Parent and worker expectation and experiences of early childhood education and childcare for families with special needs

Project team

Prof Gwynnyth Llewellyn
Dr Kirsty Thompson
Professor David McConnell
Dr Rebekah Dunn (nee Grace)
Dr Alison Wicks
Rosemary Flavel

Project funding

NSW Department of Education and Training
NSW Department of Community Services
Department of Disability, Ageing, and Home Care


This project is jointly funded by the NSW Department of Community Services, the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care Services and the NSW Department of Education and Training.

The inclusion of children with special needs in early childhood education and childcare services is supported on humanistic, legal and scientific grounds. Inclusion is promoted as both a desirable outcome and a means of redressing the impact of social/environmental disadvantage on children and their families. A number of barriers to inclusion exist, including, but not limited to

1. differing beliefs or the lack of any clear consensus on what constitutes successful inclusion; and in this connection,
2. difficulty establishing and maintaining effective collaboration between parents, mainstream and specialist service providers.

Currently, there is scant evidence to guide policy makers and providers in how to overcome these barriers and make inclusion work for all involved. This project, therefore, has the overall aim of ascertaining how families with children with special needs can be engaged and an effective collaboration between parents, mainstream and specialist service providers nurtured.

The objectives of the study are:

1. To determine what successful inclusion and effective collaboration mean to parents of children with special needs and to mainstream and specialist service providers
2. To identify the expectations of these parents, mainstream and specialist service providers, including:
1. what the parties involved expect from each other, and,
2. how the child and family is expected to benefit.
3. To explore the experiences of these parents, mainstream and specialist service providers with a view to:
1. determining the extent to which expectations have been met
2. identifying factors inhibiting and those promoting successful inclusion and effective collaboration.

For the purpose of this study, families with children with special needs include those families where the parent/s have a disability (e.g. intellectual, psychiatric, sensory or physical) and families where the child/ children have a disability.


  • Method
  • theoretical perspectives

The conceptual framework for the research project comes from ecocultural theory (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988 , Gallimore et al., 1993 ). This theory proposes that experiences and expectations occur within a broader cultural and ecological context. There is a constant marrying of culture, ecology, and human experience. To put this simply - a two way flow - between the person, the ecological contexts of home, family, school, work and so on and the surrounding culture. The ecocultural (ecological and cultural) context is central in influencing both the objective conditions surrounding experiences and expectations, as well as the subjective meanings these hold for those involved.

The question then is how do we understand the ecocultural context of early childhood services - and furthermore - the objective conditions and subjective meanings held by families with special needs and early childhood service workers?

Ecocultural theory proposes that ecological and cultural effects are mediated through activity settings. Activity settings provide a lens through which we can explore and gain insights into people's expectations and experiences of particular situations, in this instance, families with special needs and early childhood services.

Gallimore and his colleagues have operationalised activity settings to guide empirical research (Gallimore & Goldenberg, 1993 ). There are five variables to be considered:

  • Personnel present during an activity
  • Salient cultural values and beliefs
  • Operations and task demands of the activities themselves
  • Scripts for conduct that govern participants' actions
  • Purposes or motives of the participants

This framework of five activity setting variables provides a way to investigate the issues of concern, i.e. families with special needs accessing, making decisions about, and maintaining their involvement with early childhood services.

For the purpose of this research project, activity settings are arranged under three broad headings as follows:

  • Deciding/ Exploring Options
  • Engaging/ Negotiating/ Finding the 'best fit'
  • Maintaining Involvement

Research design

Case study is the method of choice for this research project. This will permit in-depth exploration of family and worker experiences and expectations in particular early childhood service contexts. Narrative based, semi-structured interviews will be conducted with a purposefully selected sample of families and early childhood service workers. The interviews will explore expectations and experiences using the activity setting concept and the three broad headings noted above.

At the conclusion of each interview an Expectation Rating Sheet will be completed in part to summarise and clarify information discussed and in part to provide a measure on which we can aggregate data about family and workers expectations, the relative importance of these and the degree to which these have been met.

If possible, we will review any formal documents relating to the child's programme. This will provide an additional data source on early childhood services content and processes.

Anticipated outcomes

This research project was completed in December 2003.

Related Publications

Llewellyn, G., Thompson, K., & Fante, M. (2002) Inclusion in Early Childhood Services: Ongoing Challenges Australian Journal of Early Childhood 27 (3) 18 - 23.

Llewellyn, G. & Fante, M. (1999) Young Children with Disabilities in NSW Children's Services Office of Childcare: NSW Department of Community Services

Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (19988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gallimore, R., Goldenberg, C. N., & Weisner, T. S. (1993). The social construction and subjective reality of activity settings: Implications for community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 21(4), 537-339.

Gallimore, R., & Goldenberg, C. (1993). Activity settings in early literacy: Home and school factors in children's emergent literacy. In E. Forman & C. A. Stone (Eds.)., Contexts for learning: Sociocultural dynamics in children's development (pp. 315-335). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A summary of this project can also be found in NSW Department of Community Services (2000) Insights Into Research: Four Studies on Early Childhood Issues and Children's Services pp. 93 - 122.