MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Teaching assistant Jillian Link looked over just in time to see the little girl, with her dark hair braids bouncing against her tan glasses, crawling away from the other children.

“Hey, you can’t crawl away,” Link playfully scolded. “If you’re going to go somewhere, you have to walk away.”

Link scooped up the child, decked out in her pink Hello Kitty jumpsuit, and placed her gently within the confines of her miniature sparkle-gold walker. The girl knew what to do instantly, marching her way around the classroom while she leaned on the sides of the walker.

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“Not too long ago, she wasn’t even crawling,” Lorraine Ford, preschool manager of Play Do Learn Preschool, said of the girl. “And her motivation to move was that she wanted to join in to whatever the other kids were doing over there … She had to get over there on her own.”

Some of the children at Play Do Learn, like the girl in the walker, have disabilities or learning delays. But others do not.

The school, part of nonprofit agency SRVS that operates out of Independent Presbyterian Church, integrates children with and without varying levels of disabilities at the preschool level starting at age 15 months. The practice, known as all-inclusive preschool, is a concept the U.S. Department of Education said in a policy statement last month should be more prevalent in both public and private education settings.

Ford said her team offers a rare opportunity that they would love to see more of. Benefits of inclusiveness for students with disabilities include having a role model for social skills and developmental milestones, and having motivation to work on both.

And the children without disabilities benefit just as much, she said.

“It helps children learn at a very, very young age the value of diversity, the value of empathy,” Ford said. “It’s not a scary thing to see someone in a wheelchair or a walker if you’ve been exposed to that from a very young age.”

The federal policy statement, released Sept. 14, calls for states’ departments of education to form plans on how to better integrate the youngest students. The 43-page document outlines the benefits of inclusion for the children involved and the ripple effect throughout society.

“Inclusion in early childhood programs can set a trajectory for inclusion across the life course, making it critical that we include individuals with disabilities in all facets of society from birth,” the statement reads.

On the local level, it instructs school boards to review their policies to best reflect a “culture of inclusion,” enhance professional development that would allow teachers to work with students of varying abilities in each classroom, and partner with the community to build a strong early childhood education work force.

In Memphis, Shelby County Schools early childhood administrators said the policy statement was both a confirmation they are headed in the right direction with inclusion and a push to do more.

Patricia Toarmina, director of exceptional children and health services, said the school district aims to put children in the least restrictive classroom possible. For some students with disabilities, that may mean a special education setting for academics but a general education setting for electives like music. The district offers one all-inclusive program.

Toarmina said her staff, working with the parents, makes individual placement decisions for each child. Some parents, she said, are insistent on one end of the inclusion spectrum or the other.

“It’s our job to help parents understand that our one goal is to prepare children for their future academic tasks that they’re going to have and to help them master those so that they can be a part of the general education curriculum as they age,” she said.

Director of early childhood education DeAnna McClendon said about 10 percent of children in Shelby County Schools’ typical preschool classrooms have some sort of disability.

One of the challenges to adding more children with disabilities, she said, is that the grants that fund the school district’s preschool programs target low-income students, prioritizing them over other sub-groups of children. But in general, McClendon said, inclusion of all abilities is a priority for the district and the focus of an upcoming pilot program to find solutions for some of the barriers.

“Many times our teachers don’t have the appropriate strategy and coaching and support that they always need, and so that’s something that we have to really work hard on,” she said.

The federal policy statement says all-inclusive preschool is not necessarily more expensive than separating children with and without disabilities, although Ford said Play Do Learn hires an extra assistant for each of its three classrooms.

Toarmina said many of the students with deficits, whether it’s a speech delay or a learning disability, who start early with all-inclusive programs, have caught up with their typical peers. Some have even ended up in the school’s gifted program by their middle and high school years.

“That, just right there, screams the need for early intervention,” she said.

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