Finland’s Approach to Special Needs & Inclusion

In Finland, quality ECEC is the right of every child and according to the national constitution, everyone is equal before the law. The country prides itself on taking a holistic approach and providing all citizens with a high-quality education. Therefore, all children, regardless of their needs, are able to participate in early childhood education and care. Only children with the greatest educational needs are taught in separate classrooms or schools. 


Finland’s System of Support for Special Needs

In order to accomplish the impressive level of inclusion that it has, Finland’s education system provides three tiers of support: general, intensified and special support.

General support encompasses any practices that a teacher implements for the whole classroom. Even if there are no special needs in their group of children, teachers still consider the individual needs of every child in their general support practices. This can include designing activities easily adaptable for different levels, regulating the length of activities to match the children’s attention span and keeping children informed about the routines and schedule for the day. For example, if a child gets distracted more easily than others, the teacher has that child sit near an assistant during group activities to help them stay focused. Teachers also provide helpful tools for different learners, such as balancing cushions for physically active children. By taking these steps, educators ensure that the proper support is available whenever children need it.

Intensified support includes any extra measures that a teacher takes for children who require additional help. This involves regular, individually planned support measures and educators plan such measures with the child’s guardians and they can sometimes bring in specialists when needed.

Special support is often required if a child has a severe disability, illness or developmental disorder. In these cases, the need for support is full-time, long-term and highly individual. In these cases, teachers also bring in specialists and the child’s parents to form a working team that can address all aspects of the child’s needs.

It is important to note that even when providing intensified and special support, teachers strive to keep all their children in one group. In a traditional setting, a special education teacher might take a couple of children to a ‘special education’ class for an hour, thereby separating them from the rest of the group. In an inclusive Finnish classroom, on the other hand, teachers provide more hands-on support for the children who need it while they participate in group activities.

For example, they might divide the children into small groups that contain a mix of children with and without special needs so that other children can also support the learning of those who need extra help. In these setting, teachers can also respond to children’s initiatives, give individual attention and provide more support than they could in a whole-class setting. We provide many other tips based on best practices in our materials that can help you support special needs learners in your own classroom as well.


The Principles of Finnish Inclusion


The Finnish education system takes inclusion seriously. In fact, the term ‘special needs’ does not even appear in Finnish educational legislation because inclusion is the goal. There is an understanding in Finland that all children have the right and need to participate in various parts of kindergarten life, and research shows that learning together has benefits for children with and without special needs.

Different aspects of inclusion in ECE include social settings, whether it’s spending time with friends, having discussions, joking, or participating in birthday parties, functional aspects like shared activities, free play and daily activities, physical settings, such as spending time inside or outside, going on trips, participating in morning circles and meal time, and emotional aspects, including being able to experience the joy of learning, engagement, sense of belonging and community that ECE should bring to children.

In order for educators to deliver effective support for all children, they must have knowledge, commitment, know-how and teamwork. Knowledge involves knowing how to plan and arrange support - what an educator should do and how they should do it. Commitment means having the entire community behind the idea that all children should be taught together. This fosters a willingness to work through the challenges that inclusion inevitably presents. Know-how encompasses the concrete skills and tools that a teacher employs to provide the right type of support to each child. Finally, teamwork matters because parents need to be involved in order for inclusion to succeed. They must have knowledge about how their children are supported and included. The smaller the child, the more important the parents are in ensuring that such support is effective.

In 2016, the European Agency for Special and Inclusive Education conducted a project to study best practices of inclusion in ECE. When they visited Finland, they found many strengths in the education system, such as:

  • Individual planning
  • Education + care model
  • Support does not determine placement
  • Qualified staff
  • Emphasis on play

Firstly, each child receives an individualized plan. The child’s teacher and parents meet to discuss the child’s strengths, interests and needs for support and how they can be taken into account in the child’s learning journey. Each child receives such a plan, regardless of their ability, and the teacher and parents meet at least once more each year to discuss the child’s progress. An emphasis on regular observation and pedagogical documentation also support this individualized approach. They guide the process of planning pedagogical support for the child so that all support provided is based on what the child actually needs. This approach promotes inclusion, and HEI Schools implements a similar practice throughout its Learning Centers.

Secondly, the Finnish approach incorporates care into children’s education. This means that caretaking moments and routines, whether it’s changing diapers or clothes, giving cuddles or supporting children’s healthy eating habits, are part of young children’s educational journey. If a child with special needs needs for more support in these areas, educators can naturally adapt their approach to suit their requirements. At HEI Schools, we use a similar model called ‘pedacare’ in which teachers create teaching opportunities in those caretaking moments.

Thirdly, support does not determine placement. A child does not need to be in a special education class in order to get support. Indeed, Finland’s early education system has three tiers of support which allow most children to take part in the daily life of kindergarten together. Only in the most severe cases, in which a child requires hospital-like care or has significant educational needs, are they put into separate classrooms or schools. 

Finnish ECE teachers are highly trained, and this promotes inclusion. They must have a university degree and as such, they acquire the skills and knowledge to identify and provide individual support to children with different needs. With this knowledge, they can raise their concerns about a child’s needs to that child’s parents early on and address the situation proactively. Thanks to their education, they also understand the importance of inclusion for all children, which is a valuable resource in the process of developing inclusive education.

Finally, Finnish ECE emphasizes play. This focus gives teachers the freedom to develop an operational culture and ways of teaching that are conducive to inclusion. They have the flexibility to make choices about how they conduct their teaching based on their specific group of children, which allows for more individualized support too. And because play comes so naturally to children, this focus fosters inclusion in ECE.

By taking this approach, teachers avoid marking those children as special or different and instead provide opportunities for everyone to learn and work together.

Learn more about the HEI Schools curriculum and how it fosters inclusion!

Read more about the curriculum