14 Inclusion in Early Childhood Education


Ideas around inclusion in the early childhood field have evolved steadily over the past few decades, and are continuing to progress. This has occurred in a context of ongoing social change, which has been accompanied by similar changes across a range of social values and ideas. Definitions of inclusion traditionally focussed on readiness for assimilation into a general class (mainstreaming) [1]and integration in general classes with English language instruction and support for disability [2]. These views have shifted to those incorporating curricular and pedagogic differentiation to support children’s senses of belonging [3]. Changing values and ideas about diversity and difference, ability and disability, and social inclusion and exclusion in early childhood have been influential in this shift [4].

thinking about diversity and difference

Global populations are becoming more mobile, generating multi-cultural societies and therefore ethnic and cultural diversity in many world nations.[5]. Emerging from this is a growing awareness that everyone has their own cultural framework, which shapes perceptions, values and ideas [6]. Over[7] notes that to experience personal growth and wellbeing, positive social interactions and long lasting relationships are necessary. Current thinking acknowledges the importance of incorporating children’s unique identities and diversities to enable positive experiences for personal growth and lifelong learning. Developing effective contexts for inclusion that support children manage their own needs in diverse and different multicultural group settings is therefore an important goal in an inclusive approach to diversity in early childhood settings.

Thinking about ability and disability

Diversity exists in the way children develop. Development in children occurs at different rates across a population. However, when children fail to comply with the developmental pathways typically outlined and expected in the school culture, they are sometimes labelled as having a developmental disability. Disability is an overall term defined by the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health [8] and incorporates three components:

1. Impairment, which refers to body functions (for example, sensory or cognitive functions) and body structures (for example, organ or limb functions)

2. Activity limitations, which refers to the challenges of carrying out daily activities such as self-care, mobility and learning.

3. Participation restrictions experienced as the child endeavours to participate within the family and community settings.

Reframed notions of the continuum of what is ‘normal’ have emerged in thinking around disability in recent years. The impacts of social and environmental factors have come to be seen as additional components associated with disability and have led to challenging what is interpreted as normal. For example, the increased number of sites with wheel chair access has enabled wheel chair users to engage with a greater variety of facilities and therefore life experiences. Such inclusive actions works towards incorporating Article 23 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which specifies that children with disabilities have the right to special care with assistance appropriate to their condition in order to promote the child’s social integration and individual development.

Thinking about social inclusion and exclusion

Developed nations have experienced social changes, which have not been beneficial for all members of society. Some people have failed to benefit from the changed social and economic conditions and instead have experienced social exclusion and therefore poorer outcomes [9].

Social changes have resulted in the fragmentation of communities, greater demands on parents, and systems that are ill-equipped to cope with the needs of children and families [10]. Social exclusion arises when children suffer from multiple factors that make it difficult for them to participate in society [11]. These factors may include growing up in jobless households, being a member of a minority group or living with a sole parent. This may lead to the child being at risk of living in poverty and being socially isolated [12].

Inequalities in Early Childhood Development in Canada[13]

Children who experience disadvantaged conditions are more vulnerable in all areas of their early development. Developmental vulnerability is assessed by the Early Development Instrument and reflects children whose skills and behaviours are below the levels exhibited by most of their peers.

1 in 4 Canadian children are vulnerable in at least one of five developmental areas:

  • physical health and well-being
  • social competence
  • language and thinking skills
  • communication skills and general knowledge
  • understanding and managing emotions

Developmental vulnerabilities may lead to poorer health and social outcomes in later life, including:

  • chronic diseases and conditions
  • addictions and poor mental health
  • lower literacy and economic participation
  • violence and crime

Boys are more developmentally vulnerable than girls.

Children in lower income communities or living in areas with lower material and social resources, experience the greatest inequalities.

Vulnerability in early childhood development:

  • 2.2X higher in communities
  • 1.8X higher in the lowest-income communities
  • 2.0X higher among Indigenous children than non-Indigenous children

Inequities experienced by First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations are anchored in colonial policies and practices that began with Residential Schools, loss of cultural continuity, territories and languages. Unaddressed intergenerational trauma adds to the ongoing challenges faced by Indigenous peoples.

Social Inclusion

While social inclusion may appear to be the opposite of social exclusion it incorporates much more. Social inclusion infers a proactive, mindful approach that requires action to facilitate conditions of inclusion [14]. Current understandings about child development and learning, as well as social justice and social inclusion, indicates that relationships, interactions and experiences in children’s early lives have a profound influence on early brain development and future life outcomes[15]. Reducing boundaries, barriers and social and economic distances between people are important when promoting a more inclusive society [16]. To be inclusive it is vital that children and adults are able to participate as valued, respected and contributing members of society.


According to the Nova Scotia Early Years framework document, the early years, from before birth through school entry, are crucial for a child’s healthy development. Children’s early experiences – good or bad – can have a significant impact on their long-term development and well-being. The Government of Nova Scotia is committed to providing our children with the best possible start in life. That is why we have reached out to families, early childhood educators, health care professionals, community based agencies, partners and many others so together we can improve early learning for all children.

Every child should have opportunities to grow, learn, and develop a sense of belonging and safety within their families, communities, and society. The strengths and needs of children and families with diverse values, beliefs, abilities, and practices must be addressed, including tailoring the delivery of programs and services to meet social, cultural, jurisdictional, and linguistic considerations.

Our commitment to children has also led us to create the Provincial Early Years Partnership (PEYP), a diverse, child-focused network of people all over the province–all with expertise and experience in early years education and support. We know that especially in their first six years, child and family-centred programs and services can make a tremendous difference in the long term health, well-being and learning success of our children. The PEYP will build on our collective knowledge and expertise to provide a framework to ensure that children from birth through school entry have every opportunity for success.


The Nova Scotia framework aligns with the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child by aiming to ensure that all children have the opportunity to thrive, to be engaged in their own learning. The early learning framework Image of the child “sees children as curious, creative, full of potential, capable, and confident. It values and honours children for who they are today, and for who they will become.”

Educators are important people in children’s lives. They understand and respect child development, and ensure that children have opportunities to play, investigate, explore, question, pursue their own interests, be recognized for their abilities, and develop friendships. Educators encourage children’s capacity to learn through self-directed and increasingly complex play; opportunities to express their ideas, engage in conversation, and learn to appreciate others’ perspectives and opinions; and to actively explore their environments.

Inclusion is acknowledged as an approach in the framework where educators recognise, respect and work with each child’s unique abilities and learning pathways and where diversity is celebrated[43].

Additionally, the rights of children with disability and from diverse backgrounds to access and participate in ELCC services are set out in in the documents below:

Inclusion Barriers and Myths

Despite significant changes in thinking around diversity and inclusion, potential barriers to successful inclusion still exist. Barriers may serve to reduce the opportunities educators are prepared to take to design and create inclusive environments. The barriers can emerge from a range of issues including personal, attitudinal and organisational. From a personal perspective educators may be unwilling to engage with inclusion because of a perceived increase in workload or lack of confidence in their own skills to work with children with diversity. Personal bias and attitudes may impact upon the educator’s willingness to consider making adjustments to their program or to support children appropriately within their program. Organisational systems and structures can create barriers for educators through such things as lack of leadership supporting inclusive practices, professional development for staff or finances for resources. Early childhood is a unique period, which provides the blueprint for all future development and learning. Where barriers exist, opportunities for children’s learning and development can be greatly reduced.

Myths associated with inclusion may also serve to dissuade the development of inclusive environments for all children. Dispelling myths associated with implementing inclusive practices through sound reflective practice, educator commitment and teamwork have been identified as starting points for successful inclusion. Livingston[18] summarised myths under the following headings; the view that inclusion is not about disability, the perceived effects of including a disabled child in a classroom and the differences between inclusion and early intervention. Following is a discussion around these myths.

Inclusion is not just about disability

Ashman and Elkins[19] note “inclusion enables access, engagement and success for all learners” (p. 65). The NQF promotes the valuing of diversity, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people with a disability and people from diverse family compositions. The definition of inclusion in the approved learning frameworks for ECE is broader than simply providing for children with a disability. Inclusion is about embracing diversity, including every child holistically and providing opportunities for all children to participate and benefit.

As indicated above when discussing relevant policy and legal requirements, inclusion is a basic human right. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children have the right to an education (Article 28) that develops their ability to their fullest potential, prepares children for life and respects their family, cultural and other identities and languages (Article 29). This is reflected in Regulation 155 of the National Regulations where it states that an approved provider must take reasonable steps to ensure that the education and care service provides education and care to children in a way that maintains at all times the dignity and rights of each child.

Including a child with additional needs

There has been a perception by some that inclusion of diverse children will be detrimental to other group or class members. There is now sufficient evidence to suggest that peers are not harmed or disadvantaged through inclusive classrooms; rather, they grow and develop as a result of the relationships they cultivate and sustain with their diverse counterparts[20]. Typically, developing children learn a great deal from their classmates in inclusive settings. The inclusion of children with disabilities prompts classmates to become more understanding of, and to develop positive attitudes toward, their diverse counterparts [21]. Inclusive environments are characterised by repeated and impromptu interactions, which support all children in social, emotional and behavioural development [22]. When children with disabilities or differing abilities attempt to engage their peers in social interaction, typically developing children with experience in inclusive environments respond to these initiations and progress relationships by initiating interactions, negotiating sharing and developing an understanding of other children[23]. Additionally, children with experience of inclusive environments have been found to approach play with a stronger focus on fairness and equity and utilise more targeted ways to include diverse counterparts in their play [24].

Research has found that children are most receptive to actions of inclusion at an early age. Evidence suggests that older children are less likely to be receptive of children with disabilities being included in academic settings[25]. Since inclusion is beneficial to all children, inclusion in early childhood settings is considered to be highly important [26].

Inclusion and early intervention are not the same

Inclusion and early intervention for children with diversity are interrelated concepts but are viewed differently and have separate outcomes. As noted above the definition of inclusion in the EYLF refers to all children holistically. Early intervention relates to children who require additional support and involves the support of early childhood intervention specialists. The outcome of early intervention is to support children to develop the skills they need to take part in everyday activities and to be included in family and community life. This process is achieved in an inclusive environment where the important adults in the child’s life provide the experiences and opportunities necessary to help children participate meaningfully in their everyday lives.


  • Critically reflect upon these three myths.
  • What can you add to the discussion?
  • Have you experienced a change in your thinking?


This chapter is adapted from Chapter 4 Opening eyes onto inclusion and diversity in early childhood education by Michelle Turner in Opening Eyes by Susan Carter; Professor Lindy-Anne Abawi; Professor Jill Lawrence; Associate Professor Charlotte Brownlow; Renee Desmarchelier; Melissa Fanshawe; Kathryn Gilbey; Michelle Turner; and Jillian Guy shared with a CC BY-NC license.

  1. Petriwskyj, A. (2010). Diversity and inclusion in the early years. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 14(2), 195-212. doi: 10.1080/13603110802504515
  2. (Cook, Klein, & Tessier, 2008)
  3. Gillies, R., & Carrington, S. (2004). Inclusion: Culture, policy and practice: A Queensland perspective. Asia-Pacific Journal of Education, 24(2), 117–28.
  4. Moore, T., Morcos, A., & Robinson, R. (2009). Universal access to early childhood education: Inclusive practice – kindergarten access and participation for children experiencing disadvantage. (Background paper). Parkville, Victoria: Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health. Retrieved from https://www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccch/UAECE_Project_09_-_Final_report.pdf
  5. Arber, R. (2005). Speaking of race and ethnic identities: Exploring multicultural curricula.Journal of Curriculum Studies 37(6), 33–652. doi: 10.1080/00220270500038586
  6. Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2004). Diversity in early education programs: Honouring differences(4th Ed.). Columbus, Ohio: McGraw-Hill College.
  7. Over, H. (2016). The origins of belonging: Social motivation in infants and young children. Philosophical Transactions Royal Society Publishing B, 371, 1-8. doi:10.1098/rstb.2015.007220150072.
  8. World Health Organization (WHO). (2002). International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/classifications/icf/en/
  9. Hertzman, C. (2002). Leave no child behind! Social exclusion and child development. Toronto, Ontario: The Laidlaw Foundation.
  10. Moore, T. & Fry, R. (2011). Place-based approaches to child and family services: A literature review. Parkville, Victoria: Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.
  11. Hertzman, C. (2002). Leave no child behind! Social exclusion and child development. Toronto, Ontario: The Laidlaw Foundation.
  12. Moore, T., Morcos, A., & Robinson, R. (2009). Universal access to early childhood education: Inclusive practice – kindergarten access and participation for children experiencing disadvantage. (Background paper). Parkville, Victoria: Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health. Retrieved from https://www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccch/UAECE_Project_09_-_Final_report.pdf
  13. Public Health Agency of Canada. (2018). Inequalities in Early Childhood Development in Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/science-research-data/inequalities-early-childhood-development-canada-infographic.html
  14. Caruana, C., & McDonald, M. (2018) Social inclusion in the family support sector. (online) Canberra, ACT: Australian Institute of Family Services. Retrieved from: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/social-inclusion-family-support-sector/export
  15. Centre on the Developing Child. (2011). Building the brain’s air traffic control system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function.Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu
  16. Hayes, A., Gray, M., & Edwards, B. (2008). Social inclusion: Origins, concepts and key themes.Canberra, ACT: Social Inclusion Unit, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. http://www.socialinclusion.gov.au/publications.htm
  17. Province of Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (2018). Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework. https://www.ednet.ns.ca/docs/nselcurriculumframework.pdf
  18. Livingstone, R. (2018, April 30). Breaking down the inclusion barriers and myths. (We Hear You Blog). Retrieved from: https://wehearyou.acecqa.gov.au/2018/04/30/breaking-down-inclusion-barriers-and-myths/
  19. Ashman, A., & Elkins, J. (2005). Educating children with diverse abilities(2nd ed.). Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson.
  20. Odom, S., Vitztum, J., Wolery, R., Lieber, J., Sandall, S., Hanson, M., Beckman,P., Schwartz, I., & Horn, E. (2004). Preschool inclusion in the United States: A review of research from an ecological systems perspective. Journal of Research in Special Education Needs, 41, 17–49.
  21. Odom, S., & Bailey, D. (2001). Inclusive preschool programs: Classroom ecology and child outcomes. In M. Guralnick (Ed.), Early childhood inclusion: Focus on change(pp. 253–276). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  22. Odom, S., Vitztum, J., Wolery, R., Lieber, J., Sandall, S., Hanson, M., Beckman,P., Schwartz, I., & Horn, E. (2004). Preschool inclusion in the United States: A review of research from an ecological systems perspective. Journal of Research in Special Education Needs, 41, 17–49.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Diamond, K., & Hong, S. (2010). Young children’s decisions to include peers with physical disabilities in play. Journal of Early Intervention, 32, 163–177.
  25. Siperstein, G., Parker, R., Bardon, J., & Widaman, K. (2007). A national study of youth attitudes toward the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities. Exceptional Children, 73(4), 435–455.
  26. Gupta, S., Henninger, W., & Vinh, M. (2014). First steps to preschool inclusion: How to jumpstart your program wide plan.Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.


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