Inclusion of young children with disabilities is more and more the norm for early childhood classrooms. It is abundantly clear how beneficial an inclusive classroom can be for a child with disabilities . The ability to watch and learn from typically developing peers, increases children with disabilities’ academic (early literacy and math) and social-emotional outcomes (Odom, Buysse, & Soukakou, 2011).
For more ways children with disabilities benefit from inclusion, check out this infographic from Brookes Inclusion Lab.
However little is said in the teachers’ lounge about the benefits for typically-developing peers in the classroom. In fact, parents may balk at the idea of inclusion, worried that a child with disabilities might take away from their typically-developing child’s instructional time.
Looking further into inclusion benefits for peers, there are a good number of studies that have focused on this very issue.
Typically-developing peers in inclusive classrooms:
1. Gain leadership skills
Sometimes peers are called on to teach skills to a child with a disability or a child who is struggling with a task. For example, in a Kindergarten classroom, Billy might help teach Janette, a child with autism, how to tie her shoe. Billy then gains leadership skills by becoming the “expert” in the classroom of the “tying of the shoes”! He then also quickly learns that when you are an “expert”, you share your gift with others.
2. Learn to help others and gain empathy
In another classroom, a Montessori multi-age (3-6 year old) class, Leila, a four year old who wears braces on her legs, struggles to get up from morning circle time when dismissed. The teacher prompts a peer, Kendra a five year old, to give Leila a hand. Kendra uses her hands to support Leila into a standing position and then asks if they can work together on a puzzle. Through this interaction, Kendra learns how different individuals need different levels of support. Instead of feeling pity for Leila, Kendra learns from her teacher how specifically to support Leila just enough so that Leila can then go on to complete even more important future tasks, like puzzles, together.
For more on helping others and gaining empathy, read Chapter 1: Success for All Students in Inclusion Classes, from the book Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom (Willis, 2007).
3. Build friendships with children who are different than them
On the Head Start playground, many children circle around the track quickly on red tricycles. Johnny a child who uses an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) device to “speak” watches on quietly. His speech and language pathologist, who visits Johnny once a week in his classroom, encourages him to approach one of the boys on the bikes. Once one of the boys comes to a squealing halt, Johnny uses his AAC to say, “Can I ride the bike?” The boy lets him have a turn, and Johnny rides around the track with a huge smile on his face. This marks the beginning of a friendship between the two boys based on a similar interest, riding tricycles!
For more on peers and friendships, read a sneak peak of the book, The Making Friends Program (Favazza, Ostrosky, & Mouzourou, 2016):
4. Accept differences and understand that fair isn’t equal
In a first grade classroom, Jill has trouble concentrating and remaining on task during whole group lessons due to her disability. Her therapist has recommended a fidget toy, a small squishy ball, for her to quietly manipulate in her hands while she watches the teacher demonstrate the math lesson. Sharona notices the fidget toy and later asks the student teacher why Jill gets one and she doesn’t. The student teacher explains that everyone needs different things to learn, that Jill needs the fidget toy to concentrate at group, but Sharona doesn’t. However during gym time, Sharona needs to step closer to the basketball hoop to successful get the ball in, where Jill can stand further back. In this moment, Sharona is learning that fair is not always equal, and that accomodations in the classroom are natural and needed for many students.
For more about differences, check out this “Fair is not always equal” downloadable poster from Brookes Inclusion Lab.
Without peers, we cannot have inclusive classrooms. Typically-developing peers function as models for children with disabilities in the inclusive classroom. Yet there are so many more benefits for these typically-developing peers than we initially imagined. Inclusion works for all children!
Favazza, P. C., Ostrosky, M. M., & Mouzourou, C. (2016). The Making Friends Program:
Supporting Acceptance in your K-2 Program. Brookes Publishing Co.
Odom, S. L., Buysse, V., & Soukakou, E. (2011). Inclusion for young children with disabilities: A
quarter century of research perspectives. Journal of Early Intervention, 33(4), 344-356.
Willis, J. (2007). Brain-friendly strategies for the inclusion classroom. ASCD.