This article shares Dimi’s experience of teaching an inclusive practice module on an early years undergraduate course at an English university. The course focused on practical aspects of working with children from birth to age 7. It covered curricula and practice in private nursery settings (Early Years Foundation Stage or EYFS) and the first stage of primary school (Key Stage 1).
The Inclusive Practice module formed part of an undergraduate vocational course which aimed to develop students’ professional practice. Some students were new to early years, others were more experienced and seeking a formal qualification. The module ran in the second year, after students had completed a first term of placement in an early years setting and started their second placement.
The placement experience ensured students could begin to relate inclusive values and principles to the practice they had seen in the settings and apply this to their own practice, planning and observations. The module covered understandings of inclusion and how children benefit from such approaches, the child’s point of view, curriculum requirements, and working with parents and specialists who support children and families. The module encouraged reflection and self-evaluation of practice rather than just qualifying students as inclusive practitioners.
Principles of inclusive practice in the EYFS
Inclusive principles are embedded within the EYFS. This acknowledges that each child is unique and develops and learns in different ways and at different rates. Enabling environments and positive relationships are equally at the heart of early years practice. Every child, parent, and practitioner has the right to access and participate in high-quality settings and learning experiences.
Nevertheless, early years practitioners are guided by their own views, attitudes, and beliefs. Students’ practice and views are often influenced by prior experiences of inclusive practice and children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). For example, they may remember how children with SEND were educated at their own school, or they may bring experiences of being a parent or relative of a child with SEND.
In developing knowledge and skills at university, students also saw themselves as growing their skillset and expertise, which was reinforced by the value of early years degrees for assisting career progression in the sector.
The child and family point of view
The module was influenced by the social model of inclusion and promoted a positive view of the child as capable and the parent as a partner. This was a difficult learning point for students who saw themselves as experts and wanted to ‘fix’ the child through their practice and compensate for the child’s shortcomings. Part of the reason for this was a rigid reading of the EYFS requirements and developmental milestones in isolation from inclusive principles. There is also government pressure on practitioners to develop school readiness (i.e., early reading and writing skills). Students’ attitudes were also influenced by their personal experiences with SEND, for instance if they had been told in the past that they could not do certain things because of their differences (e.g., dyslexia or not ‘being good’ with numbers).
To counter such stereotypes, the module steered students away from deficit views and stressed the importance of developing children’s positive self-image and self-esteem and working relationships with parents. In the EYFS this is achieved by assigning a ‘key person’ for each child who observes, plans and records the child’s individual progress. This ensures continuity of care and collaborative working between practitioners and parents.
Essentially, students would develop knowledge of the child, their environment, strengths and weaknesses, and form a relationship with the parents. Being a ‘key person’ could then be interpreted as being an expert with regards to child development but also an expert in the child and their needs.
Partnerships with parents
The EYFS promotes partnerships with parents as a crucial aspect of inclusive practice. Parents know their children best but are not necessarily knowledgeable about theories of child development and developmental assessments.
Developing partnerships with parents is a balancing act for students. In teaching the Inclusive Practice module I encountered two issues. Firstly, students were often resistant to approaching parents and getting to know them during placements. Secondly, students increasingly began to see themselves as experts in early years education and care who potentially knew better than the parents.
These mindsets are problematic in developing inclusive practice, particularly when children are not meeting the expected milestones for their age and stage of development. Students need to be aware that children who are not meeting milestones in the education setting might be meeting them in their home environment – an insight that parents can provide.
Students were encouraged to see parents as equal partners, not least because of the immediate impact they have on the child’s life. While no two families are the same, a child’s parents know them best so students need to develop a level of sensitivity in dealing with parents and families. Often parents are not equipped with the skills to support their child with SEND, or they may not be ready to acknowledge that their child has a disability that impacts learning and development.
To address these issues, during the course we attempted to see inclusive early years practice through the eyes of parents. Students were encouraged to better understand the challenges parents face, such as feeling that they are not taken seriously by practitioners or not being listened to about their child.
Teaching about inclusion involves developing students’ awareness of their own understandings of inclusion and how these influence their practice. Their past experiences (e.g., their own education and dis/ability), values and worldview around disability (e.g., medical vs. social model), self-image and expertise shape practice and help determine outcomes for the children they work with.
Such factors cannot and should not be dismissed. Often students talked about being objective in their practice and informed by their expertise but is it possible to shake off our preconceptions and past experiences when dealing with children and their families? Rather than dismissing our own views and experiences, they should be acknowledged through reflection.
Some sessions therefore encouraged students to reflect on their own education, particularly negative experiences that may be having an impact on their practice. Focus was also placed on exclusion and their own dealings with it as a way to consider what is and is not inclusive practice. For example, many students favoured removing children with SEND from the mainstream group to provide support but in our sessions the inclusive intentions of this approach were questioned.
The Inclusive Practice module highlighted the need for reflective and sensitive practice. However, while all modules encouraged reflective practice, the Inclusive Practice module was a stand-alone unit. To further develop students’ capacity to be inclusive and open-minded, inclusive values should be discussed across the whole course curricula to ensure inclusion is embedded into practice from the outset and not just as a second-year module.
Dimi Kaneva is currently Senior Lecturer at the School of Education and Professional Development, University of Huddersfield. This article is based on experience at a previous university. She can be contacted through the EENET office. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.