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IDEA: What Early Childhood Educators Must Know

Learn about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

IDEA: What Early Childhood Educators Must Know

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that schools identify and evaluate children with disabilities so they can participate in general education while considering their specific needs.

To effectively teach a child with disabilities in a general education classroom, educators must team up with stakeholders like the child’s family and a special education teacher to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that outlines the child’s educational needs and goals to meet those needs.

In this article, we’ll discuss IDEA’s principles and importance. We’ll also share best practices for teaching children with disabilities.

What is IDEA?

IDEA is the special education law that was passed in 2004 to grant children with disabilities in the U.S equal access to education. IDEA mandates that public schools provide specialized instruction to all children with disabilities from birth to age 21. The six principles of IDEA are:

Free appropriate public education (FAPE)

Eligible children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE).  The government covers the cost at no expense to the child’s family except for extra activities such as clubs and sports. The education should be appropriate for the child’s specific needs under a written Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Free services outside the general curriculum include counseling and speech therapy.

Appropriate evaluation

Before receiving special education, a child must receive an evaluation from qualified and trained personnel at the school. The evaluation determines whether the child qualifies as “with a disability” and identifies their specific educational needs. In addition, the evaluation team should gather academic, functional, and developmental information and use a language the child understands. If the child’s parent or guardian disagrees with the evaluation results, they can request an independent evaluation.

Individualized education plan (IEP)

The law requires each child to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This plan comes together with the collaboration of an IEP team, including the child’s family, teachers (general and special education), the child (when appropriate), and other specialists. The IEP must include measurable goals for the child, individualized services, progress monitoring, and other necessary elements of the child’s educational experience. The IEP team should review and revise the plan at least once a year.

Least restrictive environment (LRE)

Least restrictive environment means children with disabilities receive education in the same classrooms as typically developing children to the maximum extent appropriate. Teachers should provide accommodations and modifications and supplemental aids to enhance learning. The children should participate in all other school activities like sports, art, clubs, school trips, and music. Removing the child from the general education classroom must be justified within the IEP.

Family participation

IDEA emphasizes family participation in every facet of their child’s education, including IEP development and reviews, placement decisions, evaluation data, and more. Parents and guardians should be involved in any meetings regarding their child’s education. They also have the right to disagree with evaluation results or refuse further evaluations.

Procedural safeguards

Procedural safeguards protect the rights of the child and their family members. For example, they give parents and guardians the right to access and make copies of all information regarding educational records. In addition, parents and guardians must receive notice of any meetings about their child’s placement or evaluation. Procedural safeguards also help with resolving disagreements with educators. For example, parents and guardians can invoke various procedural protections like mediation or due process hearing when disputes arise.

Why is IDEA important?

IDEA is extremely important for children who may need extra help and support in the classroom. It gives legal rights and protections to children with disabilities and ensures they are able to learn side by side with their peers as much as possible. The law extends free education to children, connects them to related services, and families are also given a voice in their child’s education.  Parents and guardians also have legal rights such as being involved in any meetings about their child’s education, and giving consent prior to any evaluations or before special education services are provided for the first time. 

IDEA extends beyond traditional public schools and also provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers up to age 3. This is especially important for early childhood educators who may notice developmental delays first and refer children for further evaluation.   

Not only do children benefit by being able to access the education they need, educators also acquire necessary skills and learn best practices to create an inclusive classroom. Their involvement in the IEP process helps them provide the best learning environment that will serve the needs of all children, implementing accommodations and modifications when necessary. Educators are also able to collaborate with children, their families, and other support services and specialists to ensure the best educational outcomes.

Since children with disabilities are often learning alongside their peers in a general education classroom, educators also have the opportunity to promote values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Find ways to represent all abilities and ways of learning and being in your curriculum and reinforce respect and acceptance for differences.

Child find

Child Find is an element of IDEA and a legal requirement for schools to locate, identify, and evaluate children with disabilities. Childcare providers and teachers play a crucial role in Child Find as they spend the most time with children and can quickly notice signs of a disability. Therefore, educators should be alert for red flags like behaviors that may signal the need for an evaluation, for example, declining grades or withdrawal from social interaction.

There’s no one way to identify children with a disability, but teachers should be aware of situations that could trigger the requirement for an evaluation referral. When a preschool teacher notices signs of a disability, they should document their observations using a developmental checklist or other means agreed upon by the school district and specialists. The teacher should then share this information with the special needs educator, who will then share it with the child’s family other relevant team members to plan for an evaluation. 

Teaching children with disabilities

Below we explore best practices educators can use when teaching children with disabilities:  

Set clear learning and behavioral expectations

When children know what you expect from them, they’ll likely meet those expectations. Children with disabilities are no different. Before the lesson begins, establish learning and behavioral expectations. Explain to children what they’ll learn, for example, “In today’s lesson, we’ll pick out five new words from the story we read.” Also, explain how you expect them to behave, for example, “Raise your hand if you need my help.”

Have a predictable schedule

Learning disabilities may affect a child’s capacity to remember and understand the information they need to go about their day. When they face unexpected changes, they might react unpleasantly. A predictable schedule allows children to feel more in control of their environment since they know what comes next. Try to stick to your carefully planned preschool schedule and give children a preview of the day’s activities each morning.

Keep the classroom organized

Classroom organization is crucial for both teachers and children. Since each child may have specific challenges and learning goals, being organized will help you juggle all the classroom activities to meet each child’s needs. Most classrooms are multipurpose, so learners need an organized workspace to navigate the classroom and work independently. For example, store common classroom materials like crayons, pencils, and markers in clear containers and label individual workspaces for each project. For example, you can label a designated space for art projects with a paintbrush picture. 

Keep instructions simple

Children with learning disabilities can generally find it challenging to absorb information quickly. Before giving instructions, check that they’re paying attention first. Some children might not make eye contact, but their posture will indicate they’re listening. Next, keep your instructions simple by giving them frequent verbal prompts. Double-check to ensure that they understand your instructions and repeat them if necessary. Finally, break down complex information into small manageable tasks, so they can feel a sense of accomplishment.

Use visual aids

Children with special needs may find it easier to understand and retain information through visual aids. Visual aids, such as a visual schedule, can make learning more accessible and enjoyable. Visuals like pictures and symbols can break down a series of events, like your end-of-day routine, into simple, actionable steps. Other visual aids include flashcards, posters, picture books, checklists, and charts.

Form small groups

Small group instruction allows you to attend to children’s needs effectively. Groups of three to four children maximize instructional time and increase peer interaction. Group children according to their academic level so that their learning is personalized. For example, during reading instruction, one group could learn basic words while another could read a page in a book.

Allow frequent short breaks

Some children may find it difficult to focus or sit still for long periods. Frequent breaks and opportunities to move around can be calming. Examples of movement or break opportunities include standing up to stretch, walking around the class in a designated area, playing a short game, erasing the board, and passing out materials to the other children. Stay observant so that you can tell when your children need a break so that you offer it before they become restless.

Provide opportunities for social interaction

Children with disabilities may tend to shy away from social interaction. Help them foster their social skills by providing opportunities for them to interact with their peers. For example, assign them a peer buddy to spend time with during outdoor activities. Choose a different peer buddy every month or so as you see fit so children can form different friendships. You could also assign them class duties like handing out work materials or cleaning up toys.

To further support your children’s growth and development at each stage, download our list of activity ideas promoting language, sensory, social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development.

Activities Across Developmental Domains - brightwheel

Download our free list of activities across developmental domains!

The bottom line

Understanding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and effectively teaching children with disabilities might seem overwhelming initially, but you’re not doing it alone. Instead, you’re collaborating with the school district, special education teachers, and families to ensure all your children receive an education tailored to their specific needs.


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