How is Early Childhood Intervention Provided? (page 4)
Special education and early childhood education are separate entities, yet they are intertwined. We cannot fully understand one without considering the other. To a large extent, both special and general early education aim to provide high-quality educational experiences for young children. They may both be derived from the disciplines of child development and education, but the specific instructional techniques used may be somewhat different. Special education tends to offer greater direction and more explicit instruction in specific skills.
The best-known early intervention programs straddle the line between general and special education. Most of the students for whom they are designed have not been identified as having disabilities, although they are at risk for later identification if they do not receive effective instruction. Thus, these programs are focused on primary and secondary prevention. That is, they are intended to prevent learning disabilities from emerging and to correct learning problems that have been perceived.
Popular Early Intervention Programs
Three early intervention programs are particularly well known nationally. All are designed to provide prevention and early intervention for young children who are at high risk for school failure (Vaughn et al., 1997).
Project Head Start
Perhaps the most visible historical link between general and special early childhood education is Project Head Start. In the 1960s, the federal government launched Head Start with the intention of addressing the needs of preschool children from low-income families for educational experiences prior to their entry into kindergarten (Zigler & Styfco, 2000). Head Start remains one of the most popular government social programs, and its basic premise—that early educational intervention can prevent school failure and related developmental problems—remains the foundation for other early childhood education programs serving children at risk.
Although Head Start is not focused on children with disabilities, these children may be identified and served in the context of Head Start classrooms. However, federal legislation separate from Head Start now requires early intervention programs for preschoolers with disabilities, and these children may be served in a variety of environments. Most often today they are served in the context of integrated preschools attended by both normally developing and developmentally delayed children. Often, these programs are concerned with the emergence of a variety of difficulties, including emotional and behavioral disorders, attention problems, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities (see Redden, Forness, Ramey, Ramey, & Brezausek, 2002; Redden, Forness, Ramey, Ramey, Brezausek, & Kavale, in press; Serna, Lambros, Neilsen, & Forness, 2002; Sinclair, 1993).
Reading Recovery is a program imported from New Zealand (Clay, 1985; Pinnel, 1990). It requires special teacher training in how to provide individual tutoring for low-achieving first-graders. The tutoring sessions last for 30 minutes, and a typical session involves the following:
- child rereading a familiar book
- teacher analyzing the reading by keeping a running record
- letter identification activities, if necessary
- child writing a story, with emphasis on hearing the sounds of words
- putting together a cut-up story
- child becoming acquainted with and reading a new book (Vaughn et al., 1997, p.320)
The success of Reading Recovery depends not only on having a well-trained teacher who knows how to assess reading skills and teach those the child needs, but also on having enough such teachers to provide individual sessions with all the students who need them. Although Reading Recovery has strong proponents, others caution that it is expensive and largely unproven (go to www.TeachingLD.org and click on Reading Recovery).
Success for All
Success for All (SFA) is a program designed at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (Slavin, Madden, Dolan, & Wasik, 1994). It focuses on children in kindergarten through third grade who are at risk of school failure. SFA combines emphasis on reading in the general class curriculum with tutoring, small-group instruction, and work with families to try to ensure that every child learns to read. During reading instruction, which is scheduled for 90 minutes, the pupils leave their general grade-level class for instruction in smaller, more homogeneous groups. These groups are comprised of 10 to 20 children who are all reading at about the same level, although their general classrooms might range from grades 1 to 3. The primary components of the program are:
- a family support team (including a social worker and a parent liaison)
- reading tutoring for students with particular problems for as long as necessary
- an innovative curriculum that integrates reading and writing instruction in meaningful contexts
- regrouping of students across grades for reading instruction (Vaughn et al., 1997, p. 321)
All popular early intervention programs focus on teaching young children in small groups or individual tutoring. There appears to be no substitute for intensive, focused, and skillful teacher attention. The fact that a program is popular and widely used across the nation does not necessarily mean it is highly effective. Further research on the effects of early intervention programs on children's learning and school success will tell which approach is most effective and efficient. However, researchers have shown that small-group or individualized tutoring are hallmarks of effective reading instruction (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, in press).
Not all services for young children with learning disabilities are part of a popular program. Both Jamal and Shannon received services tailored to their needs that were not part of Head Start, Reading Recovery, or Success for All. The services they received involved assessment to pinpoint their instructional needs and special instruction to address their academic deficits.
Legal Requirements of Early Intervention
The federal role in early childhood education, particularly for young children with or at risk of disabilities, has gradually increased over the years (Bailey, 2000; Gallagher, 2000; Smith, 2000; Zigler & Styfco, 2000). Federal laws now require that all preschool children, including infants and toddlers, receive free and appropriate services if they have disabilities (Ruefner, 2000; Yell, 1998). These laws are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other laws enacted primarily to address severe disabilities of preschool-age children. The 1997 amendments of IDEA extended the law to cover infants and toddlers. As we have already noted, however, most children with learning disabilities are not identified until they are in school; the pitfalls of earlier identification of learning disabilities are great.
IDEA allows special education teachers to work with general education students who do not have identified disabilities as long as the needs of those with identified disabilities are being met. This opens additional possibilities for prevention in the form of early intervention—additional help before a learning problem becomes a learning disability. If children are identified as needing special services due to a disability during their preschool years, federal laws require a plan for working with the child's family. Specifically, the families of infants and toddlers must be involved in developing an individualized family service plan (IFSP), which is similar to the individualized education program (IEP) required for school-age children under IDEA. An IFSP must include:
- present levels of the child's cognitive, physical, language and speech, psychosocial, and self-help development
- family resources, priorities, and concerns relating to the child's development
- major expected outcomes for the child and family, including criteria, procedures, and time lines for assessing progress
- specific early intervention services necessary to meet the child's and the family's needs, including frequency, intensity, location, and method of delivery
- projected dates for initiating and ending the services
- name of the case manager
- steps needed to ensure a smooth transition from the early intervention program into a preschool program
IFSPs, like IEPs, are not easy to implement well. However, they do provide a structure for ensuring that families are involved and that the child's needs are addressed. Federal mandates to provide early intervention programs for children with disabilities are perceived as among the least burdensome or wasteful and most cost-effective social programs of government. Research data will likely provide increasing support for this perception.
Evaluating Early Childhood Program Quality
An early intervention program is not necessarily of high quality just because it meets the legal requirements. A high-quality program goes beyond the law to provide a nurturing and effective learning environment for the child. A good program makes certain that young children are acquiring both the academic skills and the social skills that they will need to be successful in school (see Speece et al., 2002; Vaughn et al., 2003).
Katz (1994) provides an overview on program quality from the perspectives of the preschool children served, parents, staff, and community and suggests some of the questions each participant in early childhood programs might ask in evaluating program quality. For example, the following are questions we might expect children to ask—if they could—about their program. (Affirmative answers would indicate high program quality.)
- Do I usually feel that I belong to the group and am not just part of the crowd?
- Do I usually feel accepted, understood, and protected by the adults rather than scolded or neglected by them?
- Am I usually accepted by some of my peers rather than ignored or rejected by them?
- Am I usually addressed seriously and respectfully rather than being treated as someone who is "precious" or "cute"?
- Am I usually glad to be here rather than reluctant to come and eager to leave?
- Do I find most of the activities engaging, absorbing, and challenging rather than just amusing, fun, entertaining, or exciting?
- Do I find most of the experiences interesting rather than frivolous or boring?
- Do I find most of the activities meaningful rather than mindless or trivial?
- Do I find most of my experiences satisfying rather than frustrating or confusing? (Katz, 1994, p. 201)
Certainly, these questions are relevant to both general and special education programs, in both the higher grades and preschool. One final question posed by Katz (1994) seems essential in judging program quality, particularly for students with disabilities: Am I acquiring the specific skills necessary for my satisfactory progress through school?
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