Inclusive Early Childhood Experiences Open the Doors to Lifelong Learning
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Posted by: Denise Marshall
COPAA strongly supports the “Draft Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs” issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education (OSEP) and commend the Departments on their collaboration and commitment to high expectations and high quality for preschool children with disabilities.
Research demonstrates that inclusive early childhood experiences open the doors to lifelong learning, interactions, and achievements. We whole heartedly agree that quality education for inclusive lives begins in early childhood and continues throughout a child’s life experiences into schools, places of employment, and the broader community.
The joint policy statement clearly identifies the scientific and legal foundations for early inclusion, identifies the barriers, and recommends specific, common sense strategies for partnering to “build a nationwide culture of inclusion.” The emphasis on applying the policy “to all young children with disabilities, from those with the mildest disabilities, to those with the most significant disabilities.” is particularly important, as children with significant disabilities are often the ones denied inclusive opportunities. It is indeed well documented that the beginning years of all children’s lives are critical for building the early foundations of learning and wellness needed for success in school and later in life. Like all children, children with disabilities must be exposed to a variety of rich experiences where they can learn in the context of play and everyday interactions and engage with their peers with and without disabilities.
It is also well documented, over the last twenty-five years, that studies investigating the effects of placement in general education classrooms reveal positive outcomes in the areas of the quality of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), time of engagement, and individualized supports. Significant increases in IEP quality on measures of age-appropriateness, functionality, and generalization were found when students moved into general education classes from special education settings even though the special educator remained the same (Hunt & Farron-Davis, 1992). Within the general education classroom, there was an increase in the amount of instruction on functional activities as well as basic academic skills such as literacy for students with severe disabilities (Hunt, Farron-Davis, Beckstead, Curtis, & Goetz, 1994). In addition, students were observed to be less engaged and often more alone in self-contained or segregated classrooms.
Positive educational outcomes are not limited to academics. The National
Longitudinal Transition Study examined the outcomes of 11,000 students with a range of disabilities and found that more time spent in a general education classroom was positively correlated with:
a) fewer absences from school,
b) fewer referrals for disruptive behavior, and
c) better outcomes after high school in the areas of employment and independent living. (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, & Levine, 2006).
The evidence base clearly shows the benefits of learning alongside one’s peers without disabilities. The proposed policy is in complete alignment with best practice and with Congressional intent in passing the Least Restrictive Environment provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires that that the first consideration and priority be given to provision of the full range of supplementary aids and services that might aid in implementing the student’s individualized education program in the least restrictive of all educational settings – the regular education classroom in the neighborhood school. 
The proposed policy calls for state policies to "Ensure that the principle of natural proportions guide the design of inclusive early childhood programs." Then in a footnote says “natural proportions” means the inclusion of children with disabilities in proportion to their presence in the general population. This is an important component in determining if a placement is in fact inclusive; however, we believe a 50% threshold [as supported/proposed in the policy] to be far too high as this percentage is not supported by research and best practice.
Therefore, in order to implement the new policy statement, it will be important to make two changes to the OSEP 618 Data Collection rules for early childhood programs that are used for OSEP monitoring. They are:
· Currently, an early childhood setting is counted as a regular early childhood program (inclusive) if it has more than 50% nondisabled children. The current 50% rule needs to be changed so that only a setting that has a natural proportion of students with disabilities (no greater than 15%) is considered "a regular early childhood program".
At this time, if parents are unable to convince the school district to place their child in an inclusive early childhood setting, and pay themselves for their child to attend an inclusive program, the district is still given "credit" in the OSEP 618 Preschool Data Collection for the child attending an early childhood setting in an inclusive (regular education early childhood) program. This is patently unfair and needs to be changed.
COPAA appreciates the opportunity to comment and would be happy to answer any questions and/or discuss our recommendations further.
 Hunt, P., & Farron-Davis, F. (1992). A preliminary investigation of IEP quality and content associated with placement in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 17(4), 247-253.
 Hunt, P., Farron-Davis, F. Beckstead, S., Curtis, D., & Goetz, L. (1994). Evaluating the effects of placement of students with severe disabilities in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 19(3), 200-214.
 Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., and Levine, P. (2006). The Academic Achievement and Functional Performance of Youth with Disabilities: A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). (NCSER 2006-3000). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International
 34 C.F.R. §300.114(b)(2)