An inclusive early learning environment doesn’t just benefit children with disabilities or special health care needs — it also benefits their classmates, families and the community as a whole, including employers.

In an inclusive classroom, children with physical and developmental differences learn and play side-by-side with typically developing children. Both thrive as a result: kids with challenges in speech or eating expand their vocabularies and try more food simply by watching and participating in activities with their peers, while their classmates learn empathy, acceptance and the value of individuality from a young age.

When early learning staff are able to offer inclusive classrooms, they also help reduce the epidemic of preschool expulsions. Children are expelled from preschool at rates three times higher than any K-12 grade, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services data, and many of those expelled are children with disabilities and challenging behaviors. Those expulsions have been shown to have devastating consequences for the kids: greater risk of academic failure, dropout and incarceration. For parents, lack of inclusive care for their kids can cause them to drop out of the workforce, further straining family resources.

What’s an inclusive classroom like for the students?

One of the biggest advantages of being in an inclusive classroom from an early age is that it becomes second nature for children to accept a wide range of abilities. Most children at Northwest Center’s inclusive downtown Seattle early learning center start out in the infant room, says Katrina Caron, director of Early Learning.

“It’s what they know — that there are kids with different abilities,” she says. “It just becomes part of the classroom. It allows for a lot of open conversation.” For example, Caron says that many children enrolled at Northwest Center Kids use feeding tubes, and their classmates often ask questions. NWC Kids teachers answer at the appropriate developmental level for the kids, she says, responding with something along the lines of, “This child eats differently than you do, but they’re still at the table and enjoying being with friends.” When answering questions are a natural part of the school’s environment, Caron says, it’s a way for teachers to educate kids naturally.

Amy Bender, Early Learning Operations director and IMPACT Program supervisor at Northwest Center, shares another common question.
“What I love about kids is they’re not shy and they’re going to ask, ‘Why is my friend in a wheelchair?’ ” Bender says. This is an excellent opportunity for a conversation, she says. If adults shy away from these topics, that can send kids the message that they’re taboo and they should avoid the child in the wheelchair. Instead, Bender says, answer kids’ questions honestly and in a manner that’s appropriate for their age. “We’ll explain that the child’s legs work differently than yours, so the wheelchair helps them get around,” she says.

Bender emphasizes the importance of identifying the differences among all of us, and talking about them in a way that normalizes disabilities. “It’s similar to explaining, ‘I wear glasses because my eyes work differently than yours,’ ” she says. “We have the conversation and are able to then move on with everyone feeling seen and valued. That’s the beauty of an inclusive classroom.”

Having these conversations turns the classroom into a positive, supportive community where differences are recognized and celebrated, Bender says. Northwest Center’s IMPACT program, which is 100% funded by Best Starts for Kids, helps educators find ways to keep these conversations going and gives them the tools they need to help all children. Northwest Center Kids created IMPACT (Inclusion Mentorship Program for Increasing Access in Childcare Team) in 2018 to address the need for inclusive early learning in King County. The Kids team recognized that opening a third Northwest Center early learning center might only reach 80 kids, but training, mentoring, and supplying resources could allow other providers to enroll thousands of children with disabilities, behavior challenges or special health care needs. Not only do IMPACT consultants provide training to centers wanting to open their doors to children of all abilities, they also provide strategies and support so that children currently enrolled at a program don’t get expelled.

“The positive response and support from the community to IMPACT services has been amazing,” Bender says. “In just two years, we’ve reached more than 21,000 children.”

Parents of young children of any ability embrace inclusive early learning too, says Snejana Gibskaya, director of Early Learning at Northwest Center’s Greenwood school. “When we enroll children and families, we’re very transparent about the fact that 40% of our classrooms could be children with special needs,” she says. “Families with typically developing children enroll because they want to have their child in an inclusive environment.”

“My husband and I both strongly believe that social interaction with peers is a huge factor in development,” says Shilpa Alimatti, whose two children — one with special health care needs and the other typically developing — attend Northwest Center Kids. “It makes a huge, huge difference.”

“A lot of strategies that we use also work for kids without special needs,” Gibskaya says, explaining how teachers individualize the curriculum for each student. One child might lean a more advanced skill, like using scissors, while teachers might adapt materials or provide additional support for kids who need it. Educators have a variety of strategies that they test and try out to see what works for certain children. “Even if a child doesn’t have special needs, they might learn in a different way or they might have to experience things in a different way,” says Gibskaya, so an inclusive classroom will individualize an approach based on their learning style, personality and temperament.


Strategies used in an inclusive classroom are effective in many settings

Inclusive learning isn’t just helping a small group of people; it’s beneficial to everyone. Gibskaya notes that typically developing children learn compassion, empathy and an understanding that different people need different things to be successful. “All those notions are passed on and it ultimately creates a much more empathetic community,” she says.

One challenge many students face is communicating with one another. For example, Caron says her son, who attends Northwest Center and is about to begin kindergarten, has come home from school frustrated because a classmate hit him when he was playing with a toy. It gave her the opportunity to explain to him that his friend may not have the same verbal skills. “I tell my son he needs to have patience and ask him questions, like, ‘Do you want the toy?’ If he still can’t figure it out, he can reach out to a teacher.”

Caron says that kids who are developing typically may even benefit more from an inclusive classroom because they learn how to effectively interact and resolve conflict. “They learn there are people who are different from them, and they need to learn, understand, and be patient — just as people have to do that with them,” she says. “It becomes natural, so my goal would be for my son to enter the community and eventually the workplace with numerous experiences of being around people who are different from him.”

Northwest Center also employs people with disabilities, some of whom are former students. “We’re not lowering standards if we hire someone with a disability,” Gibskaya explains. Rather, they recognize that the support these employees need to reach those standards may differ. “We’re seeing an increase in productivity, retention and overall positive experience from all staff when environments are inclusive, and so that’s kind of what drives us,” she says. “It benefits all of us and also supports our community.”

Caron adds that when kids at Northwest Center see people with disabilities working, contributing and thriving, it sends the message that they, too, can look forward to a bright future.

Inclusive classrooms reduce expulsions

Bender says the lack of funding, training and resources for the early learning community leads to higher rates of expulsion that disproportionately affect children with disabilities. “The alarming thing is that we have more preschoolers being expelled than high school juniors. The sadder statistic is that just 12% of children enrolled in preschool have disabilities or emotional and social challenges, but they account for 75% of expulsions and suspensions.”

The high expulsion rate has a ripple effect into the community.

“If you have an employee whose child keeps getting sent home several times a week because they have challenging behaviors, and they’re ultimately expelled, you have an employee who can’t come to work because their child doesn’t have care,” says Bender. She notes the age of the workforce that could potentially have a preschool-age child is anyone between the ages of 22 and 50. When parents are distracted at work or have to leave unexpectedly to pick up their children, “it’s a substantial disruption,” says Bender.

“Inclusion benefits the individual child and that ripples out to parents who are less stressed knowing their child has high quality, secure care throughout the day,” says Bender. “Everyone is more stable; we’re reducing stress for families and that has a ripple effect that reaches the greater community.”

“Inclusion benefits the individual child and that ripples out to parents who are less stressed knowing their child has high quality, secure care throughout the day,” says Bender. “Everyone is more stable; we’re reducing stress for families and that has a ripple effect that reaches the greater community. The truth is, child care providers want to offer inclusive classrooms,” she says. “They just need the support and resources to do so.”

Northwest Center has led inclusion efforts since 1965: our founders wrote the first laws guaranteeing all children an education. Our therapy, education, and employment services for people with disabilities maximize potential and create diverse schools and workplaces that benefit everyone.