Combining "special" and "inclusive" settings in the early years: children's experiences of environments in a state of change

Nind, Melanie; Flewitt, R. and Payler, J.K. (2007). Combining "special" and "inclusive" settings in the early years: children's experiences of environments in a state of change. In: British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, 5-8 Sep 2007, Institute of Education, University of London, British Education Index.



It is not uncommon for young children in England identified with special educational needs to attend both mainstream/inclusive and special early childhood settings. Amid the national policy context of placing children at the centre of individually created packages of provision and parents at the centre of decision-making and a reality of a multi-track system of mainstream and special services, parents can negotiate such combined packages of provision in (Nind, Flewitt & Johnston, 2005). We reported at the 2005 BERA Conference on a small-scale questionnaire and interview study of how parents had arrived at the decision to combine both special and mainstream preschool settings, their expectations of this combination, and their experiences. An emerging theme from that data was that parents believed this combination offered 'the best of both worlds' for their children – which they felt neither inclusive nor special settings alone could provide.

The 2007 follow-up study, part of which is reported here, considers the experiences of three children with learning difficulties attending special and mainstream early years settings, with a particular focus on the ways in which they make meaning in these environments and at home. The study adopts an ethnographic case study approach, including visual methods of data collection. Video observations capture the multi-sensory, multimodal dynamism of children’s meaning-making, and semi-structured and informal interviews with staff and parents reveal different constructions of particular events, children and needs. Data were collected on each child for a period of one week near the start of the Spring term 2007, and will be collected for a second week during the Summer term. Computer Aided Qualitative Data Analysis Software is being used to enhance the systematic, rigorous analysis of the complex qualitative data.

Adopting a social model of disability, the study is not concerned with deficits within children or within environments, but with how children act on and within the diverse social environments that may facilitate or hinder their active participation as members and learners. The approach treats the children as active meaning-makers in socio-historically situated dynamic contexts. A rich complicating contextual factor in the project is how the settings attended by the children are variously placed on a segregation-integration continuum. The study is revealing that the settings are often in complex transition as they attempt to provide for all needs within the context of current political drivers to move swiftly towards more fully inclusive provision. The findings therefore also offer a timely snapshot of a system of provision in a state of change.

The detailed, empirical evidence on how individual children respond to the varied communicative environments of home and the different settings is important for the evaluation of local and national policy and for parents facing decisions about whether or not to combine settings. Ultimately, we hope that the study findings will help to illuminate the ways in which the macro processes embodied in the organizational structures and practices of different settings impact upon the micro processes of children’s everyday learning. This conference paper focuses one of four research questions addressed in the study: How are the children constructed in the different environments of home and two early years settings on the special-inclusive continuum.

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