In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) replaced the Education of the Handicapped Act (P.L. 94-142 and P.L. 99-457). IDEA (P.L. 105-17) states that children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education and that each child's education will be planned and monitored with an individualized education program or an individualized family service plan. Section 612 of IDEA states:

to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children, who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1990)

When IDEA replaced prior legislature, the age range mandated in P.L. 94-142 (6 through 21 years) and in P.L. 99-457 (ages 3 through 6) was combined to promote the involvement of the family and to offer a wide range of services and specialists to support the child in a least restrictive environment. IDEA also changed the language of the law, focusing more on the individual with disabilities rather than on handicapped children. This new terminology focuses attention to the individual, not to the label or condition. Categories of eligibility for special education services are included in IDEA.

IDEA 1997

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 shifted the focus of IDEA to improve teaching and learning through emphasizing the individual educational plan as a primary tool for educational planning, increasing the role of parents in educational decision making and promoting meaningful access to the general curriculum. IDEA 1997 reflected a strengthened "preference for children with disabilities to be educated and receive services with their non-disabled age-mates in typical early childhood settings" (Smith & Rapport, 1999). Part B of this law provided resources and services for children ages 3 through 5 with developmental delays or those with an identified disability. The child's learning needs are outlined on either an IEP or IFSP, with the major focus on providing support and resources for developmental learning. The use of a noncategorical classification, such as development delay, is permitted for children ages 3 through 9.

Part C of IDEA authorizes financial assistance to support the needs of infants and toddlers with disabilities and the needs of their families. Agencies are to provide comprehensive early intervention services that focus on the child's developmental and medical needs as well as family needs. Services and progress are documented on the IFSP and are to be provided in the natural environment, which is often the home with infants and toddlers. Infants and toddlers must be classified under a noncategorical term, such as developmental delay. Under Part C, each state has the option to include children who are at risk of developmental delays.


The reauthorization of IDEA in 2004 retained the major principles and components of IDEA but reached further with key changes that have impacted children with special needs and programs in the past few years. Many of the changes bring IDEA in alignment with the No Child Left Behind Act. Several of the major changes include the following:

  • Highly qualified teachers. All special education teachers are to be certified in special education.
  • Individualized education programs (IEPs). Each IEP must contain annual goals that are measurable along with a description of how the child's progress toward meeting those goals will be measured and reported.
  • Specific learning disabilities. A new provision releases schools from the current requirement to show a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability to determine if a child has a specific learning disability. The school or agency may use a scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation process.

The intent of the IDEA Improvement 2004 was to ensure that a quality program is provided for all children with special needs (Kirk et al., 2006).


To early childhood professionals, IDEA means that more children with special needs are now eligible for programs, with services and resources available to support the child, family, and teacher in providing education for the child. The requirement of appropriate services to support the child in her learning through IDEA brings early childhood professionals into a team of specialists working together in planning, implementing, and assessing a child's learning. The child with special needs is granted access to the programs, but there is also the requirement of support services accompanying the child. These support services, such as occupational therapy or speech therapy, are critical to the child's development and to her success in a least restrictive setting.


When Jodie required the help of an occupational therapist to develop programs to help her with eating skills and fine motor development, the occupational therapist went to Jodie's preschool and provided the services at that site. She communicated with Pilar (Jodie's preschool teacher), the speech/language therapist, the early intervention specialist, and Lynn and Cheng. Together, this team of specialists designed an educational plan for Jodie and shared her learning and her challenges. This is an example of a multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary team—that is, a group of specialists working together across areas of expertise.

Importance of These Laws

Each of these laws shaped programs and services for young children with special needs. It is essential for you to be knowledgeable of the laws and to have an understanding of the support and services they provide for young children. You will also want to follow the laws and their intent in your program. Jodie's parents learned about their rights and about available programs through their parent support group and from the early intervention specialist who helped coordinate services for Jodie.

As an early childhood professional, you will want to provide the best learning environment possible. It is reassuring to know that you will have the help of specialists when working with children with special needs. Now, let's take a closer look at early childhood special education.