Ronald, a social worker at a high school for disabled teens, was helping Fran, a 17-year-old, land her first job interview. Ronald was surprised when Fran called from outside the office building before the interview. Fran sounded desperate.

“I don’t think I can do this!”

Ronald encouraged her, “Of course you can. You’re smart. They are looking for someone with your knowledge.”

Fran was taken aback at Ronald’s ignorance. “No! I mean the door has a knob. I can’t open it!”

In this story, Fran had the ability to do the job she was interviewing for. The disability was not Fran’s—rather it was the office building that presented a barrier for her to enter the building. Fran was able to do the job she had come to interview for. The door to the building “dis-abled” her, or more accurately, the society that allowed such knobs on doors did it. This is often referred to as the social model of disability. Judy Heumann puts it this way: “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives: job opportunities or barrier free buildings” (Hehir, 2005).

In the world of education, there is a lot of discussion of being inclusive. I think it is helpful to avoid this passive construction and instead talk about whether our programs are including children or excluding them. To do this, we need to take a look at the learning environment, both physical and emotional, and ask, “What are the barriers preventing a child from engaging in the community?” This is a little different than figuring out “the why behind a behavior,” as is sometimes suggested in inclusion literature. Instead we focus on the variables that cause problems for the child or others. You do not need to know the medical diagnosis of a child who uses a wheelchair—rather, consider whether they can access all areas and materials in the classroom. Can they get in and out of the chair themselves? Are they able to play on the floor? The same is true for mental health and neurodivergence.

The Four Types of Barriers

Educators can intentionally address barriers that exclude children by using the social model of disability. To do this, we need to look at the different types of barriers that children or adults might encounter. Tom Shakespeare categorizes typical disabling barriers in our classrooms into three categories; the physical environment, the informational environment, and negative attitudes (Shakespeare, 2018). I would add a fourth category: cultural barriers.

As we address barriers in our classrooms, it should be noted that the social model distinguishes between disability and impairment (Connor, 2011). A disability is created by barriers in society. Impairment “refers to the underlying health condition” (Shakespeare, 2018). Impairments are typically addressed by therapists, medical personnel, specialists, and others. The general educator’s role is more practical in addressing barriers that affect a child’s or adult’s ability to be an active part of the community. The differentiation between disability and impairment has gray areas, and at times the educator does address the impairment. For example, an educator may feed a child with a feeding tube. For the most part, educators can include most children in the classroom by focusing on disabling barriers first, and then learning more about the impairment when necessary.

Physical Barriers

Physical barriers are not always obvious until a situation arises in which someone encounters a block. At a basic level, there needs to be enough room for wheelchairs or other mobility devices to maneuver. There also needs to be room for children who need movement. If a child is frequently told to “wait until they get outside” to move boisterously, the child has a need to move that is being ignored by educators.

Physical barriers can also relate to sensory issues, such as bright fluorescent lights that cause many people stress. To address these needs, educators can set up the environment so it allows children to access all areas of the room, including areas to play in groups and alone, places to play physically and places to sit, places to be messy and places to avoid messy materials, and places to be loud and places to be quiet. Even after doing all this, educators may observe a child who still is unable to fully engage in the classroom. Regular reflection can help address these barriers. When needed, teachers may refer to experts for more strategies, or the child may need extra services.

Figure 1 shows some typical physical barriers and what they might look like in an early learning setting.

Figure 1: Possible Solutions to Physical Barriers in the Classroom

 

Physical Accessibility Table

 

Informational Barriers

Informational barriers are addressed by creating materials and communicating the information as needed. The educator builds a bridge between the information and the child’s understanding of it. Informational barriers in early childhood classrooms differ from classrooms for older children, because none of the children can read print fluently. Materials need to be labeled in ways that children understand: a photograph, drawing, raised drawing, or the object itself fastened to the outside of the container. Materials should be organized in a consistent way so children know where to find them. One strategy that can break down informational barriers is using visual schedules. They are a quick way for pre-reading children to learn what they can expect each day. If a child misses their mom, a quick glance at a visual schedule reassures them that mom picks them up after snack. Other children need visuals to help through shorter sequences such as “First, clean up and then lunch.”

How much information a child needs is related to their ability to remember, as well as how stressed they are. You may need to remind one child several times that the class will be going back inside soon, while another child will simply follow the others in. Educators should use the home language of the child when speaking to them whenever possible. If this is not possible, educators should learn several key words from each home language used in the community. Learning the instructional language in the classroom should never happen at the expense of honoring and valuing alternate home languages. This advice is somewhat different for deaf children, because they cannot hear the educators’ words to learn the language. Instead, they either need a sign language interpreter (typically American Sign Language, or ASL, in the United States), or the educator needs to be fluent in sign language.

Figure 2 shows some typical informational barriers and ideas for how an educator might bridge understanding for all children.

Figure 2: Possible Solutions to Informational Barriers in the Classroom

Informational Accessibility

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Attitudinal Barriers

Teachers Karina and Natsuki had an active preschool classroom. Three children often entertained themselves by banging on a table and yelling. When Karina or Natsuki asked them to use inside voices, the children would usually run away, yelling louder. The teachers asked me what they could do when these children got “silly.” I asked if either of them had tried being silly with them. I suggested that next time the children bang on the table, one of the teachers should join them. If one of them joins them with the attitude that banging on a table and yelling can be fun, she may discover why it is so appealing to these children. At the same time, the children will see that she is on the same team as them, strengthening their relationship. The children will have a greater sense of belonging. The children will probably yell less often, and when they do, the teachers will have a new attitude. The barrier to the children’s sense of belonging was the attitude of the teachers!

I have found that attitudinal barriers can be the most difficult to address in myself, because I am often unaware of my own attitudes. In my first few years of teaching, I arranged the classroom and the schedule based on what I saw other teachers do. If a child struggled in some way, I tried to help them “learn” to follow the classroom rules or procedures. These rules reflected my attitudes and my goals. Rather than being on the same team as the child, I had a competing goal. But when I adopted a different attitude, I could assume the child was an expert in what they needed and adapt the way we did things based on their needs and those of the other members of our classroom community. This is how we can give each child a sense of belonging.

All children need the same space and permission in the classroom to develop emotional regulation and relationship skills. Educators should assume that children are developing these skills and will need help. The way children build relationships will not always look the same, often due to cultural differences, temperament, or neurodiversity. Adults often need to serve as the bridge between children. This is especially true for disabled children, who, according to some studies, tend to have fewer friends in group settings compared to nondisabled children. Many neurodivergent children learn social-emotional skills differently than neurotypical children, and they often need a more intentional approach.

Educators tend to approach social-emotional skills in two main ways, regulation-based or compliance-based. Regulation-based approaches focus on helping children regulate their emotions to engage in the classroom. Educators foster relationship-building skills as well as emotional-regulation skills that emphasize labeling emotions and learning techniques to calm down when upset. Compliance-based approaches focus on children following classroom rules, which are essentially cultural norms. For neurodivergent children, this compliance-based approach is sometimes referred to as “social skills.” It should also be noted that the “social skills training,” often used in applied behavior analysis therapy, the most common therapy used for autistic children, is viewed by many autistic adults as damaging, because it focuses on learning behaviors that make neurotypical people more comfortable rather than supporting the autistic person. The techniques to change these behaviors do not allow much space for the creativity or individuality of a play-based classroom (Fincham & Fellner, 2019). Rather than valuing the different abilities children have in interacting socially, compliance-based approaches reject this diversity. What is needed to include these children is an attitudinal shift regarding what is acceptable or normal.

Figure 3 has some typical attitudinal barriers and what the educator can reflect on to try to adjust their attitude.

Figure 3: Possible Solutions for Attitudinal Barriers in the Classroom

Attitudinal Accessibility

 

Cultural Barriers

While the early childhood education field has struggled to be inclusive of children with diverse abilities, it has also struggled to meet the needs of children who belong to a different culture than their teacher or provider. In the United States, this has often taken the form of a white educator teaching BIPOC children. In the classroom, culture often shows up as how a person understands and moves through the world. In young children, this can present as how a child speaks and listens to adults, how they expect adults to talk to them, how they initiate play, and how they deal with social conflict.

I remember when I first started teaching, I asked a group of children, “Do you want to clean up for snack?” I did not intend for this to be a question, but rather a “nice” way to tell them to clean up for snack. When they said no and kept playing, I used a stern voice, “It is time to clean up for snack.”

Reflecting with my director afterward, I realized that when I was growing up, my mom often told me to do things by asking a question. Culturally, I knew that it was not really question and I did not really have a choice of answers. When I communicated with these children using this cultural construction, I discovered they were used to adults speaking more directly, the way I did the second time. This miscommunication is sometimes referred to as a cultural disconnect, because the same words have different meaning depending on the person’s cultural perspective. When the children told me no, I interpreted their response as defiance and became upset. My reaction was based on my own cultural expectations. My interpretation and reaction is sometimes referred to as implicit bias. In this example, I was able to identify my bias after the fact. The more I reflect on situations like this, the more I can notice my cultural bias the next time it comes up, before acting on it. I still have the same gut feelings I did 30 years ago when I started teaching. I still feel disrespected when certain situations arise. The difference is that now when I have that feeling, I usually recognize the cultural disconnect. In a sense, I am always striving to make my implicit bias explicit.

I think most educators would say they accept cultural differences. However, we know that BIPOC children are referred for special needs at a higher rate than white children, and the rates of suspension and expulsion are also higher for BIPOC children. Given that many educators of young children are white and female, it seems that educators need more tools to include children from a different race than their own. Cultural barriers require the educator to reflect on their own cultural beliefs, values, and behaviors. Sometimes the educator will find they need to adjust their own attitudes, while other times they need to bridge competing cultural expectations of children in the classroom.

Figure 4 has some typical cultural barriers and what the educator can reflect on to try to adjust their attitude.

Children’s ability to participate in the classroom can be thwarted by barriers created by teachers and the culture of early childhood education. We must address the physical, informational, attitudinal, and cultural barriers in our programs. Not doing so is a choice, a choice between including children or excluding them.

Figure 4: Possible Solutions for Cultural Barriers in the Classroom

Cultural Accessibility table

 

References

Fincham, E.N. and Fellner, A.R. (2019). Including Autism: Confronting Inequitable Practices in a Toddler Classroom. Occasional Paper Series, (42). doi.org/10.58295/2375-3668.1307

Adapted from Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers to Include All Children and Adults in Early Childhood Classrooms.

Author, Mike Huber

Mike Huber, M.A.Ed., is the author of "Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers in Early Childhood" (Redleaf Press, 2022) and "Embracing Rough and Tumble Play: Teaching with the Body in Mind" (Redleaf Press, 2016,) as well as six picture books including "The Amazing Erik" (Redleaf Lane, 2014). He is the co-host of the podcast Teaching with the Body in Mind, and frequent guest on That Early Childhood Nerd. Huber is the curriculum specialist for early childhood education at St. David's Center.

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