Supporting Inclusions for Children with Disabilities Through Workforce Development
The word accessible is often used when discussing the key asks of the childcare sector. This can be broken down into categories such as locality, financial accessibility, and inclusive settings for all. Ensuring and improving accessibility is a main objective for the NI Executive’s Early Learning and Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland to address. We need a strategy that is ambitious in medium- and long-term goals and sets a precedent for what we wish to achieve for this generation of children and the future generations to come.
Research concerned with early years care and education points to the significance of this period and the impact that it has on later life outcomes for individuals. Given their greater risk of experiencing poor outcomes in adulthood, for children with a disability this becomes even more relevant. Early intervention and support is therefore key to ensuring that children with a disability thrive and flourish in their early years, laying the foundation to ensure they can reach their potential in the future.
Children with disabilities do not have equal access to childcare. The recent Employers for Childcare survey (2021) highlighted this inequality, with 87% of parents who have a child with a disability, stating that there was insufficient childcare provision to support their child. High quality provision within the early years is proven to increase social opportunities, create communities and scaffold children’s learning and boost brain development. Early years pedagogical and care practice is child-centred, creating play environments that are based on individual needs and motivations, making it the ideal environment for children with a disability to flourish.
Wider socio- economic benefits also follow suit when childcare becomes inclusive. Parents/carers can return to employment or training enabling significant economic gain and positive impact on individual wellbeing. Inclusion builds diverse friendships, develops understanding of individual difference, and progresses skills in empathy. It creates a community of learners who value individual worth and the contributions of all.
The gap remains between theory of inclusion and practice and while many practitioners within the early years sector strive to create inclusive environments and support children with disability, we are lacking the infrastructure to make that vision a reality. Training and continued professional development have an important role in creating inclusion within childcare. However, early years professionals often do not receive the support, training and supervision needed to ensure they are equipped with the necessary competencies to work with children who have a disability / learning disability, including those with challenging behaviours. Improving knowledge of strategies of support and individual needs helps practitioners to create meaningful opportunities for learning and engagement.
Mencap Northern Ireland has created a suite of training courses that range from short introductory workshops to a 9-week accredited OCN NI course, covering key areas of support that will enable early years practitioners to bridge the gap between theory and practice. These workshops draw on the expertise and learning from programmes delivered within our state-of-the-art Children’s Centre that has been supporting children with a learning disability since 1969, as well as the research lead strategies that the organisation adopts in many of our other services, such as Positive Behaviour Support.
To date, we have delivered training to over 450 practitioners from a range of early years settings across Northern Ireland, with survey feedback consistently suggesting it is highly relevant to that sector. We are currently evaluating the programme and intend to use this evidence to further grow our training model and form the basis of a new early intervention paper, in follow-up to our ‘Creating Brighter Futures’ policy and practice briefing (2018).
To make inclusion a reality, the first step should be investment in the early years work force, building knowledge and skills in a sector which can provide the much-needed early intervention children with a disability and their families need.
Early Years Programme Facilitator
Mencap Northern Ireland