What about Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education? Early Childhood Education’s Knot Just Got Thornier

Blog Post
March 19, 2019

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin offers opening comments. For readers new to the Series, her introduction explains the series' intent.

Pat Snyder's blog lifts up a population of children Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators has largely overlooked: children served by early intervention and early childhood special education (EI/ECSE). Snyder not only explains the interlocking relationship of EI/ECSE with early childhood educators' thorny knot, she challenges us to contemplate the consequences for inclusive early childhood education settings if its omission is not addressed.

Early intervention and early childhood special education (EI/ECSE) refers to two programs of supports and services for young children from birth through age 5 with or at risk for disabilities or delays and for their families. Since 1986, these two programs have been codified in federal policy under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They are now known as Part C, the early intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families, and the Part B preschool grants program for children with or at-risk for disabilities 3 through 5 years of age. Notably, despite a federal policy statement on the importance of inclusive early learning settings, this blog series has yet to address this group of educators and has overlooked their thorny knot and its intersection with early childhood educators’ knot.

What might be surprising to many given EI/ECSE’s history is how interconnected its thorny knot is with ECE’s thread related to education and preparation. Although EI/ECSE programs existed before 1986, state-level personnel qualifications or personnel development systems were not specified or mandated to be in place until 1991. Interestingly, when these two programs were established in 1986, practitioners from other disciplines serving young children with or at-risk for disabilities were already affiliated with professional fields of practice (e.g., speech-language pathology, physical therapy, occupational therapy—even though they might not have had specialized competencies relevant for EI/ECSE). Yet, when it came to educator positions in EI/ECSE, one could work (and in many cases still can work) as a special instructor or preschool special education teacher without being fully credentialed or licensed when entering the workforce.

Consequently, tensions have existed about EI/ECSE practitioner competencies since 1986, whether serving as special instructors under the Part C program or as preschool teachers under the Part B preschool grants program. Thorny questions abound: Should these individuals be required to have a strong foundation in ECE, special education, or both? Is EI/ECSE a part of the ECE field, an auxiliary field of practice, an ECE subspecialty, or a special education subspecialty? Who should establish and oversee the credentialing of these individuals in each of the two programs? Should credentialing be different for those working in Part C versus Part B? How should preservice programs be designed to prepare individuals to meet the developmental and learning needs of the children being served?

As a former practitioner who entered the EI/ECSE field in 1978 as a speech language therapist, I subsequently obtained master’s and doctoral degrees in special education with EI/ECSE emphases. In addition to working as a speech therapist, I also worked as a home visitor in early intervention, a preschool special education teacher, and inclusive early childhood program administrator. Given these practice experiences, as well as my current involvement with personnel preparation, I maintain that the time has come to position EI/ECSE as a specialization within ECE as part of the latter’s evolution toward becoming a professional field of practice. My assertion is based on years of experiencing the “separateness” that too often exists between early childhood education (ECE) and EI/ECSE—a separation that is detrimental not only to the EI/ECSE and ECE fields, but also to the formation of ECE as an inclusive field of practice capable of serving all young children and their families.

If we aspire to inclusion and the inclusive practices described in the 2015 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs, those of us in these two, now relatively distinct, fields will need to come together to address complicated questions associated with which competencies are important for all early childhood educators to possess and which ones should be associated with an EI/ECSE specialization. In other words, what would distinguish a general ECE professional from an ECE professional with specialization(s) focused on supporting young children with or at-risk for disabilities, young children who are dual language learners, or young children who have experienced chronic adverse early childhood experiences?

I recently reviewed Power to the Profession’s (P2P) Discussion Draft 2, Decision Cycles 3,4,5 + 6 and the draft EI/ECSE personnel preparation standards developed by the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (DEC/CEC). The significant and sustained efforts devoted to developing a stand-alone set of standards for EI/ECSE needs to be acknowledged. These standards, as I understand it, will replace DEC/CEC’s existing initial and advanced knowledge and skills specialty sets. What is not clear to me is if these updated performance-based competencies will be situated within a larger ECE professional field of practice (i.e., as if EI/ECSE were a specialization) or remain separate. It is unclear from the draft standards of P2P, as well as those of DEC/CEC, whether an independent pathway is being forged when it comes to EI/ECSE’s preparation and education, even though the P2P draft document included promising statements about a unified framework for the ECE profession, including professional preparation, responsibilities, scope of practice, specialization [emphasis added], and compensation.

Incremental progress is being made to define ECE as a professional field of practice and to identify the need for specializations such as EI/ECSE. But, unless we move forward now to accelerate and further align ECE’s and EI/ECSE’s future trajectories, achieving aspirational statements about a unified ECE profession is unlikely to become a reality for this and future generations of early childhood educators.

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