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Understanding Early Childhood Special Education

Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) services for preschool children and their families are provided by Area Education Agencies (AEAs) and local school districts (LEAs).  When developing an IEP, the IEP team must design an individualized education program that provides meaningful interactions with peers without disabilities, instructional strategies to address children’s needs, and ongoing assessment and progress monitoring of skills, abilities, knowledge, and behaviors. The goal of early childhood special education is to enable young children with disabilities to be active and successful in routines and activities in early childhood settings during their early childhood years and in the future.

Early Childhood Environments for Preschool Children

IEP teams must determine where a preschool learner will receive IEP services and supports. There are two steps to this process and the information entered is used to create an Early Childhood Setting Code that is part of a reporting requirement. This reporting requirement reflects efforts to increase access to inclusive regular early childhood environments, as well as to ensure special education services are delivered in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for each eligible individual.

IEP Teams will first determine if the preschool learner is currently attending a Regular Early Childhood Program (RECP) and once the IEP has been developed, the team will then discuss if the IEP will be provided in the preschool learner’s current Regular Early Childhood Program or in a different location that provides the least restrictive environment.

Identifying Regular Early Childhood Programs

The IEP team must gather information about a child’s enrollment in a variety of early childhood programs in order to document the Regular Early Child Program. The programs to consider may include early care and education environments arranged by families, placements determined by IEP Teams, or a combination of these programs.

Per the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), the programs are defined as follows:

  • Regular Early Childhood — Session, class, or recurring activity that enrolls less than or equal to 50% of children on an IEP for instructional, support, and/or related special education services.
  • Examples of Regular Early Childhood programs may include:
    • Statewide Voluntary Preschool Programs operated by Districts and Community Partners
    • Head Start Programs
    • Shared Visions Preschools
    • Preschool Programs operated by community organizations
    • Child Care Centers licensed by the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS)
Example: Does this child attend Regular Early Childhood programs?
Child A attends ABC Daycare for 3 half days a week Yes
Child B goes to their grandmother’s house all day, every day No
Child C attends Head Start full-time Yes
Child D stays home in the morning and then goes to the faith-based preschool for 3 afternoons Yes


Determining the Least Restrictive Environment for Preschool Children

Once the IEP has been developed, the IEP team must decide: Where will the special education services and supports be provided?

Based on the child’s strengths and needs, the IEP team determines the special education services and supports. Once those services and supports are decided, the team must then decide where those services and supports will be delivered. IEP teams must consider the following in deciding where the special education services and supports will be delivered:

  • What special education and support/related services does the child need?
  • What supplementary aids and supports does the child need?
  • What services and environments are appropriate and provide educational benefits for the child?
  • Can the special education services and supports be provided in an environment that maximizes participation in appropriate activities with peers without disabilities and enables the child to make progress in the general education curriculum represented in the Iowa Early Learning Standards (IELS)?
  • Can the special education services and supports be provided in the regular early childhood program in which the child already participates or the school that he or she would attend if non-disabled?
  • Does the program meet Iowa’s Preschool Program Standards requirement*?

*Preschool Program Standards:

When IEP teams are proposing placements for children to receive special education instructional services, they must ensure that settings being considered for the provision of special education instructional services are implementing one of the following Iowa Department of Education approved Preschool program standards:

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Early Learning Program Accreditation
  • Head Start Program Performance Standards
  • Iowa Quality Preschool Program Standards

NOTE: If the resident district responsible for providing FAPE does not operate regular early childhood programs or the programs have reached maximum capacity, the district must explore and provide alternatives to ensure the LRE requirements are met. 

Additional information is available on the Department of Education’s website.

If the preschool learner will not receive their special education services and supports in the Regular Early Childhood Program the learner is currently attending, the IEP Team will document the reason for that decision and then decide where the IEP will be provided. If the learner will attend a new Regular Early Childhood Program, the new program will be documented. 

If a preschool learner will not attend a Regular Early Childhood Program at anytime, then the team must indicate where the child will receive their special education services from the following list:

  • Special Education — Session, class, or recurring activity that enrolls more than 50% of children on an IEP for instructional, support, and/or related special education services.
  • Special School – Special education services provided within a special school
  • Residential Facility –  Special education services provided within a residential facility
  • Home – Special education services provided in the child’s home
  • Service Provider Location- Special education services are provided within a service provider location or other location such as an AEA office or a designated room for AEA Support Services in an elementary school/building (includes support services such as OT, PT, or Speech, etc.).

Early Childhood Outcomes

Early Childhood Outcomes (ECO) is a federal reporting requirement established by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The ECO data documents the level of improvement and progress preschool children demonstrate from the time they begin receiving ECSE services to when they no longer receive ECSE services. The three outcome areas represent the integrated nature of children’s development.

The three ECO areas are:

  • Positive social and emotional skills (social relationships)
  • Acquisition and use of knowledge and skills (early language/communication and literacy)
  • Use of appropriate behaviors to meet their needs (self-help and motor skills)

IEP teams, including families, use multiple sources of data to determine a child’s level of functioning and progress in the three ECO areas.

When Must an ECO Summary be Completed?

Early Childhood Outcomes must be completed for preschool-aged children at the initial IEP meeting and annually thereafter at IEP review meetings for the duration of early childhood special education services (instructional and/or support). The initial and annual Early Childhood Outcomes are documented as part of the learner’s Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) in the IEP. 

The final ECO is completed at the IEP meeting when the IEP team determines a preschool-age child will no longer receive Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) services such as transitioning to kindergarten, exiting special education, or moving out of state. However, the final ECO cannot be completed more than ninety calendar days before the end of ECSE services. If the IEP meeting is held more than ninety calendar days prior to the ending of the ECSE services, then the ECO needs to be updated by the IEP team when the services end.

Example: If a four-year-old child is receiving special education instructional services in a preschool setting and the IEP Team plans for the child to enter kindergarten in the fall of the upcoming school year, the ECO is completed at the IEP meeting held in the spring. However, if the child’s last day of preschool is May 30th, the ECO cannot be finalized before March 2nd.

ECO Summary: Comparison to Peers or Standards

The IEP teams, including families, share information about children’s development in reference to skills and behaviors associated with age-appropriate expectations for same-age peers without disabilities in the three ECO areas. For each ECO area, the team will summarize the learner’s skills and strengths within that area in the context of daily activities and routines. Based on that information, the team will choose an ECO Description that describes the child’s functioning relative to age-appropriate expectations. 

The ECO Description is determined based on a child’s:

  • Current level of functioning demonstrated across settings and situations
  • Functioning using assistive technology or special accommodations, if applicable
  • Performance of skills and behaviors compared to the age-appropriate expectations

Teams will use the ECO Decision Tree to guide their decision on which ECO Description statement best fits for that learner in each ECO area. 

Final ECO Process

When the preschool learner is transitioning to kindergarten special education services or exiting all special education services, a final ECO must be completed. 

The team will complete the final ECO by determining the final ECO Descriptions as well as answering whether or not the learner has made progress in each ECO area since beginning ECSE services. 

A child’s progress is determined based on any of the following:

  • Acquisition of a new skill or behavior
  • Demonstration of increases in skill level
  • Independence in the mastery of a skill or behavior
  • Progress toward achieving annual goals
  • Improvement in the quality of skills or behavior performance

Transitioning from Preschool to Kindergarten

IEP teams need to plan for preschool-aged learners to transition to the school setting (kindergarten). This transition typically involves a spring meeting with the IEP team to ensure collaboration and smooth transitions for the learner and family to kindergarten.

During the Spring Prior to Starting Kindergarten

IEP teams should plan to hold an IEP meeting for learners transitioning from preschool (PK) to kindergarten late enough in the school year that the new IEP team will have appropriate information for planning and decision making for a learner’s kindergarten program. In scheduling this meeting, keep in mind that the final Early Childhood Outcomes (ECO) must be completed within the 90 calendar days prior to the end of ECSE services.

At this meeting, IEP teams should:

  • Develop or amend the IEP to reflect the early childhood program and services that will complete the current school year and also describes the coming kindergarten program.
  • Complete the final Early Childhood Outcomes (ECO) Descriptions and answer the progress questions.  
  • Discuss and plan for any activities or supports that will be needed to support the transition for the learner and family.
  • Provide parents with a Prior Written Notice describing any changes to services and supports that are a result of the transition to kindergarten as well as changes reflecting new or different student needs).
During the Fall When Kindergarten Begins

In the fall of the kindergarten year, if there are additional changes needed to the IEP or if the IEP was not amended in the spring to reflect kindergarten services and supports, the IEP team will meet to make those changes and provide a Prior Written Notice to the family. 

Early Childhood Resources

The Early Childhood Special Education Resources provides information on many other valuable resources on Early Childhood Special Education.

Early Childhood Outcomes (ECO) Decision Tree

Early Childhood Outcomes (ECO): Breadth of the Outcomes Document – by Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center