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Parental attitudes toward mainstreaming young children with disabilities.

Young children with disabilities are being included in regular early child care settings with increasing frequency throughout the United States. Effective methods to ensure children's social, instructional and physical integration are readily available and easily implemented (Allen, 1992; Cook, Tessier & Klein, 1992).

Research findings demonstrate that such mainstreamed settings support the growth and development of children with disabilities and are consistent with recent public policy interpretations of the least restrictive environment (Guralnick, 1990).

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits child care centers and family child care homes from enrollment discrimination based on a child's disability. Child care providers are now required to take "readily achievable" steps to accommodate children with disabilities (Surr, 1992). The question is no longer if children with disabilities will be included, but rather how to include them in a way that will promote positive outcomes for everyone involved.

By reviewing the literature on parental attitudes toward mainstreaming, the authors hope to allay parents' and teachers' apprehensions about including children with disabilities in neighborhood educational programs.

Inclusion holds the promise of integrating not only the children, but also their families into full community participation. Families of children with disabilities often feel isolated from activities of the early childhood community, such as parenting classes and play groups (Hanline & Hanson, 1989; Stagg & Catron, 1986).

Involving parents of children with disabilities in child care settings may be a first step toward achieving full participation. Effective inclusion, however, depends upon the families feeling welcome and comfortable in the mainstreamed early childhood settings. Their participation and support are crucial to the success of mainstreamed programs. Therefore, the authors will review what is known about parental perceptions of and experiences with mainstreaming and discuss implications for practice.


Examination of current research reveals an emerging interest in parental perspectives on integration--from parents of children with disabilities as well as those without (Odom & McEvoy, 1988). The literature focuses on parental perceptions of integration's effect on: children, the family and the community.

Effect of Mainstreaming on Children

Many parents of children with disabilities want their children to form friendships with nondisabled children and reap the benefits of real-world experiences offered by integration (Strain, 1990). As one parent states: "I chose an environment that looked healthy and normal. I wanted him in the normal world. I wanted a sense that children in the classroom were perceived as being growing children. I wanted him to have the chance to be around regular kids."

Parents often have two concerns, however, when considering integration: the possibility of negative interactions with peers and the quality of the child care programs. The opportunity for friendship development and other benefits are often overshadowed by parental desires to protect their children from verbal abuse, isolation and ridicule.

In actuality, however, parents of children in integrated settings report very few difficulties with peers and agree that integrated settings promote positive social contact for all children (Green & Stoneman, 1989; McDonnell, 1987; Villa, Thousand, Stainback & Stainback, 1992). Friendships between children with disabilities and typically developing peers seem to be a natural consequence of carefully planned daily social interactions in developmentally appropriate early childhood settings.

Another major concern for parents of children with disabilities is the possible decrease in the overall quality and quantity of specialized services their children will receive in an integrated setting. They want the same quality and frequency of therapy services available in special education settings, as well as access to adaptive equipment and materials and intervention by specially trained professionals.

Parents of children enrolled in integrated settings, however, express confidence that all children's needs can be met within the structure and organization of an integrated setting. Kaskinen-Chapman (1992) surveyed parents of children who had been transitioned into mainstreamed classrooms. "The parents expressed that they believed social and academic gains made by their children would not have occurred in segregated educational settings" (p. 183).

The most important factor parents cited for ensuring the success of an integrated setting is the training and support that teachers receive (Hanline & Halvorsen, 1989; McDonnell, 1987; Reichart et al., 1989; Turnbull, Winton, Blacher & Salkind, 1982).

Parents of children without disabilities often fear that mainstreaming may have negative effects on their children's development or skill acquisition and express concern that their children will not receive adequate attention from adults (Peck, Carlson & Helmstetter, 1992; Reichart et al., 1989). Research, however, indicates that typically developing children are not adversely affected by inclusion settings and may actually benefit from the curriculum and instructional strategies (Odom & McEvoy, 1988; Stainback & Stainback, 1981).

Nondisabled children display sensitivity by adapting their language to the developmental level of the child with disabilities (Guralnick & Paul-Brown, 1980) and by offering help and friendship to their peers with disabilities (Hanline, in press; Ipsa & Matz, 1978).

Parents report that their nondisabled children receive adequate attention in integrated preschools and make satisfactory developmental progress (Green & Stoneman, 1989; Peck, Hayden, Wandschneider, Peterson & Richarz, 1989; Reichart et al., 1989). In fact, parents believe that positive exposure to children with disabilities will promote acceptance and tolerance.

One parent notes: "My son has in no way suffered from exposure to children with disabilities. If anything, it has broadened his view of those around him and allowed him the opportunity to socialize with children different from himself or his other playmates."

Effect of Mainstreaming on Families

Child care environments and parental experiences within those environments affect families of children with and without disabilities. Because of the structural, cultural and labor characteristics of today's families, children are often cared for by individuals outside the home for much of their day. Child care programs support the family's role in child-rearing by creating partnerships and continuity between families and early childhood programs. Child care programs also offer opportunities to develop informal support networks with other families (Powell, 1989).

Such relationships with other families may provide emotional support and other resources, such as crisis child care, hand-me-down clothing and weekend activities. The potential for such positive and supportive interactions among parents of children with and without disabilities is often cited in support of integration (e.g., Hanline & Hanson, 1989). Parents of young children with disabilities have much in common with parents of nondisabled children. For example, all parents share concerns about feeding, discipline and sibling relationships.

These interactions may help parents of children with disabilities realize that their concerns are often about universal child-rearing responsibilities, not necessarily about raising a child with disabilities. In addition, parents of nondisabled children have the opportunity to learn about disabilities, the capabilities of persons with disabilities and the importance of integration.

Various other studies have been conducted on this issue. A study conducted by Blacher & Turnbull (1983), revealed that parents of nondisabled children were more likely to interact with other parents of nondisabled children than with parents of children who were disabled. Parents of children with disabilities did not indicate a preference.

In other studies, parents reported feelings of isolation and discomfort around parents of nondisabled children (Blacher & Turnbull, 1983; Cansler & Winton, 1983). The parents of children with disabilities wondered if they had any interests in common with parents of nondisabled children and sometimes felt uncomfortable explaining their child's special needs to other parents (Chen, Hanline & Friedman, 1989).

Some parents feel that early intervention/special education programs provide family services (support groups, respite care, sibling workshops) that often are not part of a typical child care setting. In addition, parents report that professionals trained in early intervention/special education are a source of personal support. Some parents feel that, although their children benefit more from an integrated setting, specialized programs provide more benefits for the families (Bailey & Winton, 1987, 1989; Turnbull & Winton, 1983).

These variable research findings indicate that integration affects families in very individual ways. The child care provider's ability to support families and encourage mutually beneficial relationships among all families may also influence the effects of integration.

Effect of Mainstreaming on Communities

Social and ethical arguments for integrating children with disabilities build upon the hope that attitudes toward persons with disabilities will become more positive as a result of exposure and reduced fear (Bricker, 1978). Stainback and Stainback (1985) point out the importance of learning to live, play and work together to "affirm and enjoy the beauties and inherent value of individual differences" (p. 10). Accepting and celebrating diversity and respecting and advocating for the rights of all individuals are values that will last a lifetime.

Parents of children with disabilities often feel that exposure to the real world promotes community acceptance of persons with disabilities. Parents of nondisabled children value the sensitivity their children express toward their friends with disabilities (Bailey & Winton, 1987; Reichart et al., 1989; Turnbull et al., 1982). One parent shares her daughter's experiences: "She has become much more sensitive to others' limitations and needs. This sensitivity has caused her to look beyond her immediate self." And another parent states: "My daughter often talks about the children with special needs as if she is proud that she knows them."

If early child care experiences are viewed as a preparation for life in the community, integrated child care experiences may foster understanding, acceptance and appreciation. In turn, these attitudes may open up opportunities for full community participation. There is, in fact, some evidence that positive integration experiences in the preschool years influence parental attitudes toward integration during the elementary school years.

A recent study (Miller et al., 1992) found that parents of children with and without disabilities whose children had been mainstreamed in early childhood settings expressed more favorable attitudes toward integration opportunities in school-age programs than other parents. These results indicate that exposure to mainstreaming increases parental acceptance of children with disabilities and could have future implications for the support of integration.


The effect of mainstreaming on children, families and communities should be considered when developing education practices and models of service delivery to young children and their families. The following suggestions will help bring children and families together in a way that provides the same opportunities for all, recognizes individual capabilities and fosters sensitivity.

Build Links with Community Agencies

Develop cooperatize agreements between agencies and participate in local interagency coordinating councils. Ongoing collaborative partnerships between agencies (community mental health and social service agencies, state and local school systems, community health departments) help alleviate the frustration families often face when dealing with numerous agency personnel. Such partnerships also facilitate establishing a continuum of service delivery options for families. As part of Public Law 99-457, many communities have councils that coordinate community services for families and young children with disabilities (Hanline & Galant, in press).

Build Collaborative Teams Within the School

Coordinate planning, instructional and evaluation responsibilities. Team teaching and consultative services by special educators and therapists are two service-delivery models that effectively provide initial and ongoing training and support to child care providers in integrated settings (Hanline, 1990; Templeman, Fredericks & Udell, 1989). In team teaching, a regular education teacher and a special education teacher work together and share the responsibility of meeting the needs of all children.

In a consultative model, the regular education teacher may consult special educators, therapists, mobility specialists, adaptive recreation specialists and others. A speech and language pathologist, for example, may conduct a small group activity in the classroom in cooperation with the teacher, thus providing an optimal language learning environment. These models rearrange instructional resources to promote the success of all children in inclusive settings and allow children to stay in child care situations chosen by their parents.

Encourage Social Interaction

Promote friendships and social interactions among all children and share the children's successes with parents. Teachers can demonstrate how they value these relationships by designing bulletin boards to display children's pictures and stories about their friends. Other suggestions to promote such friendships include: sending home drawings or Polaroid photos of children and their friends with an accompanying note about the purpose of the activity and creating newsletters for parents that explain classroom activities and the kinds of interactions a teacher is trying to promote. Helpful resources for facilitating friendships among all children include: Crary, E. (1984). Kids can cooperate. Seattle, WA: Parenting Press. Derman-Sparks, L., & A.B.C. Task Force. (1989). Anti-bias curriculum: Tools for empowering young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Odom, S., Bender, M. K., Stein, M. L., Doran, L. P., Houden, P. M., McInnes, M., Gilbert, M. M., Deklyn, M., Speltz, M. L., & Jenkins, J. R. (1990). The integrated preschool curriculum: Procedures for socially integrating young handicapped and normally developing children. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. Odom, S. L., McConnell, S. R., & McEvoy, M. A. (1992). Social competence of young children with disabilities: Issues and strategies for intervention. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Provide Information in a Parent Library

Provide resources about children with disabilities as well as nondisabled children. Many resources on disabilities are available from: Association for Retarded Citizens, Council for Exceptional Children, March of Dimes and American Speech, Language and Hearing Association. Helpful information for parents may also be found in periodicals such as Exceptional Parent.

Create Opportunities for Interaction Between Families

Provide workshops, field trips and activities that are appropriate for all children and their families. Workshop topics that focus on encouraging children's self-esteem, promoting friendships at school and preventing misbehavior would interest all families. Parents of children with disabilities might want to help prepare a workshop on disability awareness. Outings to the local library or a retirement home can be enjoyable learning opportunities for all.

Facilitate Participation in Community Activities

Become informed about community services and resources for families of children with disabilities and assist families in accessing the services. Community-wide parent or sibling support groups, parent libraries, respite services and recreational opportunities are available in some communities. Families can receive help accessing those services through community referral services, mental health agencies, child find programs, phone listings, hospital wellness programs, and state and local social service and education agencies. Early intervention agencies funded through nonprofit organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy, Easter Seals and Association for Retarded Citizens may also provide family support services.

Be Sensitive to Families' Needs and Families' Rights

Become familiar with federal and state laws and agency and school policies concerning the rights of children and their families. All families have the right to confidentiality, respect and equal treatment. Families may need support in their child-rearing role, information about community resources or help dealing with a particular concern or project. Families of children with disabilities also need an accessible facility and access to activities conducted away from the center.


Parents agree that the major goal of mainstreamed education is to provide an environment in which all children, regardless of intellectual or physical characteristics, can succeed. A child succeeds by developing autonomy, independence, competence and pride. Success may also mean feeling comfortable interacting with people who have disabilities. Mainstreamed education offers many opportunities to learn about individual differences and therefore has positive effects on young children, their families and their communities.

Note: Quotes used in this manuscript are actual statements of parents whose children attend integrated child care settings.


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Author:Hanline, Mary Frances
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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