This report presents the findings of ERO’s evaluation of how well early childhood services included children with special needs. It presents information about services with these children enrolled, as well as about services that do not currently have children with special needs enrolled.

Success for All in early childhood

A Government priority is that every child has the opportunity to participate in early childhood education (ECE). The goal is to increase the participation, and the quality of participation, in early childhood education for groups with traditionally low participation rates, including children with special education needs. The Ministry of Education (the Ministry) describes a child with special educational needs as a child who needs extra support because of “a physical disability, a sensory impairment, a learning or communication delay, a social, emotional or behavioural difficulty, or a combination of these.” [2]

The Ministry of Education’s Success for All policy actively promotes inclusion for all children in both schooling and early education settings. In its Statement of Intent 2010‑2015, [3] the Ministry of Education stated:

Children with special education needs have difficulty actively participating in regular ECE settings without appropriate support. Many of these children will start school at a disadvantage to their peers. We need to increase participation rates for these groups while maintaining high quality ECE provision for all. (p11)

As part of this focus, the Ministry will:

…work with ECE providers, families, whānau and communities [and health agencies]… to ensure we identify and respond early to children with special education needs. We will work with those communities to ensure that our Early Intervention services for children with special education needs are promoted and delivered appropriately. (p14)

The Ministry expects early childhood services to provide inclusive education and care for children with special needs. It describes inclusion in an early childhood service as every child being valued as a unique individual and supported to be fully involved in all aspects of the curriculum. Including Everyone, Te Reo Tātahi, Meeting Special Education Needs in Early Childhood [4] describes inclusion as:

  • an ongoing process rather than a result
  • a journey towards responsive, reciprocal relationships
  • encompassing attitudes, resources, participation and curriculum.

The Ministry of Education, Special Education (Special Education) provides services to children who have been identified in their early years as having special education needs. These services are specific to the individual child’s needs, with the overall aim of enabling them to participate in ECE and preparing them to transition into school.

New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, [5] states that the curriculum assumes the care and education of children with special needs will be encompassed within the principles, strands and goals set out for all children in early childhood settings. It is expected that an Individual Programme (IP) will be developed for children with special needs.

The Human Rights Act 1993 prevents discrimination in enrolment, stating that it is unlawful for an educational establishment to discriminate on the grounds of disability, unless they cannot reasonably provide special services or facilities. [6] Once services have a child with special needs enrolled, they must meet their obligations under the licensing regulations and obligations that apply to them. In particular, the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008 require every licensed service provider to:

  • plan, implement, and evaluate a curriculum that is designed to enhance children’s learning and development through the provision of learning experiences and that is consistent with the curriculum framework prescribed by the Minister
  • make all reasonable efforts to collaborate with the parents, and where appropriate, the family or whānau of the enrolled children in relation to the learning and development of, and decisions making about, those children
  • obtain information and guidance from agencies with expertise in early childhood learning and development to support the learning and development of enrolled children, and work effectively with parents, and where appropriate the family or whānau. [7]

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, [8] 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.” [9] Inclusive educators think about the child as a learner. [10]

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.[11] 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.” [12] 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.” [13] To think this way, educators need more than an acceptance of an inclusive philosophy. They also need knowledge of inclusive practices. [14]

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. [15] 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.” [16] 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. [17] 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.”[18] 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. [19] 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.”[20]

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’, [21] 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. [22]

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.

Education support workers

The Ministry funds the employment of education support workers (ESW) through either their Special Education or a small number of providers. [23] ESWs work alongside educators to support the inclusion of children with the highest needs. ESWs work under the guidance of an early intervention specialist, and as part of a team of parents, whānau, specialist education practitioners, educators, and health professionals. This team works together to develop an IP to support the inclusion of the child in the service.

Ministry‑funded ESW time is additional to other adult support available from an early childhood service, and any specialist staff involved. The maximum funded hours are 15 per week. ESWs are not funded during the school holidays. They are not intended to replace the role of the educator, nor provide fulltime one‑to‑one support for children. The level of support needed for the child to be included in the service is negotiated between the Ministry, the service, the parents, whānau and aiga. The Ministry is currently developing national criteria for this decision‑making process. [24]