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
are likely to learn that all children at the centre are the same
in their ability to drink from a cup without handles or lids and
that their preferences for different containers to drink from are
not valid. Instead of providing a range of cups/drink bottles,
some with spouts, handles and some without that reflect the
real diverse needs and preferences of the group, the way this
activity was observed encouraged the children to see David
as the only diverse member and the children’s schema for
dealing with his kind of diversity was to class him as a baby.
This kind of thinking is likely to hinder their relationship with
David. It is also likely to prevent them from seeing other
aspects of David that they may have in common essential for
the kind of jointedness necessary for more advanced forms of
facilitative inclusion. The children’s stereotypical thinking of
David as a baby instead of a same-status peer and hence
potential playmate is also likely to be maintained, when adults
remain unaware of their thinking and therefore fail to help the
children develop more mature experiences and
understandings of David.
2. Adam (six years) is included as an incompetent member
Jason (6) has brought a novel plastic toy to playgroup, which interests
Jason calls to Adam and asks him, “Adam, do you want to play with
this?” Adam runs to Jason and replies, “Yeah” while looking at the
toy. Jason says to Adam assertively, “Well, you can’t.” Adam looks
at Jason and asks politely, “Yeah please?” Jason replies, “No, you
can’t. If you touch the toy, you might get it”. Jason runs off with his
toy really fast and Adam runs after him. Another boy with a
polystyrene stick holds it out in front of Adam blocking him briefly.
Jason calls to Adam, “Come on, come on”. He runs as fast as he
can. His face is red and he is puffing a great deal. As soon as Adam
gets vaguely close to Jason, Jason darts off in a different direction (2
minutes). Jason says to Adam, “If you be good at playgroup you
might get a turn”. Adam sits on the deck and looks tearful. He begins
to cry. Jason comes over and says to Adam, “If you want my toy, you
have to chase it”. Adam replies, “No” and turns away from Jason
looking sad and tearful. Adam’s mother arrives. Jason says to her,
“He (referring to Adam) is twice as slow as me!” Adam picks up some
gravel from the ground and throws it at Jason. His mother says to
him, “Maybe next week you can bring your toy (similar to Jason’s) to
• Hierarchical instead of same status relationship and no
support to help the pair form a more appropriate equitable
• No overt social norms,
• Each parent supervising his/her own child can mean incidents
such as this occur as parents are with other children or
undertaking other roles.
• Adam’s mother does not encourage Jason to interact with
Adam more supportively, but focuses on Adam (bringing his
toy next week)
This observation illustrates a failure of common ground, reciprocity and equal
status between the participants, thus hindering any potential developmental
and social outcomes for either Adam or Jason.
What do Adam and his peers learn from this?
• Adam: Adam’s experience with Jason, teaches him that
despite his best efforts at including himself through his fast
running, his good manners, appropriate use of language and
appropriate participation in the ‘game’, he is actually an
incompetent member; he can never match some of the skill
levels of his peers without DS. Having his ‘incompetence’
reinforced not only through Jason’s statement to his mother in
full hearing of Adam, but also through his direct experiences
of Jason running so fast that he cannot keep up, Adam fails to
experience any positive feedback necessary for the
development of favourable self-esteem and his motivation for
being socially included may be reduced. He also fails to gain
an experience of what a genuine game involves; both
participants experiencing shared meanings and of being a
valued member of the peer group. Instead, he learns that the
world does not make sense. Despite exhibiting his range of
competencies, he fails.
• Jason: In constructing Adam as inferior, Jason uses this play
opportunity to maintain his superior status as evident by his
statement, “He’s twice as slow as me”. Believing he is
superior is erroneous thinking that will interfere with his
learning of how to interact and feel comfortable with people
with identifiable differences. This, in turn, is likely to interfere
with the goals of social justice and learning how to live and
work in an increasingly diverse society (Brown, 1995).
With no adult support Jason receives no opportunity to learn how to think
about and include Adam in ways that are more mutually satisfying, facilitative
of learning and reflective of the philosophy underlying inclusion.
3. Emma (DS) and Dylan (both three year olds) fail to establish
The following case study illustrates how interactions can quickly
cease when the pair is unable to establish mutual jointedness
resulting in no beneficial outcome from the intended inclusion. It
indicates the challenges that exist and need to be successfully
negotiated before the pair can establish the jointedness or “shared
meanings” as a foundation for more advanced forms of inclusion to
Here, despite Emma displaying appropriate social skills when joined
at the dough table by Dylan, neither child maintains the interaction.
Using Sameroff’s (1993) transactional theoretical model the following
one-minute observational episode in Figure 1 describes this process
diagrammatically. At the core of Sameroff’s theory is the belief that
environmental inputs (e.g. how teachers and peers interact) influence
child characteristics (e.g. how/what the child thinks and how she/he
behaves) and those individual characteristics (e.g. passive style of
responding) in turn affect the environment. Enabling or disabling
processes are viewed as a succession of transactions between the
child and her/his environment, each of which influences the child’s
development, experiences and being over time.
What do Emma and her peers learn from this?
• Emma: As a result of Dylan’s non-contingent responding,
Emma receives inappropriate feedback on her social
behaviour, leading to likely conclusions that the world does
not make sense and that she is an unacceptable playmate.
Like Adam in the previous example, she has used her range
of appropriate strategies and they have failed her in this
• Peers: The unconventional behaviour Emma finally engages
in (pulling off Dylan’s hat) is likely to reinforce Dylan’s beliefs
that Emma is an odd and undesirable playmate and lead to
his ongoing exclusion of her. His frame for understanding and
relating to Emma is not expanded which is likely to contribute
to his ongoing exclusion of her. As is evident in Figure 1, the
relationship between Emma and Dylan is marked by a
struggle concerning the nature of the relationship with the
content of the activity (dough) not featuring at all. Because
Emma’s differences appear so preoccupying for Dylan, he
does not appear to notice her appropriate social cues such as
her smile at his arrival at the dough table, her interest in his
toy and her showing him her necklace accompanied by a
smile. Peers will relate similarly to Emma as Dylan did in
absence of appropriate adult facilitation. Peers also learn that
adults are not there to help them develop relationships so that
they reach satisfying goals, as the adult role is to engage
children in learning activities and routines.
Emma smiles at Dylan when he
arrives at the dough table.
Dylan looks sternly at Emma.
Inappropriate response signalling to
Emma that she and her response are
Emma touches Dylan’s toy.
Dylan takes the toy away and stares at
her face, then leaves.
Misinterprets Dylan’s stern look
Dylan focuses solely on her differences.
Emma will not know why he is so hostile
and staring at her.
Emma follows Dylan, smiles at him
then shows him her necklace.
Dylan stares at Emma.
Misinterprets Dylan’s exclusionary
cues and uses conventional
strategies, e.g. smiling and showing
Dylan remains focused on Emma’s
differences. He ignores her initiations,
thereby denying Emma appropriate
Emma pulls Dylan’s pompom hat off.
Dylan takes it from her and leaves the
End result: Exclusion.
These experiences reinforce to Dylan that Emma is deviant and to be avoided. Emma
learns that her world does not make sense. She uses her repertoire of appropriate skills
and she is still excluded. neither gains any of the potential benefits from their experience
of ‘inclusive education’.
Figure 1: One-minute observation illustrating the process of exclusion
Teachers in Emma’s centre were not observed to support joint interaction, but
instead, they supported each child pursuing his/her own goal(s) at activities
such as making biscuits at the dough table with or without peers. They
believed that all children minimised Emma’s differences as evidenced by the
following comments: “They (children) don’t notice anything different”. “They
don’t mind. She’s just one of the group, which is really good. I haven’t seen
any evidence of them noticing any differences”; “They look after her, which is
nice. I don’t ever hear anything nasty said about her or anything like that”;
“The children all love her”. The data concerning the failure of Emma and
Dylan to establish a valid connection necessary for more advanced forms of
inclusion would indicate a disjuncture between the teachers’ perceptions and
observational data of the children’s experiences.
The data show that when parents and teachers omit viewing the peer culture as
a site of learning, children with and without DS do not receive the information
and support they need to gain access to one or more peer cultures of their early
childhood settings. Thus, the barriers for children to more advanced forms of
facilitative inclusion need to be recognised by their educators first and
As an example of how teachers might mitigate the effects of the hidden peer
culture, a hypothetical scenario of ‘inclusion’ is presented in Figure 2 in which
the exclusive processes that occurred between Emma and Dylan are rewritten
so that they illustrate facilitative inclusion. Figure 2 also illustrates the
theoretical principles and pedagogical practices that underpin authentically
inclusive processes and outcomes.
Prior to the portrayal of the ‘new’ processes and outcomes for Dylan and
Emma in Figure 2, the socio-cultural context will have been altered to
incorporate the following:
1. The instigation of social norms, such as: “When someone says ‘Hello’ or
smiles, we smile or say ‘Hello’ back”; “We don’t tease or make fun of
anyone because that hurts their feelings”. Children will also have been
reinforced for reminding one another (when appropriate) of the social
rules. For example, in the instance of Riki and Dylan in Figure 2.
2. The presence of dolls with DS features, puppets with differences, books,
puzzles and posters showing children with differences including
disabilities engaged in positive roles,
3. Teachers’ facilitation of the above materials and objects. For instance,
teacher interaction with children about the dolls highlighting that
individuals can be different in one aspect, but similar in others. For
example, the doll with DS still needs to be cuddled, bathed and fed and
4. Congruency between the theory of inclusion, centre policy and pedagogy.
The data indicate that if unchecked, the underground nature of the peer group
can lead to increased marginalisation or exclusion of the child. For instance,
the girls at David’s table assigned him the label of “baby”. In Emma’s
preschool, Dylan and Hayden who were playing together with the train-set
refused to let Emma join in on the basis of Dylan’s belief that “She’s (Emma) a
silly dummy”. The beliefs and understandings the children acquire about each
other influence the quality of their subsequent inclusion. Consistent ignoring
by teachers and parents of children’s constructions of the child means that
disability knowledge/issues are marginalised (not valued) and opportunities
are lost for enhancing understandings about diversity. However, the children
did not ignore differences. Their, albeit limited, understandings remained and
were reflected in their behaviour and conversations which involved exclusion
of the child, as evident in Dylan and Hayden later refusing Emma entry to the
train-set area. In absence of more enabling interactive experiences with the
child with DS mediated by appropriate support, it would seem that children
cannot acquire more advanced understandings which in turn limits their
quality of inclusive experiences.
Observations when these children were 6 years old indicated that once a
pattern of interacting is established, it remains static. This finding is
supportive of other studies (e.g. Johnson & Johnson, 1980; Rietveld, 2002) and
highlights the importance of facilitating reciprocal, mutually satisfying, same-
status relationships from the outset of children’s enrolments to early childhood
Emma smiles at Dylan when he arrives
at the dough table.
Dylan looks sternly at Emma.
Riki (peer) notices Dylan’s response
and reminds him of the rule, “you have
to say ‘hello’’ or smile back”.
Dylan looks awkwardly at Emma and
says ‘hello” quietly. He stares at her.
Teacher arrives. Reinforces Riki for
remembering rules and Emma and
Dylan replies, “I don’t like Emma. She’s
Dylan for greeting each other. She asks
Dylan if there is anything about Emma
he is noticing and would like to talk
Teacher mediation. Reinforces rules
and low level inclusion; invites Dylan to
talk about his curiosity concerning
Teacher asks “What is it about Emma
that you don’t like?”
Dylan demonstrates, “Her tongue is
like this.” (Shows her tongue
Teacher replies, “You’re right It is. Emma finds it easier to breathe with her mouth
open. It doesn’t matter that her tongue is out. She still likes play dough just like you do.
How about you and Emma make some biscuits for Nathan’s birthday today?” T puts a
large lump of dough between them and suggests they need to flatten the dough with a
Teacher invites discussion; dispels fear about one of Emma’s attributes, points out
similarity and structures activity to promote jointedness. Uses knowledge of inclusion to
promote inclusive pedagogical practice.
End result: Beginnings of jointedness
On hearing “rolling pin”, Emma picks up
one and gives it to Dylan.
Dylan takes it from her and says
“Thanks Emma” more audibly and
confidently than before.
Emma picks up a rolling pin herself. Both Emma and Dylan roll out the dough laughing
as they crash their rolling pins into one another.
Teacher reinforces joint activity “ Wow you two look as if you’re having fun and you’ve
made the dough nice and flat ready for your biscuits.”
Teacher promotes same status, mutually satisfying, reciprocal interactions NOT one
child for playing with the child who has the impairment.
Figure 2: Alternative scenario illustrating the process of inclusion
All the teachers and parents in the early childhood settings need to share the
same vision of what an inclusive setting involves and this needs to be based on
contemporary theories of disability and learning and teaching. Amongst
others, pedagogical practices must include:
1. The establishment of a socio-cultural context in which all children can
learn rather than the assimilation of children with impairments and other
identifiable differences into the existing norms,
2. The supporting of processes to facilitate peer group membership,
3. Interpreting unconventional behaviour,
4. Dealing with differences openly and supportively and
5. Instigating new ways of communicating and new rituals and norms so
that all members can participate. The socio-cultural context can be altered
to be more inclusive in many more ways, but for the purposes of this
paper, only a small number of modifications are specified.
Despite teachers’ views of the children’s experiences, their uncritical claims of
inclusion seemed to be based on children’s presence rather than the quality of
their participation. The children’s experiences of inclusion or low levels of
inclusion were not supportive of their experiencing more advanced forms of
inclusion nor were they likely to lead to the kinds of learning envisaged by the
policies underlying inclusive education.
The first two case studies of David and Adam illustrate the kinds of inferior
roles peers commonly assign children with DS and the third case study of
Emma shows the difficulty children with and without DS had in establishing
shared connections for participating in any valid role. It must be noted that the
issue of roles is significant in each episode. Problems occur if children
experience mostly exclusion, or inclusion into inferior roles as this will not
allow them access to higher forms of social and academic development
(Vygotsky, 1981) conducive to living in an inclusive society (Meyer, 2001).
They are also likely to internalise the messages that they are inferior,
incompetent and undesirable peer group members, which in turn is likely to
negatively impact on their motivation to seek inclusion, thus interfering with
their learning of culturally-valued skills. Similarly, typically developing
children are also likely to experience restrictions on their own social
development due to their false beliefs that they are superior. From this false
perspective, they cannot learn the necessary discourses associated with valuing
differences, interacting respectfully with others who move and think in diverse
ways, use different forms of communication or feel comfortable with diversity,
all of which are necessary for living in an inclusive society (Meyer, 2001;
Minister of Disability Issues, 2001).
Role of Teachers and/or Parents
For children to experience the goals espoused by the policies requires a
different socio-cultural context and teachers and/or parents paying closer
attention to the hidden nature of the peer culture. Teachers and educators did
not appear to have understood how pedagogical practices impacted on the
peer culture or how the children with and without DS included one another.
All teachers and the parent interviewed interpreted inclusion to mean the
child’s assimilation into the early childhood setting’s existing culture with
minimal change or disruption to the existing programme. This definition did
not open up the possibility of reflecting on contexts such as the peer culture
and the pedagogical practices that underpin the particular nature of the peer
cultures operating in each centre. Teachers did not query whether their
centre’s cultures supported the learning of the diverse range of children
present irrespective of the child with DS and regularly reported that peers were
highly supportive of the child. Consequently, how the children with and
without DS experienced inclusion remained hidden.
Contemporary disability theories underlying inclusive education involve
looking at the disabling barriers and social restrictions created by existing
institutionalised societal practices. In terms of early childhood settings, that
involves a close investigation of all the discourses that underpin the setting’s
pedagogical practices. These include the rules, norms, beliefs, practices,
learning activities and so forth that have been traditionally devised for
typically developing children (Mallory & New, 1994). This philosophy also
extends to parents in all early childhood settings because they also show
diverse understandings of inclusion.
Generally, the peer culture was not viewed as a site of learning for children.
Teachers and parents focused on including children into activities as opposed
to relationships. This meant that facilitation of relationships was omitted and
children had difficulty connecting with the child with DS or engaged the child
in inferior ways. Scaffolding of appropriate relationships accompanied by
changes in the socio-cultural context to reflect the theory underlying inclusion
would seem essential for more mature forms of inclusion to occur. As an
example, Rietveld’s (2008) study showed how a school’s change in theoretical
perspective of disability with accompanying pedagogical practices resulted in
enhanced social and academic outcomes for a new entrant child with DS and
his classmates when his teacher and teacher-aide focussed on enhancing
facilitative inclusion within the peer culture. The focus was on altering the
school context as opposed to focussing the on the deficit individual.
The data also suggest that teachers and parents need to look more closely at the
micro-processes occurring when children with and without DS attempt to
interact rather than focus on non-specific global aspects: For instance, during
Adam and Jason’s “game” of chase, a parent walking by commented to me,
“It’s great to see the children include Adam”. Teachers regularly referred to
incidents such as Dylan and Emma together at the dough table as engaging in
parallel play, which was perceived as a desirable process. However, the data
suggest few positive learning processes occurring for either child. Parallel play
is usually seen as a precursor to co-operative or social play (Parten, 1932), yet
close examination of the data would indicate a struggle in establishing inter-
subjectivity or a “meeting of minds” which forms the basis for more advanced
forms of inclusion (Vygotsky, 1981) – an issue that needs addressing before
more advanced forms of parallel or interactive play can occur.
The micro-strategies suggested in this paper that resonate with the social
model of disability provide a starting point that can inform practice especially
as there is an absence of most policies that adequately informing practice.
Problem with defining inclusion
The main policy document used in early childhood settings (Te Whāriki) gives
minimal guidelines as to the meaning of inclusion apart from supporting the
child’s physical presence and encouraging him/her in the same tasks, routines
and so forth as her/his peers. Not only would specifying what is meant in
relation to early childhood education care and learning be desirable, but also
outlining the meaning of inclusion with greater clarity. For instance, if
inclusion is about the development of certain kinds of relationships as opposed
to others, then this needs to be specified so that teachers would be in a stronger
position to align their policy, theory and practice. Essentially parents and
teachers should be able to rely on the policies for a working definition of
inclusion. The Ministry’s policy needs considerable overhauling as suggested
by Higgins, McArthur and Rietveld (2006) as it lacks any consistent focus as
much of its content is derived from an alternative, historical paradigm (special
education) which if adopted can only derail teachers from their efforts at
facilitating appropriate peer relationships as a critical part of creating inclusive
While the Inclusive Assessment resource, Kei Tua o Te Pai (Ministry of
Education, 2005) is available in all early childhood settings and concludes with
a series of reflective questions concerning the quality of inclusion, the data
suggest educators may not be fully aware of how to use this pedagogical tool.
While one could argue in relation to the second question (p. 32) concerning the
presence of particular assumptions about disability or inclusion that the
answer would be “yes”, given that all adults in the three settings operated on
the assumption that proximity was sufficient for inclusion. However, it is
highly unlikely that any of these teachers or parents were aware that this was
so or that such a belief hindered optimal inclusion and learning. Because the
child with DS was perceived to be “fitting in well” (assimilation) and the
teachers and parents greatly valued the child and her/his inclusion, the issue
of the quality of her/his inclusive education did not raise any issues for the
adults and so reflecting on their own assumptions about inclusion would not
have been considered. This is reflected in a teacher’s response to a question
about her goal for Emma’s inclusion, she replied, “I would hope that she was
getting everything now…I hadn’t thought of that really… That’s a really good
question.” It would appear that further professional development is called for
to help teachers and parents recognise facilitative inclusion from demeaning
inclusion and exclusion as well as how to optimise resources and support
personnel in this process.
Ten-Year Early Childhood Education Strategic Plan (ECE)
It is difficult for teachers and parents to move beyond simplistic notions of
inclusion (child’s presence, inclusion into activities) when major documents
such as the Ten Year Strategic Plan (Ministry of Education, 2002), fail to
mention enhancing the quality of inclusive education in relation to disability,
despite a focus on enhancing equity for other minority status children such as
Māori and Pacific. Teachers and parents thus operate in a context where they
receive messages that while participation for all is valued, the quality of that
participation and its impact on children’s learning and inclusion may not be
Meaning of Inclusion: Incongruence between Theory and Policy
While the policies informing early childhood education (Te Whāriki, NZ
Disability Strategy) are intended to support the learning of children with and
without impairments, the data indicate that they are having minimal/no
impact on the learning and authentic inclusion of the children in this study.
This is because the teachers and parents generally interpret inclusion within a
deficit/individual perspective, which is at variance from the theory underlying
inclusive education policies. This article suggests that in absence of policies
that inform practice, some of the suggested practices (e.g. Figure 2) might
This article provides evidence-based data that highlights the discrepancies
between the rhetoric of inclusive education policy and the experiences of
children in early childhood settings. Observations of relationships between
typically developing children and children with DS over two time periods
provide the evidence of a hidden curriculum associated with barriers to
positive peer interactions. Since first observation period (3 years) none of the
early childhood settings had altered its socio-cultural context to enable the
child with DS to become an integral member of the peer culture and hence gain
maximal benefits from her/his inclusion. Instead, children were expected to
assimilate into existing settings that have a long history of catering for children
without impairments. Consequently, the typically developing children also
failed to learn how to include the child with DS in respectful, supportive and
mutually satisfying ways, which also hindered their social development.
Dr Christine Rietveld, University of Canterbury, School of Educational Studies
and Human Development, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140. Email:
I extend my grateful thanks to the children, parents and teachers who agreed to
participate in this study and also to my friend and colleague, Associate
Professor Judi Miller from the School of Health Sciences, University of
Canterbury who helped me with the editing of this paper. In addition, Dr Jean
McPhail provided me with valuable feedback in relation to the larger study,
particularly regarding Figure 2. I am also appreciative to the Graham Nuthall
Classroom Research Trust who funded and supported the larger study.
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