Early childhood special education that is practiced today has a varied and sometimes hard won history. Its roots are entangled in cultural, economic, and idealistic influences; each facet tinged by the colored lens of the times and adding a little glint to modern day practices. The conglomeration of historical theories and practices, political actions and enacted laws has paved the way to modern early childhood special education practices and programming. Just like a child learns and builds on his knowledge and understanding of his environment, so too does the practice of early childhood special education.
In its infancy ECSE was not labeled as such, and in fact was simply teaching. Throughout history, many educators have had differing perspectives and opinions on how best to educate children. Many of those ideas and practices have popularly endured, and some have become very small portions of our current systems, or faded into obscurity altogether. One of the earliest models on early childhood education was the Montessori model. The Montessori methods and tools are prevalent in classrooms today, from individualized and sensory programming to didactic learning materials.
Other early educators realized that even very young children benefit from instruction. Jean Piaget identified stages of development from birth to adolescence that still assist educators in identifying appropriate modes of teaching. Others like Robert Owen, John Locke and Lev Semenovich Vygotsky theorized that a child’s environment had a profound influence on his/her development and education, giving a foundation for current early intervention strategies in impoverished, urban areas.
Vygotsky also gifted to forward generations the theories of the Zone of Proximal Development, scaffolding and ideas about special needs students working in least restrictive environments. All the way from these LRE’s, are the ideas of institutions. The residential school model however is still useful in some ways today. Samuel Gridley Howe and Dorothea Dix implemented supportive, residential schools for children with disabilities, but when the First World War had its grips on the country, the schools deteriorated into holding cells that pervaded until throughout the depression era.
Politics and societal situations have always been instigators of change for education. Post World War II, many war veterans returned home with disabilities changing the attitudes and urgency in servicing individuals with special needs, spurring a profusion of financial and program support. Moving into the mid-20th Century, civil rights opened a consciousness about not only race, but also a socioeconomic dichotomy. Project Head Start was federally funded compensatory program, with a focus on aiding the impoverished; it would later evolve into a more comprehensive program for seeking and aiding special needs children and families.
Many other programs and studies aimed at supporting young children with disabilities and their families began to appear, including Early Head Start, the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Perry Preschool Project, among others. These programs and research studies aimed at aiding and reinforcing the importance of early intervention for at risk children. Supporting and preemptively averting the struggles brought on by environmental disadvantages made the transition to special education support logical.
With the social climate changing and an awareness of human rights, legislation regarding special needs populations was ripe. Perhaps the greatest catalyst to change was the enactment of PL 94-142 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975. The foundations of this public law and the following amendments are the backbone of all special education as we know it today. This law has 6 main areas of concern. First, the right to a free and appropriate public education is bestowed. Throughout the coming decades, interpretation of FAPE comes up in many court cases, each ruling setting precedence for the future.
Second, children with disabilities are given the right to learn in the least restrictive environment (LRE) a practice from centuries prior, but with legal backing, changed the model of public schools in this country. An Individualized Education Plan was written into the body of the IDEA, giving specific protocol for supporting the learning of each individual student. This item is the true workhorse of special education classrooms, bringing the student’s goals, objectives and educational plan, the educators, parents and the other support staff together in one document.
The fourth premise of the IDEA is the guarantee to guardians of procedural due process, retaining the guardian’s rights regarding notices, evaluations, placements and other educational plans. Unbiased and multiple assessment criteria is the 5th area addressed in the IDEA. Lastly, part of the legislation includes the parents of special needs students, by affording them access to related services that would benefit the student. Related services was and is an area for interpretation, and again, many court cases have been tried and decided creating standards for what qualifies as a related service.
Aside from these six main points, the IDEA has outlined much more. IDEA has given us a universal structure for classifying disabilities, and in a 1991 amendment, ruled that an umbrella classification for preschool aged children was acceptable and malleable state to state. This meant that children would not have to be prematurely labeled or stigmatized, when proper assessment was yet to be exacted. This law gave rise to the term “developmentally delayed”. A preschooler and his/her family could receive services under the classification of developmentally delayed.
IDEA has also given individual states the leeway to define and exact methods of determining what developmentally delayed means. While culturally and regionally more specific, this leaves a large range of differences in qualifications across the country. Since its inception, individuals with special needs have reaped many benefits from the laws and boundaries set by the IDEA, but it wasn’t until October 1986 that very young special needs children and their families could be guaranteed services. While grants and incentives for states to serve the preschool population were available, participation in those programs were completely voluntary.
The Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments, or PL 99-457, passed in October 1986, mandated that all special needs preschoolers between the ages of three and five be provided with a FAPE . This law was enacted with the purpose of enabling early intervention and a cost effective preventative strategy to serving special populations. Part C of this law also makes services for infants, birth to age two voluntary. Adding preschoolers to the population of compulsory service made the use of IFSP or Individualized Family Service Plans prevalent.
These plans are similar to IEP’s except that they comprehensively include the family and give leeway to assigning the role of the service provider, enabling professionals who are most capable of assisting each family to act. Unlike and IEP, the IFSP must be reviewed at least every 6 months, ensuring relevancy with a quickly growing and changing child. Related services including counseling and classes are now extended to family members. By sharing the process and improvement with the preschoolers’ guardians, we are able to see much greater progress with cooperative engagement.
Along with the IFSP, PL 99-457 saw the requirement of an Individualized Transition Plan, aiding young adults in making the change into adulthood. Fast forward to 1997, and PL 105-17 made some important amendments to the IDEA. Related services are expanded, developmentally delayed category can be applied up until age nine, parameters and process around discipline is set. Functional Behavior Assessments or Behavior Intervention Plans must be enacted when providing discipline to special education children.
Also, assessments for qualifying for special education are expanded, and Child Find reaches into private schools to deliver services to more children. Along with these changes also came a change in funding based on census data versus enrollment data. The percentages served translated to a fixed amount of funding, averting a glut of over qualifying students. Lack of English Language proficiency is excluded as an area of qualification for services. This is important with the rising populations of English language learners. With the number of children from non-english speaking families on the rise, achievement gaps were widening.
The No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 was drawn to support impoverished, special needs and English language learners. This act is directly responsible for the Amendments to IDEA that came in 2004. One of the most important changes made was that of aligning the standards of highly qualified special education teachers to the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. Inclusion of ECE teachers is yet to be enacted, however. The field and study of Early Childhood Special Education is a deeply diverse and ever evolving practice.
Past experience has dictated that social climates, politics, events and laws all contribute to the programming of ECSE. The gains have been great, with dramatic increases in the numbers of children and families found and served, but as a nation, we certainly have some more distance to travel. With current legislation and social issues ranging from secure schools to better serving working families, subsidized healthcare, immigration policies or revamping teacher evaluations, the future of Early Childhood Education is unwritten and open to influence.