Inclusive practice

Key ideas

All children have the right to access the full depth and breadth of the curriculum.

Fully inclusive early childhood services provide an environment that invites, acknowledges, and celebrates the diversity that each child and their whānau bring. This includes those with disabilities, health needs, diverse family types, refugee, migrant and minority families. An inclusive curriculum is strengths-based and respects and connects with Māori values and the principles of Te Whāriki.

Inclusive early childhood services create a community culture that ensures all children can be actively involved in meaningful play and learning with and alongside their peers. This includes providing additional supports or removing barriers when required.

An essential role of kaiako is to understand how children learn and know all of the children in their service well – so that they know when and how to provide additional support and/or remove barriers for children to promote participation and learning.

Child and adult

Stories of practice

Key points

  • Fostering a culture of inclusion over time
  • Kaiako thoughtfully adapting practice

How you view the child determines your actions – Kaiako mindsets matter

At Doris Nicholson Kindergarten the teaching team has a strong commitment to the active participation of all – to meeting the diverse learning needs of all the children at their centre.

Kaiako teach by this whakataukī:

Ko te ahurei o te tamaiti ka ārahi i ā tātou mahi.

Let the uniqueness of the child guide our work.

So what does this look like in practice? It starts with kaiako attitudes and their strongly held belief that “how you view the child determines your actions”.

When kaiako are concerned about behaviour, they first apply a mindset of curiosity. This often involves pausing and not immediately reacting to try and understand the pattern of behaviours and their cause.

Kaiako always work as a team to agree on learning goals that are specific, measurable, and realistic. These are supported with teaching strategies based on the development of the child, for example simplifying instructions, incorporating visuals, and extending wait times. Kaiako are also prepared to adapt routines to accommodate individual needs and remove any barriers to children’s learning.

“We ask ourselves – Is this place fair for each child? Do we need to change the expectations? Are the mat times too long? Do we need to make them more active? Are there spaces for children to rest and be calm? Can all children access the equipment? If not, what are we doing to work towards this participation?”

Kaiako, Doris Nicholson Kindergarten

Kaiako work intentionally in the knowledge that they set the tone for respectful, learning interactions. They make a point of modelling to the children how to support each other and what it means to show aroha. If children notice that another child is not participating in the same way as them, kaiako will offer reassurance – “it’s ok, they are learning about what we do here”.

Kaiako have created booklets explaining useful interaction strategies for working effectively with learners and highlighting interests particular to the child. The booklets are designed to help everyone in the centre know how to set each learner up for success.

An example paragraph from one of the books

When I am participating in group activities like mat times, kori kori, or eating my morning tea/lunch, my teachers will wear Rodger, my FM system. I can hear the teachers clearly when using this system. It’s also helpful to wear Rodger when I am at an activity or playing amongst a group of friends. It helps me understand what is going on in the group (giving me important contextual information).

At Doris Nicholson they want all children to be successful twenty-first century learners – who display empathy, mana, confidence, respect, and creativity. But how each child gets to that point may be different. Kaiako actively evaluate and change their strategies to help get children there in their own time.


Key points

  • Putting philosophy into practice
  • Exploring who inclusive practice is for
  • Building an inclusive community

Sign language as a way of being

The updated Te Whāriki has a strengthened focus on inclusion of all children. In the communication | mana reo strand of Te Whāriki, teachers are encouraged to take the time to listen and respond to children so that they learn that their ideas and thoughts are of interest.

Casa Nova Kindergarten’s philosophy statement includes being “equitable, enthusiastic, and responsive to the fast-changing world our learners and their whᾱnau are living in.” Kaiako have put this aspiration into practice in the way they have developed their knowledge and skills and welcomed a profoundly deaf child to the kindergarten.

Initially, all kaiako made a commitment to learn sign language so that this child would have every chance to learn through the full curriculum provided. Kaiako attended sign language workshops run by First Signs and van Asch Deaf Education Centre) and supplemented this with digital media, in particular the New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) App.

As kaiako learnt to sign, they reassessed their view of inclusion and who it was for. Their inclusive practice focused on ensuring that all children and the community were included in their profoundly deaf learner’s life, as well as supporting her. For example, when children and their families met their deaf learner in the street, they needed to know how best to communicate. Looking to the future, kaiako recognised, “they are the ones that she will transition to school with, we are not.”

With a strong commitment, changing mindset, and developing skills, kaiako have led a process whereby sign language has become a way of being for all, both within their kindergarten and beyond. Their impact was recognised at the 2018 New Zealand Sign Language Awards.

Kaiako say that the following strategies and approaches helped them to realise their goal of inclusiveness for all:

  • making a point of ensuring children understand why they are learning to sign
  • signing with all children and acknowledging children when they did the same
  • including children and whānau in sign language learning sessions
  • making sign language visible when they are out in the community, for example, at the local supermarket (employees have asked kaiako for signs so they too can communicate more inclusively)
  • using small group, communication games such as “what’s missing on the tray” (games in which children can lead in sign language, both at kindergarten and with their families)
  • breaking sign language learning down into small steps, for example, starting with one-word signs for resources and routines (concrete items accompanied by pictures) then gradually adding colours, feelings, experiences, and concepts.
  • using digital media such as the NZSL App and Rhymes with Signs App to keep adding sign language vocabulary (children know to ask for this when they are looking to learn a new sign).

Child on grass

Key points

  • Centre of Innovation
  • A social justice / rights approach
  • Inclusion for all

Prioritising inclusion, with a focus on education for all

Building all children’s mana is a key focus in Te Whāriki. Botany Downs Kindergarten has prioritised inclusion of all children, including those with different and additional needs. Many people assumed that the kindergarten would provide specific help, equipment and materials only for children with “difficulties” or “impairments”.

Instead, kaiako at Botany Downs Kindergarten focused on the whole environment and identified aspects of teaching that enhanced participation and learning for all children. They made changes that were likely to be beneficial for all – at the same time as reducing barriers for children with additional needs.

For more information and specific examples, see:

COI Botany Downs Kindergarten: Inclusion at Botany Downs Kindergarten Centre of Innovation 2006-2008


Child in sand

Key points

  • Early childhood – family support interface
  • Parents as involved educators

Whānau development through ECE

Te Aroha Noa Early Childhood Centre is part of an innovative whānau and community development organisation with an underpinning Christian kaupapa. It is based in a low socio-economic area that is also highly multicultural. It is part of a growing international movement of integrated centres that recognise the value of local responses to local needs and encourage a model of “Parents as Involved Educators”, working creatively to provide seamless, inclusive education between home and centre.

Te Aroha Noa is at the cutting edge of innovation and family practice. It focuses on developing practice in response to local needs and best practice. The blending of locally situated early intervention with parent support and development places it at the forefront of practice development.

For more information and specific examples, see:

Blending whānau/family development, parent support and early childhood education programmes (WORD)

Reflective and evaluative questions

  • How are all children provided with opportunities to access the full breadth and depth of your curriculum?

  • In what ways does the service value, support and celebrate difference?

  • To what extent is everyone made to feel welcome and respected? How do you know?

  • To what extent do kaiako encourage high expectations for all children’s development, learning and relationships, providing positive encouragement for children who find some activities difficult?

  • To what extent are children who require additional support for learning supported to be confident and capable learners with agency over their own learning?

  • How inclusive is the service of children with disabilities and their families?

  • How inclusive is the service of children who are traumatised (victims of abuse, homelessness etc.)? Of minority or refugee children?

  • How visible are children with disabilities, or diverse learning needs in our curriculum, including in our resources for play?

  • How well do we identify, prioritise and support children who are causing us concern?

  • How visible is the learning, achievement, strengths, interests, progress and next steps of children with disabilities or diverse learning needs?

  • How is assessment information used to plan and evaluate teaching and learning for all children?

  • How well do kaiako engage with parents and whānau of children who require additional support about their child’s learning?

  • How well do our transition to school processes support children who require additional support for learning to transition to school successfully?

Implications for leadership

Successful inclusion relies on strong leadership. Leaders have overall responsibility to ensure all children can access the full depth and breadth of the early learning setting’s curriculum. A leader will demonstrate an inclusive attitude, based on the belief that all children have rights to learn and develop with and alongside their peers. Committed leaders build positive relationships with all children, parents, and whānau, including those with additional needs which may be related to health, physical, emotional, social, cultural, and/or spiritual.

Leaders need to communicate effectively with other kaiako, parents, whānau and support agency partners and specialists to ensure they are providing a curriculum that supports the learning of all children. This means taking responsibility for joint planning for individual children, including processes to document their learning and development and systems for robust self-review and internal evaluation. The aim is to weave the child’s individual plans into the service’s curriculum to make sure the environment, experiences, events and excursions are accessible.

Leaders are also expected to encourage reflective, responsive practices that protect and promote an inclusive whāriki for all children.

Connections to the principles

Empowerment – Whakamana

Recognising every child’s rights to learn and develop is central to inclusion. Children are empowered to access the full depth and breadth of the curriculum within their early childhood service. The provision of meaningful and relevant learning experiences supports every child to actively engage in all aspects of play and learning. Children that require additional support for learning are valued as equal contributors to the learning community. Their progress and achievements are visible alongside those of their peers in the service.


Family and Community – Whānau Tangata

Children, families, whānau, and communities are diverse. Respecting all children and their whānau is fundamental to inclusion. Making connections and building relationships with parents and whānau is crucial because whānau are vital to supporting children's learning and development. For parents and whānau who have a child with additional learning needs, building a strong relationship is essential to their sense of belonging and inclusion.


Holistic Development – Kotahitanga

Sociocultural and ecological theories underpin Te Whāriki, reflecting a holistic approach to learning and development. Te Whāriki positions children at the centre of an inclusive, holistic curriculum that provides equitable opportunities and access for all learners. Acknowledging and celebrating diversity through the early learning setting’s curriculum enables all children to learn together.


Relationships – Ngā Hononga

Reciprocal, responsive and respectful relationships with people, places, and things are significant in all children’s lives. Children learn through active participation in meaningful play experiences, daily routines and interactions with others. Fostering positive relationships are essential to inclusion. Strong respectful relationships between and among kaiako, children their whānau and relevant external support agencies (when required) support all children's learning and development.

Further resources

Inclusion of Children with Special Needs in Early Childhood Services – ERO

This national report presents the findings of ERO's recent evaluation of how well early childhood services include children with moderate to severe special needs. This evaluation supports the Government's priority for every child to have the opportunity to participate in early childhood education (ECE).

Inclusive Education: Guides for Schools

This site provides New Zealand educators with practical strategies, suggestions and resources to support the diverse needs of all learners.

Index for inclusion developing play, learning and participation in early years and childcare. Developed by Booth, T, Ainscow, M and Kingston, D (2006). Published by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE)

This Index for inclusion is a useful resource to support and guide inclusion in early childhood services. It provides ideas for policy and practice.

Kei Tua o te Pae - Inclusive assessment

Kei Tua o te Pae/Assessment for Learning: Early Childhood Exemplars is a best practice guide that will help teachers continue to improve the quality of their teaching. The exemplars are a series of books that will help teachers to understand and strengthen children's learning. It also shows how children, parents and whānau can contribute to this assessment and ongoing learning. Book 9 – Inclusive assessment.

Leadership in early childhood education for '5 out of 5' children

The Ministry of Education has prepared new material for leaders in early childhood education. These resources aim to stimulate leadership conversations and actions to ensure ‘5 out of 5’ children benefit fully from early childhood education. The section putting the spotlight on every child has a focus on inclusive leadership.

Much More than Words

This booklet will be useful in supporting the communication development of young children. It includes information about typical communication development in young children and ideas for supporting them. Early childhood educators, kaiako, whānau, health professionals and others may find it useful.

United Nations Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

This convention is useful to understand disability rights. It can be read in conjunction with UNCROC to focus attention on children but where adults have a disability this document is a useful guide

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

This declaration highlights the rights of indigenous peoples to their language, culture, and identity as well as the obligations of governments to protect indigenous people’s rights.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC)

This link takes you to the full copy of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). Article 2 is about nondiscrimination and being inclusive. Article UNCROC relates to children with disabilities. Articles 28 and 29 are about children’s rights to education, for example, all children’s rights to develop to their full potential. Article 30 is about indigenous children’s rights and Article 31 relates to children’s rights to play.

For more information about these treaties and other rights based issues visit the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the Human Rights Commission websites.


Ministry of Education

There is a wide range of tools and resources to help your ECE service support students with diverse needs. You also need to be aware of your legal obligations.

Transition to school guidelines - Guidelines for Early Intervention Providers

These guidelines are divided into three parts and include a timeline to guide transition to school activities. The first part provides the background, legal perspectives, audience and purpose for the Transition to School Guidelines, and information about inclusive and culturally responsive practice. Parts 2 and 3 outline key practices and resources to support successful transition to school.


Additional reading

Alton-Lee, A. (2003). Quality teaching for diverse students in schooling: Best evidence synthesis. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Bishop, R. & Berryman, M., (2009). The Te Kotahitanga Effective Teaching Profile. Set 2. Wellington.

Dunn, L. (2000). Using learning stories to assess and design programs for young children with special needs in new Zealand. Infants and young children, 13 (2), pp. 73-82

Dunn, L. (2008). Perceptions of inclusive early intervention. Parents, early childhood teachers, speech-language therapists, early intervention teachers and education support workers describe their understandings and experience of their shared task. New Zealand Research In Early Childhood Education Journal, 17, 19-32.

Farquhar, S. (2003). Quality teaching: Early foundations best evidence synthesis. Ministry of Education: Wellington.

Florian, L., & Black-Hawkins, K. (2010). Exploring inclusive pedagogy. British Educational Research Journal. ISSN 0141-1926 (print)/ISSN 1469-3518 (online)/11/050813-16

Gordon-Burns, D., Gunn, AC., Purdue, K. and Surtees, N. (2012) Puzzling over inclusion: Concluding remarks. In Gordon-Burns, D, Gunn, AC, Purdue, K, Surtees, N (Ed.), Te Aotūroa Tātaki: Inclusive early childhood education: Perspectives on inclusion, social justice and equity from Aotearoa New Zealand. pp. 175-191. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Lepper, C., Williamson, D., & Cullen, J. (2003). Professional Development to Support Collaborative Assessment. Early education 33, pp.19-31

Macfarlane, S. L., & Macfarlane, A. H. (2012). Diversity and inclusion in early childhood education: A bicultural approach to engaging Māori potential. In Gordon Burns, D., Gunn, A., Purdue, K., & Surtees, N., Te aotūroa tātaki- inclusive education: Perspectives on inclusion, social justice and enquiry from Aotearoa New Zealand. (pp.21-38). Wellington: NZCER Press.

McCartney, B., Purdue, K., & MacArthur, J. (2013). Progressing Te Whāriki from rhetoric to reality for children with disabilities and their families. In Nuttall, J (Ed.), Weaving Te Whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand's Early Childhood Curriculum Document in Theory and Practice. pp. 133-155. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Ministry of Education, (2013). Ka Hikitia. Ministry of Education: Wellington.

Moore, T. (2012). Rethinking early childhood intervention services: Implications for policy and practice. Pauline McGregor Memorial Address presented at the 10th Biennial National Conference of Early Childhood Intervention Australia, and the 1st Asia-Pacific Early Childhood Intervention Conference. Perth, Western Australia.