Inclusive Child Care

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Like many parents, Maria Villanuova discovered that finding quality child care for her son, Joey, was a challenge. For Villanuova, however, the problem wasn’t just finding child care in a convenient location that fit her family’s budget. The challenge was finding a program that provided the right environment for a child with a developmental delay like Joey, who has Down syndrome.

At first, Villanuova and her husband considered programs that specialized in solely caring for children with special needs. After looking at many child-care centers, they decided to pursue child care that included both children with developmental delays and those with typical development.

The Villanuova’s search found a happy ending when they found Blakemore Children’s Center in Nashville. In addition to experience caring for children with special needs, the center offers assistance with Joey’s specific developmental issues. At the time, Joey was 3 years old but was not walking and was still wearing diapers. “They said, ‘We’ll help you,'” says Villanuova. “He made it there and has now been there for two years.”

When a child-care setting aims to blend children of typical development with children with different abilities, it’s called inclusion. This type of setting offers an opportunity for children with different levels of development to interact and learn from each other. In an inclusive environment, children with different abilities can be found side-by-side engaging in similar activities. By making often minor adjustments to daily routines, child-care providers are able to ensure that children with special needs can fully participate with other kids.

While the parents of children with special needs and those with typical development may have different reasons for considering inclusive child care, both have at least one thing in common: they want the best environment to support their child’s needs as they grow and develop. If you’re considering inclusive child care, here’s what you need to know.

Benefits for the Child with Special Needs

For the child with special needs, an inclusive child care environment has many benefits, according to Heather Higgins, executive director of First Steps. For more than 50 years, First Steps has worked with children with special needs in Nashville and currently operates two child development centers as well as a community outreach program. The child development centers each enroll about 60 children, with about 30 percent having special needs.

“Children with disabilities learn well with a quality child-care educational program that is adapted to meet their needs,” says Higgins. “They learn about sharing, colors, friendships, taking turns … there are ways to modify the curriculum to adapt to whatever their special needs are.”

Over the years, First Steps has enrolled children with various developmental delays, ranging from Down syndrome and autism to physical challenges. Higgins says that speech delays are one of the most common developmental issues in children who attend her center.
For these children, being in an inclusive child-care setting is particularly valuable. In addition to specialized care available from the center’s staff or language therapists, Higgins says that just being around other kids is helpful in addressing this delay. “Being around peers can be an accelerant in that kind of development,” she says. “A child-care setting is a great place for a child with a speech delay.”

Like First Steps, Blakemore Children’s Center offers an inclusive program in a family-oriented setting. The center is known for its community playground which is accessible to all children, including those who use wheelchairs.

Bonnie Spear, director of the Blakemore Children’s Center, says that the center shifted to an inclusive program nine years ago after being approached by a parent who had a son with a developmental delay. The experience proved to be a positive one. “Everybody benefited,” she says. “The child with special needs had typical peer role models. He saw modeled the things he needed to do.”

Villanuova says her son, Joey, has thrived by being in Blakemore’s inclusive program. “He’s learning social skills, making friends, going potty, getting a lot of repetition,” she says. “He can forge some relationships now and might also be helping other kids, too.”

A Life Lesson for Others

Children with typical development also benefit from an inclusive child-care environment. Spear says that exposure to children with different abilities is a valuable learning experience. “Children learn best from other children,” says Spear. “The child who is typically developing gains a whole new understanding for being differently abled. Children become more compassionate and understanding. Parents tell us that when their kids go on to kindergarten, they stand up for these children [with special needs].”

Jennifer Meko is the mother of two children, Kari and Alyssa, who have attended Blakemore Children’s Center. She says that her daughters have gained an important life lesson by being in an inclusive child-care setting. “We value the diversity of the children in that program. The kids learn how to accept each other and how to get along,” says Meko. “Hopefully that will translate into their attitude as they grow up.”

While some parents may be concerned that children with special needs may require more attention, Meko says that has not been a problem. “One reason is that the teacher to child ratio is so low. Also, many of the children with special needs have a special education teacher who works with them,” she says. “I never thought of it as a concern with our kids. I don’t think of it as detrimental to the other children at all.”

Spear says that the center’s teachers have also gained from the experience of working with children with special needs. “It’s widened our world,” she says. “As a result, we’ve made ourselves more knowledgeable about the different types of special needs. It’s a win-win for everybody.”


Inclusive Child Care: What to Look For

While child-care providers cannot discriminate against children with special needs, some centers are more active than others in developing inclusive programs. Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, which licenses and oversees child-care programs in the state, encourages providers to include children with disabilities. Training is available to child-care staff that can help prepare them to meet the specific requirements of children with special needs.

If you are a parent looking into an inclusive childcare center, here are some things to consider:

Training – What type of training does the center provide or make available for its staff? An ongoing commitment to training that covers the diverse needs of children is important.

Individual attention – Whether your child is typically developed or has special needs, the child-care center should be prepared to support the developmental goals of all children enrolled in its program.

Accommodating special needs – If your child is developmentally delayed, how is the center prepared to adjust to her special needs? For example, if your child has a physical challenge, will all areas of the center be accessible?

Additional support – If your child requires extra attention to a particular area of development, can the center accommodate this need? For example, if the child has a speech delay, are specialized teachers or language therapists available?

Parental involvement – Parents should be encouraged to participate in their child’s development. Find out how parents are involved in goal setting at the center and how concerns are communicated.

Teacher ratios – Many inclusive child-care centers will have smaller teacher to child ratios to ensure that each child receives the attention she requires. Look for a ratio that is appropriate for the needs of your child and meets or exceeds the state’s requirement.

A Good Start

For parents, finding a place to care for your child’s needs, whatever they are, is a big decision. Selecting an inclusive child-care program can provide a good start for children on many levels, says Higgins. “We do the best we can to meet kids’ needs however we can,” she says. “When you see kids [of different development levels] sitting around a table working on an art project together, it’s a great thing.”

Liz Cerami Taylor is a local freelance writer and mother.

Local Resources

Tennessee Disability Pathfinder
800-640-INFO • www.familypathfinder.org
A comprehensive referral service with phone, web and print resources (in English and Spanish) to connect persons with disabilities, family members and advocates with local and national service providers.

Tennessee Child-care Resource and Referral Network
Davidson County: 277-1649
Surrounding counties: 866-446-6006
A free statewide service to obtain customized child-care listings, literature and counseling. Learn about Blakemore, First Steps and other child-care programs here.

Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities
www.state.tn.us/cdd/childcare.html
A state office that promotes public policies to increase and support the inclusion of individuals with developmental disabilities in their communities. Information and resources are available regarding child care.

Tennessee Child-care Providers Map
www.state.tn.us/humanserv/childcare/providers-map.htm
A website maintained by the Tennessee Department of Human Services with child-care centers by ZIP code. The listing includes information on handicapped accessability.

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