Critical Issues in Teaching Young Children with Learning Disabilities

By: Janet W. Lerner

Current issues in teaching young children with learning disabilities reflect significant changes in public policy and professional philosophy. Diverse perspectives are held about these debatable issues.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is the professional association for Early Childhood Education. Guidelines for early childhood programs developed by NAEYC are called Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP. The DAP guidelines recommend a child-initiated curriculum that follows the interests of children and active child exploration. The DAP guidelines are:

  • Activities should be integrated across developmental domains.
  • Children's interests and progress should be identified through teacher observations, examination of work portfolios, and (for school-aged children) student self-evaluation.
  • Teachers should prepare the environment to facilitate the child's active exploration and interactions on physical, social, and cognitive levels.
  • Learning activities and materials for very young children should be concrete, real, and relevant to their experience; the complexity, challenge and abstraction of activities should increase as children understand the skills involved.
  • The debatable issue in DAP for teaching young children with learning disabilities is that the DAP guidelines do not consider sufficiently the needs of children who have disabilities. These children may need a curriculum that provides early direct intervention, highly structured learning experiences, and extrinsic motivation, such as high rates of praise, tokens, stickers, or other reinforcements. Modification of the DAP guidelines may be needed for young children with learning disabilities.

Placement practices

Placement refers to the child's primary setting for instruction. In the past most young children with disabilities were served through special classes. Today, however, more children are placed in inclusive settings that integrate children with special needs with typical children. Inclusive settings offer these educational and developmental benefits:

  • It eliminates the stigmatizing effects of segregated programs.
  • It offers services in the least restrictive environment.
  • It provides children with the opportunity to learn social and communication skills through being with typical peers.
  • It encourages the development of friendships by playing and working with typical children.
  • It promotes awareness and acceptance of children of diversity in our society.

An immediate problem in providing integrated placements for preschoolers with learning disabilities is that most public schools do not provide programs for three- and four-year old children. Schools usually do have kindergarten classes for five-year old children. Administrators must seek integrated settings in the community to include children with learning disabilities, such as nursery schools, Head Start classes, day care centers, and other kinds of early childhood programs.

Transition to other placements

Transition involves transferring or moving the child from one type of placement or program to another. Going to new placement can be a traumatic experience for the young child, as well as his or her family. To make the transition as smooth as possible, it should be carefully planned, coordinated, and monitored. At the completion of the infant-toddler special program for children ages birth-to-three (Part C of IDEA), the transition would be to a preschool program for children ages three-to-five with special needs (Part B of IDEA. For the child approaching age six at the completion of the preschool program, there are several placement options for young children with learning disabilities.

  • A regular kindergarten or first grade class
  • A transition class (where the child receives additional intervention services)
  • A resource room (where the child attends both the regular class and a small special education setting for a portion of the day)
  • A special class (which permits a more intensive special education curriculum)

Assessment practices

Another issue concerns assessment practices. Today we find more reliance on informal, functional assessment measures and less on formal, standardized tests. The authentic assessment measures in early childhood assessment include:

  • direct and ongoing observation of the child
  • assessment in the natural environment
  • the selection of a variety of assessment measures for different purposes.

The issue is whether the informal measures are as reliable and valid as the standardized tests.

Cultural and linguistic diversity

In today's society many families and children come to our programs from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. An increasing number of children come from homes in which a language other than English is spoken. In fact, some 320 different languages are spoken in the United States.

Children who are bilingual understand and use two languages -- their native language and a second language -- English. The duality of languages for bilingual children does not hamper their overall language proficiency or cognitive development.

The problem is that many children whose native language is other than English are not bilingual. They are not fluent in two languages. Instead, these children have limited English proficiency (LEP).They have difficulty using and understanding English. Gaining proficiency in a language requires sufficient time.

Young children with learning disabilities may have a basic language disability, in addition to limited English proficiency, that interferes with learning. Teachers must be attuned to both the child's second language problem and to their underlying language disability. Intervention requires practices from several disciplines:

  • bilingual education
  • special education
  • early childhood education



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(Some of this material was adapted from the book, "Preschool Children with Special Needs: Children at-Risk, Children with Disabilities" by J. Lerner, B. Lowenthal, and R. Egan. 1998. Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon.)

Preschool Children with Special Needs: Children At-Risk, Children with Disabilities Janet W. Lerner, Barbara Lowenthal, Rosemary Egan 1998 - Allyn and Bacon ISBN 0205267351

A research-based text designed for families with preschoolers with special needs. The book is also geared to professionals who work with preschoolers with special needs. Topics include assessment, interventions, and special issues such as transition.

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Adapted from Preschool Children with Special Needs: Children At-Risk, Children with Disabilities