‘Renewed urgency’ needed for early ed inclusion

HHS and the Education Department say 55% of preschoolers with disabilities get special education services in classrooms separate from their peers.

K-12 Dive | By Kara Arundel | November 29, 2023

Young children with disabilities should be included in high-quality early childhood education programs alongside peers without disabilities so they can receive individualized supports and achieve their full potential, according to an updated policy statement released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education. 

Pointing to a “renewed commitment and urgency,” the 68-page statement reiterates the expectations for inclusive early childhood settings for children from birth through age 5. 

It also updated recommendations for state and local agencies charged with implementing or overseeing any early childhood education program, including Head Start, child care, home visiting, preschool and public schools, as well as programs that provide early childhood special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,.

″Our nation’s youngest learners – including those with disabilities – deserve access to high quality early childhood programs that nurture their potential and provide a strong foundation for future success,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, in a statement.

The updated statement builds upon one issued by HHS and the Education Department in 2015.

The new version points out that the COVID-19 pandemic limited access to inclusive early childhood programs. Indeed, the policy statement shows that in 2021, more than half — 55% — of preschool children with disabilities got early childhood special education services in settings separate from children without disabilities. 

The portion of preschool children with disabilities attending inclusive early childhood programs is largely unchanged over the past four decades, the departments said.

For even younger children with disabilities, enrollment nationwide in IDEA’s Part C program for children birth through age 2 with disabilities dropped in 2020 to 363,387 from 427,234 in 2019, according to figures from the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs. Enrollment rose to 406,000 in 2021.

However, most infants and toddlers served by Part C in 2020 — 93% — received those services in a home setting. The other 7% of young children received services in a community-based or other type of setting.

Maureen Greer, executive director of the IDEA Infants and Toddlers Coordinators Association, a member organization of Part C state leaders, said in an email that the organization welcomes the strong messaging by the federal agencies in support of inclusive practices and settings for all young children with disabilities. 

“We believe that inclusive environments also serve infants and toddlers with disabilities as their parents seek out childcare to support their ability to continue in the workforce,” Greer said. “The commitment to high-quality settings and experiences is important to support the appropriate development of every child to the best of their ability.”

The statement by HHS and the Education Department provided characteristics of high-quality and inclusive early childhood programs, such as ones that:

  • Include children with disabilities so they can learn together alongside their peers without disabilities. 
  • Provide high-quality teaching and learning environments that support children’s development and allow all children to meet high expectations.
  • Intentionally promote children’s participation in all learning and social activities, with individualized accommodations and differentiated interventions and instruction. 
  • Use high-quality, evidence-based services and supports that are developmentally appropriate, culturally and linguistically responsive. These supports should also foster children’s knowledge and skills, use of appropriate behaviors, positive social emotional skills, and sense of belonging.

The statement also includes resources and examples of model practices. 

For example, it highlighted Michigan’s Bay-Arenac Intermediate School District, which — in seeking to decrease the number of children enrolled in separate early childhood special education classrooms — reduced the number of classrooms districtwide from 11 to 4. The district also created a position for a preschool inclusion and equity specialist and hired two staffers to provide coaching on evidence-based inclusive practices.

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