The place and possibilities of active participation in inclusive early childhood education

Kate McAnelly, University of Otago

Education headlines (e.g. here, here and here) and social media (e.g. here, here, here and here) in Aotearoa New Zealand are frequently dominated by narratives of exclusion experienced by disabled tamariki and their whānau (see also a research overview here). This is particularly so in early childhood education where we, as ECE practitioners, have to contend with long-standing social, cultural, historical and political undervaluing of what we do and stand for, in addition to the struggle of realising inclusive education in our sector. We are failing disabled tamariki (children) and their whānau (families), and it simply isn’t good enough.

I have a deeply vested personal interest in this area as a result of the experiences I had as the Mum of a disabled child. My son, now about to celebrate his 11th birthday, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of 3. His time in ECE at a local centre wasn’t positive, and he encountered various barriers along the way that meant he was only ever at the periphery of anything that happened there. It was a space that positioned inclusion simply in terms of physical presence – they had ‘allowed’ my son to be there, and therefore they felt that they’d discharged their duty of care to him. This was without even considering his actual education, which was by and large a non-event, as he was mostly seen as being incapable of learning. This apathy from my son’s ECE teachers changed my life’s trajectory and led me on a journey to becoming a teacher, then later a researcher. For my Master of Education research dissertation, later partially disseminated in the Early Childhood Folio in article form, I decided that I was sick of always hearing about things going wrong for disabled tamariki and their whānau in ECE. It was time for a good news story, and I was going to be its author.

A case study of active participation, inclusion and citizenship

I set out to explore the ways in which one inclusive early childhood community, Ataahua, supported the active participation of a disabled child, Tama. [Ataahua – meaning ‘beautiful’ in Te Reo Māori – is a pseudonym the community chose together. Tama is a pseudonym my focus child chose together with his Mum.]

I selected the Huakina Mai model (Mackey & Lockie, 2012; see Chapter 5 of this book) as a framework to underpin my ethnographic case study method. The Huakina Mai model conceptualised the active participation of all members of early childhood communities in terms of being ecological, pedagogical, equitable and inclusive in nature.

  • Ecological participation means tamariki being conceptualised by the early childhood community as having competence, agency and the capacity to learn, with the aim that tamariki are able to meaningfully engage in democratic decision making processes about the things that affect them in their settings.
  • Pedagogical participation means tamariki being meaningfully supported by their early childhood communities to engage in democratic decision making within their settings.
  • Equitable and inclusive participation means tamariki are honoured for the diverse understandings and abilities they bring with them to their early childhood communities. This respectful approach thus ensures their active engagement in democratic decision making within their settings, their full inclusion in the curriculum, culture and community there, and their ability to realise and practice citizenship in the space.

This sort of active participation in early childhood education is grounded in tamariki and whānau being authentically involved in influencing the everyday culture and curriculum of early childhood settings. This approach offers a refreshing rights-based alternative to the current government’s operationalisation of participation in ECE as a numbers game, in terms of its narrow focus on enrolment and attendance. Thus, the Huakina Mai model framed how I wanted to look at things perfectly.

Learning from Ataahua

My research demonstrated that a cornerstone of Tama, a disabled child, realising active participation at Ataahua (his early childhood centre) was the image that the community there held of Tama as a competent learner. This was the same image as they held for all tamariki (children); that is, they believed that tamariki were:

The Ataahua community recognised Tama as the expert on his own life and trusted him to make the right decisions for his individual learning journey. The teaching team recognised that they needed to adapt the environment in order to make space for Tama’s learning preferences rather than making him fit the rules and environment. Ataahua’s collective responsibility approach to community gave Tama the right to have a say in the things that mattered to him, as it did for all tamariki, so that he could actively participate in the life and culture there.

Refining active participation

Following data collection and analysis, my understandings of the different elements of active participation outlined in Huakina Mai were sufficiently expanded that I felt it might be possible, indeed necessary, to ‘tweak’ the model. In saying that, I was worried about doing so, and how it could be perceived as possibly being a bit cheeky from a novice researcher. However, with the encouragement and support of my supervisor, Dr Michael Gaffney, we were able to work together in anticipating what the possibilities might be for the active participation of other disabled children in inclusive early childhood settings.

  • We came to define ecological participation as: All members of early childhood communities are able to realise an image of themselves and each other as capable, competent, powerful learners and contributors to the world around them.
  • Following on from this was the concept of pedagogic participation, which we came to define as: All members of early childhood communities enjoying responsive, reciprocal relationships with each other that valued different ways of being, doing and knowing.
  • Finally, the concept of equitable and inclusive participation came to be defined as: All members of early childhood communities are supported to have an equitable voice in decision making processes about the things that affect them in those settings.

Tying these elements together is the notion that inclusive education for all is understood as a fundamental human right in those spaces.

Concluding thoughts

This was a successful case study of inclusion in action in an early childhood setting, and one I was extremely proud to narrate. Ultimately, the success at Ataahua, and Tama’s positive experience, boiled down to all members of the community being ‘on the same page’ in terms of how they conceptualised inclusive education for all as a fundamental human right within that space. They didn’t consider that they had to have ‘special’ skills to do ‘special’ work with ‘special’ tamariki! Rather, they started from a rights-based (rather than a needs-based) standpoint and went from there. According to some of the participants in the study, this was “beautifully simple” and “hardly rocket science”. That’s really got me thinking in the year since I completed data collection. If it’s so easy, then why aren’t more early childhood settings like Ataahua?

Some food for thought, Aotearoa.


Kate marae grad celebration.jpgKate McAnelly is an early childhood teacher and brand new PhD candidate at the University of Otago College of Education in Dunedin. Her thesis will examine how the sensory environment affords the active participation and learning of autistic children in early childhood settings, as well as their realisation of ‘powerful’ learning identities. 

The theorisation used in Kate’s master’s research, reported in this post, is soon to be published as:

McAnelly, K. & Gaffney, M. (in press). Achieving citizenship for all: Theorising active participation for disabled children and their families in early childhood education. In A. Guerin & T. McMenamin (Eds.), Belonging: Rethinking inclusive practices to support well-being and identity.

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