When Eleanore Grater Lewis began teaching, more than 40 years ago, it was very unusual to see a child with disabilities in a preschool classroom. “In those days, children with disabilities were largely excluded from any sort of preschool experience,” she explains. “Basically there were two options: Either they stayed home or they were institutionalized.”
Today, as assistant director of the New England RAP, a Head Start Quality Improvement Center for Disabilities Services, which serves the regional Head Start community, Lewis visits preschool classrooms that include children with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities—from blindness to hyperactivity; from speech and language impairments to mental retardation; from cerebral palsy to spina bifida. “It has taken time,” she says, “but today teachers no longer question the appropriateness of including children with disabilities in their classrooms.”
For 20 years, RAP has assisted Head Start teachers and managers in meeting the challenge of integrating students with disabilities into the full richness of Head Start programs and curriculum. As the first national project to commit to educating children with disabilities, Head Start led the way by mandating in 1973 that 10 percent of its enrollment be set aside for students with disabilities. Three years later, RAP was funded at EDC to support Head Start program staff in their efforts to realize this goal.
Since 1976, with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public understanding of what it means to include children with disabilities in the classroom has changed. “Initially there was mainstreaming,” explains Philip Printz, director of RAP, “which essentially meant that the kids with disabilities got to do art and maybe some free playtime and meals with the other students—especially meals.” The rest of the day they were taught separately.
“The big evolution came with the movement from mainstreaming to the full integration of children into the classroom,” Printz continues. But integration often meant that though students were physically in the classroom, they weren’t involved in the learning activities. “They might be sitting by themselves at another table and doing separate work,” he explains.
Today, when the staff at RAP talk about inclusion, they mean that students with disabilities are fully involved in all aspects of a classroom’s activities. “For instance, if students are working in groups at their tables, and there is a student with spina bifida who cannot sit at the same table, then you make modifications,” Lewis says. “Does it need to be a table activity? Can you do it on the floor?” Or if there is a student in a wheelchair, the teacher can raise the table so that he or she can collaborate with the able-bodied students. “Teachers need to think creatively about how to arrange their classrooms so all students can play and learn together,” Lewis continues. “Maybe this means they use stools for the other kids at the table, or special benches.”
The assistance that RAP staff provide Head Start Program staff and families takes many forms, including maintaining a library, convening conferences and courses, publishing articles, and influencing education policy at the local, state, and national levels.
But what excites the staff most is the direct contact they have with the students, teachers, and managers of Head Start programs. Frequently, managers call the center asking for advice on how to handle various classroom challenges, from managing the dietary restrictions for a child with diabetes, to what sort of new equipment is available for a student with a particular disability, to how to handle a child with violent behavior. “We begin by asking the teacher questions about the child, the family, the classroom arrangement, and the teaching style, to determine what sort of support she and the direct service staff need,” Printz explains. Project staff might then conduct research of in-house and online materials or consult with state agencies to gather relevant information. For especially complex challenges, like those posed by students with behavioral difficulties, a staff member visits the class to observe the situation directly. “We always involve a team in this sort of work—the teachers, the director, the disabilities manager, the family, the family service worker,” says Printz. “We really stress with program staff the importance of a holistic approach.”
In fact, an emphasis on holistic solutions has increasingly characterized the RAP approach over the past decade. In its early years, the staff relied more heavily on on-site training and workshops for teachers and program directors, but they soon recognized the limitations to this one-shot approach. “Eleanore might have gone out to a center, for example, to give a training,” Printz says. “Then next year she would be invited back to the same classroom to do the same training again. And again.” This sort of experience raised questions for RAP staff about the lasting impact of their work. “Maybe what was needed was something different,” continues Printz, “so we began working with Head Start managers to look at systems that support inclusion. What sort of follow-up do teachers need to make inclusion work? What sort of ongoing support do they need? What are the tangible outcomes of a particular effort?”
As a result, their work today is far more systemic than it used to be, relying on coalition building and comprehensive solutions. Their current work includes not only working with on-site teams, but also offering courses for university credit and other ongoing professional development activities.
Part of their comprehensive approach involves coordination with the state and local agencies that support child welfare services—agencies like the Departments of Public Health, Education, Mental Health, and Social Services, and the state Head Start associations—in order to promote collaboration among them. “Everybody gets excited about work at the grassroots level,” says Printz, “but there has to be a structure in place to support that kind of work.” In recent years, RAP has facilitated the drafting and implementing of interagency agreements among these groups in five of the six New England states.
While efforts to include children with disabilities take place in many arenas, Head Start classrooms remain on the front lines. When Eleanore Lewis visits these classrooms today, she sees evidence of improved educational environments for students in a variety of ways—in ramps going out to playgrounds and parent resource rooms, in tables adjusted to the height of a wheelchair, in parents willing to be more vocal and more involved. But sometimes she recognizes success in an apparently ordinary classroom situation, one that might escape the eye of a less seasoned educator: “If I walk into a classroom and the children are sitting in a circle at story time, and I see one boy sitting quietly by himself at a table keeping his hands busy with playdough, I know that the teacher has made an accommodation for that student who is not able to sit still for long in a circle. That child can still listen to the story, but now he can listen in a way that works for him.”
Originally published on April 30, 1999