Early Childhood Special Education and ESSA: A Great Opportunity for All

States and districts should prioritize the inclusion of children with disabilities in efforts to improve early learning programs
Blog Post
July 11, 2017

New America is proud to partner with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) on this blog series highlighting early learning opportunities and challenges under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In this week's post, Donna Spiker, Kathleen Hebbeler, Debbie Cate, and Sharon Walsh explain how states and districts can prioritize the inclusion of children with disabilities in efforts to improve early learning programs.

The early childhood provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) enable districts to improve early learning for all children, including young children with disabilities. ESSA allows (but does not require) use of Title I funding for early childhood, birth through third grade education. If districts do use Title I funds for this, they are required to follow Head Start performance standards (non-regulatory guidance emphasizes the outcomes framework), to develop agreements with early childhood education programs, and to describe how they will support, coordinate, and integrate services with them.

Under ESSA, districts can increase high-quality early learning opportunities by creating new programs, by adding slots to existing programs, and by improving the quality of existing programs. Creating more high-quality early learning slots is also an opportunity to serve young children with disabilities in these programs. Increasing the number of children with disabilities who are fully included in early learning programs is a long-standing goal in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has been promoted by professional associations and in a recent joint policy statement from the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and is supported by nonregulatory guidance on early learning and ESSA.

Planning for the inclusion of young children with disabilities in new or expanded early learning programs offers local education agencies the additional benefit of supporting their efforts under IDEA. That is, local education agencies can assure that children with disabilities receive services in the least restrictive environment (LRE), delivered in regular early childhood classrooms with typically developing children to the maximum extent possible.  

Achieving this worthy goal requires that high-quality early learning programs be widely available.  NAEYC developmentally appropriate practices (DAP), including instructional practices to promote learning and development, teacher-child interactions, assessment practices, the use of materials and the physical environment, constitute the foundation of quality for all children, including children with disabilities. A large body of research shows that providing high-quality early learning services in inclusive settings is beneficial for young children, their families, and their communities. School districts electing to use ESSA funding to improve early learning programs are creating a potential win-win situation, increasing the number of high-quality early learning opportunities available, and increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes for all children, including young children with disabilities.

We encourage states and school districts to maximize these new opportunities under ESSA and to prioritize the inclusion of children with disabilities in these efforts. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act have specific provisions that prohibit discrimination and address the inclusion of young children with disabilities by providing reasonable accommodations. Programs designed for all young children must consider the needs of children with disabilities and provide them the supports and accommodations required to ensure their full participation.

For inclusion to be successful, a variety of supports must be in place in the district and the classroom. One essential support is professional development.  When program directors, teachers, and child care providers have specific training or coursework on working with children with disabilities, their programs are more likely to include these children. ESSA provides an opportunity for districts to offer professional development and to put these additional supports in place. Nonregulatory ESSA early learning guidance from the Department of Education notes that funding can be used:

“…to increase preschool teachers’ competencies in instructing children with disabilities; ensuring that appropriate accommodations are in place, such as assistive technology, so that children can access the curriculum or participate in assessments; implementing schoolwide models of positive interventions and supports to promote healthy social, emotional, and behavioral development; and supporting the universal design of the environment or instructional materials” (page 20).   

The story of how states and districts will use ESSA to expand early learning opportunities is unfolding. We hope that a large part of that story will be increasing the number of high-quality early childhood programs and that these programs will fully include young children with disabilities.

For further information on ESSA see CEELO’s ESSA webpage and New America’s Early and Elementary Education Team’s ESSA webpage.