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Early Childhood Education

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

IDEA requires local school districts to provide special education services to pre-school aged children meeting eligibility requirements. Originally IDEA pre-school programs were limited to children between the ages of 3 and 5 years but the most recent version of IDEA provides incentives for states to provide early intervention services to children from birth until 3 years who show developmental delays, or who are at risk for such delays. Being "at-risk" means that these children have biological, medical, or environmental characteristics that they share in common with children who later developed disabilities. The goal of these early childhood interventions is to prevent children from developing disabilities or to prevent disabilities from worsening before children enter school.

preschoolerChildren who may qualify for these services are infants or toddlers up to age 3 who: 1) have been diagnosed with a severe medical condition including but not limited to Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and brain injury or, 2) who have biological risks like low birth weight or premature birth or, 3) who have environmental risks such as extreme poverty, homelessness, parental substance abuse, abuse or neglect. Often pediatricians, birth hospitals, and other providers will connect families with their state's early intervention programming if they suspect a need. However, parents who are concerned can also ask their pediatrician, day care provider, or local school district about these services.

According to IDEA, these early intervention programs are intended to serve families in their natural environment, mainly at home, or even the hospital soon after birth. Sometimes, these programs will also include an office-based component for families to participate in. Normally, families will have their first appointment at home with a nurse, social worker, or other community outreach worker assigned to them in the role of case worker. The case worker will talk to the family about their strengths, needs, and concerns for their young children, and perform preliminary screenings to determine that a child is eligible for services.

Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP)

Once a family has been found eligible for pre-school services, the case worker will develop an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) in collaboration with the family. The IFSP is like an IEP in that it identifies a child's current functioning, goals for early intervention, what services will be provided, who will provide these services, how often they'll be provided for, etc. However, IFSP's differ from IEP's in three main ways:

1) IFSP's are written to benefit the entire family, in order to strengthen it and to lessen the possible risk factors that could affect the child's development. In contrast, the IEP focuses on the individual child,

2) The IFSP focuses on providing these services in the natural environment of home and community. The IEP focuses on educational settings

3) The IFSP is more likely to draw upon multiple community agencies which coordinate to provide various supports to the family. In contrast, the IEP is school-based and typically does not involve external community agencies.

Like IEPs, IFSPs must be renewed each year. These evaluations are conducted by the local school system once the child turns three years old. Children who continue to meet criteria for disability at age three are found eligible for special education services, and transitioned to an IEP. If a family is already has an IFSP, their case worker should help them through this transition. However, if a family has not received pre-school services they may request a disabilities evaluation of their three year old child from their local school district as outlined earlier in this article.

Pre-school children can be found eligible for special education services if they are disabled under one of IDEA's 13 eligible disabilities discussed earlier in this article. However, IDEA also permits but does not require school districts to provide special education service to children ages 3-9 years, under a determination of developmental delay (determined by diagnostic testing). This means that if a child does not meet the stringent and specific criteria for one of the 13 recognized eligible disabilities but does have a "developmental delay" and are between the ages of 3 and 9, the school may provide this child with special education services but is not required to do so.

If children are determined to be eligible for services, the family and school system will collaborate to develop an IEP as described earlier. These children (who for the most part are not yet school-aged) will receive services at home, in local community centers or preschools, or in a combination of both. Some services are provided directly to the child (such as speech therapy or physical therapy), but services are also delivered to the parents and are designed to support their successful parenting of special needs children.