It can be challenging for any teacher to create an inclusive classroom while also encouraging appropriate behaviors and emotional expression, but there are unique considerations in early childhood. It’s critical for teachers to spot developmental delays, adapt to special health care needs, and begin to bridge social-emotional gaps, in order to pave the way for students’ learning and social development. Often teachers also are helping children cope with adverse childhood experiences, or working with kids who are at increased risk for all of the above.

Classroom management training hasn’t always included inclusion techniques, so teachers can find themselves learning on the fly, trying to adapt old models to new situations. And parents can find themselves searching for a school where their child feels welcome.

In King County alone, as many as 22,000 families can’t find early learning because so few centers have the resources or support to work with children who have special health care needs, disabilities, or who may need additional support. If they do get accepted, these children are much more likely to be expelled.

Preschool expulsion rates are commonly three times higher than expulsion rates in K-12 settings, points out Meeghan Bergmann, Early Childhood Mental Health clinical supervisor at Wellspring Family Services. Wellspring, a nonprofit serving families experiencing homelessness, offers an early learning center serving children between 12 months and 5 years old. 

Some children are expelled from preschools due to challenging behaviors that may stem from previous trauma, developmental delays, witnessing domestic violence, and other harmful life experiences. Others might simply have physical challenges, such as limited mobility or vision, that require classroom adaptation or creative strategies.

“For children impacted by homelessness,” says Bergmann, “stability and predictability are connected.” For Wellspring’s children, expulsion might only exacerbate that trauma, so the Early Learning Center has an explicit no-expulsion policy. To support this effort, Wellspring turned to IMPACT for training and support.

Northwest Center Kids launched IMPACT (Inclusion Mentorship Program for Increasing Access in Childcare Team) in 2018. IMPACT provides training and support to child care programs so they can become more inclusive.

Teachers are encouraged to look at inclusion in a new way. “Teachers learn what a child is communicating through their behavior,” Bergmann says, “and learn how to support the child.”

Instead of meting out punishments or expulsions, specialized training and mentoring encourages teachers to consider, “What is the child telling me he needs? What are the skills I need to teach?” says Kristen McLeskey, an inclusion consultant with IMPACT. 

To bolster their inclusion efforts, Wellspring began working with IMPACT. At no cost to the receiving organization, IMPACT offers professional development training, phone and Zoom consultations, mentorship, and classroom support services to licensed child care centers, licensed in-home family child care providers, and unlicensed part-day preschool programs in King County.

(Wellspring)

In the classroom 

At Wellspring, IMPACT worked with two classrooms, customizing services and solutions to address  each classroom’s individual challenges and goals. For example, some teachers needed help guiding children who needed to process “big feelings” — regulating emotions. Children who got frustrated or overwhelmed might refuse to participate in daily activities, act out, have trouble being able to follow directions, or have trouble staying calm when they were anticipating the next fun activity. IMPACT consultants were able to customize strategies for helping kids process those emotions — for instance, one teacher often taught using puppets, so the consultants helped her use her puppets to teach kids about their emotions. Other strategies could include using posters to show kids different emotions, or using mirrors for children to identify their own expression and emotions.

Teachers also were looking for tangible strategies to support kids of different abilities in their classroom so that all children could have the very best quality early education. Over the course of nine months, IMPACT helped teachers develop these strategies, with solutions like using wiggle cushion seats to help children cope with the urge to fidget, or using visual schedules to help with transitions between activities.

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“IMPACT meets our team where they’re at and honors our teachers’ skills,” Bergmann says, by using a “strength-based approach building on the wisdom, expertise and knowledge of the teachers, to best support children of all abilities in the classroom.”

The IMPACT consultants observe and model, but also engage the teachers in reflecting on their teaching practice. 

“What teachers say they like most are getting ideas and resources to help them find their own solutions and what they’re doing well already,” McLeskey says. For example, a teacher might realize a child thrives when given a helper job — and could work with the IMPACT team to think of more ways for the child to feel helpful in the classroom.

IMPACT helps develop educators’ existing sense of curiosity and confidence in building an inclusive classroom; a child doesn’t need to have a specific diagnosis for a classroom to receive IMPACT support. An inclusive classroom welcomes children with sensory needs, auditory or visual impairment, allergies or other specialized health care needs.

IMPACT was launched with the goal of reaching 6,000 kids in three years. The program reached that goal before IMPACT was even a year old. Fewer than two years into the program, IMPACT reached a whopping 17,000 children in King County.

Bigger picture

During the time of COVID-19, many of IMPACT’s trainings and mentorship sessions are being conducted via Zoom. But IMPACT’s online professional development assists in providing mental health and resources that reach far beyond the small screen.

IMPACT training includes an introduction to inclusion, self-care for teachers and administrators, how to partner with families, and the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), a developmental screening tool. More recently, COVID-specific trainings help early learning providers meet new safety standards while continuing to maintain their education standards. 

For all parents, a high-quality educational environment is appealing, and that is what a truly inclusive classroom brings, McLeskey says.  “In inclusive classrooms, teachers become so good at seeing each child as a unique individual and customizing their teaching and support to each child’s unique needs that all the children in the room benefit.” Both parents and children benefit from a sense of membership and belonging, and become advocates for classroom inclusion, she says.

“Kids get it,” McLeskey says. “Kids are compassionate.  When they are in an inclusive space where all kids are valued and supported, those children are seeing and celebrating differences.”

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.