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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 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 Setting Codes for Preschool Children

IEP teams must determine the Early Childhood (EC) setting codes which document the opportunities for preschool children with disabilities to:

  1. Participate in early care and education environments, defined as Regular Early Childhood settings; and,
  2. Receive special education services in regular early childhood settings.

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.

Defining the General Education Environment for Preschool Children

The first question the IEP team must address is:
Does the child attend a Regular Early Childhood program?

The IEP team must gather information about a child’s enrollment in a variety of early childhood programs in order to answer the question of whether the child attends a Regular Early Childhood 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

If the answer to the first question is yes, the child does attend a Regular Early Childhood program, then provide how many minutes total the child attends the setting(s) per week.  Ex. If a child attends Head Start for the morning (180 minutes per day x 5 days = 900 minutes) and SWVPP in the afternoon (120 minutes per day x 5 days = 600 minutes), the total would be 1500 minutes. 


If the answer to the first question is no, the child does NOT attend a Regular Early Childhood program, 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 separate school
  • Residential -  Special education services provided within a residential facility

If none of the above apply, choose from the following:

  • 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.).

Determining the Least Restrictive Environment for Preschool Children

The second question the IEP team must address is: 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. The information for the second question is documented on the services tab of the IEP where teams enter the service minutes as being provided in the general education program and/or the special education program.

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 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*?
  • Do the regular early childhood programs (general education environments) provide:
    • Appropriate activities for children of similar age without disabilities?
    • Instruction enables the child to participate and progress in the general education curriculum represented in the Iowa Early Learning Standards (IELS)?

*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.

Early Childhood Outcomes

Early Childhood Outcomes (ECO) is a federal reporting requirement established by the Office of Special Education Programs. 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:

  • Showing 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?

The ECO Summary 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 final ECO Summary is completed at the IEP meeting when the IEP team determines a preschool-age child will no longer receive Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) or preschool services such as transitioning to kindergarten, exiting special education, or moving out of state. However, the final ECO Summary cannot be completed more than ninety calendar days before the end of ECSE or preschool services. If the IEP meeting is held more than ninety calendar days prior to the ending of the ECSE or preschool services, then the ECO Summary 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 Summary is completed at the IEP meeting held in the spring. However, if the child's last day of preschool is May 30th, the ECO Summary 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. Based on the information, the team uses a 7-point rating scale to determine the child's functioning relative to age-appropriate expectations. Ratings must reflect and convey the children’s current functioning across settings and in situations that make up their day.

The seven-point rating 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

Additional information on determining ECO ratings can be found on the ECO Decision Tree.

ECO: Summary Progress

At an initial IEP meeting, IEP teams will indicate “not applicable because this is the child’s initial IEP meeting” on the ECO summary.

Annually, during the review IEP meeting, the IEP team will determine if the child has gained any new skills or behaviors while receiving special education 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 students to transition to the school setting (kindergarten). This transition typically involves a spring meeting with the IEP team and an amendment or IEP team meeting in the fall when kindergarten begins.

During the Spring Prior to Starting Kindergarten

IEP teams should plan to hold an IEP meeting for children 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 student’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 an IEP that describes the early childhood program and services that will complete the current school year and also describes the coming kindergarten program.
  • Complete a final Early Childhood Outcomes (ECO) Summary.
  • Provide parents with a Prior Written Notice describing any changes to services and supports (changes that are a result of the transition to kindergarten and any changes reflecting new or different student needs).
  • Inform parents that an IEP amendment will be required in the fall to complete the transition process.
During the Fall When Kindergarten Begins

In the fall of the kindergarten year, the new IEP team will need to amend the IEP, making all necessary changes. The fall amendment may be an amendment with or without a meeting, depending on the circumstances. The IEP team will decide if an additional meeting is necessary. Typically, the changes will include teacher names, attending building, and the least restrictive environment (LRE). The IEP team should complete a Prior Written Notice, informing the parents of proposed/refused action(s).

Early Childhood Resources

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