Early Childhood Inclusion AND Least Restrictive Environment: It’s Hard to Have One Without the Other

by Jenny Bibler, Early Childhood Consultant, Department of Public Instruction

Sonja is a 3 year old child who is transitioning from her county Birth to 3 program to the local school district who will be providing early childhood special education services. Sonja will also be attending Head Start beginning in the fall. It is the day of Sonja’s initial Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. The IEP team has determined her present level of performance, identified her disability-related needs, developed goals, and determined services. They now begin to talk about the least restrictive environment (LRE) for Sonja’s education. What does this mean for Sonja and her family? The word “environment” makes LRE sound like a place. This article will explore an important reminder for IEP teams to consider when discussing LRE. Specifically, “where” Sonja learns, is only one piece of her early education.  IEP teams should also consider the following: 

  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is not a place; it is a guiding principle that guides a child’s educational program.

  • Special Educational laws and regulations reinforce that children who receive special education through an IEP should be learning alongside their peers.

  • Inclusion is also not a place; it too is a guiding principle that guides the child’s learning in the least restrictive environment.  

Typically, when LRE comes up, so does the word “inclusion”.  Many times, these words are used interchangeably, yet should they be?  Although both similar, they have meaningful differences and it is hard to have one without the other.  

LRE is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  IDEA says that children with IEPs should learn in their least restrictive environment (LRE).  This means that they are learning and spending time with their (non-disabled) peers as much as possible.  IDEA says the IEP team needs to consider two important factors when making this decision.  

  • The child needs to be with children in general education “to the maximum extent” that is appropriate for them.  

  • Special education classes, separate schools or removal from the general education classroom should only happen when the child’s learning or developmental differences (disability under IDEA), are so severe that even with the help of supplementary aids and services, the general education environment cannot provide an appropriate education. 

The keyword is “appropriate”.  It refers to what is best for the child based on areas of strengths, present levels of performance, and areas of disability-related needs.  So how can this be achieved? Many believe through inclusion.  If that is the case, then what is the difference?  Aren’t they the same?

An inclusive learning setting is a general education classroom that has children who receive special education and related services.  Inclusion is not only a belief that all students can learn, but have the ability to learn together. This happens through a teaching approach that focuses on including children with and without IEPs learning and playing together in a variety of places—home, early childhood programs, such as Head Start, child care, district, and community-based 4K just to name a few.  Promoting a child’s development and a sense of belonging is a view that is widely held among early education professionals and throughout society.  

So if this is true, then how do administrators and practitioners operationalize early childhood inclusion…especially if it is “only” a belief and a value?  

In April, 2009, Early Childhood Inclusion: A Joint Position Statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was developed and approved by both organizations, to provide a definition of early childhood inclusion.  The definition in the position statement is not a measurement of inclusion, but is a guide to identify key components of high quality inclusive early childhood programs. The definition is a follows (DEC/NAYEC, 2009 pg. 2): 

Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, practices, that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as fullmembers of families, communities, and society.  The desired result of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential.  The defining features of the definition that can be used to identify high quality early childhood programs and services are access, participation, and supports.  

Those defining features are described further:

  • Access:  This means of providing a wide range of activities and experiences for every child by removing barriers and offering multiple ways of promoting learning and development.  Inclusion can take many forms and occur in various organizational and community settings (Head Start, child care, public and private preschool programs). Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approaches can also be implemented to ensure that all children have access to learning environments, to home or educational routines and activities, and to the general early childhood curriculum.  

  • Participation: This means using a variety of instructional strategies to improve engagement in play and learning, and a sense of belonging.  This happens in an intentional way using tiered or leveled models of interventions based on ongoing assessments. Depending on the individual needs of the child, implementing inclusion involves a range of learning strategies from embedded, routines-based teaching to more specific, intensive interventions.  

  • Support: This is an important feature of the broader system that addresses the professional development, and opportunities for collaboration and communication, among families and professionals to assure high quality inclusion.  

The purpose of the position statement may be used to shape practices and influence beliefs and policies in providing high quality inclusion in a wide range of early childhood programs and settings.  So what can school districts and community early childhood programs do now whether it is starting initial inclusive practices, or “ramping” up existing or current early childhood inclusion?  

1) Create high expectations for every child to reach their full potential. The definition of early childhood inclusion should help create high expectations for every child, regardless of ability.  High expectations can influence more appropriate goals and supports for children, families, practitioners, administrators, and programs to promote and implement high quality inclusion.
2) Develop a program policy on inclusion. The definition can provide a foundation for early childhood programs to develop their own philosophy on inclusion.  This foundation begins with developing a philosophy that is grounded in the district’s overall mission and vision around shared beliefs to providing high quality cross sector inclusive services.  
3) Establish a systems of services and supports.  Shared beliefs of inclusion should be the starting point for creating an equitable early childhood multi-level systems of supports that respond to the individual and unique needs of children with disabilities and those who may be at risk for a developmental delay or disability.  
4) Revise program and professional standards. The definition of inclusion can be used for revising program and professional early learning standards to incorporate high quality inclusive practices.  Because existing early learning standards primarily reflect the expectations of the general population of young children, this would provide an opportunity to address the individual needs of every child.
5) Improve professional development across all sectors of the early childhood field. Key components should provide staff time and opportunities to collaborate, provide practitioners what they need to know and be able to do for all children in inclusive settings, and what methods are needed to facilitate learning opportunities related to inclusion.  

The hope is that this shared definition of inclusion, Wisconsin’s priority around early childhood inclusion, and the Department of Public Instruction’s commitment to equity will provide those who work with young children the belief and understanding that all children have the ability to learn together.  


DEC/NAEYC. (2009). Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/DEC_NAEYC_EC_updatedKS.pdf

DHHS/USDE. (2015). Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. U.S. Department of Educationhttps://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/earlylearning/joint-statement-full-text.pdf

IDEA (2004). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004). Sec. 300.114 LRE requirements. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/b/300.114

DPI (2018). Meaningful Inclusion in Early Childhood. Educating Young Children with Disabilities. https://dpi.wi.gov/sped/early-childhood



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