Education transitions for children with disabilities

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The most common transition for families is their child's entry to school. The emotions that every parent experience as they watch their child grow and enter school programs are magnified when their child has a disability (Johnson, 2001). One of the first education transitions for most children with disabilities is from an early intervention (EI) program to a preschool program that includes early childhood special education (ECSE).

For some children, the special services provided from the early intervention programs are enough to transition them into early childhood programs. Other children require the supports and services to continue throughout their placement in early childhood special education programs. Planning for the transition from early intervention programs to preschool is important to insure that appropriate special education services and supports are furnished (Dunst & Bruder, 2002). This process may create additional challenges when the children and their families are from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) groups.

As demographic changes in the United States have brought the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse children with disabilities to the forefront in education, school districts and local community agencies work to address this student population. Though early childhood programs and early intervention programs have been employed to service these children, students' families and school administration often disagree on the types and the intensity of the programs to be provided. Culturally based perceptions about education and special education are frequently the source of differences in opinion between schools and families (Cheatham & Santos, 2005).

The focus of this study was to gain a better understanding of the EI to EC / ECSE transition process from the perspective of culturally and linguistically diverse parents. The intent of the study was to determine if the level of native language supports and culturally responsive services available to the parents during the transition between the two programs were perceived as impacting the services and support available to the child. A better understanding of the transition process specific to LEP children and their parents is the ultimate intent of the study. The investigation of the topic was completed via a qualitative examination of the experience from the perspective of LEP mothers.


A child's development especially during the first few years of life is critical. While the majority of children achieve developmental targets as expected, some children develop more slowly due to mental, physical or ecological factors. Research suggests that the provision of comprehensive services to an infant or toddler who exhibits developmental delay and his family may have a positive impact on the child's progress (Karoly, L., Kilburn, R., & Cannon, J., 2005.).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that guides the provision of early intervention services. The law contains two separate parts which stipulate the provision of services to children with disabilities based upon age. IDEA Part C specifies the provision of services for infants and toddlers from birth through 2 years, while IDEA Part B, Section 619 addresses the provision of services for preschool children from 3 to 5 years (IDEA, 2004).

IDEA Part C was established to ensure the provision of appropriate early intervention services to infants and toddlers from birth to age 3 with disabilities or at risk of developing a disability. The focus of Part C includes improving the capacity of the family to meet the child's needs as well as reducing educational costs by minimizing the need for special education when the child is older. Part B, in contrast, requires that services, to the extent possible, be provided in educational settings, such as classrooms. Part B aims to ensure that children with disabilities have access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Each state determines which of its agencies is to oversee Part C. The designated agency in 16 of the states is the health department, and in 11 of the states it is the departments of education. The remaining 23 states have opted for a combination of oversight by the states' health and human services departments. In Illinois, services to children in early intervention (EI) programs are overseen by the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS). Families access EI services through a local Child and Family Connections (CFC) office where they are assigned a Service Coordinator. Individual service providers and agency providers who have provider agreements with Illinois DHS EI programs are used to provide direct services to children and supports to families. Speech therapy and developmental therapy, which address a child's individual deficits in meeting identified developmental milestones, are the services most frequently provided to children (IDHS, 2010).

In the past decade, the United States experienced an increase in the numbers of children requiring special education services. This increase is also observed in the programs which address the needs of infants and toddlers served under Part C of IDEA under the early intervention umbrella. Over the past five years, there has been an increase in the number of referrals and services provided to children from birth to 3 in Illinois. As indicated by Illinois DHS data in Table 1, there was an increase in the expenditures and the in the number of children receiving services under IDEA Part C in Illinois from 2005 to 2009. In 2009, services were provided to 18,883 infants and toddlers under the age of 3. This was an increase of 14.4% from the 16,647 infants and toddlers provided services in 2005 (IDHS, 2010).

Table 1: DHS Early Intervention Program Data 2005-2009






Program Expenditure

(Numbers in 000's)






Number Served






Illinois Department of Human Services, Bureau of Early Intervention, Early Intervention Fact Sheet. (2009). Retrieved from

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is the agency charged with overseeing the provision of services to children with identified disabilities including those in preschool programs serving 3 to 5 year old children. ISBE's data for 2005 to 2009 also reveal an increase in the number of students receiving special education services. In addition, it also shows that the number of students with disabilities who speak languages other than English has increased by 100.8 percent between 2005 and 2009. While the majority of those students are Spanish speakers, there has also been an increase in the percentage of students who speak other languages. In 2005, there were 30 identified languages or dialects spoken in Illinois by students with disabilities. By 2009, the data revealed that 101 languages or dialects were identified as being spoken by students with disabilities. In addition, 1663 students were identified as speaking the 30 languages or dialects identified in 2005. In 2009 the 101 languages and dialects were being spoken by 3151 students.

The ISBE's data also revealed an increase in the number of students between the ages of 3 to 5 who were identified as LEP students. During the 2005-2006 school year, The 483 identified LEP students had increased by 113.percent to 1029 by the 2009-2010 school year. Similar increases were noted for all age groups funded under Part B of IDEA.. Though early childhood programs and early intervention programs have been employed to service limited English proficient children, students' families and school administration often disagree on the types and the intensity of the programs to be provided. Culturally based perceptions about education and special education are frequently the source of differences between schools and families (Cheatham & Santos, 2005).

The importance of parent participation in the special education process has been recognized by federal and Illinois laws and regulations. Both state and federal laws and regulations governing the administration of educational programs for students with disabilities have recognized the important role of parents in the special education process. Parent participation remained a fundamental principle in all of the amended versions of Illinois law over the years pursuant to the legal mandates of the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) and its reauthorizations. Studies indicate that the even with all of the language stipulating parental involvement in IDEA and the Illinois , the IEP process remains a source of frustration, and confusion for parents. Parents interviewed indicated that parents felt that their participation was more to satisfy a requirement than it was to have a collaborative approach to the IEP development (Fish, 2006; Stoner, J. B., Bock, S. J., Thompson, J. R., Angell, M. E., Heyl, B. S., & Crowley, E. P. 2005).

The level of confusion about special education and the IEP process is often magnified when parents lack the language skills to fully comprehend the information presented during the IE meeting. The jargon and acronyms used during IEP meetings as well as the lack of diverse staff to communicate appropriately with parents often leads to a parent's lack of understanding about their child's special education issues and needs (Thomas, Correa, & Morsink, 2000). Several studies (Salas, 2004; Lo, 2008), have focused on the experiences of CLD parents during IEP meetings. These studies included interviews which revealed that parents felt language differences between the parents and school personnel was a barrier. The studies also indicated poor interpretation and translation services as a concern by LEP parents.

Statement of the Problem

The early intervention / early childhood special education system was developed as part of the IDEA mandate in an effort to bolster the development of disabled infants and children while minimizing the effects of the disabilities on the children, their families, and the children's education. Though the transition between the two levels of programming provided by the EI/ESCE system should be seamless, the process for those families that are culturally and linguistically diverse may be more difficult than the process experienced by monolingual English speaking families, due to the lack of appropriate linguistic and cultural supports available.

While the transition from early intervention to early childhood education is a crucial part of the educational process for many students with disabilities, there is insufficient information about the perceptions of limited English proficient (LEP) mothers about this transition. There are two purposes of this research:

to explore how parents characterize the transition process and

to examine if parents indicate culture and/ or language as an influence on the transition process.

The study also examines what barriers and/or promising strategies the mothers identified as being effective during the process.

Purpose of the Study

Hanson et al. (2000) noted the ample body of published research addressing the need for cross-cultural competence and best practices when working with culturally and linguistically diverse students. As Cheatham and Santos (2005) assert, children come to school displaying culture-based behaviors, practices, and perspectives which teachers and school personnel may find in conflict with conventional instruction. However, a lack of information specific to meeting the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students with disabilities makes the education process extremely challenging.

Research Questions

This study focuses on the interview responses of ten limited English proficient mothers of children who transitioned from an early intervention program to a preschool program in a north suburban Chicago school district. The transition would have taken place on or before their third birthday within twelve to twenty-four months prior to the date the interviews were conducted. The ten participants consisted of five Spanish speakers, two Gujarati speakers, one Korean speaker and Romanian speaker. The initial inquiry was of the mothers' general perceptions of the transition process. Interview responses were examined to compare perceptions between LEP parents with different degrees of access and the availability of native language educational and related service staff as well as the provision of information in the native language including the use of native language interpreters when necessary.

The central question of the study was whether the cultural and linguistic diversity of the parents impacted the overall transition process. The study was designed to answer three primary questions:

What perceptions did the mothers have of the overall transition process?

Were there comparative levels of satisfaction between the LEP parents who had greater native language supports and services and those that which had fewer linguistic supports and services?

Did the LEP mothers perceive the family's native language and/ or culture as a barrier, an advantage or not a factor in the transition process?

Overview of Research Methodology

Semi-structured interviews were chosen as the qualitative research design for this study since they provide detailed information of the findings that emerge and the contribution of those findings to the expansion of theory development (Mertens, 2005). Semi-structured interviews combine the flexibility of survey methods with the organization of the structured interview process. Pre-defined open-ended questions are prepared, but interviewers amend the questions and add new ones, based on the course of interview. Kvale (1996) defined unstructured interviews as interviews in which neither the question nor the answer categories are predetermined. They rely on social interaction between the researcher and informant to elicit information.

According to Kvale (1996), interview is a tool which is used frequently to access people's experiences, perceptions, and attitudes of situations or ideas. Through interviews, descriptive data is gathered in the subject's own words so that the researcher can understand how participants view a situation or an experience. The value of this technique is that the researcher can investigate what is meaningful to the individual (Seidman, 1998).

Qualitative research is an approach that utilizes methods designed to provide an extensive description of the phenomena under study. The research also presents insight into the meaning that individuals have constructed of their world and their interpretation of it (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). This study explored how the transition from early intervention programs to early childhood special education programs was characterized and interpreted by LEP mothers. Due to the nature of the research questions and the parents' experiences during the transition process under investigation, a qualitative approach was the most appropriate means to examine these mothers' responses.


This study focused on one north suburban Chicago school district involving a fairly small population of participants. Interviewing a greater number of parents from a variety of sites would better identify additional themes that emerge from this study. Moreover, this study focused on only the perspectives of mothers. While mothers are most likely the primary caretaker stakeholders, there may be others such as school personnel whose perceptions are not included but who could lend additional insight about the transition process.

Significance of the Study

The limited information about LEP children with disabilities, their parents, and their parents' perceptions of the transition period form a strong theoretical rationale for further investigation. The present study furnishes a conceptual structure to provide guidance for further research, and contribute to the literature on current transition practices. Thus, the needs of students with disabilities and their families during the transition process will be better addressed. Finally, the study establishes a starting point for improving transitions and subsequent child outcomes, especially those related to cultural and linguistic diversity.

Definition of Key Terms

1. At-risk infant or toddler -An individual under 3 years of age who would be at risk of experiencing a substantial developmental delay if early intervention services were not provided. (Section 632(1), IDEA 2004).

2. Culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) - Refers to students whose race, ethnic or language background differs from the dominant culture and from that of the teacher and school culture.

3. Developmental delay - A delay in physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development. (Illinois Administrative Code, Section 226.75)

4. Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) - Special education and related services is a state and federally mandated program for children (ages 3-5) who meet state eligibility criteria, because they are experiencing developmental delays. Eligibility for children is determined by criteria that have been established by federal and state rules and regulations (Part C of IDEA).

5. Early intervention (EI) -Services to infants and toddlers, and to their families, which are designed to address the needs of each eligible child and the needs of the family related to enhancing the child's development in conformity with an individualized family service plan (Part C of IDEA).

6. Individualized Education Program (IEP) -- A written document that identifies then unique needs of the child, the special education and related services needed to meet those unique needs, annual goals and short-term objectives, how the child's progress will be assessed, the date of initiation services, and the projected duration of those services. The

IEP is used in Part B of the IDEA.

7. Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP): A written plan for providing early intervention services to eligible children/families which i

s developed jointly by the family and appropriate qualified personnel providing early intervention services. The plan


ncludes all services necessary to enhance the development of the child and the capacity of the family to meet the special needs of the child (DHS, 2010).

8. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- The federal law mandating that all children with disabili­ties have available to them a free, appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and re­lated services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living.

9. Infant or toddler with a disability - An individual under 3 years of age who needs

early intervention services because the individual is experiencing developmental delays, as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures in one or more of the areas of cognitive, physical, communication, social or emotional, and adaptive development. . (Section 632(1), IDEA 2004).

10. Limited English Proficient (LEP) - A term used to describe a student who is not fully profi­cient in English, speaks a language other than English at home, and does not demonstrate English language skills of comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing at a level that would allow him to be placed in a main­stream class setting where only English is spoken.

11. Part B - The part of the IDEA describing how children with disabilities aged three through 21 shall receive a free appropriate public education.

12. Part C - the state operated program created in 1986 for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. It is an early intervention program for children under three years of age and (with family agreement) their families.

13. Transition - a process or period in which something undergoes a change and passes from one state, stage, form, or activity to another. In education it is the movement or transfer for one program or school to another.


This dissertation is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 has introduced the background information, the statement of the problem, and the significance of the study. Chapter 2 reviews the literature and research relevant to the broader topics associated with early intervention, early childhood special education, and the transition process. A closer look at the issues associated with culturally and linguistically diverse students is also presented. Chapter 3 provides a description and details regarding the research design, the data collection process and the data analysis process. The results of the data analysis and the overall results are presented in Chapter 4. The final chapter is a discussion of the study and its implications and applications for future studies.