Disability Services Coordinator Orientation Guide

Building Partnerships

"When I was new at the job, I pounded the pavement to talk with the special education directors in the school systems. I had to be a real go-getter and negotiate for what I knew our Head Start children needed. It was a little rocky at first, but in the end, I developed strong relationships with the schools." – Head Start disability services coordinator

This chapter focuses on developing effective collaborations to ensure quality services for children with disabilities1 and their families. As the disability services coordinator, you're going to become familiar with partnership-building and the formal documents that keep partnerships alive.

Your role requires close collaboration with IDEA2 Parts B and C local agencies, community organizations, and many other entities. When your program establishes strong partnerships and has strong systems and services, then the coordinated approach for children with disabilities and their families is likely well implemented.

Key Ideas

  • Because multiple agencies and service providers deliver disability services, they require effective partnerships.
  • An interagency MOU defines these partnerships.
  • Partnership agreements need to affirm respect for children's and families' cultures and languages.
  • When partners work together effectively, families receive consistent information, providers build on each other's expertise, and children receive effective services.

What Are Partnerships in Head Start Programs?

Mom carrying her daughter45 CFR §1302 Subpart E – Family and Community Engagement Program Services includes regulations about collaborative relationships and community partnerships. Joint agreements, procedures, or contracts may deliver on-site services and facilitate access to community services and resources for families and children.

The HSPPS describe diverse collaborations that might include community health care providers, family support services, and housing and legal assistance. Libraries and children's museums often partner with local programs. Agencies that serve families experiencing homelessness are important partners. In addition, a Head Start program is required to participate in coordinated systems of early childhood services, including publicly funded preschools, state or local Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), and state education data systems.

Additional HSPPS in 45 CFR §1302 Subpart F – Additional Services for Children with Disabilities require programs to develop interagency MOU with their local IDEA Parts B and C agencies to:

  • Identify children who may qualify for services under IDEA as indicated by the screening and evaluation process or in the local agency Child Find efforts
  • Improve services for children eligible under IDEA, including the referral and evaluation process, service coordination, and service delivery in the LRE and transition services
  • Ensure continuity of services as infants and toddlers move from services provided under Part C of IDEA to services provided under Part B for preschoolers, and as preschoolers move from Head Start to kindergarten
  • Develop or review the IFSP or IEP and its implementation, if requested by a child's family

HSPPS Related to Partnerships

Other regulations under 45 CFR §1302 Subpart G – Transition Services require collaborations when children transition into kindergarten. Partnerships between Early Head Start and Head Start programs and between Head Start programs, LEAs, and state departments of education, as appropriate, are critical. A program must collaborate with the family during all transitions and with the kindergarten teachers. Additional transition services are required for a child with an IFSP or an IEP. Chapter X includes more information about transitions for children with disabilities.

What Is Included in the Formal Partnerships?

An interagency MOU defines cooperative work between a Head Start program and government agency, both at the federal and state levels. The term "interagency memorandum of understanding" is more common in the Head Start community. These documents formalize the Head Start partnership. They are not legally binding, but they are useful because they define roles and responsibilities. They establish shared goals, propose coordination and communication protocols, set deadlines, and provide other guidance. They may also address funding arrangements and confidentiality requirements.

Interagency MOU bring everyone in the room together!

All partners sign the interagency MOU. The Head Start director signs for your program. However, you have primary responsibility for helping to frame the document to ensure it supports your program's commitments to children with disabilities and their families. Depending on who the community partner is, the health manager, mental health consultant, education manager, and professional development coordinator may also give input. See Appendix A for a sample interagency MOU.

It's important to know that interagency MOU aren't new to school districts. Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, all Title I schools must have agreements with Head Start programs. This federal requirement can help ensure that children, including children with disabilities, receive higher quality learning experiences and seamlessly transition from their Head Start program to kindergarten.

What Is Your Role in Collaborations and Partnerships?

Creating successful partnerships takes time, especially when partners come from different systems.

You are your program's point of contact for the partners in your community who serve children with disabilities and their families. Because each partner comes from their own perspective and organizational structure, you must work together to define roles and responsibilities. As much as possible, you define areas of collaboration.

Your program must establish an interagency MOU with the LEA, which is the IDEA Part B local agency. Your program also needs an agreement with the IDEA Part C agency in your service area. That entity might be a branch of the state health department, family and social services, rehabilitation services agency, or another state agency. It could also be a community organization, such as the Easter Seal Society or United Cerebral Palsy, that serves children under age 3 with disabilities and their families.

Typically, the interagency MOU between your program and the IDEA Part C and Part B local agencies detail the following:

  • Joint use of screening results
  • Preparation of referral procedures
  • Coordination of evaluation timelines, sites, and schedules
  • Assignment of paid specialists
  • Coordination of staff visitation to programs
  • Provision of translation services for families
  • Transition plans for children with IFSPs and IEPs
  • Timelines for planning meetings, as well as the personnel, parents, and families who are invited to attend
  • Joint professional development efforts
    • Head Start staff, special educators, and early intervention providers benefit when they share training costs and personnel.
  • An interagency MOU with an LEA to spell out different options for service delivery; for example:
    • A summer program for children with disabilities who are entering kindergarten
    • Special education teachers from the school system demonstrate teaching strategies in Head Start classrooms to support the inclusion of children with disabilities
  • Applicable HSPPS and IDEA requirements as you formalize agreements with your partners
  • Information about children and families is confidential
    • Which kind of information, at what time, and with whom will your team share?
  • Parental consent for referral and IFSP and IEP plans
    • What are the plans if parents and families do not consent or attend necessary meetings?

There may be an agreement between the Parts B and C state-led agencies about disability services and Head Start programs. If so, this agreement will suggest state-specific features to include in your agreements with the local agencies. Contact your Head Start State Collaboration Office for more information.

Keep in mind that an interagency MOU does not specify all collaborations. Some just happen because they're part of the IDEA services described in a child's IFSP or IEP. The child's plan may identify multiple disciplines that work together, such as a speech-language pathologist and physical therapist who provide services in the child's classroom. This is an opportunity for the program staff to learn from the specialists and vice versa. Professional development in action!

You can plan and implement a variety of other partnerships that go beyond the IDEA agencies and early intervention and special education providers. Maybe the public library wants to set up story times for toddlers, or the natural history museum offers workshops for preschoolers and their families. In your role, you are a strong advocate for the inclusion of enrolled children with disabilities in community-based learning activities.

Plan for Partnerships

You want to help ensure your program works with agencies that:

  • Are committed to inclusion and service delivery in the LRE for children ages 3 years and older
  • Are committed to inclusion and service delivery in the natural environment for infants and toddlers and their families
  • Understand each other's areas of expertise and avoid duplication of services
  • Communicate on a regular basis
  • Share data
  • Are able to resolve differences
  • Ask families what they need and include them in joint meetings
  • Help to assess children's ongoing progress as indicated by goals in the IFSP, IEP, or 504 Plan
  • Provide smooth transitions between programs and schools
  • Address families' linguistic needs, including translation and interpretation services
  • Demonstrate sensitivity and respect for families' cultural values and practices

Given the breadth of your work as a disability services coordinator, and the many touchpoints you have in the program and community, the possibilities for successful collaboration are endless.

Reviewing and Revising Partnerships

Partnership agreements are not set in stone. They can be revised and adjusted. New partners may work with you. LEAs and other agencies can develop new procedures. If the demographics change in your service area, your program may need interpretation or translation services to support families and their children with disabilities. The interagency MOU with the LEA may need to state that these services for parents and families will be made available during an IFSP or IEP meeting. If a hospital has recently closed in your community, prenatal care could be less accessible. As a result, the risk of low birth-weight babies and associated health risks increases. Your interagency MOU with the Part C local agency or with medical clinics may need to reflect this new reality.

The disabilities team works with program leaders to assess interagency collaborations annually. Involve your colleagues who support inclusion, such as your program's HSAC and managers, family advocates, and transportation staff.

You need to gather data and information from a variety of sources to find out how the collaborations support children with disabilities and their families. To do this:

  • Include questions in your program-wide self-assessment
  • Talk with your program's management team and the partners
  • Ask families for feedback
  • Refer to the community assessment to identify any new partners in your service area

Support strong partnerships to ensure that a coordinated approach is in place for children with disabilities and their families.

Once you have a sense of your program's strengths and challenges, you can work with the management team to adjust the interagency MOU. Be patient, because you may work with agencies and institutions that are bureaucratic and hierarchical in a way that your Head Start program is not. There may be layers of approval before agreements change. Just keep in mind that you're doing this on behalf of children with disabilities and their families. You are their voice in these very complex, multifaceted, and diverse partnership arrangements.

Tips to Improve Your Partnerships and Collaborations

  • Revise or create interagency MOU. Work with early intervention and special education partners to define successful strategies and challenges. Develop a list of recommendations.
    • See Appendix A for a sample interagency memorandum of understanding.
  • Check on communication protocols. Review and revise formal and informal communication procedures among early intervention and special education partners, families, and program staff, including the disabilities team.
  • Prioritize consistent messaging to families. Ensure different community organizations provide the same information to families. Clarify messages to reduce families' confusion and stress.
  • Advocate for inclusive collaboration models. Consider joint training for program staff and partners. Offer coaching to promote effective teaching strategies. When necessary, work with families to request more support from community partners.
  • Support ongoing data-sharing that protects child records. Review confidentiality requirements in the interagency MOU. Assess data collection and sharing procedures to improve where needed.
  • Be informed about partnerships in health services. Ask the healthcare provider about how your program collaborates with community resources to serve children with special healthcare needs and disabilities.
  • Advocate for a community-wide approach to serving children with disabilities. Communicate the importance of early intervention and disability services. Use your Head Start program as a community leader for inclusion.

People to Help You

  • Kids smiling and eatingProfessionals from Part B and Part C local agencies
  • Community partners
  • Program management
  • Program staff in health, mental health, nutrition, transportation, and other service areas
  • Program staff in systems areas, including professional development, finance, and data management
  • Families
  • State-led IDEA agencies
  • Head Start State Collaboration director

Questions to Ask Colleagues About Partnerships and Collaborations

  • Do we include all early intervention and special education partners in our interagency MOU?
  • Do we have written agreements with other community organizations that provide disability services, such as mental health clinics?
  • Do we have partnership agreements with community resources that provide inclusive environments, such as recreation programs and libraries?
  • How do we communicate and share data with our partners?
  • How do we engage families in planning and implementing collaborations?
  • How do our partnerships promote a coordinated approach to ensure the full and effective participation of children with disabilities?
  • How often do we review the interagency MOU?
  • Are we aware of any duplication of services or funding? If so, how can they be reduced?


Sequoia Head Start and its LEA, the Mt. Thomas school district, work well together. They have had the same interagency MOU in place for several years. The local elementary school receives many Head Start children. The principal has worked hard to create a welcoming climate for the children and their families. He has advocated for parent and family engagement and invites Head Start families to join school district activities. In many ways, the relationship between the program and the school is strong.

However, Lydia, the disability services coordinator at Sequoia Head Start, hears that the school is not doing everything it could to help transition children with disabilities into the school. Some parents and families are dissatisfied with the lack of inclusive services: They say the kindergarten teachers don't seem to individualize learning like the Head Start teachers did. They also report that the large-group activities don't work well for their children with disabilities. They say their children learn better in small groups. They also want their children to make friends, if possible, with some of their typically developing peers.

Lydia decides to survey the parents of Head Start graduates to identify the strengths and gaps in current services and supports. Parents and families are not happy with the pull-out, yet they are pleased with the availability of adaptive equipment, the transportation services, and health support. They agree that the school has a positive, family-friendly environment.

Lydia calls a team meeting and includes the Head Start director, school district personnel, the principal, teachers, parents and families, and other staff. She shares the survey findings about the strengths and gaps. Parents, families, and school staff are clear that they want to improve this situation and decide their first step is to focus on staff development. A group of teachers and special educators will meet regularly to explore the research on inclusion. They want to learn more about how to individualize in kindergarten. Coaches from the Head Start program decide to visit the kindergarten classrooms to demonstrate teaching strategies. Head Start and kindergarten staff plan monthly professional development activities about individualization. They are excited to learn from each other.

Lydia works with the programs to revise the interagency MOU. She incorporates these new professional development activities. The school system and Head Start program agree that the interagency MOU is stronger than it was before.

1 In this guide, the term children with disabilities includes children with suspected delays, unless stated otherwise.

2 IDEA refers to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.