Early Childhood Special Education

Article excerpt

Workplace Realities

Course work and Field-based practica do not meet the needs of the early intervention and early childhood special education community.

In the past decade, interest in infants and young children with developmental vulnerabilities has increased. Research in the areas of neurological imaging and early learning has led to growing recognition that a child's early experiences have a marked influence on the structure and physiology of the developing brain (Anastasiow, 1990; Fox, Calkins, & Bell, 1994; Mills, Coffey-Corina, & Neville, 1994). Other evidence indicates that appropriate intervention with young children with special needs can facilitate development and enhance learning (Gomby, Larner, Stevenson, Lewit, & Behrman, 1995). This knowledge has served as an impetus for the development and/or expansion of early intervention and early childhood special education programs for children ages birth to 5. As this expansion occurred, however, communities were faced with the challenge of appropriately staffing these programs. Inadequate staffing and lack of qualified personnel have been documented at national, state, and local levels (Garrett, 1997; Hebbeler, 1995).

An increase in university-based personnel preparation programs is one response to this personnel shortage (Hebbeler, 1995). Increasing the number of preservice education programs alone, however, is not sufficient to meet community needs. Universities have been criticized for not adequately reflecting the realities of the workplace and, therefore, not preparing personnel to function effectively in real-world situations (Winton & McCollum, 1997). Such criticisms point to the necessity for university faculty to rethink traditional personnel preparation.

Evolving Contexts of Personnel Preparation

Traditionally, colleges and universities have provided preparation through course work and field-based practica for individuals seeking to enter a specific profession, and discipline-specific study at the graduate level. This approach does not meet the needs of the early intervention and early childhood special education community. The current personnel shortage is not merely an issue of induction-level preparation, nor is it a matter of providing more in-depth discipline-specific training. In an examination of personnel shortages, Hebbeler (1995) found not only insufficient numbers of professionals to provide services, but also some individuals who possess the appropriate credentials on paper yet lack the specialized knowledge and abilities to meet the unique, specific needs of infants, young children, and their families. As a result, even resource-rich environments may have a scarcity of appropriate services.

Despite substantial efforts to develop appropriate competencies through inservice education, a workshop approach often is a passive experience for participants and does not bring about change (Guskey, 1986; Sexton et al., 1996). Although traditional induction-type preparation may remain appropriate for a segment of the student population, colleges and universities need to revise their programs in order to address the priorities of non-traditional, working, early intervention and early childhood special education practitioners.

Personnel who desire or require additional preparation tend to fall into three groups: non-certified personnel currently working in early intervention and early childhood special education systems, licensed professionals without early pediatric and family experience, and early childhood educators working in inclusive settings. The first group comprises individuals currently classified as paraprofessionals. These individuals make up approximately 20 percent of the early intervention work force (Hebbeler, 1995) and includes individuals who have 4-year college degrees, but do not yet meet the highest standard for their discipline (according to federal and state legislation) or for professional certification and licensure (Hebbeler, 1995). …