Introduction Inclusive practices in the context of education in general underpinning the basic principle of fairness and equal rights to education regardless of race, language, family and socioeconomic background, culture and ability. Touching on the issue of inclusion in the early childhood context, it is important to consider who are the children or the group of children that are being included. Also, taking into consideration how inclusive practices are being enabled and what knowledge of the early childhood educators, practices of the centres and resources that are evident and made available in the centres.
In relation to inclusive practices, the sociocultural theory states that learning and development occur through a process of changing participation in dynamic cultural communities, in which there are active contributions from individuals, their social partners, practices and tradition (current and historical), cultural tools, technologies, and materials, and values and belief systems (Ragoff, 1995, 2003). Sociocultural theorists therefore recognise that cognition is not an individual construction. It is a collaborative process between the individual and his social partners to participate in relevant activities.
As such, cognition involves collaborative process as people engage in thinking together with others (Rogoff & Toma, 1997). Hence, the aim of the case study is to find out to what degree of inclusiveness, in particular working with children with disabilities or special needs (both strength and weaknesses), has been practiced in the local (Singapore) early childhood setting. The case study on the inclusive programs for children with disabilities or special needs was done in a childcare centre situated in the northern residential part of Singapore.
It has a total of seventy-three childcare students and seven infants under the infant care program. Out of the seventy-three childcare students, five attend the half a day program. There are a total of nine childcare teachers and six infant care teachers. Under the centre’s philosophy, the centre believes that the key role of early childhood education is to prepare children for the journey of lifelong learning. The centre’s role is to provide a caring and conducive environment by providing facilities and programme to stimulate the child’s inquisitive ind and optimize his social, physical, intellectual, creative and emotional development. The centre aims to foster strong links within the local community by incorporating the resources available in the neighbourhood. The research was done in the kindergarten level, K1 and K2, five and six years old respectively. There are seven Malays, two Indians and nineteen Chinese students in total for both K1 and K2 class. Each of the kindergarten classes has their own lead teacher who teaches them mathematics, language arts, art and crafts, science and music.
Both the classes shared one language teacher (Chinese language). These two classes share the various learning centres such as language and literacy, art and craft, and construction (wooden blocks and legos). The learning environment is not very conducive for the K1s as the allocated space area was a little too cramp for fifteen children but the space area for the K2s is sufficient enough to accommodate the eleven children. The centre adopted a structured, teacher centered curriculum approach where most of the teachings (hands-on or modeling) done by the teacher.
There is also no flexibility in carrying out the lessons as the teachers have to follow strictly the lessons planned for them by the curriculum department from the head quarters. As such, if any of the children displayed great interest in a certain topic, the teacher could only extend the topic / theme for just one more day. Out of the total twenty-six kindergarten children (K1 and K2), there are two special needs children – children living with autism, one from each class. Both the children attended external, professional therapy and sessions for children with special needs.
The child from the K2 class (‘J’) attend his sessions on a daily basis while the other from the K1 class (‘D’) attend his thrice a week – Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. J’s sessions are on every morning and he will come to the childcare in the afternoon. As for D, on every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday he attends childcare in the morning and goes off for his therapy / sessions in the afternoon. The data gathered based on the evaluation done on the checklist implemented. The objective of gathering the data is to analyse to what extend has the centre practiced the inclusive program in working with children with special needs.
The areas evaluated are teachers’ knowledge, skills and attitudes demonstrated in their day-to-day working either directly or indirectly with their two students living with autism. In reference to the checklist, all trained teachers (diploma level) are not specifically trained to working with children with special needs. The knowledge that teachers have are just an awareness to what special needs is all about and to understand a little more about each type of special needs or disabilities.
Therefore, teachers at the centre are not very responsive towards the two children. On top of that, the management level did not show clear evident of playing their part towards the two children with autism and it certainly does not correspond with their vision statement: The Centre believes that children of different ethnic background, social status and abilities should not be deprived of quality care and education (see appendix). This evident shows that the teachers’ beliefs and underpinning knowledge of understanding children with special needs is rather minimal.
However, they do show respect on individual differences by trying to understand the children’s behaviour (J and D) and routine as well as to always create an awareness and respect, through role modeling, in all the other children in the centre towards J and D. The teachers responses act as a role model to all the other children under their care and those children are learning about disability and at the same time developing their own ways of understanding (Palmer, 1998). The learning environment provided that was present in the centre was not suitable for both J and D.
Provision of learning and teaching materials were inadequate and unsuitable for their use. As both J and D are in placed together with the kindergarten children, the lessons plan for the class was inappropriate for J’s and D’s learning. An issue that has to be taken into consideration will be the student teacher ratio. In order for learning and communicating to be effective with J and D, the teachers of both classes need a lot of time spent with them. Unfortunately, the class size does not permit the teachers to do so freely.
Both the kindergarten teachers can only communicate with the two children when their class is heavily involved in their activity, which most of the time quite a number of the children are able to accomplish their written task within a short period. As such, it is impossible to communicate and have lessons effectively with J and D without being interrupted by the others. The classroom environment does not allow for personal quiet time for the children and this is a basic need for children with autism. Not that there are plans for segregation but to let both J and D feels comfortable being themselves, whenever they wish to be alone.
Children with disabilities engage in social interaction with their peers less often than typically developing children (National Professional Development Centre on Inclusion, 2007). Finally, the factor on trained teachers in working with children with special needs. Both the kindergarten teachers knew and are aware of what special needs are but their knowledge are insufficient to teach and guide this special group of children. Thus, most of the time both J and D are left alone to do what they want to do, which is sitting in solitary.
Due the lack of knowledge in handling children with special needs, both teachers are most of the time unable to resolve when problems arise such as sudden screaming, or refusing to share toys or things, or refusing to move on to the next routine. In order to make the environment suitable for an inclusive program to be implemented, there are a few things which need to be changed or added on to the centre. First and foremost, early childhood educator managing the programme must be trained in a course on children with special needs and preferably have experience in teaching children with special needs.
Secondly, the centre should work in partnership with the parents of the child as well as with professionals trained in the field. Centre can also engage speech therapists, child psychologists in order to provide therapy sessions for the children with special needs. Collaboration is the cornerstone of effective inclusive programs which means including and empowering parents as part of the decision-making team in the education of their children ( National Professional Development Centre on Inclusion, 2007).
Early childhood educators managing children with special needs have to make necessary planning, teaching and management strategies, and exercise flexible arrangement necessary adjustments for behaviour coping strategies and alternative support programmes when working with children with special needs. Adequate support is important in order to make inclusive environments effective for the children involve. Support which includes professional training, personnel, provision of materials, planning time, and on-going consultation.
These supports can be delivered in various ways, and each individual involved in inclusion may have unique needs (National Professional Development Centre on Inclusion, 2007). Another important aspect that needs to be looked into is the aspect of learning environment. The learning environment must be suitable and organized to ensure it accommodates the needs of the children. On top of that, the centre should developed an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for each child with special needs. Lastly, parents-teacher-conference should be conducted at least once in six months.
Across a range of disabilities, positive outcomes are reported for children with disabilities in inclusive settings (National Professional Development Centre on Inclusion, 2007). Children in the inclusive programs in general fair as well as children in specialized programs. It is also reported by the National Professional Development Centre on Inclusion, that children without disabilities participated in the inclusive programs often see beneficial changes in terms of confidence, self-esteem, and understanding of diversity (National Professional Development Centre on Inclusion, 2007).
In a nutshell, high quality early childhood programs form the necessary structural base for high quality inclusive programs, as such, all children benefit when programs are of high quality and truly inclusive (National Professional Development Centre on Inclusion, 2007). As stated at the beginning of this essay, the objective of collecting and evaluating the data is to find out to what extend inclusive programs is implemented in the local early childhood setting at the same time looking at the strength and weaknesses should the program is implemented in the centre. Word count: 1789
References: National Professional Development Center on Inclusion (2007). Research synthesis points on early childhood inclusion. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: National Professional Development Center on Inclusion, FPG Child Development Institute, The University of North Carolina. Palmer, A. (1998) Young Children with Additional Needs, AECA Research in Practice Series V5, 2. Rogoff, B. & Toma, C. (1997) Shared Thinking: community and institutional variations, Discourse Processes, 23, pp. 471 – 497. Rogoff, B. (2003) The Cultural Nature of Human Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.