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Don’t Stop at Inclusion: Identifying Learning Challenges in Early Education

Written by Meghan Casey, Policy Research & Advocacy Associate | June 9, 2015

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the U.S. Department of Education, shared a draft policy statement and asked for feedback from the public. The topic of the paper was one that is fundamental to the education of students with disabilities – inclusion in general education programs and recommendations for states to create inclusive early education programs.

For far too long, students with disabilities were educated in separate programs and schools, apart from students without disabilities. Often, this segregated system reinforced social stereotypes and led to lower expectations and poor outcomes for students with disabilities. In the 40 years since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed and the 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, students with disabilities have gained inclusion in general education classrooms, equal opportunities in education and in all aspects of life, in the eyes of the law.

Inclusion is a key tenet of our education system today. Meaningful inclusion of students with disabilities in general education programs is critically important. As the Department of Education paper discusses, research has demonstrated that inclusion has a positive effect on both students with disabilities and those without disabilities. Inclusion leads to significant developmental, cognitive, and communication gains for students with disabilities, compared to those in segregated settings. When inclusion begins early and continues through school, students have stronger outcomes, including test scores and graduation rates.  Students without disabilities also benefit from inclusion, demonstrating positive developmental, educational, and social-emotional growth, while also learning about diversity and disability.

In addition, research has shown just how formative the early years are for all children. It is during the early years of life that children build the foundation for learning, their brains develop rapidly, and they learn an immense amount about the world around them. During this time, students must be given the opportunity to have rich experiences where they can learn and play with others. This is especially important for students with disabilities, who might otherwise miss out on those important interactions and experiences.

Yet, early education programs must go beyond just including and supporting students with identified disabilities. A great number of students with disabilities are not yet identified when they enter early childhood programs. Therefore, these programs must be prepared to properly identify and support students who display signs of a disability or may be at-risk.  These programs and professionals must have the tools and information they need to identify children who may be exhibiting the early signs of learning disabilities and attention issues. Early recognition of learning challenges combined with timely, effective evidence-based services are critical to supporting success in later years.

Students with specific learning disabilities and attention issues – in areas such as reading, math, writing and executive functioning – constitute the largest number of students with disabilities. Yet, because of the “hidden” nature of their disabilities and the fact that they often possess areas of strength that allow them to remain under the radar, they can go unnoticed for years. Careful screening of all children –  especially those at-risk for learning disabilities and related disorders – offers an early window of opportunity for educators and parents to intervene before children experience frustration and failure.

At a very early age, children at-risk for disabilities in reading, writing, or math often display signs of these challenges. That’s why NCLD’s response to the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services/Education, urged early learning programs to take a proactive approach by screening for possible delays in these critical areas. Only then can we prevent problems before they occur and identify those students whose disabilities might otherwise go unnoticed for years.

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