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Creating a Sense of Belonging in Preschool

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Families and teachers want their children to feel welcome at preschool, to be accepted by their friends, and to feel secure in their daily routines. This basic sense of belonging supports children to try new activities, to make new friends, to learn new ways of doing things, to take small risks. A strong foundation for a child’s growth and development is built on her sense of acceptance at home, in school, and in the community. National early childhood organizations today are writing about the importance of including children who may differ from many of their classmates in one or more ways. Differences can range from ability levels to spoken languages, cultural traditions, family composition, and racial or ethnic identity. With differences come new learning opportunities as well as tolerance and empathy.

Children who have developmental delays or disabilities increasingly attend the same early childhood programs that their siblings and neighbors without disabilities attend. Three values—access, participation, and supports—form the foundation for inclusion and sense of belonging.

What do we mean by access and how do we ensure access? Does an early childhood program have a mission or philosophy statement that promotes admission of children with different abilities? Have it addressed physical or structural barriers that may prevent children from being meaningfully involved? Beyond program entry, do the staff provide a variety of materials that support children’s learning and engagement in different ways? Do they focus on children’s success by making minor modifications to classroom materials and activities? For example, when puzzles are out, do they include simple puzzles with two or three pieces as well as complex puzzles with a dozen pieces so children with varying skills can play and succeed? Do they have high expectations of all children and, at the same time, match expectations to ability level?

Teachers support participation by considering each child’s needs and skills. They can help children participate by considering ways in which a child learns best and providing “just in time” support. Children may learn new songs by practicing small parts of the song over time in large groups or small groups as well as by listening to the song at other times of the day. Some children may participate best with hand movements instead of words. Teachers constantly “think on their feet,” providing different levels of instruction to children. They may provide more cues and help to one child and less or none to another, depending on ability. Participation can be like dancing, with a partner or alone, leading or guiding, based on the child’s skills and comfort.

Supports are also pivotal for inclusion. Often times supports refer to what the teachers and family need to help a child feel at home and successful in school. Do the teachers have the resources and professional development that they need to meet each child’s developmental needs? Do parents understand the special education needs of their child and how services can be provided in preschool? Do early childhood programs and school districts have agreements about providing special education services in the community? Are policies in place that help to support incentives for including children with disabilities in community programs?

Wanting children to belong and be accepted is the first step in promoting inclusion. But families and teachers and caregivers must have more than a positive disposition. They also need to understand ways to ensure that children can access activities and learning opportunities in the classroom, participate and engage with their peers, and experience success. Inclusion is a national goal and achieving it will require positive dispositions and supports for teachers as well as policies and funding to ensure early childhood programs meet standards of quality.

For more information, see 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).

Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler

Dr. Susan Fowler is a retired professor of special education at the University of Illinois. Susan’s doctorate was in developmental and child psychology and she was one of the pioneers in early childhood special education and developmental disabilities. She also is a parent of a young man with exceptionalities.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2022