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School-Based Preschool Programs: Inclusion or Direct Teaching

School-Based Preschool Programs: Inclusion or Direct Teaching

Updated: May, 2015
© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

I wrote a response to the following question and 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 and opinion may be different from ours. We think it's critical that we discuss different points of view related to inclusion-based education. We are not for or against blanket inclusion; we are proponents of thoughtful inclusion.

Question: 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 (the entire range except for “super high functioning”) should not be taught in an inclusion style model, especially in preschool. I have looked at Michelle's writings, and 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 our article that explores social learning differences or levels of the social mind, The Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile™ – Levels of the Social Mind. The scale in the article illuminates that students with social learning challenges fall on a spectrum of social ability. They are not all the same, which makes this a difficult question to answer and one that doesn't have a black and white response.

We do think it is shortsighted 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 more structured programs before they can join their neurotypical peers. Learning abstract social and communication strategies at this age is critical; the more they learn 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 about the social experience from watching or interacting with peers and from normal environmental encouragement, it would have occurred and we would not diagnose these students with social learning needs.

We’re not saying these children should never be included. 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 begin to understand how to use these concepts when they are with their neurotypical peers. Based on our experience in teaching kids with social learning difficulties, we know that the idea of challenged students modeling neurotypical social behavior tremendously oversimplifies 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 overstimulation 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. We begin by determining individual learning style and patterns of strengths and weaknesses before deciding the placement of a student. Traditionally, this has 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 age 3 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. 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 competencies affect all areas of a child’s functioning. They are 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 Social Learning Tree for more information on core social communication skills that can help students develop classroom and academic readiness across age groups.)

So what about our preschoolers with solid cognitive and language abilities? 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, they need specialized attention that typically requires some deeper interventions than what the typical preschool child experiences.

Parents and caregivers play a significant role at this (and every) age in children’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. Teaching parents how to encourage social concepts in the home environment and at other times away from school can support and encourage their child’s social roots to grow in any environment. 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 the engaging curricula series: We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers and Volume 2 Social Problem Solvers. The materials can be used to train the expert players (child mentors), support learning for all children (ages 4–7), and are a unique resource to teach our students with social learning challenges. The series includes two curricula with lessons, activities, and goals plus 10 fully illustrated storybooks to introduce Social Thinking Methodology concepts. Volume 2 introduces our cutting edge Group Collaboration, Play, and Problem Solving Scale (GPS) and provides play activities to support students at each level of play. To make the learning even more fun, explore the 12 catchy kid songs that reinforce the lessons (sold separately) written and performed by Grammy® award winners Tom Chapin and Phil Galdston.

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

Debbie Meringolo, MA, MS, Social Cognitive Therapist

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

The authors are part of the Social Thinking Training & Speakers’ Collaborative. They regularly speak on the Social Thinking Methodology and working with early learners.


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.

Ingersoll, B. R., & Wainer, A.L. (2011). Pilot study of a school-based parent-training program for preschoolers with ASD. Autism. 17(4). 434-448.

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.

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