The rationale for early childhood education for children generally was set out in chapter 1. The arguments outlined in that chapter apply equally, or even more so, to pupils with special educational needs. In particular:
l a child’s early learning provides the foundation for later learning, so the sooner intervention is begun the greater the opportunity and likelihood for the child to go on to learn more complex skills and have development enhanced
l there is the possibility that, with quality early childhood educational interventions, the handicaps and difficulties of a child with a disability such as autism, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment or Down’s Syndrome may experience will be reduced and additional problems will be prevented
l early intervention can support families in adjusting to having a child with special needs; moreover, if parents have the assistance of an early childhood teacher, who is trained and experienced in special needs education, they may be assisted to acquire the skills they need to help their child to develop to his/her full potential.
These arguments are persuasive for all young children with special needs. However, they are particularly strong in the case of children with severe disabilities in whom the development of language, communication and social skills are affected as a result of their disabilities. Children who can benefit from early childhood special education and other forms of early intervention include children with:
l intellectual impairment and general learning difficulties, including children who are diagnosed as such from birth or soon after birth; children with multiple disabilities and children with certain syndromes, including Down’s Syndrome, form part of this group
l severe physical disabilities, including those with spina bifida and/or hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy
l sensory disabilities, particularly those with severe visual impairment and those with profound or severe hearing impairment
l emotional and/or behavioural disorder
l delayed or disordered speech or language development
l autistic spectrum disorders.
Consideration of best practice in the United States and elsewhere leads to the conclusion that early intervention is effective when it provides high quality, intensive and clearly articulated programmes, delivered by highly skilled and carefully trained personnel in contexts of small group and individual instruction, and which are planned specifically to address individual, identified needs. Intervention programmes require a range of supports and services in order to maximize benefits to the child. These supports and services come through access to and coordination with other relevant agencies and professionals. They extend the focus of attention beyond the immediate context of the actual intervention programme to include the child’s family and home/community environment, providing a comprehensive web of support. Each element has its own clearly defined role but, equally, each contributes to the effectiveness of the other, necessary components of the intervention programme.
7.3 Identification and Assessment
A National Intellectual Disability Database has been established and planning is already underway to set up a similar database for physical and sensory disabilities. The existence of these databases will assist in planning services and policy at the national level. However, children with disabilities live at local level and each health board must maintain its own database to cover the broad range of disabilities. The collection and recording of data must lead to appropriate planning of intervention services, including early childhood special education, at local level.
In the absence of accurate statistics for each disability category, only an estimate can be made of the numbers of young children who will require early childhood special education. Not all disabilities will be detected in the years before children reach the age of six years. Many children with mild intellectual impairment and the resultant general learning disabilities are identified only after some time in school. A reasonable estimate of the number of children who will require special education in the early years is about four per cent of an age cohort.
The diagnosis and identification of disability at health board level is crucial. To do this effectively it is essential that, within each health board, there are well-staffed, multidisciplinary teams available to function in hospitals where children are born and at local level where a variety of health services is provided to young children. Multidisciplinary teams already function within the health boards. Their ultimate goal is the improvement of the general welfare of children through the early identification and assessment of difficulties and disabilities.
Teams should have the range of professional expertise needed to identify and advise on the range of disabilities they will meet in young children. While the contribution of each specialist in the diagnosis of special needs is to be valued, the data from certain specialists is of particular use. The insights and recommendations of psychologists, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, can be of immediate value in pre-school settings and in schools in developing education plans for pupils with disabilities. The advice and support of these professionals should be available to staff who are working with young children with special needs. Teachers with expertise in special needs education should be members of teams when planning for the early education of a child with a disability is being discussed. The teacher member of the multidisciplinary teams should be the main channel of communication between the team and pre-school staff and teachers in schools.
Shortcomings that exist in present provision and will need to be addressed include:
l the restricted composition of multidisciplinary teams and, particularly, the absence of teachers with expertise in special education on those teams
l the shortage in the supply of key professionals, which is a matter of immediate and ongoing concern
l the need to promote and increase take-up of the services offered at developmental check-ups
l the absence of liaison between these teams and the pre-school settings and schools which children identified with disabilities will attend.
7.4 Existing Provision for Children
aged 4 to 5 years with
Special Needs in the School System
The State currently makes extensive provision for children with special needs in the school system, including the infant classes in national schools. Since November 1998, every child with an identified special need has an automatic entitlement to special provision, from a range of supports, including resource teachers, special needs assistants, special classes, visiting teachers and enhanced additional supports, such as special school transport, equipment and assistive technology. A significant feature of the expanded provision of special education services is that it is largely happening within mainstream schools on an integrated basis. Very many individual pupils with special educational needs are being supported in their mainstream classes with the assistance of resource teachers. This support is becoming increasingly available to 4 to 6-year-olds.
A range of special schools caters for children with special needs; these schools enroll children from four years of age. This option, in particular, is the one preferred for children with autism and those with specific speech and language disorders. In the case of one special school for children with physical disabilities – the Central Remedial Clinic School - a class for 3-year olds has been established. These children are included on the roll of the school and are taught by a member of the teaching staff of the school.
Three new pre-school special classes have been established on a pilot basis for young children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders. All three classes – two in Dublin and one in Cork (CABAS) - have favourable staffing levels and are supported by multidisciplinary teams as required.
7.5 Provision for Children with
Special Needs under 4 years of Age
The Visiting Teacher Service of the Department provides a service to young children with visual and/or hearing impairment, from the age of 2 years. Teachers with specialist qualifications visit and teach the young children in their homes. They also demonstrate model teaching approaches for the benefit of parents, and advise parents on appropriate management of their child’s special educational needs.
The health boards and/or voluntary bodies provide services for many young children who have been assessed with severe or profound disabilities. These preschool services, which include varying amounts of education provision, are availed of by children who have been assessed, by early intervention teams, usually with mental handicap. However they also cater for children with multiple disabilities and children within the autistic spectrum. The services are provided in Child Education and Development Centres and are generally run by a Clinical Director and staffed by nurses with a mental handicap qualification, with teaching inputs supplied typically by Montessori-trained teachers. Play therapists are also employed in some of these centres.
The pre-school service provided varies. In all cases, there are direct teaching services to young children. In some cases, principally in the case of hearing and visually impaired children but also in the case of disadvantaged children, they are indirect, advisory services offered to parents and classroom teachers. In a small number of cases, particularly with hearing impaired, related services, such as the provision of assistive technology, are provided.
7.6 Developing a Policy for
Early Special Needs Education
The range of services already provided by the Department of Education and Science, although relatively limited to date, typifies the range of services that may be provided more generally. This range of services will continue to be provided and will be expanded. However, in the matter of early childhood education generally, but especially in the matter of early childhood special education, one size does not fit all. Young children with special educational needs form a very varied population. They have very different combinations of needs and abilities and are living in very different environments. A wide range of issues impinges on any policy that can be developed for their early education. These are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Demographic and prevalence issues
Demographic and prevalence issues arise and must be tackled. Some disabilities are more common than others and there is a wide spread in terms of prevalence. In urban areas it may be possible to provide expert supports, both in pre-school settings and in designated schools where children under 4 years old who have disabilities can be brought together for stimulation and education. Such an arrangement in a rural setting might prove very difficult because of lower prevalence, greater dispersal, transport problems and the difficulties inherent in bringing young children with disabilities long distances to services.
Education and care issues
The issues of care and education should also be mentioned here. Development happens across a spectrum, in an uneven manner. This has an impact on the services which can be made available to children generally, but the effects are more severe for children with disabilities, where the existence of the disability may seriously delay the emergence of particular competencies or abilities. The developmental age level of the child across the spectrum can be important in regard to whether the focus is principally on care or education. It can never be exclusively on one or the other. This, in turn, may determine whether the provision made is indirect, through advice on stimulation and education to parents and carers, or direct, in terms of teaching the child. At times, it may be both.
A related and important issue is the significance of the benefit to the child from getting early education as opposed to care and stimulation. The justification for the provision of early education to certain groups such as those who are disadvantaged or who are Travellers already exists. Whereas care, stimulation and early education are of benefit to all children, including all those with disabilities, a more focussed early education may reap greater benefits for certain sub-groups among those disabilities. These sub-groups would include, in particular, children whose speech and language is seriously delayed or disordered, children with gross sensory impairments where language, cognitive and social development are very seriously disrupted, and children whose behaviour and impairments present very difficult management problems for their parents or carers. This latter group would include children with certain syndromes and children within the autistic spectrum, where early education can focus on the specific areas of impairment.
It is vitally important that the curriculum/programme, and the teaching approaches and methods, be appropriate to the needs of the children. As children with disabilities are a very varied group, their needs and abilities are quite different. For some young children the acquisition of certain personal skills may assume greater significance at a particular stage. For a young child, being able to manage his/her own needs in regard to the toilet, personal hygiene, feeding and behaviour is a great boost to feelings of competence and self-esteem. For a deaf child, it is critical to make decisions at an early stage about an approach to language development and the option of sign language. A special focus on language development may be the most significant reason for the provision of early special education to young children who have been diagnosed with serious delays or disorders in that area. The development of communication, social and cognitive skills and the elimination of certain behaviours may all be very important in the case of young children with autism.
All children can benefit from a broad curriculum, but with children with special needs, some areas of the curriculum may be more important at particular times and may need greater focus. They, like all children, will need to follow a programme that caters for the acquisition and use of sensorimotor skills, pre-school cognitive skills and processes, play and social skills, self-help, communication and motor skills. The approaches used need to be flexible enough to cater for the range and specificity of the special needs at any particular time. They will include imitation, play that is structured and unstructured, direct teaching and at times behavioural approaches.
Another issue concerns what is possible for young children with disabilities in terms of inclusive or integrated early special education as opposed to segregated education. Many factors impinge on this issue alone and flexibility will be required in its resolution. Here, it is certainly the case that one size does not fit all, and that different arrangements may be required at different stages in a child’s life-span.
7.7 Elements of an Early Intervention
for Children with Special Needs
Although children with special needs will benefit from the general improvements proposed as part of this White Paper, a number of particular improvements will be made to the services available for these children. In keeping with the general thrust of this White Paper, the approach in regard to early special education is to build on and improve the extent and quality of existing services.
The parents of all pre-school children with diagnosed disabilities will have access to an early education expert. Initially, the experts’ involvement will be as advisers to parents and as disseminators of models of best teaching approaches. Later, it may be to teach the children for short periods. Once children begin to attend a pre-school or care facility in which they will receive education, special education advice will be extended to those who work with the children.
The Visiting Teacher or resource teacher will be a significant source of special education support to parents and those who run early childhood facilities. However, there should also be access to the advice and support of other specialists, such as psychologists and speech and language therapists in particular, but also physiotherapists and occupational therapists in relation to specific children. The shortages in the supply of key professionals, mentioned in 7.3, are relevant here also. Care will be taken to ensure that there is liaison between the different specialist advisors so that duplication is avoided and parents and those in charge of facilities are not confused.
Steps will be taken to ensure that all teachers have access to appropriate pre-service and in-service development to ensure that they have the expert skills and knowledge to develop the potential of pupils with special needs. This will require improved training in areas such as early child development, how young children learn most effectively and the content of the early childhood curriculum, and how it can be most appropriately adapted to meet the varying needs of pupils with disabilities. It will be necessary for teachers of children with special needs to update their skills continually to take account of the rapid growth in knowledge of disabilities and the development of best practice in this regard.
A range of induction courses and post-graduate courses will be made available, through colleges of education and education support centres, to those teachers who are working specifically with pupils with special needs. These courses are already available in a number of colleges of education. Initially, the courses will contain a mixture of generic and specific special education content. Courses may also be modular, for teachers who work with specific populations of special needs pupils, such as those with autism or those with severe or profound intellectual impairment and associated general learning difficulties.
Those who already work with young children with special needs will have access to training in special education. All such personnel will need training in areas such as child development, the effects of different disabilities, how children with different disabilities learn best and curriculum design for special needs.
Appropriate curriculum guidelines will be made available to meet the needs of pupils with disabilities. The revised curriculum is appropriate for pupils with disabilities who do not have an intellectual impairment and general learning difficulty. Adaptations to the curriculum and access to it through the use of assistive technology will be required by some pupils with disabilities. This will be the case, in particular, for some children with physical disabilities and with visual impairments. For other pupils there will be an increased emphasis on the development of language and communication. The NCCA is already working on the development of curriculum guidelines for pupils with intellectual impairments and general learning difficulties.
A range of professional services will be made available, as required, to support pupils with special needs and their teachers, although the difficulties with supply, noted earlier, are again relevant here. The multidisciplinary teams mentioned earlier will be facilitated to provide these support services.
Support will be made available to those who run pre-school services that enrol young children with disabilities. For some children who are already in dedicated services for children with disabilities, principally with learning disabilities, arrangements will be made to expand the services to provide for five-days per week coverage. Centres will be facilitated in employing teachers to provide direct education services to these children.
Where necessary, further classes for young children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 4 years will be established. The issues raised earlier that impinge on the feasibility of this proposal will matter, of course, but, in principle, provision will be made for sub-groups of children with disabilities such as those referred to earlier, some of whom are already getting such a service. Such classes may be established for children with autism, and for children with particular severe difficulties in language development arising from a delay or disorder, or from a hearing impairment.
The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) will be extended to all schools and will be availed of by pupils with special needs.
7.8 Structural Matters
Arrangements will be made to ensure better coordination of the work of all of the professionals involved in the interests of children with special needs. The Early Childhood Education Agency, proposed later in this White Paper, will play a particular role in this regard. It will ensure high quality of provision of early special education services and that providers:
l have the requisite training to provide a service that is effective and have access to further staff development
l are supported by professionals with particular expertise when such is required and by an Inspectorate who will monitor standards and advise in regard to improvements.
Multidisciplinary teams, which can function in an effective, coordinated and flexible way, will be established or expanded. The teams, which need not be very large, will consist of the key players, representing professionals in special education and health, who can call on other professional expertise, as required, in the case of particular children with special needs. Teams will meet to:
l consult with and advise parents of a child with disabilities in regard to best options for the education of their child
l make decisions with parents in regard to the form of provision that will be made and the location in which it will happen
l draft the outlines of an education plan for each child which can be carried out by those involved in the education of the child with assistance and advice from relevant professional as required.
It is important that a multi-disciplinary team is tightly structured, well managed and focussed. As its key purpose in this case is educational, it should be chaired by an educationalist who can ensure that any decisions arrived at are carried out effectively. While the Early Childhood Education Agency will have a role that involves the coordination of the services of different Government Departments and groups at a national level, the multidisciplinary team will be responsible for efficient and effective coordination of provision at local level. The Agency will operate in tandem with evolving structures in the special needs area.
8 Children who are Disadvantaged
Research indicates that early childhood education can be particularly
beneficial for children in disadvantaged circumstances. This chapter examines current State involvement in the area and outlines a strategy to enhance provision.
Together with children with special needs, disadvantaged children represent a key target group for the White Paper. Section 32 of the Education Act, 1998, defines educational disadvantage as “the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools.”
Educational disadvantage is a complex, multi-faceted problem which may arise from a number of factors. These include financial hardship, parental unemployment, low levels of parental (particularly maternal) education, location and family size. In many cases, children will be affected by combinations of these factors. The importance of the various factors and the degree of disadvantage varies with individual circumstances.
Two related difficulties must be overcome even before steps can be taken to tackle educational disadvantage. Firstly, educational disadvantage is difficult to identify. In some cases, the symptoms may be relatively easy to spot - location, financial hardship. However, other variables, such as low levels of parental education, may not be so obvious. Moreover, it must be stressed that the presence of a given factor may not equate with disadvantage.
The second difficulty is to quantify the degree of disadvantage. Many children may be affected by specific factors, but the impact of these factors may be mediated by individual circumstances. Accordingly, variation in the severity of disadvantage should be taken into account when designing and implementing intervention programmes.