25 Sep 2015

Language matters

2 Comments Early Childhood Education, Inclusion

One of the courses that I’m teaching this fall deals with the topic of “inclusion” in an early childhood education context. I’m really excited to be teaching this course, because I think it provides a lot of opportunities for students to reflect, share and discuss their own ideas and experiences. I have also found that in my preparation for this class, and through facilitating these discussions, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to reflect on my own beliefs and practices.

One of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on is the language that we use when we talk about inclusion. To be more specific, I found myself really struggling with the language that we use when discussing children with disabilities, diagnoses, or identified needs. In our society, and in the education sector we throw around terms like “children with special needs” or “exceptionalities” or sometimes just “disabilities”. However, none of these terms really connect for me. They seem to fall short, or perhaps try to stretch too far. Don’t all children have “special” or unique needs? Aren’t all children “exceptional” in their own way? And don’t even get me started on “disabilities”.

I’ll be honest, for most of my career I haven’t given these terms too much thought- I never felt like I needed to. While I have worked with children of all abilities, in my day to day practice a need for a collective term never really came up. It wasn’t until I started teaching,and found myself in a position where I was trying to discuss issues of accessibility, accommodation, and inclusion, that I realized that none of the terms that are used seem appropriate.

In early childhood education, we advocate for equity, for inclusion. We talk about the importance of people first language and people first attitudes. We talk about seeing the child (or the person) before the disability (or diagnosis). Yet in some ways, while we’re trying to have this conversation, to engage students in considering the importance of the language we use, and the way that we engage ALL children, we still promote this backwards attitude where we lump all children who are “different” together.

This is why we can’t agree on a term to use- we are trying to fit all of these children with diverse needs under one umbrella, under one label. What do children with physical limitations or extra chromosomes or different communication styles have in common with each other that they don’t have in common with every other child? There is no common characteristic except for the fact that they are “other” than what has been declared “typical”. Okay, maybe they all have “Individualized Program Plans” or “Individualized Education Plans”, but that’s not part of who they are, and in all honesty, we should be planning for the individual needs of ALL of the children in our program.

A child is a child. In my opinion, it’s a simple as that. As educator, I believe it is our responsibility and our pleasure to get to know each and every child in our care. To learn their likes and dislikes, their strengths and the areas where they may need additional support. I think we should treat every child as we would want to be treated, and to build meaningful relationships.

So, what will I call these children? I’ll call them their names, or whatever they would like to be called (even if that means having a few “Spiderman”s running around), and when I teach I will continue to struggle with finding a way to talk about how we include ALL children, and I will continue to have the conversation with my students and with my colleagues.

Join me, won’t you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue and what language you use (or don’t use).

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written by
A registered Early Childhood Educator and former President of the Halton Branch of the Association for Early Childhood Educators of Ontario.
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2 Responses to “Language matters”

  1. Reply martha brown says:

    I completely agree, Shannon.
    This year I’m teaching Grade 1-2. I have a few kids on IEPs (3). But no one in the class knows that :) often I say to the class “we are who we are” . We discuss, as a group, that people are all so different. We all learn to read at different speeds, and we all have different ways that we learn best. My class is very inclusive — they just take it in stride that A listens best when he is lying down… Or that he loves to draw and might sometimes draw on their pictures ( so we have learned to keep our drawings piled under our crayon bins — which means ” this paper is off limits”.
    When I speak to other adults ( other teachers, volunteers) I don’t give up the information that these kids might have “other needs” , because, in reality, yes, all of the children in my class have “other needs”. To label the children makes the adults look at the children in a different way, and I don’t want that. The child doesn’t want that, and neither do the other children. Let’s just call them children :)

  2. Reply Casey McCarthy says:

    Hello,
    am a first grade teacher in the United States and currently taking part in an early childhood masters program. I am working on establishing contacts outside of the United States in order to gain new perspectives in the field of early childhood, as well as the opinions of other educators when it comes to issues such as disabilities, play, poverty, diversity, child centered learning, and more. I would love to know more about you and your views of some of these things. I would also appreciate any great resources! My email is casey.mccarthy@waldenu.edu.

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