Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Special Education Eligibility: Developmental Precursors over the First Three Years of Life

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Special Education Eligibility: Developmental Precursors over the First Three Years of Life

Article excerpt

The identification of children who are eligible for and may benefit from early intervention services is a challenge in the field of special education (O'Brien, Rice, & Roy, 1996). Although, it is widely acknowledged that early identification and intervention services offer improved outcomes to children with disabilities (Casto & Mastropieri, 1986; Guralnick, 1997), establishing criteria for entry of infants and toddlers into services is difficult because the majority of very young children eventually identified as developmentally delayed or learning disabled display no organic basis or overt marker (O'Brien et al.). Currently, states determine eligibility for early intervention services based on one of two primary factors: diagnosed medical conditions that have a high probability of resulting in a developmental delay and measurable delays in one or more of the five developmental areas (i.e., cognition, physical development, communication, social or emotional development, or adaptive development). The present study focuses on the developmental precursors of eligibility for special services by age 3 in the large National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care sample in which children with diagnosed medical conditions apparent at birth were excluded, thus it replicates the challenge posed for early detection and screening systems.

Although one of the major features of early intervention is the potential for prevention, not all children who may be eligible for services are being identified early. For example, in a study of over 1,700 children, currently enrolled in special education programs, grades kindergarten through 6, only 16% of children were identified before 3 years of age, and only 29% of the children were identified before 5 years of age (Palfry, Singer, Walker, & Butler, 1987). Although children with physical disabilities, identified syndromes, or chronic health conditions often can be clearly identified very early in their lives, sometimes immediately at birth, for the majority of children with developmental delays there are not clear indicators (O'Brien et al., 1996). For example in the Palfry et al. study of early identification of children with special needs, those children with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy were identified within the first year of life, but it took up to 7 years to identify children with mental retardation.

Identification of children who may require early intervention services has been aided by federal legislation that requires each state to provide comprehensive Child Find services that focus on the early identification of children eligible for early intervention. The Child Find system highlights potential risk factors that might encourage families and professionals to seek early intervention services and the availability of these services (Meisels, 1991). The Child Find programs have led to heightened awareness of early intervention services and indicators of possible developmental delays in young children for physicians, public health providers, and the general public.

Meisels (1991) outlined five general principles related to early identification: (a) development is determined by multiple factors; (b) developmental change is supported, facilitated, or impeded by environmental influences; (c) social and cultural influences on the children are mediated by parental figures; (d) the family plays a unique role and makes vital contributions to the child's development; and (e) parenthood is a developmental and adaptive process. Although there is not Universal agreement on which factors or combination of factors are most predictive of development disabilities, maternal, child, and environmental factors may provide information beyond standard eligibility screenings and assessments (Bradley, Caldwell, Rock, & Harris, 1986; Dunst, 1993; Molfese, DiLalla, & Bunce, 1997). …

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