Helping children meet difficult challenges: Early childhood special education

Until the mid-1970s, children who experienced developmental delays or disabilities were often excluded from public schools, and families were responsible for finding and organizing their children’s educational programs, especially for preschoolers. Families who could afford the expense sent their children to special private schools, and those who could not cared for their sons and daughters at home.

When families were faced with overwhelming demands in raising children with special needs or could not provide the level of care necessary, the only other option was residential institutions where children often became wards of the state. In the 1960s and 1970s, courageous parents formed advocacy groups and pressed lawsuits on behalf of their children, claiming that denial of public education for children with disabilities was discriminatory. The courts agreed and ruled that children with special needs had the same rights to public education as their typically developing peers.

In 1975, on the heels of many other pieces of civil rights legislation, the United States Congress passed a law requiring local school districts nationwide to provide special education to all eligible school-aged children. This legislation, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1991), represented a remarkable level of commitment for the federal government, since regulation and control of K–12 education had previously been the responsibility of each state.

IDEA legislation has been amended many times, most recently in 1997, and currently mandates special education services for all eligible children beginning at the age of 3. In other words, preschoolers with identified disabilities and delays are the only 3- to 5-year-olds the public schools have a legal responsibility to educate. (States have also been encouraged, but not required, to serve eligible infants and toddlers.)

Eligibility for preschool services can be determined in two different ways. The first is by disability categories that apply to children from age 3 to age 21: mental retardation; hearing, vision, language, or orthopedic impairments; serious emotional disturbance; autism; traumatic brain injury; and specific learning disabilities.

Parents and professionals alike, however, have long voiced significant concerns about premature labeling and misdiagnoses when applying such disability categories to very young children (McLean, Smith, McCormick, Schakel, & McEvoy, 1991). In 1991, Congress added a more appropriate, less specific, eligibility category for preschoolers: developmental delays in physical, cognitive, communication, social, emotional, or adaptive development. This category is strongly preferred to the disability categories for children under the age of 5 (Division for Early Childhood, 1996).

Evaluation of special education eligibility for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers usually involves interviews with parents and reviews of available medical records, as well as a comprehensive interdisciplinary assessment of the child’s development. Eligibility evaluation teams generally include a school psychologist, either a speech or motor therapist or both, special educators, family members, and perhaps a social worker. As a preschool or primary teacher, you will no doubt make referrals to special education, and the information and concerns you have about children will prove valuable to the eligibility evaluation team.

Because comprehensive evaluations are quite expensive and time consuming, short screening tests are often given first. If the tests indicate a likelihood of delay or disability, then a full-scale assessment, including both formal testing and observation, is scheduled. Each state defines its own conditions and test scores that qualify children for special education services.

As a preschool or primary teacher, you may well work with children in your classrooms who receive special education services, or you might decide to pursue special education as a career. For our final site visit, let’s go to a preschool special education classroom. The classroom is part of the public school system with a program for children ages 3 to 5. Although it is primarily for those who qualify for special education, the class also includes a few typically developing children. (Because of strict confidentiality guidelines in special education, the actual class is not identified by district or teacher.)

The Special Education Preschool
Two preschool children, one boy and one girl, walk confidently into the classroom and look around for the teacher. The little girl’s mother calls her back for a quick good-bye kiss, waves at the teacher, and leaves. The children hang their coats and backpacks on hooks under their names.

Good morning, Lea; good morning, Kyle. How was your weekend? Did you bring your journals?” The children go to their backpacks and produce small hand-bound books with covers decorated in colorful preschool style. Kyle says, “Me wented farm see horse.” He seems to have more to say. “Grandma’s,” he adds after a moment.

Oh, how fun. You went to your grandma’s farm and saw horses.” The teacher repeats his sentence using more proper syntax, reads his parents’ account of the weekend in the journal, and asks two more questions. Each of Kyle’s statements is reflected back to him in extended and expanded form.

Lea stands patiently but expectantly waiting for her turn to show the teacher her journal. She doesn’t say any words, but nods, points, and makes some sounds in response to the teacher’s questions. Other children enter the room during the next 15 minutes, and by 9:00 A.M. there are seven youngsters present. Most have shared their home–school journals with the teacher, and she has learned that one child was sick over the weekend, one had a toileting accident, and one began drawing pictures for family members. The last two arrivals are talking with the teacher, two boys are building a tower in the block corner, and three girls are using small paper punches at the art table, with help from the teaching assistant when needed, punching out shapes and pasting them on index cards.

At 9:00 A.M. the teacher sings a song about cleaning up. All the children put their materials away and congregate on the rug area in a semicircle around the teacher’s chair. Circle time commences with a hello song, each verse greeting a different child. The teacher signs as she sings and most of the children hum, sing, or sign along. The teaching assistant sits behind one boy and helps him follow the motions of the song (pointing, waving, clapping.) The children who are present hang up their name cards on the “In” board and “read” the name card for the child who is absent.

“After these traditional early childhood circle-time social activities, the group stays and works briefly on recognizing letter sounds. The teacher starts by using the name cards and asking the group to make the initial sounds of each name as she points to the letter. Some of the children seem to be associating the letters with the sounds; others make the sounds their peers are making.

At 9:20, the speech–language pathologist (SLP) and occupational therapist (OT) come into the room and join the end of circle time while the teaching assistant moves about setting up activities at centers around the room. The SLP goes to the dramatic play center with two children and the OT takes two others to the art table. The teaching assistant goes to the toy shelf with two children who select barn and garage sets, and the teacher works at a small desk with one girl who is learning to recognize numerals. These group activities last 15 minutes, and then the children rotate around to a different adult. After two rotations, the SLP leaves and the children go outside with the teaching assistant.

Outdoor play is a rather rambunctious affair for the first few minutes with much noisy running around before children sort themselves onto tricycles and climbing equipment and to the sand table. Afterward, everyone has a chance to wash hands and help get the snack together. The SLP returns and sits at the snack table, talking with the children and adults, clearly eliciting, expanding, and modeling communication skills. The teacher weaves number, color, time, and size concepts into the conversation as well and reminds children to take turns and share.

Children leave the snack table whenever they are finished, telling an adult the center they will play in next. The two adults cruise from center to center listening, observing, making comments, and asking questions until parents begin to arrive and children depart. The room is quiet as the assistant cleans up and the teacher records each child’s progress in individual notebooks. “Every moment counts for these kids,” says the teacher. “We are always teaching, even when it just looks like play.”

Influences on ECSE Preschools
You have probably noticed a number of similarities and differences among the special education preschool and the other models described in this chapter. Like Head Start, the ECSE preschool is supported by federal law and funding that flows through the states to local programs. Both Head Start and ECSE programs are designed to provide support for a particular group of children who are at risk for school failure, although the eligibility criteria differ. The types of specific materials, structured curricula, and direct instructional strategies found in Montessori preschools can also be found in ECSE classrooms, sometimes giving an impression of more work than play.

The teachers in ECSE classrooms are more directly responsible for the content and outcomes of individual children’s learning, however. Teaching teams with specialized expertise are the norm in both ECSE and the Waldorf models, although the particular specialties are quite different and both models have children with the same teachers for several years.

Project-based approaches are increasingly being modified for use in ECSE classrooms, with an emphasis on individual education plan (IEP) objectives that promote repeated practice and generalization of functional skills across a number of related activities. The individualization inherent in the Reggio Emilia model, along with the partnerships among school, families, and communities, is also reflected strongly in ECSE programs.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about ECSE programs, however, is that the professionals working in them are familiar with the full range of approaches in early childhood education, and they work in close partnership with other early childhood programs in the best interests of each child.