Instruction in Early Childhood Special Education: "Seeing through a Glass Darkly ... Knowing in Part." (Special Issue: Trends and Issues in Early Intervention)

Article excerpt

Most early intervention professionals will agree with several statements about services to preschoolers who are at risk for or who have developmental delays and disabilities. For example, intervention services (a) must be individualized for each child and family; (b) must be based on a thorough assessment of the child; (c) must include an assessment of, and attention to, family priorities, concerns, and goals; (d) should be sensitive to children's linguistic and cultural backgrounds; (e) should be designed to maximize children's development and independence; (f) should include children with and without disabilities when implemented in classrooms; and (g) must be planned, implemented, and evaluated by a team of professionals representing a variety of relevant disciplines. Other statements also would enjoy wide endorsement. The sources of this agreement include our tradition, regulatory parameters, prevailing beliefs and trends, logic, experience, and research.

Agreement on these statements may lead to two inaccurate and dangerous conclusions: (a) there are no substantive issues on which professionals in the field are divided, and (b) these professionals generally know what they need to know about how to provide early intervention. The instruction of preschoolers with disabilities is an issue on which disagreement exists and for which the empirical base is, at best, limited. This article has three purposes:

* To identify some existing knowledge deficits related to teaching preschoolers with disabilities.

* To propose reasons why those deficits exist.

* To list remedies for dealing with them.

The article focuses on preschoolers (3 to 5 years of age) served in group settings; it does not focus on instruction of infants and toddlers or home-based and parent-mediated intervention programs (see Hanson & Lynch, 1989; Jordan, Gallagher, Hutinger, & Karnes, 1988; Meisels & Shonkoff, 1990).

Consumers of human services, including families who receive early intervention services, can legitimately expect professionals to understand what is known by their professions and what is not known. Here, I attempt to identify some of what we do not know about teaching preschoolers with disabilities. This tactic is not intended to minimize what is known; much has been learned (see Bailey & Wolery, 1984, 1989; Bricker, 1989; Meisels & Shonkoff, 1990; Odom & Karnes, 1988). Focusing on accomplishments, however, may not push us toward the task of eliminating information deficits. "Known," as used here, has two defining features: It refers to conclusions from a research base that is replete with replications allowing them to be made with reliable accuracy and needed qualifications; and it refers to conclusions that are shared broadly enough to expect practice to reflect them.

WHAT IS NOT KNOWN ABOUT

INSTRUCTION?

At least four tasks are faced implicitly or explicitly in all educational endeavors:

* Specifying the content of the curriculum.

* Determining the match between the needs and abilities of individual learners and the specified content.

* Manipulating the environment to cause acquisition of important content.

* Ensuring that the learner uses the acquired content when and where it is needed and desirable (called "generalization") (Wolery & Gast, 1984).

Examples of what we do not know in each of these areas are as follows.

Identifying the Curriculum Content

The content, or what is taught, of the early childhood special education curriculum has several sources. These include communication, social/emotional, cognitive, self-care, and physical development (Bailey & Wolery, 1984, 1989); demands of the current environment (Bailey & Wolery, 1984); skills needed in the next most probable placement (Salisbury & Vincent, 1990); socially valued behaviors of a normative or non-target group (Strain & Kohler, 1988); the desires, views, and goals of families (Dunst, Trivette, & Deal, 1988); and, perhaps the content of early childhood curricula for children without disabilities (Bredekamp, 1987). …