Projects in Inclusive Early Childhood Classrooms

Rebecca K. Edmiaston
Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education, University of North Iowa

1. Focus on collaborative efforts. Collaboration is the backbone of successful inclusion. The collaborative teamwork necessary to meet the needs of young children with disabilities is exemplified in projects. Through cooperation and collaboration, early childhood teachers, early childhood special educators, caregivers, children, and families can design and implement successful inclusion experiences in which the focus is not on individual effort or a child in isolation. Rather, the focus is on group efforts and on relationships with other children, teachers, family, and the community.

The first step in implementing effective project work is to develop a classroom community in which mutual respect and cooperation are continually practiced. Children who see their classroom as a community are more likely to develop a sense of obligation to others. Positioning children with disabilities so that they can be at the table, on the floor, etc. with classmates promotes interactions between them and their non-disabled peers. Classmates will often identify ways to include children with special needs. A kindergarten teacher of an inclusive classroom describes her classroom community in this way:

"We seem to have built a community within our building where no one is different and no one is excluded. If we're planning a project, sometimes the kids will say 'Well, what about (child's name)? How is he going to fit into this project? What can he do?' knowing that there may be a physical challenge or a visual challenge for this particular student. They come up with ways that he or she can be part of that activity and be included in some part of the experience, and they think of that even before I do. They don't need to have me helping that conversation along. And the reason is because we've developed a community where they're comfortable-they want to have everybody included and have everybody doing everything" (Edmiaston & Fitzgerald, 1998).

Educators in inclusive classrooms view all children as competent and capable. This strengths-based image of children enables both teachers and children to see everyone in their classroom, including those with disabilities, as being valuable members of the classroom community. Children with special needs can and do make important contributions to projects. For example, children in a kindergarten classroom had become interested in shadows and wanted to begin a new project. They set up a shadow studio in the corner of the classroom by hanging dark gray sheets from the ceiling. However, a few children in the classroom weren't quite certain that they were ready to stop their work on dinosaurs. When Benjamin, a young child with limited cognitive ability, joined two children in the shadow studio, he told them that his hand's shadow was a T-Rex (a Tyrannosaurus Rex). Immediately the other two children picked up on this theme. A few minutes later, Benjamin retrieved a plastic T-Rex and took it to the shadow studio to make more shadows. Later in the week several children decided that they would make dinosaur shadow puppets to use in the shadow studio. Benjamin's ideas assisted others in making connections between the dinosaur and shadow projects. In inclusive classrooms everyone has something to offer in projects.

2. Emphasis on children's interests. Projects emerge in relationship to children's interests. Taking children's interests seriously is at the heart of developmentally appropriate or constructivist education, according to DeVries and Zan (1994). By following children's interests in classroom experiences and activities, the teacher demonstrates respect for children and their ideas. Interest can increase children's engagement in learning experiences. Even as adults, our effort is often positively related to interest. Interest is particularly important in engaging children with special needs in learning experiences.

It may require careful observation for the teacher to identify children's interests. For example, in a class meeting children in an inclusive kindergarten were exploring "shoes" as a possible next project. To the casual observer, a young child with disabilities was squirming around on the floor looking at his feet and apparently was not engaged in the group discussion. His behavior probably would have been described as "off-task." However, his teacher recognized that he was tracing the lines on the soles of his shoes as the other children were identifying questions that they had about shoes. She pointed out to the children that he was examining the pattern on the bottom of his shoes. His activity captured the interest of the others, and they quickly began to examine their own shoes and those of their peers. As a result, several children became very interested in how patterns and different colors and words were imprinted on tennis shoes. Children made representations of the bottoms of their shoes, and some even tried to make their own shoes. The child with special needs was able to address one of his educational goals, identifying similarities and differences, through his interest in the different patterns he found on the bottoms of shoes.

3. Participation in diverse learning experiences. Projects include a variety of experiences and activities for children that address a broad range of developmental needs. They do not require that every child participate in every experience. Individual abilities are taken into consideration as projects are implemented in classrooms. Individual Educational Programs (IEPs) are required for all children who are receiving special education services. These plans identify individual goals and objectives for the child. The variety of learning experiences that children have the opportunity to engage in through projects supports children's mastery of individual goals and objectives. Children's IEP goals can be easily infused into projects in ways that make the learning experience more meaningful and purposeful for the child. According to Edmiaston, Dolezal, Doolittle, Erickson, and Merritt (in press), IEP goals that reflect early childhood curriculum and classroom instructional practices facilitate effective inclusion. Goals and objectives such as "Benjamin will negotiate conflicts with peers by using appropriate verbal responses or requests," or "Julie will develop a tripod grasp and hand preference and use them consistently," can easily be infused into project experiences. Because projects extend over a period of time, children with special needs are not pressured by short time frames. Projects typically provide multiple opportunities for children to practice or repeat experiences-key strategies in special education instruction.

Projects also provide all children in the class the opportunity to make choices. Making choices empowers children and promotes self-regulation. Increased independence is an important goal of most special education programs. Young children with disabilities, as well as many of their non-disabled peers, may not understand what choices are available. Since projects are flexible, children have multiple opportunities to make choices and to specifically choose to engage in certain learning experiences or activities.

4. Small group instruction. Work in small groups, the primary grouping pattern in projects, provides a social context for meaningful discussions, collaborative problem-solving, and productive cognitive and social conflict resolution. Small group learning experiences will more likely ensure that the individual goals of children with disabilities are being met. Also, the small group context is the ideal environment for facilitating the development of social interaction of all children, including those with disabilities. Depending on the needs of the children in the classroom, the teacher may need to give special attention to grouping patterns and identifying the composition of the groups. Consistency in small groups provides the opportunity for children to form special relationships. Some children may be better partners for children with special needs than are others.

5. Documentation of children's learning. Documentation of children's learning experiences is an important component of project work. In Reggio schools, children's understandings are also expressed through a wide variety of symbols and graphic modes, what Malaguzzi (1993) called the "hundred languages of children." Children's expressions of knowledge through a variety of symbolic representations are recognized as valid documentation of children's learning. The recognition of children's multiple "languages" seems especially relevant to the needs of children with disabilities and may provide expanded means of documenting their development and the meeting of IEP goals and objectives as they participate in projects.

Conclusion

Projects can promote the effective inclusion of children with disabilities into early childhood programs. Project work enables teachers to address the diverse needs of children. In projects, children with and without disabilities can engage in learning experiences at their own level to meet their physical, social, or academic goals. Projects allow teachers to implement both individually and developmentally appropriate educational experiences for all children in the classroom. Children who are learning together and learning to work together while engaged in projects are at the same time learning to live together.

References

DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children: Creating a constructivist atmosphere in early education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Edmiaston, R., Dolezal, V., Doolittle, S., Erickson, C., & Merritt, S. (in press). Developing Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) for children in inclusive settings: A developmentally appropriate framework. Young Children.

Edmiaston, R., & Fitzgerald, L. (Project Directors). (1998). The Grant Early Childhood Center: A model for inclusion [Video]. (Available from The Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0616)

Malaguzzi, L. (1993). For an education based on relationships. Young Children, 49(1), 9-12.


next section

Table of Contents