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Children's Medical Services - Special services for children with special needs
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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 4, Lesson 1

The Evolution of Best Practices for all Infants and Toddlers

The dynamic field of Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) has its roots in the 1960's in parent fields of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Compensatory education, but the birth of ECSE as a field of its own came during mergers of these fields in the 1970's. Three national organizations were formed to support the needs of respective early childhood programs: the National Association for the Education of Young Children supports the field of Early Childhood (NAEYC); The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) supports the Special Education field; Head Start and (since 1995) Early Head Start which was formed to provide compensatory and comprehensive child development programs that serve children from birth to age 5 and their families with low-incomes. Each organization strongly advocates for best practices with aggressive research campaigns and subsequent policy recommendations (Davis, Kilgo, McCormick, 1998).

Baby smilingThe National Association for the Education of Young Children first begun developing and refining its position on Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP) for Young Children in the mid to late 1970's. The resulting definition of DAP and set of guidelines for best practices emerged with two components: Age-Appropriateness taking into consideration typical development in general preparation of the physical environment, but also Individual Appropriateness taking into consideration each child's unique development, personality, and family culture - clearly stating that programs should be responsive to individual differences. Both components grounded the first version of DAP (Bredekamp,1987) and were later clarified in the revised edition (Bredekamp & Copple, 1998).

The first major law for children with special needs, PL 94-142, The Education of the Handicapped Act (1975) provided for the education of children as young as three years of age in the least restrictive environments with the underlying message that all people have the right to participate fully in community and family life, yet left room for interpretation. Around the same time as the book, Developmentally Appropriate Practices, was published, PL 94-142 was amended by the PL 99-457 seeking full services for preschool, Part B and infants and toddlers, Part H. The emphasis in Part H (later changed to Part C) was on services in natural environments (everyday routines, activities and places that ALL children and families might participate), but again the interpretations for application of the law varied.

In 1972, the Economic Opportunity Act Amendments required Head Start Programs to reserve at least 10% of enrollments for children with special needs to ensure that the positive efforts of Head Start would be available for young children with disabilities as well. This comprehensive program targets all children who are at risk for failure, so it seemed natural that children with diagnosed special needs who fit the income eligibility should be included in settings with their typically developing peers. The strong family roles in the entire Head Start operation combined with quality programming for children have been researched to show the long-term effects for ALL children, those typically developing and children with disabilities.

In 1977, the Zero to Three national, nonprofit organization dedicated solely to advancing the healthy development of babies and young children was founded by top developmental experts. Its purpose is to disseminate key developmental information, train providers, promote model approaches and standards of practice and work to increase public awareness about the significance of the first three years of life. There was a growing public sentiment and research to support quality care and education for young children beginning at birth - the earlier the better.

Other influences from such fields as psychology, social work, nursing, and audiology have also had an effect on service delivery for infants and toddlers. In general, many services from the 1970's through the early 21st century were directly provided to children by therapists, health professionals and special education teachers. Although Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act provided the language for services to families and young children with special needs in natural environments, specialized curriculum training for families and other caregivers was not yet readily available.

While there were movements to unify or blend the fields of Early Childhood, Special Education and Compensatory Education, preparation in Special Education and in Early Childhood teacher education programs remained separate until the early 1990's. Separate preparation for teaching with different strategies and sometimes differing theoretical constructs regarding the best ways children learn kept the fields at odds when a child with a disability needed a service. Questions were asked such as the following:

  1. Should the child be in a self-contained setting where he/she will get the specialized training needed?
  2. How can a teacher, parent, or caregiver without specialized training give the child with special needs the attention and focused supports?
  3. Would a program that espouses DAP really provide the adaptations for a child with special needs?

Mother and child drawingA few pioneering institutions realized that fundamental systems changes were needed to merge early childhood and early childhood special education teacher preparation so that both children with special needs and those typically developing could benefit from best practices - individually and developmentally appropriate (Blanton, L, Griffin, C., Winn, J. & Pugach, M., 1997; Hartle, Jones, Kemple, Rapport, & Correa, 1997; Winton, McCollum, & Catlett, 1997). This allowed for dialogue between the best practices in the fields of early childhood (EC) and early childhood special education (ECSE). Teacher beliefs were being shaped through experiences in various settings and with children both typically developing and those with special needs. Some of the hesitations and limited beliefs about learning were being dispelled while other individualized approaches for all children were being fostered.

At that same timeframe, The Division of Early Childhood (DEC) established a task force of families as well as teachers and other service providers to review and consider important care and education for young children with special needs and their families as a distinct group from older children. A set of recommended practices, DEC Recommended Practices: Indicators of Quality in Programs for Infants and Young Children with Special Needs and their Families (DEC Task Force on Recommended Practices, 1993) brought recognition to the importance of early intervention.


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