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Access to Early Childhood Special Education
March 2021


"What does the research say about how families access and use early childhood special education programs for children ages 3 to 5?"

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Banerjee, R., Sundeen, T., Hutchinson, S. R., & Jackson, L. (2017). Factors that explain placement decisions for students with multiple disabilities: Findings from national data. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 17(2), 110–122.

From the Abstract:
"The Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study data set was utilised to examine the potential influences on placement decisions for students with multiple disabilities in the US. The sample consisted of 415 students. Specifically, the study investigated whether factors including students' prior special education experiences, parental involvement, parental expectations and educational risk factors explain the placement of students in classrooms. Results indicate significant relations between the explanatory variables and the hours spent daily in general education classrooms. However, only two variables, parents' education and receipt of early childhood special education services, were significantly associated with the dichotomised outcome of whether or not a child received any academic instruction in a general education classroom. Research limitations and implications for future research, policy and practice in the international context are discussed."

Benjamin, T. E., Lucas-Thompson, R. G., Little, L. M., Davies, P. L., & Khetani, M. A. (2017). Participation in early childhood educational environments for young children with and without developmental disabilities and delays: a mixed methods study. Physical & occupational therapy in pediatrics, 37(1), 87–107.

From the Abstract:
"Aims: This mixed methods study examined: 1) how young children with and without developmental disabilities and delays participate in daycare or preschool activities; 2) similarities and differences in environmental factors impacting daycare or preschool participation; and 3) strategies used by parents who desired a change in their child's participation. Methods: Data were drawn from 129 parents of young children with and without developmental disabilities and delays (mean age = 49.3 months) residing in North America. Summary and item-level group differences based on disability status were assessed for participation and environmental supports to participation. Narrative data on parental strategies were content coded, transformed into numerical counts, and summarized to identify strategies commonly employed by parents to promote their child's participation. Results: Moderate to large disability related group differences in participation and environmental support to participation were found even after controlling for confounding effects of child age, child gender, and family income. Parents commonly described strategies focused on "child care tasks" and "child peer groups," irrespective of the type(s) of change they desired. Conclusions: Study findings suggest that discrepancies in school participation between young children with and without disabilities and delays can be detected and intervened on during the early childhood period."

Bruder, M. B., & Dunst, C. J. (2015). Parental judgments of early childhood intervention personnel practices: Applying a consumer science perspective. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 34(4), 200–210.

From the Abstract:
"Parents of young children participating in either Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part C early intervention or IDEA Part B-619 preschool special education programs were surveyed to obtain a consumer science perspective of the practitioners who were the children’s primary service providers. Parents were asked to make judgments of the confidence and competence of the practitioners in six practice areas (family-centered practices, teaming and collaboration, child assessments and evaluations, instructional practices, Individualized Family Service Plans [IFSPs] or Individualized Education Programs [IEPs], and natural environments and inclusion practices). Results indicated that the parents rated the practitioners as more confident than competent when using practices, and that the degree of parent involvement in early intervention or preschool special education was related to variations in parents’ perceived judgments. Implications for evaluating early childhood intervention service quality from a consumer science perspective are described."

Danaher, J. (2011). Eligibility policies and practices for young children under Part B of IDEA. NECTAC Notes, 27, 1–21.

From the Abstract:
"The identification of young children in need of special education and related services has been an issue with advocates, service providers, parents, researchers, and policy makers for years. The enactment in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P. L. 94-142) required states and jurisdictions to provide special education and related services to children identified by the disability categories enumerated in the law (hereinafter referred to as Part B categories). As implementation of this legislation continued throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s, concerns were raised in some quarters about how applicable and appropriate some of the disability categories are for very young children. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, P.L. 108-446, clarified that the age range for developmental delay is ages 3 through 9, or any subset of that range, including ages 3 through 5. The most recent regulations reaffirmed the states' role in deciding whether to use a developmental delay category, defining it, and assigning an age range. Local education agencies (LEAs) may use developmental delay only if they use the states' definition and age range. In response to states' interest in whether or how other states are using developmental delay or other eligibility category specific to 3- through 9-year-olds, the author reviewed the current eligibility classifications and criteria as retrieved from states' Web sites and/or provided by the coordinators of the state Part B-Section 619 programs, including the District of Columbia. The results of the analysis are discussed and are summarized in this paper. Attachment 1 presents a summary of all the states' eligibility policies: disability term(s) for early childhood, the age range to which it applies, criteria for eligibility under that term, notes on the state's use of the term, including the relationship of the term to other Part B categories, whether eligibility policies address transition from Part C to Section 619 services, and additional information on the age range of developmental delay/other early childhood disability category, and other comments."

Farnsworth, E. (2018). Influence of child find referral mechanisms on early childhood special education participation. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), state and local education agencies are obligated to locate, identify, and evaluate all individuals ages birth to 21 years who may be in need of special education services and supports. Past research suggested, however, that disparities exist between the percent of children who demonstrate needs and those who participate in special education (e.g., Boyle et al., 2011). This indicates that child find referral mechanisms may not be effectively functioning to locate all children in potential need and suggests that examining the influence of referral mechanisms on receipt of special education may provide important information for improving practices and upholding the law. During preschool, four common child find referral mechanisms exist to aide in the identification of young children with special needs. These include referrals that result from early childhood screening, well-care visits, early childhood education providers, and parent knowledge of development."

Hughes, M. T., & Valle-Riestra, D. M. (2012). Early childhood special education: Insights from educators and families. International Journal of Education, 4(2), 59–73. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Programs and services designed to meet the needs of young children with disabilities have increased substantially in recent years, often times without evaluating how effective the programs and services are at meeting the needs of children and families. This study sought to investigate how principals, teachers, and parents perceived how Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) programs across 31 schools in a large, urban city in the United States (US) meet the needs of young children and their families. Thirty principals, 45 teachers, and 301 families participated in the investigation. Overall, all stakeholders identified the programs’ structure, personnel, and home to school connections as strengths. They also believed that ECSE programs were an appropriate place for young children with disabilities. Families and teachers indicated satisfaction with the frequency of communication; however, both families and principals still wanted to see an increase in communication between home and school. Areas needing improvement included critical elements needed in ECSE programs related to human resources, increased funding, and appropriate adult-child ratios. Implications for practice are discussed."

Mereoiu, M., Bland, C., Dobbins, N., & Niemeyer, J. A. (2015). Exploring perspectives on child care with families of children with autism. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 17(1), 1–13.

From the Abstract:
"Early childhood programs serve increasing numbers of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families. While many programs have made significant progress in providing educational services responsive to the needs of children with ASD, concerns persist about whether early education programs can meet the educational needs of such children and collaborate effectively with their families. The authors explored self-reported experiences and concerns of families who have children diagnosed with ASD and their experiences with preschool educational services in a northern county of a southeastern state. In focus groups, participants discussed program/family relationships, their priorities for their children, and how these needs and priorities were addressed, or not addressed, in the programs serving their children. Findings indicate that families were concerned with their children's access to the educational environment, the availability of emotional and social development support for children with ASD, and the overall reflection of inclusion as a program philosophy in the program settings."

Movahedazarhouligh, S. (2019). Parent-implemented interventions and family-centered service delivery approaches in early intervention and early childhood special education. Early Child Development and Care 191(1), 1–12.

From the Abstract:
"The research synthesis presented here reviewed the currently available evidence on the effectiveness of parent-implemented interventions and family-centered service delivery approaches in early intervention, early childhood special education, and kindergarten through grade three (EI/ECSE [early childhood special education]/K-3). The search for appropriate research literature spanned from 2005 to 2018 and resulted in a total of fifteen studies that met the inclusion criteria. Taken together, the outcomes of this research synthesis provide support for the effectiveness of parent-implemented interventions for children with or at risk for developmental delays/disabilities. Also, there is evidence to support the efforts that have been made to train EI/ECSE professionals in adopting these practices in their profession. However, no evidence was gained to clarify if the implemented interventions were aimed to help the child and the family with Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or Individualized Educational Plan's (IEP) goals' attainment. Discussion of the findings along with implications for future research and practice are presented."

Pang, Y. (2010). Facilitating family involvement in early intervention to preschool transition. School Community Journal, 20(2), 183–198.

From the Abstract:
"Active family involvement and important family roles in the early intervention to preschool transition have been mandated by laws, recognized by the position statements of professional organizations, and validated through evidence-based research. In order to involve families in this process, reduce stresses, and conquer the challenges families may encounter, professionals who serve families in this process should seek to fully understand families' needs and priorities and to establish collaboration with them to design appropriate transition goals and effective strategies. The application of a conceptual framework of family systems theory and family-centered practices can fulfill this task. The purpose of the study is two-fold: to review literature on family involvement in the transition from early intervention programs to programs for three-year-olds from a perspective of the conceptual framework of family systems theory, thus providing a good view of the needs, priorities, strengths, and weaknesses of families from diverse backgrounds; and to describe family-centered practices for developing quality transition services that meet families' diverse needs, thus smoothing the transition process."

Peterson, C. A., Wall, S., Jeon, H. J., Swanson, M. E., Carta, J. J., Luze, G. J., & Eshbaugh, E. (2013). Identification of disabilities and service receipt among preschool children living in poverty. The Journal of Special Education, 47(1), 28–40.

From the Abstract:
"This study examined the prevalence of indicators of disability or potential disability among preschool-aged children enrolled in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Longitudinal Follow-Up. Three categories of indicators were established: received Part B services, developmental risk, and biological risk. The majority of participating children (62%) were classified into at least one category. Children living in poverty from birth through preschool and of minority status were among those most likely to be classified; these children were likely to have received a variety of services. The majority of children who received Part C services (79.8%) received Part B services as preschoolers, but 33% of the children with a developmental risk identified before age 3 continued to have a developmental risk during preschool yet did not receive specialized services. Results highlight the importance of understanding the relations among child and family characteristics and service receipt to inform policy and practice."

Raspa, M., Levis, D. M., Kish-Doto, J., Wallace, I., Rice, C., Barger, B., ... & Wolf, R. B. (2015). Examining parents’ experiences and information needs regarding early identification of developmental delays: qualitative research to inform a public health campaign. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 36(8), 575–585. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Objective—The purpose of this study was to assess the approach and materials of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Learn the Signs. Act Early." (LTSAE) health education campaign, which aims to improve awareness of developmental milestones and early warning signs of developmental delay among parents of young children. Methods—We conducted two phases of qualitative research. Focus groups assessed the campaign's objectives by exploring the experiences of parents with children who have developmental delays or disabilities to determine facilitators of and barriers to identification. In-depth interviews were conducted with parents of typically developing children, who reviewed campaign materials and provided feedback on appropriateness, appeal, and clarity with regard to the campaign's objectives. Results—Phase 1: Parents were typically the first to express concern about their child's development, and most talked with their child's health care provider. Two categories of health care providers emerged: those who proactively asked about a child's development, used tools to facilitate conversations, and made referrals, and those who did not ask about development, told parents to "wait and see," and did not provide information about services and supports. Few parents knew about special education services before identification. Phase 2: Participants found the campaign materials appealing, but were unclear about how to act early and why acting early was important. Conclusions—Results affirmed LTSAE's evidence-based approach to educating parents about child development. Additional campaign considerations include providing more information about how to act early and why acting early is important and enhancing outreach to providers to help them communicate with concerned parents."

Sullivan, A. L., Farnsworth, E. M., & Susman-Stillman, A. (2018). Patterns and predictors of childcare subsidies for children with and without special needs. Children and Youth Services Review, 88, 218–228. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"One goal of childcare subsidies is to increase access to quality childcare for families of low income, thus supporting child and family wellbeing, but subsidies may not equally benefit children with and without special needs. This study examined patterns and predictors of subsidy use among children with disabilities or delays relative to children without special needs. A nationally representative sample of approximately 4,050 young children from families of low-income was drawn from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Birth Cohort. We examined subsidized care receipt at ages nine months, two years, and four years using descriptive analyses and multivariate logistic regression. Results suggest young children with special needs utilize childcare subsidies at significantly lower rates than their peers without disabilities. Mothers’ marital status, work status, education, and age, along with child’s race and number of siblings were significant predictors of subsidy use. We discuss implications for policy implementation and multisector collaboration to support the early care and education of young children with special needs."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: ("Early childhood special education" ), ("Early childhood" AND "special education"), (Families OR parent* OR caregiver*), (Access OR enroll* OR participation OR "child find" OR assessment* OR eligibility OR screening*)

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.