As an Early Childhood Teacher in my native Turkey and here in the United States, I did not feel I had enough knowledge about working with infants, toddlers, and young children with disabilities to include them in programming or be an effective teacher. For example, I did not know what the common developmental delays and disabilities were; how to support children with developmental delays and disabilities in a classroom; nor the significant role the family plays in this process. I had five years of teaching experience in Turkey but did not think that I had worked with children with developmental delays or disabilities. However, now that I have more knowledge about disabilities, I think I probably did. I just did not notice that some of my students had a delay or a disability because I lacked the knowledge about developmental delays and disabilities. It was a difficult realization because I believe in the significant role of early childhood educators have in identifying and developing appropriate interventions for the ultimate learning and development of children with delays and disabilities.
As I entered my second year in graduate school in the United States, I added specialized training in early intervention through the Georgetown University Graduate Certificate in Early Intervention program as an opportunity to learn more about infants, toddlers and young children with disabilities. I learned many things but most of all, I learned four things all early childhood teachers should know to feel prepared to teach ALL children:
- Knowledge about specific disabilities or developmental delays is not enough;
- We need strategies to ensure all children are included in our classrooms;
- Families are key for all children; and
- We need more information about the culture and language diversity of the students we teach.
Knowledge about developmental delays and disabilities is not enough. We also need to understand what to do to assess a young child’s needs and know where to get help. As I have gotten experience as a substitute teacher, I have seen several children with developmental delays or disabilities in regular education classrooms with classroom teachers. Some teachers were able to support those children and some were not. When I questioned myself on my ability to confidently and competently teach the children, my answer was a resounding, “not sure”. Given that I had no experience at American public schools and limited education about inclusion, I could not say that “Yes! I can do it!” when I looked into this a bit more, I found that it was not just me. Content about educating children with developmental delays or disabilities is not required (Horm, Hyson & Winton, 2013) in forty percent of all early childhood teacher preparation programs. Although, inclusion has been found to be one of the best practices for ALL children (Devarakonda, 2013), early childhood teacher preparation programs do not require training working in this area few teachers feel prepared to support children with disabilities..
Early childhood teachers need to know there are already sets of strategies that can help. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one of them. “UDL is a philosophy and a variety of multiple approaches to make learning accessible to a wide range of students” (Basham, et al., 2010 as cited in Carnahan, Crowley, Holness, 2016, p. 11). Through a responsive and flexible curriculum, UDL provides options for presenting information, responding, and showing students’ skills and knowledge and the engagement of students in learning (Ralabate, 2011). For example, brain-breaks, graffiti boards or problem-solving checklists are some of the UDL-aligned strategies to improve engagement, representation, and expression. For more information please visit http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl. Early childhood technical assistance center-ectacenter.org/topics/atech/udl.asp
Key to successful inclusion is partnering with families and other service providers. . We sometimes take for granted families of children in our classrooms, although families are one of the important pillars of child development. In philosophy, both Early Interventionists and Early Childhood Educators emphasize the importance of family engagement. However, in practice, Early Childhood Educators fail to engage families in their children’s development and education.
Since from the beginning of the Georgetown University Graduate Certificate in Early Intervention program, we are taught how we should meet the families’ needs, value their priorities, and embrace their differences because the child is also a member of the family and family has a great impact on child’s development (Keilty, 2010). At the end of the program, I had the chance of learning how it looks in practice through practicing a coaching session and watching my colleagues’ coaching sessions. It was amazing to see how early interventionists respected families’ differences, shared decision makings or let families do the activities. Those were interactive relationships. I also had lots of experiences through long-term and short-term substitute teaching at several public schools across Fairfax County in Virginia. Unfortunately, when compared to the early interventionists, early childhood teachers have limited relationships with children’s families especially families who are more diverse or have multiple and varied challenges, concerns, and priorities and limited resources.
Given to the increasing diversity in the United States, not having strong relationships with children’s families might be a big problem for the development and academic well-being of growing generations. Therefore, early childhood educators have an important role to remove challenges and augment family engagement. Integrating different cultures into curriculum and classroom is an effective way to have families feel welcomed. Moreover, asking parents their opinions and sharing decisions help them feel heard and engaged.
Through the Georgetown University Graduate Certificate in Early Intervention program I improved my knowledge about infants, toddlers and young children’s development, characteristics of common disabilities, how to support children with developmental delays and disabilities, the role of families in children’s development and the importance of collaboration with other team members. As a prospective early childhood teacher, I hope to learn more about innovations in supporting children with disabilities.
Carnahan, C. D., Crowley, K. & Holness, P. (2016). Implementing Universal Design for Learning. Global Education, 2016(4). 10-19.
Devarakonda, C. (2013). Diversity and inclusion in early childhood: An introduction. Thousand, Oaks, CA: Sage.
Horm, D. M., Hyson, Marilou & Winton, P. J. (2013). Research on Early Childhood Teacher Education: Evidence from Three Domains and Recommendations for Moving Forward. Early Childhood Teacher Education, 34(1). 95-112.
Ralabate, P. K. (2011). Universal Design for Learning: Meeting the Needs of All Students. Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/universal-design-learning-meeting-needs-all-students