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The potential of inclusive early childhood care and education

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Written by  Published in: Discussion Forum

Inclusion is a word that is understood in many different ways – or perhaps more accurately, inclusion is a term that means different things to different people.

There are many questions that arise when we start talking about inclusion in early childhood, including inclusion of whom and into what? 

In 2010 researcher Jennifer Gidley and her colleagues outlined three ways of understanding social inclusion:

  1. The narrowest understanding relates to inclusion as access, so in early childhood this would involve access to early childhood services;
  2. A broader understanding is a view of inclusion as participation, this would involve both access and active participation within early childhood services;
  3. The broadest understanding of inclusion is inclusion as human potential.

A human potential understanding of inclusion involves embracing diversity in all its forms. This involves a process of social transformation whereby individual potential is supported not only through access and participation, but also through a process of actively engaging with the complexity of humanity. Therefore, being able to value all individuals and support their potential without focusing on deficits or seeking to assimilate or change people to fit the system. This focus on possibility and human potential requires not just providing access and supporting participation, but also being open to rethinking the way in which we set up early childhood services.

Inclusion is about everyone, everywhere. However, inclusion often comes to be associated with minority groups because of the tendency for minority groups to be excluded and therefore conscious efforts to fight against that exclusion and segregation become necessary.  

Facilitating inclusion is often viewed as an ‘added extra’ or a ‘special effort’ born out of kindness or charity. On the contrary, inclusion is fundamental to a functioning society – thus inclusion is the responsibility of everyone.

Inclusion is not territory for kind-hearted ‘do-gooders’, it is not about granting ‘special favours’, nor about changing someone to fit the elusive ‘norm’ in order to be ‘granted’ access to the community (or indeed the world!). Rather, inclusion is about recognising our shared humanity and moving beyond false notions of entitlement to recognise that for any of us to succeed as members of society we need to be included.

Inclusion requires accepting and celebrating human diversity.

For those of us committed to early childhood care and education (ECCE), we need to ask ourselves how will we create services that are inclusive of all children and families? - and not perpetuate a situation where we create a "them" and an "us" and then make adjustments to fit "them" in. This requires providing access and facilitating participation and engagement, but it also requires systemic change, social transformation and a focus on potential and possibility so that all children belong.

Bringing about inclusion in early childhood in reality is challenging, so we also need to think about why it is important. There are many different reasons or rationales and I would like to provoke discussion by raising a few.


Research demonstrates that all children benefit socially, academically and physically when they are included in ECCE and beyond. Brain research highlights powerfully the importance of the early years of a child’s life. Research tells us that participation in high quality early childhood programs has significant and long-term impact in a range of ways that relate to quality of life. There are also economic arguments regarding the importance of ‘investment in early childhood’. However, these benefits are only possible for children who are included.

Exclusionary or stigmatising social beliefs are generally recognisable in stereotypes and prejudices. Stigmatisation is a considerable barrier to inclusion and impacts on opportunity as well as a child’s sense of self. Researcher Paul Connolly and colleagues, from Queen’s University in Belfast, have found that even at 3 years of age children can demonstrate cultural preferences and are able to identify symbols of conflict or exclusion and identify groups of people they ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ on this basis, reflective of community prejudice. By age 6, children are able to make unsolicited prejudiced statements about community members.

Children don't develop these beliefs in a vacuum. Their beliefs are influenced by those adults involved in ECCE (whether they are teachers, family members or other community members), along with the presence and absence of groups of marginalised people, and the representations of people within the media and other popular culture. The development of these entrenched prejudices in early childhood creates a cycle of prejudice that inhibits social cohesion. Fostering inclusion in early childhood has the potential to break this cycle.

Of course there is also a human rights argument for inclusion in ECCE. Inclusive education is the right of every person, as articulated in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which all countries other than the USA and Somalia are signatories). The right to inclusion (including within education) is also articulated in the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability. Inclusion is about recognising the rights and dignity of every human being.

Based on these arguments - which are only some of the many arguments behind the importance of inclusion - if children are all included from their earliest years then over time this will: 

  • Improve academic, social and physical outcomes for all children;
  • Impact on the child’s brain development;
  • Increase the child’s engagement with the world;
  • Have economic benefits for all;
  • Reduce inequities;
  • Reduce human rights violations;
  • Be fair and just;
  • Enable all members of society to participate and belong; and
  • Bring us closer to reaching the human potential for all.

In everyday and exceptional circumstances, inclusion in early childhood can lead to more cohesive and more strongly functioning communities and societies.

Inclusion in early childhood has the potential to not only change all children's lives for the better, but to transform the whole of society.

Major social movements such as the civil rights movement (centred around anti-racism); women's and gender rights movements; community advocacy around the Millennium Development Goals; and the disability movement are examples of collective human efforts towards greater inclusion. While these movements have had greater and lesser success in different ways and in different contexts, they have also demonstrated so many possibilities.

Inclusion happens in a myriad of ways across different contexts everyday. However, inclusion is not a ‘tick-a-box’ and it is not something that will ever be ‘finished’ – it is an ongoing process. While there are challenges, there are enormous benefits to engaging with this process. To facilitate shared discussion within this international forum, I would like to pose some questions: 

  • What do you understand inclusion in EECE to mean?
  • Why do you consider inclusion in ECCE is important?
  • In your current role in ECCE, how do you see yourself/your organisation as being inclusive?
  • What experiences and examples of inclusion in ECCE can you share? (These might be at the micro level in terms of day-to-day ECCE practice or at the macro level in terms of policy or broader social change.) What were the outcomes of such inclusion?
  • What barriers to inclusion in ECCE have you encountered? What suggestions or questions do you have for addressing or overcoming these barriers? What do you see as some of the steps to becoming more inclusive within your current ECCE role?
  • What factors have you found to support inclusion in ECCE? How can these be maximized to increase inclusion in ECCE (in your role/organisation and beyond)?


Read 15320 times Last modified on Tuesday, 06 August 2013 10:39

Dr. Kathy Cologon is an academic at the Institute of Early Childhood, Macquarie University in Sydney. Kathy lectures in Inclusive Early Childhood Education.

Kathy has a particular interest in research and practice relating to the development and support of inclusive education, with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children. Prior to entering academia, Kathy has experience working in mainstream school and prior to school settings and has developed and implemented early intervention and inclusive early childhood programs. In this work Kathy has collaborated with families, teachers and therapists to support the inclusion of young children who experience disability. In her research, Kathy continues to work closely with families and early childhood professionals across a range of different roles and services in Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region. 

The crux of what drives Kathy’s research is a belief in the equality of all human beings and that recognising this has particular implications for the role of education and teacher education. History has clearly demonstrated the negative impact of a lack of learning opportunities and of social exclusion. Through her research Kathy seeks to contribute to the growing development of knowledge and understanding regarding how to provide effective opportunities to enable all children to flourish as valued members of our communities.

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