In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Inclusion in Early Childhood: Difference, Disability, and Social Justice

  • Introduction
  • General Overview of Early Childhood Inclusion
  • Inclusion in School Environments
  • Critical Disability and Childhood Studies
  • Ability and Capability
  • Family Support, Community, and Identity
  • Critical Race Theory and Childhood
  • Rights and Frameworks for Inclusion
  • Teaching for Social Justice

Education Inclusion in Early Childhood: Difference, Disability, and Social Justice
Kathryn Underwood, Gillian Parekh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0265


Inclusive education as a model of service delivery arose out of disability activism and critiques of special education. To understand inclusive education in early childhood, however, one must also engage with broader questions of difference, diversity, and social justice as they intersect with childhood studies. To that end, this article contains references that include other critical discourses on childhood and inclusivity as well as critiques of inclusive education. Inclusive education has a much deeper body of research in formal school settings than in the early years. School-based research, however, often examines social relationships and academic achievement as outcome measures. This research has established that education situated in a child’s community and home school is generally more effective than special education settings, particularly when classroom educators have access to appropriate training, resources, policies, and leadership. Schools, of course, are part of the education landscape of the early years, but they are not inclusive of the full spectrum or early years settings. The early years literature on inclusion is different in focusing more attention on development, family, and community (as described in the General Overview of Early Childhood Inclusion). A critique of early childhood education research has focused on school readiness and rehabilitation and the efficacy of early identification and early intervention. This research is largely informed by Western medical research, but this approach has led global institutions to set out priorities for early intervention without recognizing how our worldview shapes our understanding of childhood and difference. The dominant research domain, however, has also identified that family and community contexts are important. This recognition creates a fundamental difference between inclusion research in school settings and such research in early childhood education and care. Early childhood education and care has always focused on the child and their family as the recipients of services, while educational interest in the family has been viewed as a setting in which the conditions for learning are established. Support for families is at the center of early childhood inclusive practice, both because families are largely responsible for seeking out early childhood disability services and because families are critical in children’s identity. Inclusion in schools and early childhood education and care can both be understood through theories of disability, ability, and capability. In both settings, education and care have social justice aims linked not only to developmental and academic outcomes for individual children, but also to the ways that these programs reproduce inequality. Disability as a social phenomenon has its historical roots in racist and colonial practices, understood through critical race theory, that are evident today in both early childhood and school settings. Understanding the links between disableism and other forms of discrimination and oppression is critical both for teaching for social justice broadly and for better understanding of how ability, capability, and critical disability theory and childhood studies are established through practices that begin in the early years.

General Overview of Early Childhood Inclusion

Inclusive early childhood education is marked by tensions between the body of research that is focused on intervention for normative developmental outcomes, described in Odom, et al. 2011, and sociological understandings of childhood, described in Moss 2007. Both of these works are critical to understanding disabled childhoods and the practices that are associated with inclusion (see also Inclusion in School Environments and Critical Disability and Childhood Studies). Nutbrown and Clough 2009 focuses on recognition of children as citizens as an early childhood inclusion discourse, while Wood 2015 contributes the perspective that children are active members of communities who have the right to care and to engage in relationships in their families and communities. However, the literature on early childhood is also marked by social fixation on school readiness as well as early identification and early intervention. The result is that inclusive early childhood education is somewhat elusive in many parts of the world. Biklen and Burke 2006, Beckett 2015, and Comber and Kamler 2004 all note that how we view childhood and deficit thinking about childhoods is central to our understanding of early childhood practice for social justice. Moss 2007 calls for early childhood curricula to shift toward play, community, and exploration of environments, but this has not necessarily been inclusive of disabled children. We can attribute the disconnect to the divide in early childhood discourses with disabled children largely being attended to by services in the clinical early intervention system, a situation that is reinforced by rights frameworks that position early childhood services within health care (see Rights and Frameworks for Inclusion). Inclusion in early childhood has evolved from this divide. While inclusion research has often focused on belonging within school settings, early childhood inclusion is broader, with its focus on Family Support, Community, and Identity. Biklen and Burke 2006 describes inclusion as valuing each child for who they are, regardless of their current abilities. Inclusion is more likely to exist when educators value the multiple communities to which a child belongs and model such valuation. Inclusive educators also create communities where each child is valued as a member of the group, and, as Gunn 2003 notes, supports children as they find their place in the group (see also Family Support, Community, and Identity). Curricular models in early childhood are conducive to these approaches to inclusion, as described in Gunn 2003, but Nutbrown and Clough 2009 points out that it requires attention to the participation of all children.

  • Baglieri, S., L. M. Bejoina, A. A. Broderick, D. J. Connor, and J. Valle. 2011. [Re]claiming “inclusive education” toward cohesion in educational reform: Disability studies unravels the myth of the normal child. Teachers College Record 113.10: 2122–2154.

    The authors describe the conditions under which the term inclusion has been usurped and redefined in usage to mean a group of students who are less than other students. Instead, they call for a definition that challenges all forms of exclusion.

  • Beckett, A. E. 2015. Anti-oppressive pedagogy and disability: Possibilities and challenges. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 17.1: 76–94.

    Beckett presents a case for using the theory of anti-oppressive education to teach a more radical understanding of disability in schools. This school-based pedagogy is equally relevant to teaching young children and influencing the teaching practice of early childhood educators.

  • Biklen, D., and J. Burke. 2006. Presuming competence. Equity & Excellence in Education 39.2: 166–175.

    This article is a conversation between the authors, a university professor and an autistic youth. The article proposes that a presumption of competence is at the heart of inclusive education.

  • Comber, B., and B. Kamler. 2004. Getting out of deficit: Pedagogies of reconnection. Teaching Education 15.3: 293–310.

    This article outlines the many ways in which deficit discourses are produced in educational settings. The authors propose a shift in paradigm toward pedagogical approaches that see the potential in each child.

  • Gunn, A. C. 2003. A philosophical anchor for creating inclusive communities in early childhood education: Anti-bias philosophy and Te Whäriki: Early childhood curriculum. Waikato Journal of Education 9:129–141.

    The national curriculum for early childhood in New Zealand is a based on an Indigenous philosophy of childhood and family. The article outlines the alignment between this curricular approach and inclusion theory that values each child as a member of the social group and recognizes that each child has a role to play in their community.

  • Moss, P. 2007. Meetings across the paradigmatic divide. Educational Philosophy and Theory 39.3: 229–245.

    Moss describes major differences in paradigms related to child development and childhood itself. Rather than calling for the rejection of one paradigm over the other, the author calls for sharing across paradigms.

  • Nutbrown, C., and P. Clough. 2009. Citizenship and inclusion in the early years: Understanding and responding to children’s perspectives on “belonging.” International Journal of Early Years Education 17.3: 191–206.

    Nutbrown and Clough’s research on the roles children can play in identifying and solving concerns in inclusive early childhood environments provides practice-based examples of citizenship, belonging, and participation for young children.

  • Odom, S. L., V. Buysse, and E. Soukakou. 2011. Inclusion for young children with disabilities: A quarter century of research perspectives. Journal of Early Intervention 33.4: 344–356.

    The authors describe the research evidence for inclusive early intervention and care programs as having the greatest effect on outcomes for young children. The authors also examine inclusive service delivery models that are connected to this research literature.

  • Wood, R. 2015. To be cared for and to care: Understanding theoretical conceptions of care as a framework for effective inclusion in early childhood education and care. Child Care in Practice 21.3: 256–265.

    Wood describes care theory and the central concept of interdependence as it relates to both disability and childhood. The author puts forward a case for an ethical approach to care and for early childhood education for disabled children that allows for the idea that disabled children are both the recipients of care and the active agents in their relationships.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.