Abstract. The number of English language learners (ELLs) in early childhood regular and special education services has increased dramatically in the past decade. A survey was conducted with 141 early childhood administrators and teachers to examine their beliefs and practices concerning the special education referral, evaluation, and placement process for preschool ELLs and their families. Survey questions were designed to gather information about: 1) how cultural and language differences were addressed, 2) what strategies were used to ensure parent participation of ELL children, and 3) what training was available and being used by early childhood professionals. Data were coded and percentages of similar responses calculated to understand participants' beliefs, attitudes, and practices. Results indicate that inconsistencies in methods are used to determine home language and English proficiency, a lack of clarity regarding the purpose of instruments used for screening and evaluating ELL children, a need for reliable and valid screening and assessment tools in a variety of languages, a need for interpreters who are trained in early childhood terms and the special education referral, evaluation, and placement process, and a need for more teacher training on meeting the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse families.
Children of immigrant families are the fastest growing population in the United States (United States Census Bureau, 2003). In 2003, an estimated 33.5 million people, or nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population, was foreign-born (Larsen, 2004). As a result of these population changes, the number of children in U.S. schools who are English language learners (ELLs) has increased by more than 15 million students, making up almost 10 percent of the total school population in prekindergarten through 12th grade (Mathews & Ewen, 2006; Meyer, Madden, & McGrath, 2004). Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Korean, and Arabic are among the top five languages spoken in the homes of families with ELLs (Hopstock & Stephenson, 2003).
Early childhood regular and special education services have been particularly impacted by these population changes. Nineteen states experienced a 100 percent or more increase in the number of immigrant children under age 6 during the last decade, and approximately 44 percent of ELL students attending public schools are in prekindergarten through 3rd grade (Mathews & Ewen, 2006). Similarly, in 2005, twenty-five percent of the children attending Head Start spoke a language (mostly Spanish) other than English in their homes (Hamm, 2006). In response to the large number of young ELL students participating in preschool education and the need to appropriately educate the increasing number of culturally and linguistically diverse learners, 12 of the 38 states and the District of Columbia that have state preschool services use ELL as an "at-risk" category or as a factor to prioritize enrollment of eligible children (Mathews & Ewen, 2006).
North Carolina's population reflects this national picture. It is well-documented that North Carolina has the fastest growing Latino population in the United States, nearly a 400 percent increase since 1990, and six to seven times faster than the national growth rate (North Carolina State Data Center, 2001). In fact, 27.5 percent of the state's population growth from 1990 to 2004 was made up of Latino families. Fifty-seven percent of the total enrollment growth in North Carolina public schools between the 2000-01 and 2004-05 school years can be attributed to the Latino population (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2006).
Within North Carolina and nationwide, early childhood teachers and administrators in both regular and special education are being challenged in new ways by the cultural and linguistic differences of ELLs. These circumstances are exacerbated by the speed at which these changes have taken place, thus creating enormous challenges to service providers responsible for assessing, determining eligibility, and providing educational services to young ELLs (Bevan-Brown, 2001; Burnette, 2000; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005). All too frequently, children who are culturally and linguistically diverse fail initial developmental screenings. Ultimately, many of these children are placed in special education simply because of the difficulties in distinguishing learning differences from cultural and linguistic differences (De Valenzuela, Copeland, Qi, & Park, 2006; Lock & Layton, 2002). The gravity of this situation was reflected in the recent reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004), which now requires states to develop policies and procedures to prevent over-identification or disproportionate representation of children by race/ethnicity in their special education programs (United States Congress, 2004).
Research indicates that although children with limited English proficiency may be able to orally communicate in English in social situations with peers and adults in as little as one to two years, the skills required to be cognitively and academically proficient in English may take as long as five to eight years to develop (Cummins, 1981, 2005; Lake & Pappamihiel, 2003; Tabors, 1997). This fact alone brings into question the efficacy of assessment results for children with limited English proficiency when they are evaluated for special services. Even after the initial adjustment period, children may continue to learn at a slower pace, due to language differences or unfamiliar teaching styles (Barrera, Corso, & MacPherson, 2003; Grossman, 1998; Lock & Layton, 2002), sometimes resulting in referrals to special services.
In addition, early childhood professionals are faced with the task of ensuring active family participation of ELLs in a culturally responsive manner, regardless of potential language barriers. In accordance with legal mandates under IDEA 2004, particularly the provision of nondiscriminatory evaluation and procedural safeguards for family participation, early childhood professionals must ensure that appropriate measures are taken to facilitate open and effective communication between service providers and families of ELL children (National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC], 2005). According to Barrera, Corso, and MacPherson (2003), common problems related to parent involvement in the referral, evaluation, and placement process include insufficient methods for: 1) determining cultural and linguistic differences that contribute to or inhibit communication between parents and professionals, 2) gathering information from families using culturally sensitive processes, 3) communicating assessment results and placement options with families within a culturally responsive framework, and 4) developing and maintaining culturally appropriate methods of communication with families after a child begins receiving special services.
Understanding successful strategies as well as gaps in support for children who are ELLs and their families will help ensure greater success for them as they navigate through the public school system. To better understand the dynamics surrounding the referral, evaluation, and placement process, as well as methods for encouraging family participation for preschool children who are ELLs, the authors conducted a statewide survey with administrators and teachers in North Carolina who provide regular and special education services to young children. The study was designed to address the following three questions:
1. How are cultural and language differences being addressed during the special education referral, evaluation, and placement process for preschool ELLs?
2. What accommodations are being made to ensure parent participation during the special education referral, evaluation, and placement process?
3. Have classroom teachers and special education professionals been trained on cultural and linguistic practices relevant to the referral, evaluation, and placement process?
All of the participating programs (n = 31) were located in North Carolina. As shown in Table 1, the programs included child care centers, public schools, and Head Start centers. Approximately two-thirds of the programs were located in the Piedmont or central region of the state. Another seven programs were in the mountains of the western region, and five programs were from the eastern coastal region. Most programs were located in urban/suburban service areas. All of the programs provided services to children with disabilities and ELLs.
Total Sample. A total of 141 participants returned surveys. However, one survey was excluded from analyses because of incomplete data. Thus, data from …