Valuing differences, choosing inclusion

A special educator decides to enroll her non-disabled son in a class mainly of preschoolers with disabilities

April 22, 2013|By Amy K. Noggle

Growing up in the 1970s, I never set foot in a school until it was time for me to go to kindergarten. However, times have changed. Over the past three decades, the number of preschools in our country has grown exponentially, and with this growth comes the expectation that children will attend preschool in order to be "ready" for kindergarten by age 5. Unfortunately, this expectation is often accompanied by great pressure to send one's child to the "right" preschool.

In 2007, I was lucky enough to give birth to my first son. And as an early childhood special education teacher, I felt I had a little extra boost; I was confident in my abilities to care for my son, carefully watching for any signs of delay while interacting with him in ways that could help him learn and grow. I soon learned that what one knows in theory is quite different in practice. However, we survived, and my son thrived. Soon, it was time to make preschool decisions.

What I sought out and ultimately chose for my son may surprise some, although I hope it does not.

I knew that Howard County, where we live, had a strong school system with inclusive programs for preschoolers with disabilities; I also knew that the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) tenet of special education law meant that the classes were not complete without including typically developing neighborhood children from surrounding neighborhoods.

My husband and I applied at our elementary school to have our son enrolled as a peer — a child without a documented disability. Our son was then invited to the school for a play date; during this play session, teachers informally evaluated his social and communication skills. Fortunately, he did well and was invited to join the program. We gave the school a deposit. Yes, we were going to pay for him to attend this preschool, and we were eager for him to start school in the fall.

That summer, I had the occasion to talk with many other soon-to-be-preschool-moms. As you can imagine, there was quite a lot of buzz about where all of our children were going to attend preschool. Whether I was at one of our local parks, bounce house locations, or at one of those indoor playgrounds complete with connected chicken nugget possibilities, many parents seemed interested in where I was sending my son. Typical of their comments:

"You're sending him to a class with children with autism? Hmm, I didn't know you could do that. That's interesting."

Or: "There's a class like that at our local elementary school? That's good to know. It's amazing you're doing that."

Or: "Well, don't those kids have some really bad behaviors? Oh, well I guess you have him just with the children who aren't talking that much yet? They can't be too bad."

Or, simply: "That's sweet of you."

Yes, I was sending him to a class consisting mainly of preschoolers with disabilities. Did these children have autism? Did they exhibit "really bad behaviors"? Was I sending my son to a class where children were not "talking that much yet"? I did not ask such questions about the nature of the children in the class.

I did asked questions about the program, as any parent would do. What is the ratio of children to adults? What type of curriculum does the program use? Would my son have to be potty trained upon entry in the fall?

I learned that the county's inclusive preschool program has highly qualified teachers, an amazing curriculum, and clean, well-equipped classrooms with amazing teacher to student ratios. On top of this, the program teaches every child to accept differences. Not only is each of us "different," but we are all different in a variety of ways, including (but certainly not limited to): gender, culture, skin color, likes and abilities. This is a lovely thing for children to learn and embrace at such a young age.

I fully understood — in fact, valued — the fact that some of the children in the class would have some challenges. However, I put my trust in the teachers to handle these challenges, as they are trained to successfully work with young children. As for behavioral issues, doesn't every 3- or 4-year-old exhibit a "behavior" at some point? The teachers could handle it — disability or no disability.

I did not make this decision to be "sweet" or "amazing." I was not acting out of martyrdom. I chose this program for my son because I valued the inclusive experience it would offer him.

Amy Noggle is a visiting professor of education at Hood College. Her email is

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