Issues in Early Intervention: The Impact of Cultural Diversity on Service Delivery in Natural Environments

Article excerpt

How does one determine what constitutes the natural environment as a context for early intervention service delivery for students living in culturally diverse families and communities? This question was posed by an Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) teacher in a large culturally and socio-economically diverse urban school district. The question is central to the gap between research and practice in early intervention.

In the United States, federal legislation provides the framework and guidelines under which all children between birth and age 22 with disabilities are provided equal access to educational opportunities in public schools. This legislation is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Part C of IDEA addresses the unique needs of children between birth and age 3 and their families. Part C is unique because it not only provides for individualized supports and services for the child, but it recognizes the importance of the family as the primary context in which to promote optimal child development.

When Congress revised and amended Part C of IDEA in 1997 (P.L. 105-17), it mandated that service delivery to young children between birth and age 3 be carried out in natural environments (Walsh, Rous, & Lutzer, 2000). The IDEA regulations define natural environments as "settings that are natural or normal for the child's age peers who have no disabilities" (34 CFR Part 303.18).

This statement is qualified by the stipulation that "to the maximum extent appropriate, early intervention services are provided in natural environments" (34 CFR Part 303.167(c)). This stipulation and definition of natural environments has led to continued discussion about what constitutes natural environments with respect to the diversity that characterizes the families and young children who are eligible to receive early intervention services.

Family-centered philosophy and practice has been a central component of early intervention for infants and toddlers that is related to natural environment service provision. Family-centered practices have been widely accepted in the provision of early intervention services since the 1960s (Bruder, 2000). Research indicates that families are essential to the success of early intervention services (Baily et al., 1998; Guralnick, 1998; Roberts, Innocente, & Goetze, 1999).

However, the family is strongly influenced by culture as it pervades all aspects of the family structure and it influences how a family defines itself. Therefore, understanding cultural influences in relation to the family system increases the likelihood that interventions will be appropriate ( Wayman & Lynch, 1991). This article will explore the literature related to natural environments, family-centered practices, and the influence of cultural diversity as it relates to service provision in early intervention in an attempt to link the research to practices that promote appropriate and effective early intervention services.

Theoretical Foundations

The concepts of natural environments, family-centered philosophy, and the consideration of cultural diversity are based on the culmination of developmental and ecological theories of child development prominent in the field of early childhood education. The fields of Early Intervention (EI) and Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) are strongly influenced both in philosophy and in practice by the constructivist theories of Vygotsky (1997) and the social ecological models of Broffenbrenner (1992).

The influence that relationships and interactions with caregivers, friends, family, and the community have on child development is explained by Vygotsky's (1997) social constructivist theory. Central to this theory are the transactions that occur between the child and others in their environment. Vygotsky proposes that children's learning leads their development. Learning occurs on a continuum between a child's ability to independently and fluently solve a problem and their ability to solve a problem with maximum assistance from adults or with more capable peers. …