What is an “inclusive learning environment?”

At Yikes Tikes! our mission is to provide an inclusive early learning environment for children and families. But, what exactly is an “inclusive early learning environment?”

Let’s start by looking at the definition of “inclusion.”

Inclusion rejects the use of special schools or classrooms to separate students with disabilities from students without disabilities. A premium is placed upon full participation by students with disabilities and upon respect for their social, civil, and educational rights.

Inclusive education differs from previously held notions of integration and mainstreaming, which tended to be concerned principally with disability and ‘special educational needs’ and implied learners changing or becoming ‘ready for’ or deserving of accommodation by the mainstream. By contrast, inclusion is about the child’s right to participate and the school’s duty to accept the child.

At Yikes Tikes!, we approach inclusion from two different directions. First, we focus on the environment. What do our classrooms need to be able to include everyone? Second, we make sure that our curriculum has many different points of entry. How can we break an activity or task down into discrete skills, pieces, or concepts? What kind of scaffolding do we need to provide so that everyone can participate?

Because we use the Reggio Emilia Approach when designing our classroom environments, we tend to carefully consider things like color, use of wall space, choice of artifacts, organization, and overall aesthetics of the space. Our walls are painted with neutral rather than primary colors, creating a sense of calm and drawing attention not the themselves, but to the children’s art and documentation that they display. We do not display pre-made art, preferring to reserve the wall space for showcasing what the children have created, or teacher-made documentation that reflects the activities of the children. This type of display is by its nature inclusive, since it reflects all the children in the classroom.

We pay careful attention to how our art and sensory materials are displayed and organized, and we store them within easy reach of the children. The caveat to this is that we also edit what we have available– while there is variety, we don’t keep every single item available at all times. We want to send the message to children–it’s up to you what you want to use. It’s your right to decide how to express yourself.

art supply organization

Art supplies are organized and kept within easy reach, sending the message that children can choose what they want to use.

We are not interested in the sterility of a clinical or institutional setting, even though many of our kids do receive therapy in the classroom. We strive to strike a balance between having enough interest within the environment so that children will naturally gravitate towards exploration on their own, and making sure, by carefully curating and editing what is on display and available for use, that kids with sensory regulation or attentional needs are not overwhelmed. Overall, we want our environment to have a sense of calm and harmony, cutting back on sensory overload and helping children to be more regulated available for learning. Some specific modifications we use in order to be more inclusive within this classroom space are:

-offering a variety of seating options for table work and for circle time. These include cushions, peanut balls, carpet squares, child-sized chairs with and without arms.

-offering a place to get away and escape within the classroom. This is a little tent filled with pillows behind the teacher’s desk. A basket of stuffed animals at the entrance invites children who need a break to bring a fuzzy friend with them as they self-regulate.

A place to escape

A cozy spot to hide away and be alone or with a friend

Lastly, an inclusive classroom needs ample storage. Our teachers have thousands of ideas for activities and come across a wide variety of natural and recycled materials, loose parts, art and craft supplies, dramatic play items, puzzles, etc which they want to use with their kids. So, in order to keep the classroom from becoming overwhelmed with stuff, each of our classes utilizes a lot of storage space. It is vital that the organizational system of this space is such that it is easy to maintain and access, both by teachers, and by parents in our worker co-operative.

The second piece of our inclusive classrooms is how we decide what to teach, and how we teach it. Our teachers decide on curriculum based on the interests of the children. They rely on observation and documentation to find out what it is that children are most excited by, and create projects and activities around those topics. This can be challenging with our kids who are non-verbal, but by careful observation of children’s non-verbal messages, including gestures, repetitive or perseverative play with objects or motions, and favorite or preferred activities, we can hypothesize what topics or activities might appeal most to these children. Another wrinkle is that our classrooms are mixed-age. We have two year olds and five year olds in the same group. It can be challenging to figure out activities that will be engaging to big kids and little kids. So scaffolding is a huge part of how we teach.

Our therapists work with teachers to modify classroom activities in order to help children work on therapeutic goals, and teachers build kindergarten readiness skills into their designs. For us, the most important kindergarten readiness skills are not knowing the ABC’s or counting to 100 (although literacy and numeracy are naturally built into most if not all classroom activites); our academic goals for our kids are: knowing how to self-regulate (ie how to calm down when upset), increased attention span, and the social skills needed to navigate a class group.

That said, we also need to work specifically on cutting, drawing, writing, sorting, counting, balancing, climbing, and sharing. So each activity in a project or topic must be broken down into discrete skills. Each of our children is at a different place with any given skill. A collaging activity, for example, is made up of a variety of different skills: choosing what images, shapes, and colors to use; cutting them with scissors to the right size and shape; choosing how to place or assemble the pieces; gluing them to another piece of paper or other surface. Challenging, to say the least. Any one of those skills would be worth spending some serious time working on. So our teachers will offer the activity in its entirety to the older kids, but breaking it down into component parts before asking them to finally put it together. Younger children might spend the whole time gluing pre-cut pieces; this gives them practice with the decision-making and with controlling the glue, but gets them past the hurdle of scissor skills. A child with attentional or sensory issues may need an aide to assist with this activity; or she may be able to enjoy it autonomously if we do not insist her product turn out a certain way.

With every activity they plan, our teachers ask themselves, what do each of my kids need in order to access and enjoy this activity? What parts of this will be most meaningful to them? How can I link this activity with an experience the children have or will soon have?

Ultimately teaching is an experiment in what works. Our approach has taken years to refine and we continue to work on making our classrooms more inclusive. We believe that a large part of good teaching is simply knowing each child well enough to understand how much support is needed for learning. We want our classrooms and our teaching to encourage autonomy and independence for all children, typical and non-typical developers alike.

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