For the definitive version of this article, see:
Rietveld, C. (2010) Early Childhood Inclusion: The Hidden Curriculum of Peer Relationships. New Zealand
Journal of Educational Studies, 45(1), 17-32.
Early Childhood Inclusion: The Hidden
Curriculum of Peer Relationships
University of Canterbury
Discrepancies have been known to occur between parents and teachers’ reports of
inclusion and children’s actual experiences of inclusion. This qualitative study of 3
children with Down Syndrome (DS) and their peers, aged 3 years, in 3 different early
childhood settings indicated that facilitative inclusion, the kind of inclusion that is
supportive of learning and development, was not experienced by any of the children
with DS. Results showed that the quality of inclusion was affected by the manner in
which the explicit curriculum was implemented and by the effects of the unintended or
hidden curriculum, which is the focus of this paper. Teachers and parents interviewed
reported minimal awareness of how the hidden curriculum the children experienced
impacted on their learning. This study describes some of the hidden barriers faced
when children with and without DS interact and concludes by illustrating how early
childhood educators might facilitate children’s cognitive and social processes using
incidents from the data and drawing upon recent disability and learning theories to
inform such facilitation.
Keywords: Inclusion, Early Childhood Education, Down syndrome.
In New Zealand, publications such as the NZ Education Gazette and NZEI
Rourou provide teachers with much advice, literature and information about
what constitutes “good” inclusive teaching practice at all levels of the
education sector. In the absence of specific guidelines concerning the theory
and pedagogy of inclusive education, teachers may interpret the information in
relation to deficit models of disability and linear models of learning.
As in many other countries, New Zealand has a long history of divisive
teaching practices (based on divisive discourses) for children with intellectual
impairments. These practices that focus on the “deficit individual” emanate
from the historical “personal tragedy” view or “medical model” of disability
(Oliver, 1986) whereby the child with an impairment is seen as having an all-
encompassing personal deficit, failure, illness or tragedy that dominates all
aspects of his/her being. Exclusion and/or special teaching is easily justified
as the focus is on the child who is considered deviant on all accounts and in
need of special or different teaching to help him/her assimilate, change,
improve and made more “normal”. Teaching is often based on a linear model
involving behavioural principles (Sidman & Stoddard, 1966). Criticism of these
deficit and individual models highlight that the multiplicity of variables that
are likely to impinge on learning are ignored (e.g. Erb, 2008a; 2008b). No
account is taken of the role of social factors. Furthermore, the powerful effects
of unintended factors that impact on learning (Alton-Lee, Nuthall & Patrick,
1987; Nuthall, 2001; 2007) have the potential to remain unidentified and are
therefore also ignored.
In contrast to these deficit models, the social construction model of disability
(Barnes, 2003; Oliver, 1996) with its focus on the role of contexts in inclusion
and learning has been widely supported and forms part of the theoretical basis
of contemporary policies, and practices (e.g. Minister for Disability Issues,
2001). Instead of devaluing differences and seeing children with impairments
as unusual, special or in need of ‘fixing’, the social construction model views
disability and differences as ordinary, something to be expected, valued and
accommodated from the outset in all aspects and at all levels of educational
settings. The focus is on the quality of the socio-emotional/learning context in
which the child participates. Adoption of this model requires staff in early
childhood centres to arrange the physical and social environment from the
outset to take into account the variation in abilities, interests and attributes of
all members in ways that enhance all children’s learning of culturally valued
beliefs, skills and/or understandings.
While acknowledging that the social constructionist model of disability has
shortcomings (Marks, 1999; Tregaskis, 2002), the strength of this perspective is
that unlike the deficit model, it shares common elements with ecological theory
(Bronfenbrenner, 1979) and recent theoretical understandings of teaching and
learning (Nuthall & Alton-Lee, 1994; Nuthall, 2007; Rex, 2000). From this
perspective learning is viewed as a contextualised interactive process involving
the child and her/his physical and social environment. This view promotes the
notion that children’s development and learning take place through the
internalisation of the external world. This means that it is not just aspects of the
external world that the teacher explicitly focuses on in enhancing children’s
learning and inclusion, but the entire external world as experienced by the
child. Adopting this view of disability necessitates a focus on the more covert
or hidden aspects of the curriculum that are less often the target for study.
An aspect of the hidden curriculum that affects children’s learning involves the
role of peers. Studies have shown that peers can enhance or diminish children’s
learning opportunities; their motivation to participate and learn and feel
valued, included members of a specific peer group (Alton-Lee, Nuthall &
Patrick, 1987; Kollar, Anderson & Palincsar, 1994; Rex, 2000). Whilst this issue
has been investigated in relation to ethnicity (Alton-Lee et al., 1987), children
with low status (Kollar et al., 1994) and typically developing children (Doyle,
1983; Nuthall, 2007), less attention has been focused on how peers hinder or
enhance the quality of relationships children with intellectual impairments
experience in mainstream early childhood settings. A frequently stated and
laudable goal of inclusion (Ministry of Education, 1996; Minister for Disability
Issues, 2001) is that children learn to feel comfortable and increasingly more
competent at interacting with peers who experience impairments and other
differences, but it is unclear to what extent this happens and how implicit
processes support or impede development towards this aim.
While the national curriculum for early childhood, Te Whāriki (Ministry of
Education, 1996) is applauded for its inclusive nature (Gunn, 2003; MacArthur,
Purdue & Ballard, 2003), how children actually experience its implementation
is not well documented. Research has shown that disjunctures occur between
the intentional and the experienced curriculum (McGee, 1997; Nuttall, 2005).
For instance, an aspect of the hidden curriculum, the nature of peer
relationships, impacts on children’s actual experiences of the curriculum and
this can mitigate the intended effects of children’s inclusion and learning
(Alton-Lee, Nuthall & Patrick, 1987; Rietveld, 2002).
This paper addresses this gap by focusing directly on the children’s
experiences. More specifically, the aspect being investigated involves the
generally hidden nature of peer interactions that impact on the learning and
inclusion of three young children with Down Syndrome (DS) and their peers in
their respective early childhood settings. Part of this research is a subset of a
larger study investigating the inclusion of children with DS as they make their
first transition from home to an early childhood setting (Rietveld, 2007) at
around three years of age. I will use data from this larger study and I will also
draw on subsequent unpublished data involving two of the same children and
early childhood settings some three years later. Both data sets demonstrate the
experiences children with and without DS face in establishing and maintaining
mutually satisfying peer culture relationships in settings that claim to be
inclusive. These examples speak to the hidden curriculum in these settings.
Participants, settings and research methodology
The parameters of the larger study included in-depth, qualitative case studies.
Three children with DS who had just turned 3 years old (Adam, Emma and
David (pseudonyms)), their peers, parents and teachers and the researcher
participated in this study. Permission to undertake this study was obtained
from the University of Canterbury’s Ethics Committee.
Emma and David attended privately-owned early childhood centres near their
respective homes, and Adam attended a playgroup run by parents as a co-
operative for children from infancy to middle childhood.
Running record observations (for description, see Smith, 1999) were
undertaken of the children during their participation in the early childhood
setting for 2-3 hours during their first few days of entry to preschool (Emma
and David) or playgroup (Adam). Nearly three years later additional running
record observations were undertaken for David and Adam in their same early
childhood settings. Total running record data obtained for each child consisted
of the following: Adam (10 hours, 55 minutes), Emma (12 hours, 25 minutes)
and David (19 hours, 25 minutes).
Semi-structured interviews with teachers (Emma and David’s Centres) were
undertaken individually towards the end of each period of child observation
(on entry and three years later). Field notes in the form of additional comments
made by children or adults and any other pertinent information were also
The data were analysed for themes and patterns that indicated a mismatch
between what children experienced and what teachers thought children
experienced. Data gathering was influenced by Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) bio-
ecological model based on the premise that the child is at the centre of and
embedded in several environmental systems, ranging from immediate settings
such as the early childhood centre to more remote contexts such as teacher and
parent beliefs, policy and broader cultural values.
Exemplars to illustrate impact of hidden curriculum
The following three scenarios from the data all show how aspects of the
unintended curriculum, in this case evident through the peer culture, affect the
quality of educational inclusion and learning each child and his/her peers’
In the first two episodes, the child with DS is relegated to the role of an inferior
member and in the third the child with and without DS cannot establish the
inter-subjectivity needed to participate in any valid role at the selected activity.
1. David (at nearly six years of age) is constructed as a ‘baby’
Morning-tea time: About 5-6 children sit around a table and each are
handed a beaker of water. The beakers are all the same; they have
no handles and are either dark green or navy. David who has DS and
possibly additional impairments is unable to drink from a regular
beaker, so his teachers have catered for his ‘needs’ by giving him a 2-
handled Tommee Tippee (Trademark) sipper cup with a plastic straw.
David taps his drinking cup on the table and looks at the girl next to
him. The girl laughs. David does too. Both laugh at each other. A
girl opposite says to the group, “He’s (referring to David) got the baby
one (drinking cup/beaker)”. The girl next to him says, “Yes, ‘cos he’s
a baby, eh?” The girl nods in agreement with the other girl and other
“It (cup) was one of those little Tommee Tippee straw cups. Nobody
seemed to think too much of it you know. David just needed that and
they (the children) seem to be pretty good actually at just accepting
In this scenario, the Centre’s pedagogical practices that were benignly intended
to support David’s inclusion (see teacher’s comment) had the effect of
constructing David as a much younger and inferior member of the group.
Despite the teacher’s beliefs that the children were accepting, the children
actually used their experience of David who was given a cup traditionally
associated with infants to frame David as “other”- a much younger member
who is therefore not like me. This has major implications for their inclusion of
him and his learning in that a fundamental ingredient in the majority of
interactions needs to be the presence or for young children, at least the
development of same-status relationships in order for more advanced
relationships (e.g. preferred playmate, task partner, friend) to develop.
Relationships with infants are usually characterised by hierarchical
interactions, which if applied by peers to fellow-peers prevent the perceived
lower status member becoming genuinely included member of the peer group.
What do David and his peers learn from this?
• David: From his experience with his peers, David is likely to
learn that he is an inferior and incompetent member and
repeated experiences of this nature are likely to facilitate his
internalisation of this belief.
• Peers: Because of the pedagogical practices underpinning
this activity (the same cup in either one of two colours), peers