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Inclusive Early Childhood Programs: How One School District Creates a Place for All Young Children

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This podcast contains an interview with Ms. Crystal Vowels about inclusive early childhood programs. In this interview, Ms. Vowels and Dr. Rebecca Swartz discuss key aspects of inclusive early childhood programs including collaboration, curricular adaptations, and interdisciplinary teaming.

More About Our Guest

Ms. Crystal Vowels is the principal of the Urbana Early Childhood School in Urbana, IL.

At IEL, we have updated our language to reflect our continued understanding of disability. This uses the term “special needs,” but the content remains relevant.  



Introduction: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn, as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members.

Dr. Swartz: This podcast contains an interview with Crystal Vowels, principal of the Urbana Early Childhood School in Urbana, Illinois. Crystal is an experienced leader in special education and joins us to discuss inclusive early childhood programs.

Dr. Swartz: So, tell me a little bit about how you became the leader of the inclusive early childhood program.

Ms. Vowels: Well, my background is in special education. I was a special education teacher for about 17 years here in the Urbana School District. Initially, I was a classroom teacher with students, at that time they were called severe profound, in our severe profound program. And I did that for seven years and then an administrator came to me and asked if I would consider being an inclusion facilitator to go into a first-grade classroom and co-teach with a teacher and support a young man who had some significant needs in that classroom. And as Urbana began practicing more and more inclusive practices, I was going into more and more classrooms and co-teaching across the district. And eventually decided to go back for my administrative certificate. I left Urbana to start my administration career in Vermilion County and when Connie Brown, the previous administrator here for the Urbana Early Childhood, retired, she called and asked me to come apply for the position. She thought that I would be a good fit with my special ed. background as well as my love of children, I guess.

Dr. Swartz: Yeah.

Ms. Vowels: So… and I’ve always worked collaboratively…

Dr. Swartz: mhmm (affirmative)

Ms. Vowels: …and, so, this was a very good fit.

Dr. Swartz: Yeah.

Ms. Vowels: And that’s how I ended up here. This is my 15th year, I think.

Dr. Swartz: So, you’ve taken this program from its former location to this location. So, you’ve done a big school move and been through different expansions. So, can you tell me a little bit about the program and who you serve, then?

Ms. Vowels: Sure, we have, at capacity, we have 360 students here all between the ages of 3, 4, and 5. And they are Urbana School District children who will leave us and go into the six kindergarten schools here in Urbana School District. The children, about a third of our students have IEPs, meaning they receive special services of some kind.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Ms. Vowels: The majority of that are speech and language services. And then we do have a number of children who need more comprehensive services for support. We have children who have autism, we have children with Down syndrome, we have children with physical and health impairments, some developmental delays and we provide all the supports that are needed for those children in regular preschool classrooms. We also have children in the classrooms who don’t need special education support and they’re all blended together in the same classrooms.

Dr. Swartz: So that’s what you mean by an inclusive program of classrooms that serve both children with identified disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans alongside children who don’t have those specific needs.

Ms. Vowels: Exactly.

Dr. Swartz: So, those children are … children from the community. How do they enroll in your program?

Ms. Vowels: So, we are funded by the state of Illinois through ISBE with a Preschool for All grant. And the Preschool for All grant asks us to identify the students who are the neediest in our district, considered at-risk, because there is something that they haven’t had … that has prevented them from having all the advantages that make for exceptional learners right off the bat. There are some hurdles that they and their family have had to cross, and so we reach out to those families and enroll those children here in our school.

Dr. Swartz: Well, part of the reason we are here is because your program won an award of excellence for inclusion through Excelerate Illinois, which is the quality rating and improvement system in Illinois. Congratulations.

Ms. Vowels: Thank you.

Dr. Swartz: So, I am wondering what the process for applying for that award was like.

Ms. Vowels: It, actually for us it was a very reflective process.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Ms. Vowels: So, our school actually has been inclusive for more than 30 years, so the idea of inclusive practices is not new to us …

Dr. Swartz: mhmm (affirmative)

Ms. Vowels: … it actually is, it just is, it’s what we do.

Dr. Swartz: Right.

Ms. Vowels: We never considered being a self-contained program and separating our children with disabilities away from typically developing children. The process was very reflective in that we used inclusive classroom profile.

Dr. Swartz: mhmm [affirmative]

Ms. Vowels: And every classroom team went through and reviewed, it’s basically a checklist: Are we doing this? Are we giving … are we making sure the environment is physically accessible, the toys are accessible, that we are differentiating for children in our classroom environment, in our academic instruction. Are we ensuring they have access to friends to play with, and are we meeting their needs at the same time? And so, some of the teachers who were new to the process found new strategies and new ideas that, “oh, yes, that’s a great … I need to remember to do that.”

Dr. Swartz: So, a comprehensive look at your practices allowed you to improve.

Ms. Vowels: Absolutely. And then our more veteran teachers who have been doing this a very long time, it was a nice reminder of some of those things that, “Yeah, I do this really well, but, once again, I … there are more things I could be doing and being more reflective about and conscientiously implementing in the classroom to make sure all children are successful.” And I think that’s one of the things that we found. If we were doing successful practices for children with special needs, those same practices are very strong and positive practices for children without special needs. They work for children with second … language learners, they work for children who are 3, they work for children who are 5, and there are very few things that we do for our children who have IEPs that are not positive learning experiences for children without IEPs.

Dr. Swartz: Right. So, I’m going to jump ahead because I think that’s an interesting topic, the idea that the practices are good for all children, and, so, do parents ask questions when they enroll their children about how the teachers are going to meet the needs of such diverse learners? Are they concerned about having an inclusive program?

Ms. Vowels: We try very hard to alleviate any of those concerns. First of all, our parents who do not have a child with a disability in our classroom have never said anything to me as far as a concern and why would we consider doing such a thing.

Dr. Swartz: Right.

Ms. Vowels: Parents who do have children with special needs who are going to need the extra support, we have several meetings before their children come into school to make sure we know exactly what supports need to be put into place …

Dr. Swartz: Right.

Ms. Vowels: …and we can get them off to a positive start.

Dr. Swartz: Sure.

Ms. Vowels: But, we try to do that for all children.

Dr. Swartz: Right.

Ms. Vowels: And, so, we also invite all the parents to come in before their child starts, see the school, watch what happens in the classroom and get a feel for the culture and the practices so … to alleviate some of those concerns. And we ask them right up front, “What are you concerned about? What are you thinking? And what do you want to make sure that we do and know well for your child?”

Dr. Swartz: So those inclusive practices are really a seamless part of what you do just as a high-quality early childhood program.

Ms. Vowels: I hope so. Yeah, yes.

Dr. Swartz: So, they just become one … interesting. All right, so, what do you think makes an inclusive ECE program special? What kinds of things are special about it from a typical child care program or a typical preschool?

Ms. Vowels: So, once again, it’s making sure you’re conscientious about the differences between children and meeting their educational need regardless of where they’re at. But also conscientious about what’s the same about children and what toys they want to play with, what books they like to read, who they want to be friends with and how they can be better friends. And meeting them where they’re at and putting something in place to bridge that gap, whether it’s bridging a gap socially…

Dr. Swartz: mhmm [affirmative]

Ms. Vowels: … bridging a gap in communication or bridging a gap physically. Making sure that you have pictures, that all kids can use if they need them. Making sure we have toys that are appropriate for children of all ages, all skill levels, and all interests…

Dr. Swartz: mhmm [affirmative]

Ms. Vowels: … that can be shared…

Dr. Swartz: mhmm [affirmative]

Ms. Vowels: … between friends.

Dr. Swartz: Yeah.

Ms. Vowels: And making sure we have spaces that children can access with their friends, so that we are purposely setting up an environment that fosters and facilitates those friendships and those connections.

Dr. Swartz: Great. So, it’s that thoughtfulness about the wide range of children that you will have in your program, which all early childhood programs could benefit from thinking about. But you are prepared for anybody, any child who walks in, really. And you’re willing to adapt, and that’s the philosophy…

Ms. Vowels: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: … of the staff and the program.

Ms. Vowels: One thing we’ve learned over the years is that the students themselves, the children themselves, will do so much of the teaching of each other.

Dr. Swartz: Oh, okay!

Ms. Vowels: So, it’s not always a teacher’s job to teach another child how to share or communicate or to play with someone else. The children will teach each other, and our children are more likely to watch and learn and follow their peers.

Dr. Swartz: Of course.

Ms. Vowels: And whether or not they have disabilities, it doesn’t really matter, in that respect. And so, asking … building that community in the classroom is a key because if the children feel comfortable playing with each other and reaching out and showing someone else how to do something, then we’ve got 15 teachers right there…

Dr. Swartz: I was thinking that, yes.

Ms. Vowels: … helping each other, that are the best teachers, and actually the most motivating for each other.

Dr. Swartz: Right, and even the children with disabilities are teachers because they’re teaching their peers how…

Ms. Vowels: All kinds of things.

Dr. Swartz: … there’s all kinds of people…

Ms. Vowels: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: … and that some people have different needs and different abilities in the world.

Ms. Vowels: Absolutely. Yes, so…

Dr. Swartz: So, they’re getting a good start regardless of their abilities in your program. That’s neat! So, are there other specialized staff that make this possible?

Ms. Vowels: Actually, yes, we have a very strong supportive staff. So, for 360 children here in our program, we have 3½ speech therapists to support them.

Dr. Swartz: Oh, wow, that’s a large group of speech therapists. Like you said, most of your children with Individualized Education Plans have speech services as part of their program.

Ms. Vowels: Yes, yes, and one of our speech therapists, we’re lucky enough she speaks Spanish…

Dr. Swartz: Oh!

Ms. Vowels: …to support our students with special needs who are Spanish… native Spanish speakers.

Dr. Swartz: Nice.

Ms. Vowels: So, we are very blessed to have that person. We also have a full time COTA, an occupational therapy assistant…

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Ms. Vowels: … who goes into all of our classrooms and works collaboratively with the teachers to make sure that the students are getting their fine motor needs met as well as their sensory needs.

Dr. Swartz: mhmm [affirmative]

Ms. Vowels: And then we have a physical therapist that comes in part time, a school psychologist that’s part time and a lot of teaching assistants that also … we will add extra adults in the classroom to make sure that everyone’s needs are being met.

Dr. Swartz: Okay, so based on the children in the classroom and their needs, you staff the classrooms, and … so, there is a teacher, who is the lead teacher, and then some assistants.

Ms. Vowels: Right.

Dr. Swartz: At least one assistant in each classroom?

Ms. Vowels: Yes, so…

Dr. Swartz: There is always two adults.

Ms. Vowels: There is always two adults, yes. The licensed classroom teacher who serves. So, all of our teachers here have an early childhood licensure as well as a special education endorsement. So, they serve as both the regular classroom teacher as well as the special education case manager to make sure those needs are being met. Several of them have an ELL endorsement to meet the second languages that we serve here in our school. And then there’s always at least one teaching assistant. The majority of our classrooms at this time have two teaching assistants to also meet the needs of the kids who need more support in the classroom.

Dr. Swartz: All right, so this is interesting for our listeners to think about when you’re an early childhood teacher in an inclusive program you can’t really close your door and just do your own thing. You have to come in with the mindset to work collaboratively.

Ms. Vowels: Yes, actually, we have collaborations scheduled weekly with our classroom teacher and their entire support team.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Ms. Vowels: So, I should have mentioned we also have several social workers full time on staff as well.

Dr. Swartz: Oh, okay.

Ms. Vowels: And so, the social workers, the speech therapists, occupational therapists, they all meet together, and they talk about what’s happening in the classroom, what the units are this week, and how we can modify/accommodate. And they look at student data and where growth is happening and where we need to change things up to look for more progress.

Dr. Swartz: mhmm [affirmative]. And, like you said, you were meeting with parents, too, they’re part of the collaborative process.

Ms. Vowels: The parents are always welcome to come into those weekly meetings, but we also meet with them several times a year, as well.

Dr. Swartz: For conferences and for IEPs…

Ms. Vowels: For conferences, for IEPs. Most of the classroom teachers will send home information about student progress several times a week to make sure that parents are comfortable with and know what’s happening. If you … if as a parent you have a child who doesn’t have strong communication skills, maybe nonverbal, it’s important to hear from the teachers so that … because you child can’t tell you what’s happening. And…

Dr. Swartz: And even, you know, even your typically developing 3- to 5-year-olds aren’t the most reliable reporters.

Ms. Vowels: That’s right, that’s right! So, so yeah. So, it’s very important to keep that communication open with parents. And we have an open-door policy for our parents. So, they are welcome to come into the school, into the classroom, hear the vocabulary we’re using, see the strategies we’re using and be not just participating in the school but partners in our school.

Dr. Swartz: Right, so there’s a real community feeling of collaboration with all the adults to serve the needs of the children. So, those are the things that really make an inclusive early childhood program special. You told me a little bit about how the teachers in your program meet the needs of children in their classrooms and they’re doing it throughout the day. So, the children are going through lots of different activities. So, they’re adapting snack time and gross motor playtime out in the playground, arts and crafts. What other kinds of things are teachers doing in the classrooms to help children learn?

Ms. Vowels: So, we have a lot of modifications, physical modifications that we make. So, for example, children who need support in the restroom, we have those sorts of things in place. But we also have modified seating, equipment, for children who need to be more stabilized or can sit down on the floor with their peers and feel comfortable. We also have games that we have modified, and we have, we have, we have pictures everywhere in our school. So, we have schedules that children who really like to follow a more predictable schedule need to know what’s happening, they can use those schedules. We have children … we have pictures of feelings. So, if you are feeling happy or distressed or frustrated or excited, we have ways for children to tell us that.

Dr. Swartz: Even if they don’t have the language.

Ms. Vowels: Absolutely. We…

Dr. Swartz: And that can be a new English learner, or it can be a child with a language disability or a child who just hasn’t had…

Ms. Vowels: exposure and practice…

Dr. Swartz: … exposure and a chance…

Ms. Vowels: Yeah.

Dr. Swartz: … to learn those things.

Ms. Vowels: Sometimes it’s really just a 4-year-old who is so distressed that they can’t come up with the words.

Dr. Swartz: Right!

Ms. Vowels: And they need to tell us anyway, whether or not they have any secondary issues. But they just want to sh… just tell us “how I’m feeling.” They’re too excited to say it, or they’re too distressed to say it. We… “Tell us! Just tell us how you’re feeling so we can work through it with you.” And they will show us those pictures.

Dr. Swartz: Because those things happen in the block area…

Ms. Vowels: Yes…

Dr. Swartz: … or at the snack table or just in the regular day in the preschool classrooms.

Ms. Vowels: Right.

Dr. Swartz: So, that’s … all those are learning opportunities in the inclusive classrooms, that we are looking at all of those as learning opportunities.

Ms. Vowels: Right, right.

Dr.  Swartz: Okay, well, thank you so much for making time to speak with me and giving our listeners a little view into an inclusive classroom. And I look forward to, perhaps, talking to some of your other staff in the future to help us share more of your high-quality inclusion practices.

Ms. Vowels: Thanks, Rebecca!

Note: The ExceleRate Illinois Award of Excellence is no longer offered. Early care and education programs now use the circles of quality system. See the program overview.

IEL Resource

About this resource

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

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024