Learning Together: Why Inclusive Pre-Schools Work

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When choosing a pre-school or a nursery for your little one, it’s hard sometimes to put your finger on what makes a place great. While the obvious things like good facilities for playing and learning, capable staff and convenient location will always be somewhere at the top of the list, sometimes it’s the less tangible, slightly vague idea of the atmosphere, or the feel of the place that will make or break the decision in the end.

That’s certainly what I found when I was looking at pre-schools for my older daughter, and there was one place that really stood out. It wasn’t the shiniest, it didn’t have the newest equipment and it certainly didn’t have the smartest building (in fact I think the Portakabin behind a car park wins the least glamorous location prize hands down).

lops2But there was something that made LOPS (Lewisham Opportunity Pre-School) ‘feel’ better than the rest and in this particular case I think it was the culture created by the pre-school’s inclusive approach, meaning it opens its doors to all children regardless of needs, abilities and disabilities. Whether or not a school was inclusive wasn’t really something I’d thought about when choosing a pre-school (I’ve got two girls, no additional needs) but looking back it really made a difference.

The core purpose of an inclusive pre-school is usually to provide the best possible setting for children with additional needs, but those children are by no means the only ones to gain from this as the benefits seem to spread to everyone involved with a bit of a ripple effect.

So while being around all kinds of children encourages independence and confidence for children with additional needs, there are social and emotional gains both for children with and without disabilities as they create meaningful relationships with their peers and develop their social skills. I loved the fact that my daughters didn’t see anything unusual about having peers in wheelchairs, walking frames, or less able to speak or move than they were. The pre-school provided a safe environment for everyone to learn about each other’s differences and similarities and learn to empathise and value each other early on in life.

lops-3The mixed environment encourages tolerance and respect for diversity amongst not just the children but also their families – so that ripple starts benefiting the wider community as well.

Then of course there are the staff. With children’s needs being very different and sometimes very complex, the staff at an inclusive pre-school are often highly trained, committed to and passionate about their work. The culture of diversity works for children both with and without disabilities – it means that every child is valued for their individual character and talents – wherever they are on the scale of ability. 

It comes as no surprise that the progress of many children with additional needs accelerates beyond expectations in an inclusive environment and means they are more likely to be able to enter mainstream schools and thrive in that environment; or to able to participate more fully at specialised schools.

One of my younger daughter’s peers, Rudy, is a little boy with Coffis-Siris syndrome who needed constant one-to-one care and was unable to walk or talk when he started at LOPS in 2014. His mum Gina said “He is a very sociable boy and learns from copying us but most importantly his friends. If there are children walking, playing or dancing – he will want to join in. I think that this inclusive environment is something that has inspired him and made him more determined to learn how to walk – and he’s nearly there – just in time for primary school!”

lops-4Hopefully the experience of LOPS will benefit Rudy and other children in similar situations well beyond school years and into adult life as the focus on early years can often help them reach a higher level of independence and productivity when they’re older. 

Of course, not all pre-schools can be inclusive – it takes resources and specially trained staff, so we’re lucky to have LOPS in Lewisham. It’s a charity that was founded by a group of mums back in the ‘80s who found that there was no facility in Lewisham for their children with additional needs to integrate with other children. So they did what any determined mums would do (or at least think about doing!) and started their own. And as LOPS and plenty of other institutions and research has shown since, this approach really does work – and for me it made the difference between a good and a great pre-school. High five for mum power!

 

If you’re interested in a place for your child at LOPS, please contact the office on 020 8852 4746.

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Kam-Mei Chak is a freelance Social Media Manager, into flexible working, portfolio careers, yoga, meditation, ethical living and of course kids. She blogs about all of it at www.littleadventuresinconsciousness.com.