A Unique Child

Inclusion in Early Years – What is it?

  • Inclusion in Early Years – What is it?

Professor Cathy Nutbrown from the University of Sheffield discusses the issue of inclusive practice in Early Years settings…

What is inclusion in Early Years?

Everyone has their own idea about what the term ‘inclusion’ means, and inclusion can look different in different settings.

However you define it, your policies, practices, attitudes and values must together ensure that everyone belongs: children, parents, staff and all connected with your setting.

Inclusion is sometimes mistakenly taken to apply solely to children identified as having special educational needs and disabilities, who attend non-specialist settings. Yet this is only a partial perspective on inclusion.

To be inclusive means to scrutinise the policies, practices, attitudes and values that make early childhood communities what they are, so that everyone feels safe, comfortable, and welcome.

They belong, and their individuality and heritages are understood and respected. Their needs are met and they can contribute.

Understanding inclusion

Understanding inclusion means understanding individuals, families, cultures, societies, settings and practitioners, and working respectfully to eliminate discriminatory and exclusionary practices.

Inclusion requires anti-discriminatory practices (Colilles, 2023) and understanding when practice discriminates:

“Anti-discriminatory practice is defined as a professional method of continually challenging racism, sexism, stereotypes, bias and inequalities.

“Discrimination may manifest itself in many different ways, including someone’s attitude, behaviour, the curriculum and resources they provide, or their values, beliefs and ideologies.”(Louis et al. 2023:96)

Gender discrimination

With changing legislation, awareness and practices around gender equality, you may assume that gender discrimination is now less of an issue in early years settings. Yet stereotyping can still occur:

“In terms of gender and sexual orientation, young children can develop stereotypical ideas about how they should be and who they should become which can limit their potential”. (Early Years Coalition, 2021: 25).

Tembo and Benham (2023) describe ways of working to support gender and LGBTQ+ inclusion, and to avoid narrowing children’s opportunities by confining them to stereotypes and enabling them to express and explore who they are.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of inclusive practices, equality of opportunity and anti-discriminatory practices. We need to constantly review early childhood education policies which draw attention to the importance of including all to ensure effective and sustained inclusive practice. It’s a matter for constant discussion and action.

How can my setting be more inclusive?

Inclusive and anti-discriminatory practices require practitioners and leaders to be self-aware, to identify their own biases, and to educate themselves about the harms of unconscious bias.

The EYFS principle of ‘A unique child’ is only meaningful if we put it into action via meaningful practices appropriate to every child.

Early education at its best is inclusive education because of the emphasis of identifying and meeting the individual learning needs of all young children.

Many who work in early years settings know that young children with learning difficulties or who are disabled are included as a first option. Many such settings would argue that inclusion is a matter of attitude as well as matters of policy and practice.

It’s also about fulfilling obligations under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, and there remains much to do:

“UK legislation enshrines some UNCRC rights. However, international monitors have noted the slowness of progress towards full incorporation in England.

“Despite this, the influence of the UNCRC is apparent in many aspects of legislation affecting children, viewing things from the child’s perspective and managing the dilemma of difference.” Georgeson et al. (2023:84)

Listening to children

Inclusion means listening to young children (and their families) and being sensitive to their needs and interests. It’s about developing a deep and intimate knowledge of each child, and their unique ways of communication (Nutbrown and Clough, 2006). 

Developing inclusive pedagogies means learning about and working with children’s own ‘funds of knowledge’ (Chesworth, 2019) which they bring to your setting. This is knowledge developed quite naturally since birth, from their interactions in their homes and communities as well as their group settings. 

This also requires us to embrace each child as unique and whole and understand what children know and are capable of to inform our pedagogy.

“The principle of the Whole Child reminds us that it is our responsibility to uncover each child’s strengths, each child’s interests, each child’s approaches to learning in order for every child, every day to find their learning meaningful and motivating.” (Fisher, 2023)

As inclusive practitioners, we must listen to each and every child.

Cathy Nutbrown is professor of education in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield. Find further discussion of inclusion and anti-discrimination in her recently edited book, Early Childhood Education: Current Realities and Future Priorities, published by Sage (2023).


Chesworth, E.A. (2019) Theorising young children’s interests: making connections and in- the-moment happenings. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 23. 100263. ISSN 2210-6561

Colilles, S. Inclusive pedagogies. Early Education Journal. No 99, Spring 2023

Early Years Coalition (EYC) Birth to 5 Matters: Non-statutory Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage. St Albans: Early Education. (2021) 

Fisher, J. (2023) When pedagogy leads assessment. Early Education Journal. No 99, Spring 2023

Fleer, M and Williams-Kennedy, D. Building bridges: literacy development in young indigenous children (Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training, 2001).

Georgeson, J., Adams, H., Short, E. and Ullman, K. (2023) Inclusive education for young children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND): Multiple perspectives. In C. Nutbrown (ed) Early Childhood Education Current realities and future priorities (Sage, 2023)

Lloyd, G, Stead, J, Jordan, E and Norris, C. ‘Teachers and Gypsy Travellers’ in Nind, M, Sheehy, K and Simmons, K (Eds) Inclusive Education: Learners and Learning Contexts (David Fulton, 2003).

Nutbrown, C. and Clough, P. Inclusion in the Early Years: Critical analyses and enabling narratives (Sage, 2006).

Louis, S., Cave, S., Meah, N. Race, Anti-discrimination and work to combat the effects of discrimination on practitioners and children, In C. Nutbrown (ed) Early Childhood Education Current realities and future priorities (Sage, 2023)

Tembo, S. and Benham, F. Gender and LGBTQ+ inclusive practice in early childhood, In C. Nutbrown (ed) Early Childhood Education Current realities and future priorities (Sage, 2023)