2023 International Early Childhood Inclusion Institute draws 800 attendees from around the globe
Catasha Williams, MEd, first engaged with the International Early Childhood Inclusion Institute more than 20 years ago, through her work as a service coordinator in the North Carolina early intervention system. What she learned there inspired her to change how she partnered with parents of young children with developmental delays and disabilities as she began to center their voices in her work. Williams—a technical assistance specialist at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which sponsors the Institute—is now co-chair of the Institute along with Adam Holland, PhD, also a technical assistance specialist at FPG.
Along with a team of colleagues, Williams and Holland organized the three-day May 2023 Institute, “Committing to Communities Where Everyone Belongs.” A capacity crowd of 550 attendees gathered at the Friday Center at UNC while another 250 people attended virtually, creating the largest event in the Inclusion Institute’s history. With the goal of expanding the reach of inclusion, conference organizers built on past successes and opened up new avenues of outreach.
In the past, the Inclusion Institute focused heavily on reaching practitioners and those who support practitioners, such as school administrators, through technical assistance and professional development. And while that focus continued, there was an added effort to reach pre-service teachers so they can develop a strong foundation in inclusion before reaching the classroom. In partnership with FPG’s SCRIPT-NC, which works with faculty at North Carolina community colleges to better prepare early childhood educators to meet the diverse needs of children, the Inclusion Institute offered a new higher education track for faculty at two-year and four-year colleges.
This track began with a pre-conference session designed to provide cutting edge ideas around inclusion so faculty can share them with the future teachers they are educating. In their feedback, attendees cited the free resources they were given to incorporate into curricula and networking sessions with peers to discuss shared challenges as some of the highlights.
FPG Education Consultant Tracey West, PhD, says that the goal was not only to provide students with knowledge but to emphasize the opportunity to apply the learnings. “Having the opportunity to reach higher education professionals at this conference was exciting and innovative,” she says. “The faculty who attended are excited to come back next year with colleagues and to bring this information to their students. Those students will later impact students with disabilities so that they are more successfully included in all elements of the classroom.”
“The Inclusion Institute provides a great opportunity for international scholars to exchange ideas and learn about each other's educational systems and ways that we are implementing inclusion, giving everyone new ways to engage families and children,” says Elena Soukakou.
The Inclusion Institute also expanded its reach by continuing to build its international audience, with more engagement from participants throughout the world than ever before. FPG Research Consultant Elena Soukakou, PhD, helped organize the international component from her home country of Greece. Through her international work, she has met colleagues from throughout the world, all of whom work in their own context, distinct in terms of unique cultural differences and characteristics. “We share many of the same issues and dilemmas in relation to implementing quality inclusion,” she says. “The Inclusion Institute provides a great opportunity for international scholars to exchange ideas and learn about each other's educational systems and ways that we are implementing inclusion, giving everyone new ways to engage families and children.”
As part of the Inclusion Institute’s commitment to diversify people on both sides of the lectern, presenters included Micker (Mike) Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi), MBA, director of the National American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start Collaboration Office, who presented on “Understanding and Working with Native American/Alaska Native Populations.” Holland says that another emphasis this year focused on ways he and his colleagues can build partnerships with individuals who work outside of the classroom, such as allied health professionals, physicians, and community members. “We want to ensure that families are being included wherever they go and in whatever they want to do so that they can lead fulfilling lives,” he says. “We're seeing some encouraging trends around partnerships in the field.”
That focus on inclusion in every aspect of life was reinforced during the keynote address, “Under the Sun EVERYONE belongs – Reimagining INCLUSION across settings.” Sadia Batool, MD, Early Childhood Family Lead for the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning, expressed appreciation to the early intervention professionals in Pennsylvania who provided the supports needed by her young daughter, Ehlaam—who has autism—and their family.
“Ehlaam is a successful early intervention graduate, on a path of successful inclusion at school, and fully integrated in the community,” said Batool. “There is also the transition of our family from barely surviving to becoming a family that's now thriving and a member of the community.” Batool emphasized the importance of inclusion in all arenas—social settings, cultural practices, religious life, as well as educational settings—as being critical in creating a just society.
“When we think about inclusive communities, people sometimes feel like we're doing this work solely for the child and family impacted by disabilities. In actuality, we all benefit from inclusive communities and environments,” says Catasha Williams.
Williams says that the Inclusion Institute models inclusion as they plan each year’s event, which they approach collaboratively. “Oftentimes we hear educators say that it feels like their work is in a silo, but coming together really helps with that because it’s all about partnerships,” she says. “When we think about inclusive communities, people sometimes feel like we're doing this work solely for the child and family impacted by disabilities. In actuality, we all benefit from inclusive communities and environments.”