Is It Inclusion or Integration?

The difference between inclusion and integration

These are two terms you’ll start hearing a lot once your child enters an institutional care situation like daycare or preschool, or if you have a child in your life who has a disability.

They’re important terms to understand whether your children are typical or not because when it comes to childcare and care reform and policy the more numerous voices and the loudest voices get their demands met.

Often the parents of the children who have disabilities are seen as being self-serving when they highlight inequities.

It’s especially important to understand these concepts as parents of typical kids because it allows you to be an ally and put your children in environments that are most beneficial to them.

There are two terms here: inclusion and integration.

Many daycares and preschools will use these terms interchangeably, but they are not the same and they have huge impacts on your child’s experience and on the experience of children with disabilities.


Integration means that children with differences generally we’re talking about differences in abilities, but it can also apply to race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, social class or income bracket, etc.

Children who differ from the demographic majority and allowed to join the program as it is established, but the program is not going to be altered to reflect their presence.

Often this graphic is used to demonstrate integration they’re there in the program, the big circle, but within the program, they’re still separated from the rest of the “typical” kids.

A common example of this is a classroom where Christian holidays are celebrated with a lot of fanfare, and the children who aren’t Christian are expected to either partake anyways or remove themselves. Their holidays are maybe at best mentioned, but they certainly arent’ celebrated.

A historical example of integration would be the Southern United States when segregation was being eliminated and Black children were allowed to go to “white schools” but they were still in different classrooms, they had different water fountains, and they had different sports teams, etc. They were in the same space, but they were still separate within that space.

An example of it relating to disability is pulling children out of the classroom to do speech therapy or take regulation breaks while the rest of the class continues. Nothing has been changed to meet that child’s needs. They’re allowed to exist in the space as long as they can do everything the way the rest of the kids ca as soon as they can’t, they’re separated out.


Inclusion on the other hand refers to the program being built around and altered to meet the needs of all children in the program.

Rather than just Christian holidays being celebrated, all families are asked to submit their high holidays and are consulted with and asked to share their traditions around celebrating those holidays with the class as a whole and not just talking about it for 10 minutes during circle time. On the same level as Christmas and Easter and all that.

An example of inclusion that is slowly but steadily taking hold is people stating their preferred pronouns so that everybody whether they’re cis gender or LGBTQ+- are being called by their proper pronouns.

That’s altering how the “program” is designed so that everybody is on equal footing.

If a child needs to take breaks for a sensory diet or they’re working on speech sounds that’s something the entire classroom participates in and becomes embedded in their routine as a whole.

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The unofficial mantra of inclusion is: If it’s good for one kid, it’s good for all the kids.

This is the graphic that’s typically used to explain inclusion.

Same program big circle, but there’s no separation.

The children with differences are dispersed throughout the program without differentiation from the rest of the kids.

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When I was in early intervention, a large part of my job was supporting the children being included in daycares, preschools, or kindergartens. It was rough because often a program would say they were on board with inclusion, but when it came time to actually alter their program to support all the children in the room- there was a lot of resistance.

One example was a little girl who I worked with for several years, who has Down Syndrome. Her family had experience with the preschool they sent her to their typical older daughter had attended, and the school assured the parents that yes, they were more than willing to include their younger daughter, and at first they welcomed me and her with what appeared to be open arms.

She used a lot of sign language, and we taught all the kids signs so they could easily communicate with her. We added visuals and picture exchange for her. All those surface-level things were fairly simple.

When it came to altering the routine to give her sensory breaks, things started to break down.

The teacher didn’t feel that it was necessary to give all the children sensory breaks “when they didn’t need it.”

We were banished to another room for breaks, which meant she missed a lot of the programming and then one day we had an incident that was rather small objectively, but turned into a mushroom cloud.

This little girl couldn’t use a pencil which wasn’t a big deal, she was only 4. One of the side effects of Down Syndrome is often low muscle tone, meaning she had difficulty with moderating the force of her muscles and using a pencil requires you to do two things at once- push down, and move it- which she couldn’t do. She could either push on the pencil, but was unable to move it or she could move it, but she couldn’t push at the same time so it didn’t make a mark.

Again not a big deal she was 4, and it was preschool so they didn’t do a whole lot of table-top work anyways.

After Christmas break, and suddenly the teacher got a bee in her bonnet that the children would be expected to write their names in pencil in kindergarten, so they had to start doing it now to prepare.

Knowing this was not a standard my client could or would be held to, I brought in some of those thin pencil-shaped markers for her to use to mark her work. Of course, kids being kids, they all wanted to use the markers.

I didn’t see the issue, for a typical child the fine motor task of using a marker vs using a pencil is exactly the same and I confirmed that with the OT on my team.

The teacher absolutely freaked out, made a big show of removing the markers and told me that if she couldn’t use a pencil “like everybody else” that she had to go do her work on the opposite side of the classroom so as not to disrupt or distract the other children.

She talked a good game about being inclusive but when push came to shove she just wanted this little girl to be integrated. She had no desire to alter the program to include her in every aspect of the program even when those changes were as minor as giving all the children the option of using a pencil or a marker to mark their work.

The difference between inclusion and integration can seem very small when we talk about it objectively like this, but the impact of those small differences on the program and how it’s run are massive.

They send really strong messages to the children participating in the program.

It’s the difference between them seeing differences as just that- alternatives- and them seeing differences as being less than, something to be ridiculed, something that makes that child an “other.”

It really sets the tone for the entire program because as I said- inclusion impacts so many areas, not just disability.

when we’re looking at programs, it’s important that we not only ask if the program is inclusive, but ask for examples of how they have altered the program in the past to include various differences.

The way they answer that question can be incredibly telling about the philosophy of the program as a whole, but also about how they will handle your child’s needs when they vary from the pack.

It’s not until we, the parents of typical children, ask about inclusion and insist on details about how that’s accomplished, that it will become a priority for more programs.

In my experience, when parents of children who require inclusion ask about it, it’s met with a certain level of contempt.

They’re viewed as wanting special treatment or attention but when parents of typical kids ask about inclusion not because their child needs it, but because they want to ensure that all their children’s peers are being given the support they need to fully participate in a meaningful way because…

That benefits their child directly and that it’s taken seriously.

It does benefit your child even if your child doesn’t directly require it because if all the kids in the class are getting their needs met?

If they all feel like they belong and are valued?

There’s no misbehaviour.

There’s no bullies.

There’s no behaviour problems.

There’s just an inclusive, supportive group of kids.

I hope this has given you something to think about while you search for a daycare or school for your child. While you vet extra curricular activities and camps.

I know it’s a lot to wrap your head around, and there are so many different aspects to it so if you need to clarify a point or expand on something or have questions about what this looks like in your context come join us in the Parenting Posse and the community would love to talk about it with you.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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