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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

How Reggio Emilia Encourages Inclusion

One early childhood center has successfully adapted the Reggio Emilia approach to its inclusion program for young children with disabilities.

Developing successful inclusion programs for children with special needs continues to challenge general and special educators. Although increasing numbers of children with disabilities are included in general-education classrooms, genuine inclusion remains an elusive goal. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one public school, the Grant Early Childhood Center, is addressing the challenge by implementing Prizing Our Natural Differences (POND), an exemplary program that is based on the Reggio Emilia approach.
The POND program includes all children with disabilities as full participants in general-education classrooms with their age-appropriate peers. The Grant Early Childhood Center provides public education (preschool through 1st grade), child care for children ages 6 weeks through 5 years, and before- and after-school care for children ages 4 through 7. It is the local school district's designated site for serving children ages 2 through 5 with severe disabilities and children ages 3 through 5 with mild to moderate levels of disabilities. Therefore, of the approximately 350 children who attend the center, 10 percent have been identified as eligible for special-education services and 18 percent have been identified as at risk for educational failure. The center has adapted the Reggio Emilia approach to guide the development of its inclusive educational program.
The Reggio Emilia approach, an internationally recognized early education approach developed in Reggio Emilia, Italy, is a blend of constructivist and progressive educational practices that has been successfully implemented for more than 30 years in Italy (Gandini, 1993a). Like the goals of inclusive education, the primary goals of Reggio schools are to ensure that every child feels a sense of belonging within the school community and to strengthen each child's sense of identity as an individual (Gandini, 1993a). Combining Reggio Emilia's success in early education with the POND program's inclusion of children with disabilities may serve as a strong model for programs in the United States that continue to struggle with the practices of inclusion.
Four core ingredients of the Reggio approach—encouraging collaborative relationships, constructing effective environments, developing project-based curriculums, and documenting learning in multiple ways—facilitate successful inclusion at Grant Early Childhood Center.

Encouraging Collaborative Relationships

Collaboration helps achieve the common goal of inclusion. Loris Malaguzzi (1993), the late founder and director of early education in Reggio Emilia, describedrelationships to be the fundamental, organizing strategy of our educational system. We view relationships not simply as a warm, protective backdrop or blanket but as a coming together of elements interacting dynamically toward a common purpose. (p. 10)
At the early childhood center, important collaborative relationships develop between teachers and children, children and their peers, general and special educators, and teachers and parents.

Teachers and Children

The image of children as competent and capable is one of the hallmarks of the Reggio philosophy (Bredekamp, 1993). When relationships between children and teachers are based on mutual respect and cooperation, children are most likely to develop socially and academically (DeVries & Zan, 1994).
Teachers play a crucial role in building relationships by modeling positive responses to individual children and by offering ongoing opportunities for children to create a classroom community. At group meetings, children and teachers discuss and resolve problems; when necessary, children develop rules to address these problems. Children who assume responsibility for community life in the classroom are more likely to develop a sense of concern for others, a crucial element in effective inclusion programs. For example, while one teacher at the early childhood center was reading a story about shadows to a class, several children reminded her that Jason needed his "positioning board" so that he could see the book.
Just as teachers engage children in dialogue about the social nature of the classroom, they also engage children in planning the classroom's learning experiences. When children are viewed as competent, they can assume the role of expert or teacher within the classroom, thus providing the time and opportunity for the teacher to work individually or with small groups of children who need additional time and attention.

Children and Their Peers

Classroom activities are set up to provide opportunities for children to work with a variety of peers in collaborative small-group contexts. Children work primarily in small groups, which gives a social context for meaningful discussions, collaborative problem solving, and productive resolutions of cognitive and social conflicts. Although children have opportunities daily to select the peers with whom they will interact, at times the teacher assigns the composition of groups for specific classroom activities.
For example, during a project about shadows in the kindergarten classroom, the teacher identified groups of up to four children who could work together in the shadow studio, a curtained area of the room set up for children to investigate shadows. For six weeks, the groups had the option of working together twice each day in the shadow studio. Consistency in the group composition gave children a chance to form special relationships. The teacher purposely grouped children so that children with disabilities were with empathetic peers who could also model concepts that were being investigated.
Work in small groups also facilitates opportunities for children with disabilities to take a leadership role. For example, one morning Benjamin, a kindergarten child with disabilities, joined his peers in making hand shadows in the shadow studio. He announced to the other two boys that he was making a T-Rex (Tyrannosaurus rex). His peers then began to make dinosaur shadows. A few minutes later, Benjamin extended this activity by bringing a plastic T-Rex into the studio. The boys in his group, as well as other children in the classroom, enthusiastically followed his lead and began to use a variety of objects to make shadows.

General and Special Educators

Recognizing the importance of collegiality between general and special educators, the early childhood center clusters teachers in teams called PONDs. Each POND includes an assigned special educator, several general educators, and additional resource staff.
Within a POND, teachers focus on meeting the needs of all children. The building administrator sets up a weekly meeting time for the POND team to plan the curriculum, share the identified progress of individual children, and discuss problems. POND meetings provide valuable information and support, decreasing the sense of isolation frequently experienced by classroom teachers who serve children with diverse special needs.

Teachers and Parents

Parents are considered indispensable partners in the Reggio approach (Fontanesi, Gialdini, & Soncini, 1998). When teachers "view the participation of families not as a threat but as an intrinsic element of collegiality and as the integration of different wisdoms" (Spaggiari, 1993, p. 97), the way is cleared for parents to exercise both rights and responsibilities in helping to design and carry out an individualized education plan (IEP) for their children. Parents of children in the POND program are actively involved in designing their children's IEPs. Parents whose schedules allow them to volunteer in the classroom are welcome partners. Special parent nights provide opportunities for children and parents to learn together and help parents understand how to support implementation of IEP and curricular goals.

Constructing Effective Environments

In Reggio Emilia, the classroom environment, combined with a team of two teachers in each classroom, is considered "the third educator" (Gandini, 1993b, p. 148). Well-designed space supports cognitive, curricular, and social goals. Reducing the clutter of objects produces aesthetically pleasing simplicity and cuts down on overstimulation, a combination of effects that is particularly helpful to children with certain kinds of special needs (Rankin et al., 1993). Visual cues and tools, designed with the aid of computer programs such as Picture It and Boardmaker, help children with special needs negotiate the classroom and support the literacy development of all children.
In the POND program, the environment is routinely modified to reflect the learning experiences of the children. For example, during a project exploring different kinds of shoes, the kindergarten children decided that they needed to set up a shoe store in the classroom. In a class meeting, the children identified the tasks necessary for setting up the store and decided who would be responsible for specific tasks. Such collective efforts heighten children's awareness of themselves as contributors to the classroom community and connect real-world settings to the classroom environment.

Developing Project-Based Curriculums

The influence of John Dewey on the curriculum of Reggio schools is most apparent in the use of projects to provide multilevel instruction, cooperative learning, peer support, and the individualization of curriculum goals and learning experiences. Malaguzzi (1993) reminds us that a classroom is composed of children with different strengths, interests, and abilities. Projects—in-depth studies of particular topics—encompass a wide variety of tasks, and children with diverse abilities can all contribute productively. Multilevel instruction within projects allows teachers to incorporate each child's IEP goals within everyday classroom experiences (Edmiaston, 1998).
Making choices is a key activity in projects. "The practicalities of offering choices to children during project work can be thought of in terms of several options: choices concerning what to do and when, where, and with whom to do it" (Katz & Chard, 1989, p. 75). Children with disabilities meet social and academic goals by participating in projects, and they meet autonomy goals by learning how to make choices.
For example, during a class meeting in which the children were identifying questions to investigate during the shoe project, a child with disabilities started tracing the lines on the soles of his sneakers. The teacher pointed out his actions to the other children. His activity captured the interest of his classmates and set off a series of beneficial investigations of the patterns, colors, and words imprinted on sneakers. The child who initiated this investigation addressed one of his IEP goals—identifying similarities and differences—through his study of the patterns that he and his classmates found on the bottoms of their shoes.

Documenting Learning in Multiple Ways

Reggio educators believe that children can express their knowledge through a wide variety of symbols and graphic modes, in what Malaguzzi (1993) called the "hundred languages of children." The recognition of children's multiple modes of representation is especially relevant to the needs of children with disabilities. Children in the early childhood center express their understandings through a variety of symbolic representations, such as their drawings, sculptures, and block structures. Photographs and videos provide additional records of children's experiences, work, interactions, and participation. Transcripts of classroom conversations furnish evidence of children's thinking and ideas.
Panels documenting these multiple modes of learning line the halls of the early childhood center and are on display in individual classrooms, providing a record of activities in the center and evidence that children with disabilities are not only meeting their individual IEP goals but also are functioning as valued members of the classroom communities.

Developing Diversity, Autonomy, and the Individual

The POND program's adaptation of Reggio Emilia principles offers solutions to the challenge of providing successful inclusive programs in three specific ways.
First, it supports the development of a classroom community in which young children with disabilities become full participants. All children become familiar and comfortable with diversity, and in many instances children identify ways to accommodate differences.
Second, the POND program facilitates the development of each child's autonomy. Children with and without disabilities participate in an environment that promotes independence, setting the stage for increased independence in future years.
Finally, the POND program promotes individualization of educational goals and instructional practices to meet the needs of all children. Within this adaptation of Reggio Emilia, there is neither a typical child nor a place for one-size-fits-all instruction. As general and special educators work together, they benefit all children in the classroom.

Bredekamp, S. (1993). Reflections of Reggio Emilia. Young Children, 49 (1), 13–17.

DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children: Creating a constructivist atmosphere in early education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Edmiaston, R. K. (1998). Projects in inclusive early childhood classrooms. In J. H. Helm (Ed.), The project approach catalog 2 (pp.1-19–1-22). Champaign, IL: ERIC/Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Fontanesi, G., Gialdini, M., & Soncini, M. (1998) . The voice of parents: An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach—advanced reflections. (pp. 149–160). Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

Gandini, L. (1993a, November). Fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Young Children, 49(1), 4–8.

Gandini, L. (1993b). Educational and caring spaces. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (pp. 135–149). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (1989). Engaging children's minds: The project approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Malaguzzi, L. (1993, November). For an education based on relationships. Young Children, 49 (1), 9–12.

Rankin, B., Cannon, N., Corsaro, P., Damian, B., Perry, E., Rollo, D., & Rochwarg, I. (1993). Another way of seeing things: We're still learning. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (pp. 269–282). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Spaggiari, S. (1993). The community-teacher partnership in the governance of the schools. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (pp. 91–99). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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