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)?