Inclusive early childhood education in Canada: Working from the ground up


Canada has been a long-standing partner of UNESCO and its mission to ensure that member states prioritize investing in early childhood care and education (ECCE). In early July, I was delighted to lend my voice to the launch of two new UNESCO ECCE reports. The reports call for inclusive early childhood care and education for all, and serve as foundational documents for the development of a much needed new Global Partnership Strategy — or “GPS” — for Early Childhood, to be launched on December 6, 2021. This GPS for Early Childhood is a new international agenda designed with development partners and UNESCO member states to support governments to overcome pre-existing barriers to providing effective early childhood care and education services, as well as to flexibly address new challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is vital to accompany the GPS initiative with greater training and support for early educators, more inclusive curricula that create a sense of belonging for all children, increased collaboration with non-governmental organizations, and greater financial support. These are the world’s youngest. They deserve a fair start.

Canada looks forward to continuing to contribute to the new Partnership Strategy to find solutions that make a difference. We know that we will not make progress towards the global education goal by working in silos.

As the UNESCO reports underline, we must work together to share our experiences, whilst working closely with other sectors that extend beyond planning to implementation to achieve SDG 4. It was in the spirit of peer-learning and mutual collaboration that I was happy to share my experiences with my peers during the UNESCO event.

As you may know, education in Canada is under the exclusive jurisdiction of each of our 13 provinces and territories. Therefore, each jurisdiction has its own ministry or ministries responsible for education. Education ministries across Canada are convinced that inclusive education from early childhood onwards will build welcoming communities and inclusive societies. We work together through CMEC — the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada — on common priorities, including early childhood learning and development.

Across Canada, provinces and territories offer a range of programs specifically designed to be inclusive and to promote equity. For us, inclusive ECCE is about tailoring services for the unique and diverse needs of all children. To do this, a variety of tools are used to identify and respond to the diverse needs of children in the early years; for example:

  • Individual Education Plans — “IEPs” — are created in collaboration between teachers, early childhood educators, support staff, clinicians, and families to help guide each child’s learning and development. The IEPs provide detailed information about each child’s specific learning and developmental requirements. This type of specialized plan can be particularly useful to support children with special needs.
  • In the province of Saskatchewan, this document is called an Inclusion and Intervention Plan, and it identifies students’ strengths, interests, learning styles, and learning needs. Families and teachers can then use this resource to share the supports and strategies each student needs to optimize learning in an inclusive setting.
  • The Early Years Evaluation is a tool used in many parts of Canada that provides an indicator of children’s individual development in five general domains:
  1. Awareness of self and the environment;
  2. Social skills and approaches to learning;
  3. Cognitive skills
  4. Language and Communication;
  5. Physical development.

Early screening to diagnose vulnerabilities — including mental health issues and learning disabilities — with the goal of providing children with more timely access to appropriate services, is of great importance to provinces and territories. For instance, the province of Quebec’s policy on special education acknowledges that educational success has different meanings depending on the abilities and needs of different students. Adopting methods that favour their success are the elements of the basic orientation of the policy; this has a major impact on the organization of services offered by school boards and schools. The policy recognizes the importance of prevention and early intervention.

We know that a skilled workforce is key for quality, inclusive ECCE. The new GEM Report policy paper #Rightfromthestart found that workforces in ECCE are rarely prepared for inclusive practice; lessons on inclusion are often added as an afterthought.

For Canada, providing the ECCE workforce with appropriate initial training and ongoing professional development opportunities is an important way to ensure they are able to meet the needs of the children they’re working with. They are, after all, key agents for ensuring equity in and quality of our ECCE systems.

Most provinces and territories require diversity training in pre-service training for teachers in ECCE. This includes training for working with children from diverse backgrounds, with special needs, and with dual or second-language learners. The range of topics offered through professional development workshops or courses usually depends on local authorities, such as the individual school or school board. In general, across provinces and territories, training of ECEs and teachers is offered through a variety of ways, including: meetings with school leaders, such as head teachers, managers, or principals; information or workshops provided by third parties, such as psychologists and child-development agencies; and specific guidelines on inclusion.

Several resources are available for educators to support inclusive ECCE, including those featured in the GEM Report policy paper:

  • The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in the province of New Brunswick created the Autism Learning Partnership, which is a team dedicated to the development and delivery of autism training to prepare early childhood and educational personnel, and families to meet the learning and behavioural needs of learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • In the province of Ontario, the ministry of education commissioned a research brief,  Everyone Is Welcome: Inclusive Early Childhood Education and Care (2013), to guide and support inclusive practices in licensed child-care and early-years settings. This resource outlines the key characteristics of inclusive early childhood education and care programs in terms of access, design, implementation, monitoring, and assessment. A section is devoted to the importance of educators’ language and their understanding of varying abilities.
  • The province of Alberta’s Inclusive Education Policy emphasizes that school authorities must ensure that all children and students, regardless of race, religious belief, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical or mental disability, family status or sexual orientation, or any other factors, have access to meaningful and relevant learning experiences that include appropriate instructional supports.
  • Last but not least, in my jurisdiction, the Northwest Territories, our Guidelines for Inclusive Schooling provide support for education bodies on how to administer inclusive schooling supports and programming. The guidelines acknowledge the role of families in long-range educational and transition planning.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the commitment of Canada’s early learning systems to provide inclusive early childhood care and education that offers every child the best chance to contribute to the inclusive and sustainable development of their community and society. I hope they provide food for thought for other policy makers in the process of building inclusive early childhood education systems.

To close, Canada supports global action to advance the early childhood care and education goals through the launch of the new GPS, and we look forward to working with UNESCO and other member states to make progress on Target 4.2 of SDG 4 for education.