Educators are faced with a quandary when it comes to promoting inclusivity. The National Quality Standards asks services to promote each child’s agency and to give children the right to make choices and decisions in their play and learning; at the same time, the EYLF requires us to support the inclusion of all children in play and to help children understand when their play is unfair or excluding.
This is a tricky balancing act, especially at a developmental stage when children are starting to have strong opinions and an increasing sense of confidence in exercising those opinions.
Simone Smith, Director of Billy Buttons Children’s Centre, says that feelings of exclusion can be detrimental to a child’s development and that children who exclude others may grow up to be adults that exclude others.
Children who do not feel safe, valued and included in their early learning environment do not learn as efficiently as those who do. So, it's an important topic to reflect on and address.
Simone promotes an environment where all children have the same opportunities to learn, play and meet their potential regardless of their ability, cultural background, or gender. She says some aspects of inclusion look different according to the setting.
"We have a very diverse range of families in our service and aim to ensure all children are represented in the curriculum and program," says Simone. "We ensure that the literature, puzzles, signage and play experiences embrace and represent our diversity of different cultures, race and genders and abilities."
The reasons children exclude others
Simone says that in her experience the reasons why children choose not to engage with other children or exclude them are not necessarily because they don’t like them, but more likely due to the fact they don’t share the same interests, abilities and or/social skills to engage in group play.
"Since children are intrinsically motivated, they will only do things that interest them or for which they receive something in return, such as friendship or a chance to do something they want.
“If a child seems to be excluded it could be because they do not have the skills to collaborate or negotiate play or, as we have seen during COVID, that children do not know how to play with others or even in some cases play with toys.”
Simone says the motivations are different in the case of a child excluding another due to gender, cultural background, ability or the colour of their hair or eyes.
“This is taught practice as children are not born with this mentality. This is learnt and needs to be unlearnt.”
How to overcome excluding behaviour
Explore the concept of reciprocal rights
When children are encouraged to explore the idea of reciprocal rights and to become active participants in their early learning community, we can overcome excluding behavior while scaffolding their learning around personal autonomy and decision making.
Encourage children to take on different roles within group play and experiences. Give children choice but also guide them to develop the social skills to invite others into their play and negotiate to join play underway. Educators can also role model these behaviours.
Create a range of opportunities in physical and social environments
Providing children with a range of individual and group play experiences that are quiet, noisy, active and passive, guided and unguided, can facilitate their ability to interact effectively with their peers.
Address the topic of inclusion directly, but keep the language age-appropriate
It's helpful to explicitly talk to children about inclusion, not just by modeling it but also by creating opportunities for children to interact. This could include discussing the similarities and differences between people's abilities, their appearances, or the way they behave.
“It is very important to keep the language age appropriate, to not shame children as they are still learning to build relationships with others and to develop a sense of belonging in the world. Make conversations strength based and focused on what children can do and how that makes others feel,” says Simone.
Taking action against exclusion: What educators can do
Simone says that educators who witness exclusion should advocate for the child being excluded while working with children who exclude to build kindness and empathy.
“Children who exclude may need practical experiences to help them respond appropriately to the feelings and needs of others. Giving these children a role in the classroom can build these skills. Feeling the joy of helping others and making others feel good should also promote an increased desire to feel these emotions."
She says that children who are excluded need support to build their resilience, as well as understanding that it is impossible to control the emotions or behavior of other people.
Children need a voice, they need a champion that listens to them, that understands and that empathises with their feelings. You can be that person.
Simone tells the story of how she had a child who turned up to kindergarten one-day wearing prescription glasses for the first time. A few children laughed at him, and he refused to wear them from that day on.
“All the educators then began wearing glasses to work which gave this little boy a sense of belonging and empowerment, so he began to wear his glasses again. Sometimes the littlest things can help.”
Further reading and resources:
ABC Kids (accessed August 2022). Playschool's Hand in Hand.
Australian Human Rights Commission (2016). Building belonging: A toolkit for early childhood educators on cultural diversity and responding to prejudice.
SBS (Jan 2018). 6 picture books that celebrate diversity.
Deborah Hoger via Amplify! (August 2021). Representation matters, here’s how you can conduct a bookshelf audit.
Adeline Teoh, Amplify! (March 2021). Here's how we can really make a difference for Harmony Week.