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I. Early Learning

Defining the role of Early Learning in Special Education.





  1. Early Learning (current page)
  2. Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices
  3. Educator Preparation and Professional Learning
  4. Assessment
  5. Accountability
  6. Family and Student Engagement
  7. Special Education Financing




Early Learning


Research has confirmed that very young children who attend high-quality care and education programs realize important gains in language and in social-emotional and cognitive development. Children who experience these programs are also more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and be employed as adults. Researchers have calculated that the long-term economic benefit to society of high-quality preschool ranges from $4 to $10 for every $1 spent.18

The political climate in California is attempting to respond to these facts. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation declaring that “quality early learning and care for children from infancy to five years of age is a sound and strategic investment to narrow achievement gaps,” which often exist even before kindergarten. This legislation expressed the “intent of the state to ensure a fair start to all low-income children by providing quality preschool opportunities” for all families who want their children to attend. The legislation also registered the state’s intent to provide low-income four-year-olds from working families with “full-day, full-year early education and care.”19 Specifically, the legislation funded more slots, or spaces, for these children to attend a state preschool in the 2014–15 school year, initiating a process of gradually increasing the capacity of these programs to serve the students most in need of support and most likely to realize significant benefit, both for themselves and for society at large. Governor Brown has continued this focus on expanding state preschool programs by recommending the addition of approximately 4,000 more places for children in full-day and full-year services for the 2015–2016 fiscal year.

These high-quality care and education programs help children learn more than the alphabet and numbers. They also learn social skills and self-control, both of which reduce the behavioral problems that can later lead to referrals to special education. In fact, many potential disabilities, previously undetected disabilities, and mental health issues can be identified, prevented, corrected, or resolved in these programs through early intervening services when those services are provided at very early ages. These early efforts end up precluding the need for more intensive—and expensive—services and lifelong interventions and supports.

Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities

Early care and education is particularly important for children with disabilities. When developmental delays are recognized and addressed at the youngest possible age, many delays can be significantly ameliorated. Because of that known benefit, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires these very services, which are simply good investments. Queens College economist Clive R. Belfield estimates that children who receive high-quality care and education before kindergarten are 40 percent to 60 percent less likely to need special education interventions when they reach school age. According to Belfield, the cost of special education for the State of Pennsylvania would decline by 12 percent if it implemented a universal preschool program, and by 8 percent if the program was limited to low-income children.20 And when these children become adults, they can look forward to more lucrative employment options, increased social-emotional stability, and a significantly decreased likelihood of finding themselves caught up in the criminal justice system.

In requiring states to “identify, evaluate, and meet the needs of all children” with the potential for disabilities, Congress (through IDEA) recognized “the significant brain development that occurs during a child’s first 3 years of life.”21 There is strong evidence that well-timed and high-quality early intervention programs can, in fact, correct neurologically based issues by taking advantage of the neuroplasticity of developing brains. For example, a recent study of the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) for autism found improvements in IQ, language, and adaptive and social behaviors among the young children in the program. Using functional MRI scan, the researchers found that, after these interventions, the children developed normal patterns of brain activity.22

The Challenges

There are different sections, or parts, in IDEA that address different aspects of the developmental and educational needs of individuals with disabilities. Part C of the law focuses on infants and toddlers. To fulfill the law’s mandate for the early identification and support of children with disabilities, Part C provides states with federal grants to help them “develop and implement a statewide, comprehensive, coordinated, multidisciplinary, interagency system that provides early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families.” The law also grants infants and toddlers with vision, hearing, and severe orthopedic impairments (or a combination of these disabilities) the right to receive individually designed early intervention services, usually in their homes.

The lead agency in California for many of these services is the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). Through a program called Early Start, DDS contracts with 21 regional centers to administer and coordinate services for eligible infants and toddlers who have a developmental delay, a disability, or an established risk. Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs) also receive state funding for these services, which are then provided through school districts and County Offices of Education. There is often a lack of coordination among these agencies, which frequently leaves families confused and without needed services.

But in California the system does not exist as envisioned. There are widespread disparities in the availability of these programs throughout the state because of differences in funding structures and differences in priorities among Regional Centers. The reality is that geography dictates access: if you don’t live in the right place, you’re out of luck.


As with older children, most 3- to 5-year-olds with disabilities learn best when they attend preschools alongside their age-mates without disabilities to the greatest extent possible. These settings provide both language and behavioral models that assist in children’s development and help all children learn to be productively engaged with diverse peers. However, relatively few children are able to attend preschool in such integrated settings. Currently, only one in five preschool-aged children with identified disabilities is enrolled in such settings.23

When they reach the age of 3, children with disabilities become eligible for necessary and appropriate services under Part B of IDEA. The responsibility for providing these services for 3- and 4-year-old children with disabilities is placed with local educational agencies (LEAs). Some children with disabilities attend publicly funded preschools, at no charge to the family. Others attend Head Start, which sets aside 10 percent of its seats for them. The parents of these children may also seek services from state-funded preschools.

But, as with infant and toddler care, general education preschools are not available in every part of the state. And the state does not currently require these programs to set aside any of their seats for children with disabilities. The result is that, in many areas of the state, students with disabilities are only offered more restrictive, isolated, and costly program settings. By not being educated with their nondisabled peers, these children often fail to attain the skills they need to succeed in school, and the schools incur a greater expense because of the additional services these students will require.

Further compromising the picture, only 8 to 10 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds in the state who are eligible to attend Head Start or state-funded preschools are able to do so. Lack of capacity deprives the remaining 90 percent of access.24 Some may attend private preschools at a family’s or an LEA’s expense, but too many go without a preschool experience—and suffer the consequences of entering kindergarten unprepared for school and not ready to learn.


Funds for providing important intervening services for infants and toddlers are bifurcated. Some services come through DDS, some through SELPAs. The funds in both are inadequate in most regions for meeting the state’s obligations. Adding to the compromised picture, monies are allocated through an antiquated formula that dates back to 1977, when SELPAs did not all offer the same level of service. Since then, population patterns have changed significantly, the inequities that existed back then continue, and new patterns of inequity have emerged. As a result, financial disparities across the state in some cases have been exacerbated, seriously hampering efforts to provide services to our most vulnerable infants and toddlers.


The transition children make from infant and toddler care under Part C of the IDEA law to preschool, which is funded through Part B of IDEA, represents another significant challenge. Currently the law is written so that, upon the child’s third birthday, LEAs become responsible for providing disability services, thus requiring children to move from one setting and one provider to another exactly at the age of 3—without any consideration of the natural breaks in a school year or how that transition will disrupt the family. This transition also often includes changes in providers, leading to potential confusion about agency eligibility provisions and responsibilities. Any change of schooling venue also risks developmental regression for the child as well as gaps in or loss of records and knowledge among educators and service providers.


California currently has no universally adopted set of common standards for infant/toddler services or preschools across programs in the state. Standards are important because they hold providers accountable. Without them, any accountability efforts to ensure student growth and outcomes are ineffectual. This lack of adopted and required standards is also creating confusion in Part C of IDEA services and in aspects of the annual performance measures for services for children ages 3 and up under Part B of IDEA.

In 2008, the California Department of Education did select developmental standards for preschools and infant and toddler programs that the state could use for this purpose. The California Preschool Learning Foundations and the Infant and Toddler Learning and Development Foundations25 outline the key developmental skills that most children can acquire when they are exposed to interactions, instruction, and environments that research has shown to promote early learning and development. These guidelines are excellent and have been used as models in other states. Yet the early child care and education entities in California do not operate under any single auspice. The licensing requirements for staff, the standards for care and for learning, and the requirements for facilities vary widely; they operate under various funding streams and different monitoring systems. As described earlier, the DDS serves as a lead agency for infant and toddler programs through contracts with the regional center. DDS does not require its providers to use the state’s preschool learning foundations.


There are mixed reports on the currently mandated assessments required by the state (the Desired Results Developmental Profile [DRDP Access]) which some indicate do not inform instruction in real time, either because they were not introduced to the field in that manner, are cumbersome in allowing teachers to access the essential, daily information they need, or both. Presently some teachers are not using the DRDP Access assessment in its current form to inform families of present developmental levels or to inform instruction in order to realize better student outcomes. The current use of the DRDP Access is mainly functioning as part of a compliance-only system.

Assessments serve several important purposes for young children: to inform instruction, provide insights for improving outcomes, and to provide parents with information on their children’s progress. As we move into the new Results Driven Accountability framework, the lack of standards and measures designed to both inform instruction in real time and to accurately monitor student/child growth will become a more pronounced issue that must be addressed.

Early Educator Preparation

The quality of the training and preparation of early childhood educators in California varies greatly and so too the quality of services provided and child outcomes realized. In 2011, the CDE, in collaboration with First 526, drew up the California Early Childhood Educator (ECE) Competencies to establish what teachers should be expected to know. The competencies are aligned with the Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Learning Foundations and represent a consensus in the field.

These competencies, or program standards, were approved by the state Interagency Coordinating Council (ICC) on Early Intervention Overview of the DDS, an advisory body required by IDEA. The ICC recommended that the program standards be used by all of the providers who are approved as vendors by the Regional Center and who work under the auspices of LEAs. Currently, however, the DDS’ position is that these standards are a resource only; they are not required in hiring, licensing, or training personnel. It is worth noting that the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing issues a special education early childhood education credential as well as the child development permit, which subsidized preschool programs operating under Title 5 require. But this only further illustrates the picture of an early childhood system replete with inconsistent standards and discrepant requirements. Until there is a single set of competencies required of all new and current early childhood educators, the quality of services across the state is going to be uneven and inequitable.


The availability of quality services and places in high-quality preschools and care settings for toddlers should not depend on geography. And given the return of these services on the dollar, the state cannot afford not to provide them. Indeed, federal Medicaid law requires states to provide them; yet in many parts of California they are not available. In recognition of the importance of coordinated, early intervention to children’s futures, to their families, and
to the fiscal health of the state’s schools, California should ensure that all students, but especially those with disabilities, have access to high-quality infant and toddler programs and preschools, including the diagnostic and intervention services described. In support of that vision, the state needs policy change to ensure the following:

  • Improved access to and coordination of high-quality early care and preschool for all students, but particularly for children with disabilities, children who grow up in poverty, and children who are dual language learners, with the access not dependent upon geography or service provider
  • An increase in the funding formulas to provide equitable financial support for high-quality early care and education and to support equity in access throughout the state
  • Clearly articulated and family-friendly protocols for transition between Part C and Part B services
  • Program standards that all providers must use and that reflect evidence-based, developmentally appropriate practice
  • Common assessments that are based on common standards, inform instruction in real time, accurately monitor student/child growth, and are educator-friendly
  • Clear, specific competencies that are part of all early childhood educator preparation programs and that are part of required professional development training and technical assistance for educators already in the field

Public-Private Partnership Provides Inclusive Setting for Children with Disabilities

The Learning Links Preschools in Burlingame and Mountain View are examples of how public agencies and a private nonprofit organization can partner to provide preschool services for children with disabilities in an inclusive setting.

At the Burlingame site, children with disabilities and typically developing children from ages 2 to 5 learn and play together in a nurturing environment. The play-based curriculum promotes interaction, problem solving, and acceptance; and it fosters educational development and kindergarten readiness for all students, regardless of ability. The Mountain View site is similar but also serves infants as young as 6 months old who have disabilities as well as infants whose development is typical.

Both sites are operated by Community Gatepath, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit organization that works with families to provide services for children and adults with disabilities. In 2013–2014, Gatepath provided early intervention services to 326 children. Nearly one quarter of Gatepath’s total enrollment was made up of children with disabilities who were referred by school districts—48 out of 216 total slots.

The Learning Links site in Burlingame is a partnership with Gatepath, the Burlingame School District, and other school districts that are part of the San Mateo County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). Community Gatepath receives funding from a variety of public and private sources, including the Early Start program, private tuition and fees for therapy and therapeutic recreation classes, private insurance, and the LEAs.

Untapped Resources

One example of comprehensive, high-quality early childhood programming exists in Apple Valley, California, at the Desert/Mountain Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). Here children from birth to age 5 are eligible for as many as 60 days of diagnosis and intervention from a special clinic. Their medical needs and the effect of these needs on their cognitive development, language development, behavior and sensory-motor functions are assessed. Depending on the diagnosis, these children receive early intervening services and may receive ongoing special education services. Desert/Mountain SELPA Administrator Ron Powell reports:

“Recognizing that Desert/Mountain staff were not addressing the need early enough, ten years ago we started a program [SART—Screening, Assessment, Referral, and Treatment] to serve children from birth to 5 years of age. The SART team receives referrals from schools, doctors, and the community for children who have significant mental health and behavioral problems as a result of prenatal exposure to alcohol or substance of abuse or who have been subjected to toxic levels of stress and abuse. SART is patterned after the successful clinic started by Dr. Ira Chasnoff in Chicago. By addressing the significant needs of this young population early, we have witnessed extraordinary success.

“The SART program serves more than 800 children each year. However, in spite of this success, there was still a population of children that required a higher intensity of service than we were able to provide through the SART program. Recognizing this need and convinced that early intervention would reduce the need for more intensive intervention later on, the SELPA Board granted permission to establish an intensive assessment program for children under the age of 5 who have severe behaviors, developmental delays, or who otherwise might fall on the autism spectrum. This is an intensive 10-week program that follows a medical model patterned after the partial-hospitalization program at UCLA. The program, called “CARE,” provides a 10-week period of intensive services to address behavioral, social-emotional, sensory, language, and developmental deficits in a four-hour-per-day, developmentally appropriate preschool environment. As a medical model, the program is run as an intensive assessment period, in which staff utilize research-proven interventions to determine “what works” for the child. The results have been amazing. For example, children with expressive language at the fifth percentile leave the program at age-level [ability]; children with such severe behaviors that the parents have had to remove all of the furniture in their home have left the program (after 10 weeks) ready for regular kindergarten. Today, after four years of operation, more than 160 children have graduated from the program, which is now totally funded outside of Prop 98 education dollars and outside of AB 114. About one third of these children enter regular kindergarten with no need for special education services.”

The San Bernardino County Behavioral Services Department contracts with the Desert/Mountain SELPA to provide these services. This makes the clinic eligible to receive Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) funding for evaluations through Medi-Cal. It is important to recognize that with this eligibility comes the full responsibility to serve as a medical provider of services.

All Medi-Cal enrollees are entitled to this care, but providing it requires a partnership with a provider funded through county mental health. Under the State Medi-Cal Plan, county governments EPSDT funding and the responsibility for all specialized mental health care services, including assessments, comes from a waiver to the state’s managed care plan, under the direction of the state Department of Health Care Services. This responsibility is known as a “freedom of choice” waiver, which created a single managed care entity in each county to provide specialized mental health care for Medi-Cal beneficiaries statewide.

Policy makers need to work with state (Department of Health Care Services) and county mental health authorities to ensure that all Medi-Cal students receive Early Periodic Screening and Diagnostic Treatment (EPSDT) Services, including mental health and transdisciplinary assessments, as an incentive for schools, districts, and county offices of education to intervene early and provide targeted services to children most vulnerable to school failure—those children who have been exposed to trauma and who are stressed daily by impoverishment. This intervention (EPSDT) and these services require relationships between districts and county mental health departments. Once in place, these programs would offset the costs of any eligible service that is both medically and educationally necessary for students who are dually eligible under Medicaid and IDEA entitlement programs.


  1. Temple, J. A., & Reynolds, A. J. (2007). Benefits and costs of investments in preschool education: Evidence from the child–parent centers and related programs. Economics of Education Review, 26 (1): 126-144.
  2. Senate Bill 858 of 2014. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) Education Finance Omnibus Trailer Bill. Section 1 (a), (b) and (c).
  3. Belfield, C. R. (2005). The cost savings to special education from pre-schooling in Pennsylvania. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) Pennsylvania Build Initiative.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Dawson, G., et al. (January 1, 2010). Randomized, controlled trial of an intervention for toddlers with autism: The Early Start Denver Model. Pediatrics, 125 (1), pp. 17–23. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-0958
  6. As reflected in Indicator 6 on California’s Annual Performance Report for 2011–2012.
  7. California Childcare Resource and Referral Network. (2013). Portfolio. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF; 1MB)
  8. California Preschool Learning Foundations.
  9. First 5 California was created by voters under Proposition 10 in 1998 to recognize children's health and education as a top priority, especially in the early years of development.
Questions:   Special Education Division | | 916-445-4613
Last Reviewed: Monday, May 08, 2023
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