Dear Inclusion in ECE, It’s Time To Evolve!

In 2009, the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published a joint position statement on inclusion in Early Care and Education (ECE). The statement focused on the inclusion of children with disabilities.

The joint position statement said:

“Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, and practices that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society.”

For many years I welcomed and promoted the position statement with both appreciation and skepticism.  On the one hand, I thought it was a unified step forward towards effectively serving children with delays and disabilities in ECE programs.  On the other hand, I was concerned that the statement seemed to disregard the influence of other forms of diversity on inclusion.

And Then…

About a year ago, I noticed four endnotes in the joint position statement that I had not paid attention to in the past.

Endnote note number two stated:

“The term inclusion can be used in a broader context relative to opportunities and access for children from culturally and linguistically diverse groups, a critically important topic in early childhood requiring further discussion and inquiry. It is now widely acknowledged, for example, that culture has a profound influence on early development and learning, and that early care and education practices must reflect this influence.”

Mind blown! This whole time, my concern was shared by the authors of the statement! It quickly dawned on me that nearly eight (now nine) years had passed and the discussion about the “critically important topic” of “opportunities and access for children” who are “from culturally and linguistically diverse groups” had not made substantial progress.

With shelves, binders, and cabinets filled with literature on the topic, I have decided, enough is enough! Inclusion in ECE must evolve! Perhaps a bit of my knowledge and journey can offer some guidance and inspiration for others in the field to do the same!

Where the Field Stands

There have been a few pieces of literature over the years that have discussed “opportunities and access for children” who are “from culturally and linguistically diverse groups,” but none as well as chapter twenty-four from the recently published book The Handbook Childhood Special for Early Education. In the chapter, Marci Hanson and Linda Espinosa discuss the implications of a child’s culture, ethnicity and linguistic identity on professional practices in ECE and Early Intervention (EI)/Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE). They provide three points that I find to be particularly helpful.

“The power in the interaction is often imbalanced in that the service providers hold the keys to services the family needs for their children” (p. 462).
“[Working with families] requires truly developing an understanding and appreciation for cultural differences in perspectives, values and beliefs” (p 462).
“Our cultural perspectives are ingrained in everything we do. Though our cultural background shapes our beliefs and practices, we may not be conscious of this influence” (p. 460).
The three segments of the quotes I have in bold are the drivers for my perspective on the need to evolve inclusion in ECE.

A Social Systems Perspective

My journey began with the knowledge of systems as a theoretical underpinning of ECE and EI/ECSE.

Systems are created through complex interactions between one element and another. The interactions influence multiple locations in countless manners. Take the case of the human body. The nervous system is the network of nerve cells. The nerve cells transmit signals that interact with the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, etc. Systems in the body depend on the steady equitable distribution of resources provided by sources of power. Just as the body depends on systems and power, so too does society. Systems in society are most easily recognized through group categories: systems of race, class, gender, etc. These systems are powered by, what Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital.

The relationships tangling social systems together are complex. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model is the most widely recognized framework for conceptualizing the complexity of social systems. His model illustrates the shift in identities people must make as they transition from one location (microsystem) to another. The requirements for the transition depends on the power fueling the location. For example, in the location of an ECE classroom, teachers tend to be highly influenced by the social system of gender. A teacher who presents as a woman is accepted as normal, navigating the classroom with ease and limited cultural resistance.  Alternatively, a teacher who presents as a man is met with skepticism because his gender goes against normal. However, if the same two people go to a technology firm, it is likely that the man will be accepted as normal and the woman as unusual. Simply stated, people have, what I call different location identities due to the powers in a system defining normal.

The power driving systems must be challenged. The first quote I point out from Hanson and Espinosa’s (2016) chapter (see above) mentions the word power. Critical theorists in ECE provide a comprehensive body of work interrogating power structures in ECE.  They challenge the power defining classroom curriculum, adult behaviors, leadership practices, methods of collaboration, and more.  The evolution of inclusion requires a critical analysis of the power dynamics in ECE and EI/ECSE.

A social systems perspective lays the foundation for evolving inclusion. Theoretical lenses foreign to ECE and EI/ECSE can help conceptualize what it means to “provide opportunities and access” for all children regardless of their diverse identities.  These identities can be organized in the three categories of group, cultural and self identity.

Breaking Down Identity

You may have noticed by now that my journey has not been filled with simplicity. I have found that the evolution of inclusion requires early childhood professionals to scrutinize their perceptions of who a child is…their identity. This can be done by using the intersectional lens to analyze group identity, the theory of cultural systems to recognize cultural identity, and the concept of self identity to think about self-perceptions.

Group identities intersect. First introduced by Kimberlè Crenshaw (1989; 1991), the intersectional lens was applied to critically analyze the unique manifestations of oppressions experienced through the intersecting group identities of Black and woman. In recent years, many scholars and professionals have used an intersectional lens to understand other intersections of socially constructed group identities such as class, ability, sexuality, religion, family structure, etc.

An intersectional lens can guide a critical analysis of how the overlapping influences of a child’s group identities, such as race, gender, class, ability, etc. impact the interactions that promote or interrupt inclusion in early childhood programs. It can inform an early childhood professional’s understanding of the imbalance of “power in the(ir) interaction” (Hanson & Espinosa, 2016, p. 462). Considering the intersectional lens and understanding the impact of group identity is paramount to the evolution of inclusion in ECE.

Culture identity is intricate. Clifford Geertz’s theory of culture systems effectively supports the concept of cultural identity from a systems perspective.  Geertz emphasizes thick description. His cultural systems theory uses thick description to call attention to the intricately detailed aspects of a child and family’s culture(s) and subculture(s) molding the behaviors and expectations that shape their identities (Geertz, 1973).

Collaborating with families has always been a pillar for high-quality inclusion in ECE.  Hanson & Espinosa (2016) state, “[Early childhood professionals must] truly [develop] an understanding and appreciation for cultural differences” (p. 462). The theory of cultural systems enables a deeper understanding of a child and their family’s uniqueness. It supports a clearer sense of a family’s individual beliefs, rules, morals, and customs.  The theory of cultural systems informs the importance of cultural identity to the evolution of inclusion.

Self identity defines us. Carl Roger’s concept of self identity emphasizes the unique characteristics of a person’s understanding of who they are as a worthy individual. The self is “an organized, fluid, but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relations…with values [defined by direct experiences]” (Rogers, 1951 p. 498). According to Rogers, everyone constructs their self identity through their cultural experiences. Their experiences give them meaning in their social roles.

Hanson & Espinosa (2016) say, “Our cultural perspectives are ingrained in everything we do” (p. 460). Using Rogers’ concept of self identity can assist early childhood professionals in going beyond recognizing group and cultural identities. It allows them to value who they are as a contributor to the child’s life, and support a child with the development of understanding themselves as a valuable person.

It’s Time to Evolve

The current definition of inclusion in ECE represents the response to a fight against a long history of oppression against children with disabilities in education. This is a starting point. With the support of this blog and your own knowledge, I invite you to contribute to the evolution of inclusion in ECE.

Perhaps you begin by thinking about the complexity of the identities of the children and families you work with. You may find that drawing from the conceptualization of social systems and social location helps. You might also want to think deeply about how your new understanding of identity allows you to evolve inclusion in ECE. For your convenience, we have created an audio file, reusable graphic organizer and lesson plan for a group activity upon request. I invite you to join me in supporting the evolution of inclusion,because #InclusionMeansEveryone.


Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersections of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1(8).

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of color. Retrieved from

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hanson, M. & Espinosa, L. (2016).  Culture, ethnicity, and linguistic diversity: Implications for early childhood special education. In Reichow, et al. (eds). Handbook of early childhood special education. Springer International Publishing.

Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

The original publication of this blog post can be found at