The issue of inclusive preschool education has had a lot of controversy especially in regard to special education. Inclusion "represents the philosophy or belief that children with disabilities ought to be integrated into normal classrooms even if they do not meet traditional average curricular standards" (Bursuck & Fred, 2008, p. 54). It involves taking the support services and programs to the child and aims to ensure that the child benefits from the being present in a normal class (Special inclusion education, 2007). Inclusion supports the idea that children at the preschool level with disabilities ought to start in the normal education classrooms, and incase appropriate services cannot be provided then the child is moved to a specialized facility.
Under the inclusion model, preschoolers with special needs spend almost all of their time learning with non-disabled peers. Execution of inclusive practices varies from state to state however; schools commonly use them for selected children with mild to chronic special needs. Inclusive preschool education differs from past concepts of 'mainstreaming' and 'integration', which focused principally on 'special educational needs' (Madden & Slavin, 2001). In contrast, inclusion focuses on the child's right to take part in normal classroom activities and the school's responsibility to accept the child. Inclusion discards the use of special classrooms or establishments to separate children with disabilities from children without disabilities.
Special education programs, in general began in 1823. By 1906 and throughout the 1920's many cities had began establishing special schools. In 1973, special education and disability advocates had a major victory when the Vocational Rehabilitation Act was enacted by congress. This was followed by the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975; this new legislation led to the merger of regular education with special education. Today, the current trend is heading towards inclusive education practices which seek to have the best interest of all students in mind (Bursuck and Fred, 2006). Many educators are in favor of integrating students with disability into normal education classrooms however some controversy still exists.
Inclusion of preschool age students with disabilities in the normal classroom settings with peers who don't have disabilities is a recent phenomenon.
Odem et al (1999) states that the rationale for inclusive preschool education is to offer children learning opportunities which do not exist in non inclusive environment or special education classes. Research undertaken on services to young children at the preschool level reveals that inclusive education can prevent or reduce developmental problems; this leads to fewer numbers of children being retained at higher grades. In addition, this reduces the cost of education to school divisions as well as improve the quality of child, parent, and family relationships (Vincent & Salisbury, 2008). Inclusive programs for preschoolers are different from school-aged children programs because numerous public school systems don't have classes for children aged between three and five years; into which children with special needs may be included. Therefore, at the preschool stage children are placed in a variety of environments such as Head Start programs, community-based child care in public school systems.
Preschool students with disabilities make high gains on social areas after undergoing inclusive programs. A study of developmental level of children in inclusive education reveals that disabled children have significant gain in social emotions (Costenbader & Holahan, 2007). In addition, disabled preschoolers develop high 'peers modeling behavior' rate; better positive interaction with fellow peers; higher degree of social participation; considerable improvement in adaptive behavior and greater verbalization directed at peers (Bailey & Buysse, 2006).
Furthermore, research involving young children with acute disabilities revealed that these children had considerably greater improvement than children in non inclusive education such as segregated classes. On the other hand children in non inclusive preschool education are more likely to become introverts than those in inclusive environments. Preschool children with disabilities also develop higher or equal improvement in language, development and cognition of play skills and friendship in inclusive settings (Groom & Guralnick, 2008). For example, they develop more complex communication and language skills. Furthermore, they exhibit improved intelligent quotient scores (Green & Stafford, 2008).
Bailey and Buysee (2006) found that inclusive preschool education helped disabled children to develop meaningful relationship with other children. In addition, inappropriate behavior such as hurtful play by disabled preschool children decreases over time once they are placed in an inclusive setting. Preschoolers with hearing impairment and mild mental delays also engage in constructive activities and play. Inclusive programs often help disabled children to have an upper hand over their counterparts in non inclusive settings in behavioral and social skills. Consistent research studies indicate that inclusive environments are superior in terms of social development. In addition, regular students in inclusive classrooms adopt the role of teachers and assist in teaching their peers with disabilities.
A review of literature by Stanley (2006) and Odom et al (2006) reveals that preschoolers with disabilities develop high positive outcomes in inclusive experience. These children make typical development progress and in some cases even better progress than in non inclusive preschool programs. Parents and teachers also find tremendous improvement in disabled children in terms of personal growth and meaningful relationship (Widerstrom & Thurman, 2006). Non inclusive practices in preschool education have been proved to be non-stimulating as well as lack exposure to higher level of learning experiences. Inclusive settings enhance children's ability to use and retain newly learned skills.
Notably, when children with disabilities are placed in a normal classroom they are able to embrace diversity which improves the overall education system since all students learn to live together regardless of their learning ability and linguistic ability. Inclusionary preschools affirm, acknowledge and welcome the value of all learners through encouraging all the students to participate in social, recreational and educational activities. This helps in the normalization process of the children with disabilities since they are not secluded from the general public. In addition, inclusion prevents labeling: this occurs when a child is categorized as having intellectual disability, learning disability or emotional disturbance.
Labeling leads to the stigma of being considered to be deficient. Inclusive classrooms eliminate the need for assigning a preschooler to a grouping for special education purposes thus reduce the chances of labeling. In contrast, children placed in special education classes or programs are more exposed to labeling since these programs draw unnecessary attention to the nonconforming characteristics of the children with special needs rather than their strengths (Feuerstein, 1998). Labeling causes teachers, parents and the society to expect less from preschoolers who are identified as disabled.
According to Feuerstein, non inclusive classrooms tend to underestimate the learning abilities of special needs children thus the curriculum in special education programs is watered down thereby failing to provide a challenging environment to special needs children. Non inclusive education at preschool level often leads to higher chances of secondary disabilities; this is due to the fact that exclusion limits motor, physical, cognitive, speech, self help and socialization skills.
Moreover, non inclusive educational programs increase the chance that disabled children will be unable to become socially independent adults. These programs also lack the "least restrictive environment" concept. This concept aims at encouraging students with disabilities to attend schools which are close to their homes thus since non exclusion lacks the least restrictive environment, it fails to promote interaction between the student and the neighborhood. Furthermore, non inclusive education fails to correlate to the principle of natural proportions (Salend, 2006).
The principle of natural proportions suggests that the classroom ought to reflect the environment of the larger population which includes both children without disabilities and those with disability. According to this principle, children with disability should only be moved to non inclusive environments only if it's completely necessary. Inclusion can enhance the child with disability's self esteem and self respect (Benefits of Inclusive Preschool Programs, 2004). When they begin to develop connections with normal education students as well as teachers, they start to feel greater self worth. They also enjoy the overall school experience and become actively involved in school activities together with their non-disabled peers.
Inclusive preschool education creates a supportive and positive environment where children are provided with individualized attention which makes them feel valued by adults and peers this increases their self esteem. Moreover, Inclusive preschool programs enhance team building activities which give children with disabilities a sense of importance and belonging as well as improve child relations. Part of the inclusion process involves recognizing and rewarding achievements by the preschoolers additionally, inclusive programs provide sufficient teachers to help children struggling with school work, this prevents situations where children inadequate or helpless. By making teachers available to special education children it increases their self esteem and confidence.
A 2004 study found that during a twelve year period, high school graduates with disabilities who had been placed in non inclusive preschool education had 53% employment rate. On the other hand, special needs graduates who had been placed in integrated inclusive programs had 73% employment rate. In addition, the cost of educating preschoolers in non inclusive programs was almost double that for inclusive programs (Special Education & Inclusive Programs, 2004, p. 44). A similar study in 2006 revealed that inclusive classrooms were more cost effective even though improvement in reading, language and math remained essentially the same in both exclusive and inclusive programs (Rationale for Inclusion, 2004). This demonstrates that many school districts can relieve their budget shortfalls by using inclusive preschool education.
Inclusive preschool education also has a downside; when not implemented appropriately it can have detrimental effects on children with disabilities. Some preschoolers need special classrooms which have small class size, few distractions, supplementary one on one instructions as well as individualized academic programs. In view of the fact that regular education classrooms lack such environment it can significantly slow down academic progress (Education Integration, 2002). Additionally, inclusion prevents some children from being able to study in the inclusive classroom environment; this is due to the fact that some preschoolers often have physical disabilities, learning disabilities or behavior disorders which affect their learning abilities.
Krieger (2004) argues that inclusive preschool education impedes a child's social development; furthermore inclusion puts too much pressure on instructors since they have to meet the needs of both disabled and non disabled children. It involves curriculum alteration, interruptions, and extra training. Moreover, inclusion requires retraining of teachers and the setting up of special classes which best help children with special needs.
Often, preschoolers with disabilities when placed in regular classrooms tend to compare their abilities with their peers this can make them feel depressed, academically inadequate and overwhelmed. Inclusive preschool education can cause problems when regular non disabled students don't accept their disabled classmates; they may harass and tease them which will cause added anxiety and stress as well as cause the inclusion process to be unsuccessful.