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Early Childhood Special Education Programs
March 2021


"What are evidence-based practices for equity, linguistic diversity, cultural responsiveness, and placement in least restrictive environments (i.e., inclusive educational settings) in early childhood special education (ECSE) environments for children aged 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., & Guiberson, M. (2012). Evaluating young children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds for special education services. Young Exceptional Children, 15(1), 33–45.

From the Abstract:
"With the increasing diversity in the United States, there has been a call for early intervention/early childhood special education (EI/ECSE) services to be responsive and sensitive to the diversity of children and families represented in communities. Culturally responsive practice is particularly important for EI/ECSE professionals because of the clear focus on family involvement and partnerships in providing appropriate early intervention and educational experiences for young children with special needs. In this article, the authors first describe the issues and challenges that EI/ECSE professionals face when assessing young children and their families from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds for determining eligibility for EI/ECSE. Second, they provide a brief synthesis of research-based and promising evaluation practices for EI/ECSE professionals when working with these children, families, and other professionals. The practices they include are grounded in best practices described by several national organizations."

Banerjee, R., & Luckner, J. (2014). Training needs of early childhood professionals who work with children and families who are culturally and linguistically diverse. Infants & Young Children, 27(1), 43-59.

From the Abstract:
"The increase in numbers of children and families who are culturally and linguistically diverse served in early intervention and early childhood special education requires greater awareness and use of family-centered and culturally responsive practices. The purpose of this study was to identify the training needs, challenges, and level of preparation received by early childhood special education professionals working with children and families who are culturally and linguistically diverse. Five hundred seventy-four early childhood professionals responded to a comprehensive electronic survey. Identifying appropriate assessment instruments for assessing children who are culturally and linguistically diverse and working collaboratively with families who are culturally and linguistically diverse were reported as the most important training needs. The recommendations for preservice and in-service training programs are reported."

Boavida, T., Aguiar, C., & McWilliam, R. A. (2014). A training program to improve IFSP/IEP goals and objectives through the routines-based interview. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 33(4), 200-211.

From the Abstract:
"The authors describe a training program designed to improve the knowledge and skills of early childhood interventionists. Within the context of using the Routines-Based Early Intervention approach, this training focused on improving the quality of goals and objectives on individualized plans, through the Routines-Based Interview. We structured the training around five face-to-face sessions and a follow-up 3 months later. Here, we describe the development of the program, its content and methods, and the results on improvement of the goals and objectives with 80 professionals. These participants had completed the training, provided pretraining data, and provided posttraining data. Results showed that the training described here had the desired very large effect: Quality ratings of goals and objectives increased by over three standard deviations."

Coleman, H., Yaoying, X. U., & De Arment, S. (2020). Empowering diverse families. International Journal of Early Childhood Special Education, 12(1), 58-67. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this article is twofold. One, we demonstrate a family empowerment model for serving diverse families to support the DEC and NAEYC Families standards. Two, we provide strategies for early childhood practitioners to empower diverse families in identifying family concerns, priorities, and resources. Additionally, we discuss ways to effectively communicate with families within culturally responsive contexts. In conclusion, we provide resources and illustrate how to effectively communicate and collaborate with families, with the ultimate goal of improving child outcomes and family functioning."

Greenwood, C. R., Carta, J. J., Schnitz, A. G., Irvin, D. W., Jia, F., & Atwater, J. (2019). Filling an information gap in preschool MTSS and RTI decision making. Exceptional Children, 85(3), 271-290.

From the Abstract:
"A tenet of multitiered systems of support and response to intervention (MTSS-RTI) is that lack of response to instructional intervention is explained by classroom experiences and behaviors given opportunities to learn. We investigated the potential of filling this information gap in MTSS-RTI decision making using ecobehavioral observation to inform steps that could be taken for children not responding to preschool literacy instruction. Data analyses indicated that (a) teachers implemented a uniform pattern of daily activities providing children with infrequent opportunity to learn literacy, (b) the proportion of children's co-occurring academic engagement also was low but varied widely depending on the activity and teacher's literacy focus, and (c) children's personal risk characteristics moderated the strength of relationships. Novel was the finding that in some activities and teacher behaviors, teachers appeared to be differentiating instruction benefiting children with individualized education programs and dual-language-learner risk. Implications are discussed."

Hanson, M., & Espinosa, L. (2016). Culture, ethnicity, and linguistic diversity: Implications for early childhood special education. In B. Reichow, B. Boyd, E. Barton, & S. Odom (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood special education (pp. 455-471). Cham, Switzerland: Springer. Full text available at:

From the Abstract:
"Culturally and linguistically sensitive and individually tailored services are essential to the effective delivery of human services. Recognition and respect for the influences of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity across families are important underpinnings for intervention services. In the field of early childhood special education (ECSE), these components are particularly crucial given the emphasis on early identification and treatment for the very youngest in our population and the provision of services and support for children within their families’ homes and communities. While these values may be widely embraced and even adopted, putting them into practice in ECSE settings demands planned, well-informed, and reflective approaches. Recent demographic shifts reflecting greater population diversity present both challenges and opportunities for service providers to adapt their practices in order to meet and effectively support the breadth of needs of children and their families. It is the purpose of this chapter to describe considerations related to the diversity of children and families being served and to identify strategies and recommendations for effectively meeting the range of child and family needs."

Justice, L. M., Logan, J. A., Kaderavek, J. N., & Dynia, J. M. (2015). Print-focused read-alouds in early childhood special education programs. Exceptional Children, 81(3), 292-311.

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this study was to examine the impacts of print-focused read-alouds, implemented by early childhood special education (ECSE) teachers alone or in conjunction with caregivers, on the print knowledge of children with language impairment (LI). Using random assignment to conditions, children with LI were exposed, over an academic year of preschool, to one of three conditions specifying the way in which teachers and caregivers were to read storybooks with them. Based on a print-knowledge composite, children whose teachers used print-focused read-alouds had significantly better print knowledge (d?= 0.21) in spring of the year compared to children whose teachers used their typical reading practices. When teachers and caregivers implemented print-focused read-alouds simultaneously, children's Spring print knowledge was modestly higher (d?= 0.11) than that of children whose teachers and parents used their typical reading practices, but the effect was not statistically significant. Examination of intervention moderators showed that children with lower levels of nonverbal cognition benefited substantially from exposure to the intervention. Educational implications are discussed."

Lieberman-Betz, R. G., Vail, C. O., & Chai, Z. (2013). Examining Response to Intervention using a framework of best practice from early childhood special education. Exceptionality, 21(1), 51-67.

From the Abstract:
"Response to Intervention (RTI) models are likely to be implemented in early childhood settings with greater frequency to target academic and developmental skills. With an increasing number of classrooms serving children with identified special needs, it is necessary to examine how current frameworks for RTI models meet the needs of all children in the classroom, including those with identified developmental delays and disabilities. To do this, we reviewed five comprehensive RTI models proposed for preschool classrooms according to a framework based on foundational tenets in early childhood special education practice. Two independent researchers coded articles that described RTI models for presence of the foundational tenets and associated evidence-based practices described by Odom and Wolery (2003). Several foundational tenets were contained in the majority of RTI models, whereas others were not addressed adequately. Results provide the early childhood education and early childhood special education fields direction in development and implementation of inclusive early childhood RTI models."

Lohmann, M. J., Hovey, K. A., & Gauvreau, A. N. (2018). Using a universal design for learning framework to enhance engagement in the early childhood classroom. Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 7(2), 1-12.

From the Abstract:
"In order to meet the needs of young children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends teachers utilize developmentally appropriate practice, DAP. For young children with disabilities, teachers must also utilize the Division of Early Childhood (DEC) Recommended practices, evidence-based teaching practices aimed at enhancing learning outcomes for children and their families (DEC, 2014) that pair well with the NAEYC developmentally appropriate practices. Both NAEYC's DAP and DEC's Recommended Practices align with the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework for proactively addressing the needs of diverse and exceptional learners by ensuring all children have access to the curriculum. UDL includes the use of multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of expression. This article provides a brief overview of evidence-based UDL practices, with a specific focus on the use of engagement strategies for young children."

Maude, S., Hodges, L. N., Brotherson, M. J., Hughes-Belding, K., Peck, N., Weigel, C., & Sharp, L. (2009). Critical reflections on working with diverse families: Culturally responsive professional development strategies for early childhood and early childhood special educators. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 12(1), 38-53.

From the Abstract:
"Professional development that focuses on supporting teachers' abilities to work with diverse families is keenly needed. This article outlines three instructional strategies and how they were used with undergraduate students in an inclusive early childhood teacher education program: (a) involving diverse family members as instructional supports; (b) performance of family scenarios; and (c) examining diverse families in popular media. These strategies, undergirded by the importance of critical reflection, have been implemented as part of a statewide preservice teacher education initiative in Iowa. Program evaluation data provide preliminary evidence of their potential to foster the development of necessary cultural dispositions for future teachers to meet the growing diversity among children and families."


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"), (Equity OR equitable), ("Culturally responsive" OR "culturally responsiveness"), ("Linguistic diversity" OR "linguistically diverse"), "Evidence-based practices"

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.