Social Thinking Articles


School-Based Preschool Programs: Inclusion or Direct Teaching

Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, Nancy Tarshis, MA, MS, CCC-SLP and Deb Meringolo, MA, MS

Oct 09, 2012


Updated: May, 2015
Copyright 2015 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Based on the following question, I developed a response and then asked my preschool specialist colleagues, Nancy Tarshis and Debbie Meringolo, to contribute their thoughts on this topic. We know this is a delicate subject; your experience may be different from ours, as well as your opinion. We think it's critical that we all discuss different points of view related to inclusion-based education. We are not for or against blanket inclusion; instead we are proponents of “thoughtful inclusion.”

Query: I am trying to verify some information that was attributed to Michelle Garcia Winner by one of our autism specialists. She is quoted as saying that students with autism (yes the entire range except for super high functioning) should not be taught in an inclusion style model, especially in preschool with students who are more typical but may still have delays in some areas.

I have looked at Michelle's writings, the various articles that reference her on the web and have been unable to find where this information is cited. Could you please direct me to the source so that I can have the most complete and up-to-date information needed to help my students succeed?

To start, you might find it helpful to read an article I wrote with my colleagues (Crooke & Madrigal) to explore social learning differences or Levels of the Social Mind. We refer to these different types of learners in the article, Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile (ST-SCP).

The scale illuminates that our students with social learning challenges fall on a spectrum of social ability. They are not all the same, which makes this a difficult query to answer and one that doesn't have a black and white response.

We do think it is short sighted to group preschool children with ASD who have significant language and social learning challenges with mainstream peers in a more blanket inclusion model, with the idea that this will be their primary treatment (exposure to typical behavior models and play). It is not a good use of our children’s time and the research has shown that peer mentoring makes sense for practice after the direct teaching has been done. Most, if not all, of these students need to be actively engaged in explicitly learning concepts related to joint attention, language development, social communication/relationship development, and sensory integration in far more structured programs, before they can join their neurotypical peers. Learning more abstract social and communication strategies at this age is critical; the more they learn cognitively about the social experience the better prepared they are for learning increasingly complex social and academic information as they age. After all, if they had been able to learn this from watching or interacting with peers and from normal environmental encouragement, they would have and we would not diagnose these students with social learning needs.

We’re not saying these children should never be included at all. It is more about providing the intensity of the services they need and the targeted specialized instruction that can help them become better social thinkers and help them begin to understand how to then use these concepts when they are with their neurotypical peers. Based on our experience in teaching our kids with social learning difficulties, we know that the idea of modeling neurotypical social behavior to these challenged students tremendously over-simplifies the complex social learning process for those who do not learn these skills naturally. Again, if they were capable of learning this way, they would.

Play is a wonderful way to help all students learn social information. However, we know our students struggle to understand these concepts spontaneously. They are poor observers of social information, have weak imitation and initiation skills, and may experience over stimulation in spontaneous or unpredictable situations, which is the very fabric of early childhood play.  This over-stimulation may in turn cause them to become over-focused on their less flexible, less spontaneous routines as a means to regulate the social and communication input and reduce the impact of the stimulation coming their way. We need to back up, slow down the social teaching, break concepts apart into smaller segments, and teach in concrete ways. This way kids can learn some of the core social processes that come so naturally to neurotypical kids, and start using these skills during real-time play situations.

We are big proponents of social mentoring, which is the process of teaching neurotypical peers how to foster relationship development and encourage expected social communicative behaviors of their social learning challenged peers. Research shows the best model for kids with social learning differences is to offer direct teaching in small groups. Subsequently, they need guided practice with carefully selected peer mentors. Ongoing observation by adults who carefully prompt the mentors and support the learners is a crucial element (DiSalvo and Oswald 2002). Dr. Pamela Wolfberg helped develop this idea through what she referred to as “Integrated Play groups” where “expert players” were chosen from a pool of neurotypical students and were provided with extra coaching to help them mentor their social learning challenged peers.

The severity of a student’s social engagement challenges, no matter what their age, is important when considering services and placements for a student. We begin by determining individual learning style and patterns of strengths and weaknesses before deciding the placement of a student in a program. Traditionally, this has always been done by first developing the IEP goals for a student and then assessing the different teaching options/placements available. At that point the IEP team determines the free and appropriate services that can help a student learn not only the standard academic expectations but also the possible alternative expectations established through the IEP goals.

Children, as young as three, can potentially qualify for IEP services. However, we've noticed an increased focus on inclusion starting in preschool classrooms with some schools eliminating any other class types. While some districts still have preschool programs for special needs learners, the trend even at this age is to blend learning challenged and neurotypical students as an “ideal” program. Yet what is “ideal” for one student is far from “ideal” for another, which is precisely why Congress devised the “Individualized Education Program” (IEP) in the first place. We stress we are not against inclusion, but are very concerned about inclusion-based models that are more political than they are thoughtful about how to help each of our students develop a stronger social learning base.

Not being able to understand the social world is a pretty serious learning challenge. Keep in mind every month of development means the social world is becoming more complex, and neurotypical peers are becoming more adept at meeting the challenge. So the real question is this: how do we help our students learn the basic social concepts and strategies that will encourage further growth as they age?  Social thinking affects all areas of a child’s functioning. It is required not only on the playground but for making predictions, taking perspective and developing the critical thinking skills that help our students access the academic standards. The social learning root system develops from birth through preschool/kindergarten, forming a strong trunk of skills that allow the connected growth of the branches and leaves to continue to blossom across childhood. We need to water the root system well with more than simply providing social experience for our students. They need more direct teachings to fertilize their weak roots. (See the free article posted on our website called “The Social Thinking Learning Tree” for more information on core social communication skills that can help students develop classroom and academic readiness across the age groups.)

So what about our more high functioning preschoolers? If you know a child with social learning challenges who can be encouraged by a teacher and his or her neurotypical peers to be alert, and who can learn shared attention and intention with other children (not just adults) in structured and unstructured situations, that child may well be a good candidate for partially inclusive education. Notice we didn’t say full inclusion. In our opinion, if children have been assessed to have social learning social communication needs, this means they need specialized attention that typically requires some deeper interventions than what the typical child is experiencing in preschool.

Parents and caregivers play a significant role at this age (and every age) in their child’s social learning. They can guide practice and make a big difference supporting play, the natural social learning vehicle in early childhood. Including parents in the educational learning process is critical, and should be stressed. Working with parents to teach them how to encourage the social concepts in the home environment and other times away from school can support and encourage their child’s social roots to grow across the day and night. The Hanen Program ( based in Canada, takes this parent-first approach to their preschool programs, which are very helpful in promoting social learning.

For our young language-based students, we have published an early learners curriculum (We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers & Volume 2 Social Problem Solvers) It can be used to train the expert players (child mentors), and provides an extended curriculum for all children (ages 4-7) as well as being a unique resource to teach our students with social learning challenges. This is a teaching curriculum as well as 10 fully illustrated storybooks to introduce social thinking concepts. We were able to recruit Grammy® award winning singer/songwriters, Tom Chapin and Phil Galdston, to write the 11 songs related to the Early Learners Social Thinking Vocabulary.

Michelle Garcia Winner, MA CCC-SLP, Founder of Social Thinking

Deborah Meringolo, MA, MS, Social Cognitive Therapist

Nancy Tarshis, MA, MS CCC-SLP, Social Cognitive Therapist

Nancy and Debbie are part of the Social Thinking Training and Speakers Collaborative (STTSC). They regularly speak on Social Thinking and working with early learners. For more information about the STTSC click here.


DiSalvo, C. A., & Oswald, D. P. (2002). Peer-mediated interventions to increase the social interactions of children with autism: Considerations of peer expectancies. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17, 198-207.

Wolfberg, P. J. & Schuler, A. L. (1993). Integrated play groups: a model for promoting the social and cognitive dimensions of play in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23, 467-489.

Ingersoll, B. R., & Wainer, A.L. (2011). Pilot study of a school-based parent-training program for preschoolers with ASD. Autism, November 15, 2011. 1362361311427155

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