the challenges identified is the gap in access to support for the child once they move from the service to the school. Educators saw this as having a negative impact on the child and family settling and transitioning well.
While identifying these challenges, leaders and educators in the highly inclusive services, and many of the mostly inclusive, did not limit attendance to ESW‑funded hours. The Ministry has an expectation that a child with special needs will attend for the hours agreed to by the Ministry, parents, whānau and aiga, and the service, but that hours of attendance may not match the ESW‑funded hours for a child.
To what extent are children with moderate to severe special needs supported to be confident and capable learners?
Review officers based their evaluative judgements around six sets of indicators: 
Figure 3 shows that children with special needs were very well supported to be confident and capable learners at 51 percent of services, and mostly well supported at 40 percent of services. At nine percent of services, children with special needs were only somewhat supported. There were no statistically significant differences between service types. 
In the 51 percent of services where children with special needs were very well supported as confident and competent learners, children had equitable access to experiences and opportunities available at their service. Children’s attendance at the service was mostly decided together by the educators and the parents, with input from other key professionals, and with the child’s health and wellbeing given priority. Many of these services had modified their physical environment to allow independence for children with physical disabilities. Accessibility to resources was ensured and specific resources were purchased to help children participate in all aspects of the programme. These services included and supported children with special needs in all activities, including participating in excursions.
Educators support the child to be fully involved in all aspects of the programme. For example, he is sometimes physically assisted by staff as his main needs relate to mobility and gross motor skills. They allow him to take risks; for example, climbing, participating in obstacle courses, dancing. While aspects of the environment make movement from some areas challenging, staff recognise these and support him to overcome any barriers to his participation.
In the 40 percent of services where children with special needs were mostly supported to be confident and competent learners, attendance at the service was conditional. While attendance was seen as being flexible to meet the needs of the child and their whānau, and was negotiated with parents and other key professionals, these children were less likely to attend without their education support worker. Some services identified a lack of sufficient funded ESW hours as a barrier to equitable access, with some services saying their adult to child ratio limited children with special needs’ access to the curriculum if they did not attend with a dedicated education support worker. Some services also identified the provision of appropriate resources and access to the outdoor environment as challenges.
However, most of these services expected that children with special needs would participate fully in the programme. The programme and resourcing were adapted to engage and stimulate the children, who were included in excursions with invitations extended to parents to accompany them if they wished.
In the remaining nine percent of services, where children were only somewhat supported, educators’ poor professional understanding of the image of children with special needs as confident and competent learners limited practice.
Te Whāriki has an expectation that children with special needs attending an early childhood service will have an Individual Programme (IP) developed collaboratively between educators, parents and other key professionals. In very supportive services, these IPs were developed collaboratively; strategies were shared with all educators as well as parents; and educators worked together to implement and review the IP. Where practice was particularly effective, the IP linked to Te Whāriki, and assessment was focused on the desired outcomes identified in the IP.
Staff work closely with the multidisciplinary team which includes the early intervention teacher, speech therapist, physiotherapist and occupational therapist, and the Ministry. An IP is in place for the child and all staff are responsible for implementing and considering the IP when planning and delivering programmes. Communication between the service, parents and support workers is open and the IP is written collaboratively. The child’s parents describe this as a consultative and negotiated process.
IPs are developed and discussed collaboratively with all key stakeholders and goals are clearly set and monitored. Laminated copies of strategies to encourage language development are present around the service and it is not left just to the ESW. All staff were observed affirming what he was saying and modelling correct language patterns.
Many of the services where children with special needs were ‘mostly supported’ had developed IPs for the children. Parents and other key professionals worked collaboratively with educators to develop the IP. Similarly, IPs were discussed in team meetings so all educators knew and could implement the strategies in the IP. Only a few services carried out assessment or reporting against the IP goals. Without this review, educators and other professionals are unable to appropriately assess how goals were met, and to revisit and develop new ones.
In the remaining nine percent of services, half did not have IPs for children with special needs. In the other half, while IPs had been developed collaboratively with parents and key professionals, not all educators were effectively implementing the strategies identified in the IP effectively.
Services that supported children with special needs very well had frequent and ongoing communication with, and support from, Special Education and other specialists. This enabled educators to be responsive to children’s special needs, and to seek PLD and information from specialists. Information from parents of children with special needs was sought, considered and shared when programmes were developed. In many of these services, educators and education support workers collaboratively develop and share strategies.
Family, educators and support services meet together to develop the programme for each child with special needs. All the educators meet to discuss the child’s learning, development and wellbeing at the end of each day, and then to formally plan to meet their needs at the end of each week. They have shared responsibility for supporting all children.
In services that were mostly effective in supporting children with special needs, parent partnerships were important to developing an inclusive programme. In these services, ERO found positive, trusting and reciprocal relationships, where parents’ aspirations were supported and information about children was shared. Educators were sensitive to parents’ needs and concerns, and considered all contributions to the programme’s development valid and valuable.
Educators and the education support workers know the children and their families well. This knowledge and strong relationships over time help them to understand the needs of the child, why they may behave in a certain manner, and to appreciate small changes over time.
As in the very supportive services, professionals from agencies such as Special Education often helped educators to identify experiences, strategies and activities to support learning and development. However, in some services, educators were not using developmental information effectively to determine programmes. Programme planning was not always clearly linked with parent aspirations, and planning was less specific for children with special needs than for other children.
In the remaining services, practices for developing programmes were variable. Half of these services accessed support from key agencies, shared strategies with parents, or asked for parent contributions. In the other services, educators did not ask parents about their aspirations for their child. This meant they were not able to adequately meet children’s special needs or support them as confident and capable learners.
Effective implementation of a collaboratively developed IP is crucial to the wellbeing, learning and development of children with special needs. In very supportive services, specialists worked with the children, parents and educators, enhancing and adapting the programme, and providing valuable resources and intervention strategies. Assessment involved parents, education support workers and educators. Children with special needs were viewed as confident and capable learners. Links to Te Whāriki were made, learning and relationships were highlighted, and next steps were identified that responded to children’s interests and achievements.
Children’s successes were celebrated through verbal affirmation, portfolios that showed progress with skills and dispositions, photobooks of children showing their learning and enjoyment in their relationships with others, and in some cases, graduation ceremonies. In these services, children with special needs had positive warm relationships with other children. Educators encouraged friendships, and education support workers involved other children in specific programmes to help children develop skills to establish and maintain successful social interactions.
Socialisation skills and a sense of inclusiveness are an important part of the programme, valued by the parents, and are strongly fostered by the staff. Children are aware that there are other ways of being and doing things that are just as right as others.
The ways in which the programme was implemented in mostly supportive services were similar to very supportive services. However, overall practices in this group of services were variable, and educators did not implement the programme as effectively. Reasons for this included:
In the remaining services, the quality of teaching was poor for all children. While interactions were affirming and respectful in some of these services, in others they were variable. Educators in only a very few of these services understood and implemented strategies to support children with special needs’ wellbeing, learning and development.
Educators had minimal engagement with children during the session, despite their good knowledge about them and high levels of appreciation by parents. The education support worker did not use appropriate strategies. Portfolios did not celebrate the success or progress towards IP goals or reflect parent aspirations. Staff meeting minutes showed educators held a deficit view of children with special needs.
Children with special needs in very supportive services had a strong sense of belonging that their parents and educators supported and nurtured. ERO observed happy and engaged children, and parents spoken to said they saw the service as an extension of their family. Educators took the time to know the child and were sensitive to behavioural signs that signalled the need to increase support so the child could participate fully in the programme. This support often included one‑to‑one educator time.
Educators encouraged a sense of empathy and understanding among children at the service which, along with certain strategies, helped children with special needs feel a sense of belonging and connection with others. Effective strategies included educators:
A review of the programme led to a focus on social competencies and a theme of ‘Playing as a Good Friend’, which is now evident in the harmonious and settled tone of the service. There is a sense of support and affirmation at all levels: adult to child, adult to adult, and child to child. The aim is for all children to become more resilient and identify themselves as competent and confident. Children are ‘armed’ with strategies for dealing with difficult situations – what to say or do. These are evident in wall displays and prompts, photobooks, dramatic play, authentic conversations, educators’ modelling and children’s play.
Only a few of services acknowledged and celebrated the cultural identity of children with special needs. They were more likely to do so if the child was Māori. Few services considered what they needed to know about children’s cultural background, and values and beliefs from their parents and whānau.
In mostly supportive services, relationships with children were more variable. In many, children with special needs had a strong sense of belonging and good relationships with their peers, but this was not always the case. The recognition and affirmation of children’s cultural background was also less likely.
In services where ERO saw poor relationships, educators did little to foster positive interactions, cultural backgrounds were not recognised in planning or assessment, and the overall poor quality of teaching limited social interactions.
Overall, services’ self review of the impact of the programme on outcomes for children with special needs as confident and competent learners was poor. When self review of programmes relating to outcomes for children with special needs was undertaken it was mostly informal and spontaneous. In many services, self review was poorly understood and not outcomes‑focused. When effective self review was undertaken it focused on outcomes and processes affecting outcomes such as:
The service’s focus for self review in 2010‑2011 was provision for children with special needs. The review identified ways in which staff could continue to improve their practice by extending their implementation strategies for teaching children with special needs. Educators have undertaken PLD to develop strategies such as Makaton sign language, physical exercises, behaviour management strategies, and building trust between children and adults.
ERO is concerned that most services are not undertaking self review of how their programme influences outcomes for children with special needs. Attitudes, practices and barriers that can hinder children with special needs’ full inclusion into the life of the service can be identified, challenged or highlighted as factors influencing outcomes for children with special needs.
Challenges were identified for services in effectively supporting children with special needs to be confident and competent learners. In services where practice was not very supportive, these challenges were mostly about working collaboratively with education support workers, especially educators’ capability to support children with special needs when the education support worker was absent. In some services this was related to expertise and in others to adult-to-child ratios.
A challenge for educators was when the education support worker was not present. This was particularly noticeable with the two children with moderate to high autism who at times needed more support than educators were able to provide given their need to supervise and support all children with the 2 educators to 30 children ratio.
In very supportive services, the challenges identified were mostly related to Special Education funding delays and provision. Home‑based services identified a need for Special Education to work more closely with them, and other services said they had become ‘magnet’  services. In some services, there was limited ESW support for the high number of children with special needs enrolled. One service had 17 children with special needs on their roll. ERO found that this was placing strain on their capacity to effectively include children with special needs.
In services where no children with moderate to severe special needs were currently enrolled, ERO asked questions relating to one of three scenarios:
Figure 4 shows that of the 164 services that did not currently have children with moderate to severe special needs enrolled, 51 percent had never been asked to enrol children with special needs. Forty‑nine percent of services had previously enrolled children with special needs, while no services said they had been asked but were unable to meet particular needs.
Just over half of services that did not currently have a child with moderate to severe special needs enrolled, had never been asked to do so.  ERO made a judgement about how well placed a service in this group was to enrol these children if asked to do so. ERO found that:
Of the 19 percent of services that were not well placed, ERO considered that if not for the physical environment, which could not be adapted, four services would have been well placed. In three services, teaching was generally of poor quality, and educators had limited pedagogical knowledge to work, or experience of working, with children with special needs. These services also lacked relationships with external agencies, such as Special Education. Seven services had an inclusive culture and support from their umbrella association, but educator‑turnover or the absence of a fully registered ECE educator meant the teaching practice was variable. Educators’ ability to seek information from parents in a sensitive way and to provide an individualised programme was questionable. Educators in the remaining two services, although operating in an environment that was physically inclusive, expressed surprise that they would be asked to enrol children with special needs as this was not appropriate in their culture.
Five services were possibly well placed depending on the nature of the child’s special needs. These services had limitations because of the physical environment that would make it difficult for children in wheelchairs or older children with limited mobility to access essential parts of the service, such as toileting facilities.
Three‑quarters of the services in this group were well placed to enrol children with moderate to severe special needs if asked to do so. Managers and educators displayed an understanding of inclusion and the environment was welcoming and warm. ERO observed inclusive practices such as flexible transition practices, good quality relationships and interactions among educators and children, responsive programmes, and meaningful partnerships with parents and whānau. Educators in some of these services had previously undertaken appropriate PLD, and had support networks, both through umbrella associations and externally, to help them develop strategies for supporting children with special needs. Some services were part of a multi‑site organisation, where children with special needs were enrolled in adjacent services, and managers and educators were very aware of inclusive practices in their sister service.
Forty‑nine percent of services that did not have children with moderate to severe special needs currently enrolled had previously done so.  Many of these services had an inherently inclusive philosophy that provided for equitable opportunities for learning that celebrated differences, was nurturing, and fostered a sense of belonging and wellbeing.
Most of these services were able to provide both anecdotal and self‑review information about successful experiences for children with moderate to severe special needs. These included:
Almost all these services also identified challenges they had met when enrolling children with moderate to severe special needs. The most commonly identified challenge was working with Special Education, in particular slow response times for assessment and subsequent funding, inadequate funding, low ESW hours, and limited accessibility to and availability of specialist help. Services also identified financial challenges, such as purchasing resources, and providing additional staffing to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children at the service. Some services also indicated they had had to work with parents to help them accept their child needed additional support, and to communicate about support, interventions and specialist help.
Other challenges included the appropriateness of the physical environment, accessing and affording PLD for educators, and handling behavioural challenges and others’ perceptions of that behaviour. Some services felt there was a limit to how many children with moderate to severe special needs they could enrol at one time due to perceived negative impacts on staffing, resources and children already enrolled at the service. This was often attributed to decreases in funding and an inability to afford additional staffing, rather than a capacity of educators to cope, or a lack of desire to be inclusive.
Information received from the Ministry of Education Special Education offices and providers around New Zealand, and from disability action groups showed that many services were inclusive and made great efforts to fully include children with moderate to severe special needs. They qualified this by stating that attitudes towards inclusiveness were very dependent on the head teacher or manager and their ability to model good practice.
Special Education and disability action group representatives reported that very few children were turned away from services. Where this did occur, services had said they would not enrol the child without full ESW hours, where the physical environment was not suitable, where the service had existing children with special needs enrolled, or where the adult-to-child ratio meant educators could not ensure their and other children’s safety. One disability action group representative stated that ratios in kindergartens, for example, were higher than in education and care services, and it was becoming more common for kindergartens to decline or discourage enrolment. One provider contracted to Special Education stated that a few services had a ‘verbal policy’ of only one child with special needs at a time. Other services had extra forms and requirements to even consider whether the service might enrol the child.
It was common for children with moderate to severe special needs to attend on a limited basis. This was sometimes related to toileting issues, but usually to ESW hours, in particular, children’s attendance being deferred when the ESW was sick, or during school holidays when ESWs were not funded by Special Education. Special Education reported that, at times, this limitation on attendance was justified due to the nature of the special need but at other times it was not.
Respondents felt that parent involvement in their child’s learning and IP meetings was mostly good, and many services welcomed parent involvement. However, some parents reported feeling isolated, and that they felt they would be putting their child at risk if they were to challenge practices such as limited attendance. Parents of other children enrolled at the service were generally accepting of children with special needs until aggressive behaviour affected their child. Some Special Education providers advised that educators needed to do more to educate other parents. One provider commented that adults usually had more problems being inclusive than children.
Most respondents commented on educators’ capability to support children with special needs. They felt that some services were not well placed to support children with special needs. Comments were generally about the following:
“The education support worker is often viewed as being attached to the child and the staff take a hands off approach when the support person is there.”