Inclusion is a basic principle in early care and education. This principle guides policies and practices that are embedded throughout early childhood programs and classrooms, ensuring that young children with special needs are cared for and educated alongside their peers who do not have special needs. Federal law not only protects the rights of children and adults with disabilities (Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]; Rehabilitation Act [Section 504]), but specifically requires that infants and toddlers be served and educated in natural environments (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA], Part C), with preschoolers to be served and educated in the least restrictive environment (IDEA, Part B) (Center to Mobilize Early Childhood Knowledge, 2012). In early care and education, the principle of inclusion, and the policies and practices that flow from it, increasingly also have come to be applied to all children whose special needs are recognized and accommodated within early childhood programs and classrooms, including those with individual plans in the areas of health, mental health or behavior. In this document, the term "special needs" encompasses all of these children, whereas the term "disabilities" refers specifically to those children with special needs who have in place an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), Individual Education Plan (IEP), or 504 Plan (rehabilitation plan guaranteeing access to services for individuals with disabilities). (See Appendix A for additional definitions.)

A Joint Position Statement (2009) of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) highlights three key practice principles for early childhood inclusion, to be utilized collectively in high quality early childhood programs and services. Each is defined within the Joint Position Statement:

  • Access…Every child has access to a wide range of learning opportunities, activities, settings and natural environments, through the removal of structural, social, and learning barriers and multiple, varied formats for instruction and learning.
  • Participation…Some children receive additional, individualized accommodations and supports to participate fully in play and learning opportunities with peers and adults, and to benefit from those opportunities.
  • Supports…An infrastructure of systems-level supports for coordinated services and personnel development is in place to undergird the efforts of individuals and organizations providing inclusive services to children and families.

Collaboration is fundamental to achieving the full benefits of inclusion. When children receive services from different professionals, in more than one setting, they are developing and learning. Children also benefit when information on assessments and intervention practices are shared among parents and those professionals, across those settings. However, sharing information must be done with full respect for the family's wishes, and only with compliance to all applicable federal, state, and local privacy and confidentiality laws. The practices recommended in this document are based on the assumption that they are accomplished with full, signed consent of the family.

The Award of Excellence for Inclusion of Children with Special Needs, part of ExceleRate Illinois, reflects these principles.

Although the Award of Excellence for Inclusion has ended, Illinois will continue to acknowledge and celebrate programs who demonstrate high quality practices in inclusion.  Visit: Outstanding Practices in Inclusion Recognition


Inclusion Brochure is available in English & Spanish.

What Makes Inclusion Work
Early Choices has a great page called “What Makes Inclusion Work?” There is a variety of information, resources, and clickable links that can inform you about Inclusion.

The Federal Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs Module
This module developed by Early CHOICES reviews the Federal Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs. This module has 3 sections and a summary with lots of great information.

The Illinois Inclusion Guidelines (739 KB)
The Illinois Inclusion Guidelines Checklist

Inclusion of Children with Special Needs Standards (298 KB)
Inclusion of Children with Special Needs Standards and Requirements (190 KB)

Applications & Supplements:
School-Based Prerequisite Application and Supplement
Licensed Child Care Center Prerequisite Application and Supplement

Frequently Asked Questions (318 KB)
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