Disability Services Coordinator Orientation Guide

Creating Support for Staff

"My program has always been great about arranging learning opportunities. One of the best was when we joined up with our local school district to discuss working with families whose children have severe disabilities. I have a better understanding of what the families are going through and how much support they need." – Head Start family advocate

This chapter is about identifying and supporting staff's professional development needs. Your job as a disability services coordinator is wide-reaching, touching all aspects of the Head Start program. To ensure that a coordinated approach is in place for children with disabilities and their families, you need to address professional development. What are the staff's strengths? Where do they need additional support managing systems or delivering services? When you build trusting relationships with staff, you will be more effective in using professional development to improve your program's coordinated approach.

Key Ideas

  • Successful inclusion depends on staff who are confident and capable of supporting the development and learning goals of children with suspected or identified disabilities.
  • Some staff may need individualized support, including coaching or mentoring, to deliver high-quality disability services.
  • Joint training with early intervention and special education partners helps to ensure consistent delivery of services.
  • Respect for the cultural and linguistic diversity of staff—and of children and families—is a key message in all training and professional development activities.
  • Professional development for child and family services staff promotes child and family outcomes.
  • A coordinated approach for children with disabilities intersects with a coordinated approach for professional development and training, which is a requirement in Head Start programs.

What is the training and professional development system in Head Start programs?

Staff training, supervision, and support are the methods of preparing and providing ongoing professional development for staff who work with children and families. 45 CFR §1302 Subpart J – Program Management and Quality Improvement requires a program-wide coordinated approach to ensure the training and professional development system effectively supports the delivery and continuous improvement of high-quality services. This means that implementing a coordinated approach for the professional development system intersects with the coordinated approach for service delivery for children with disabilities and their families. These two coordinated approaches go hand in hand.

The HSPPS at 45 CFR §1302 Subpart I – Human Resources Management provide requirements about training content. For children and family services staff, including those working in health and disabilities, training needs to build their knowledge, experience, and competencies to improve child and family outcomes. The professional development system also must include research-based approaches for education staff that are focused on the following content areas:

  • Effective curricula implementation
  • ELOF
  • Partnering with families
  • Supporting children with disabilities and their families
  • Providing effective and nurturing adult-child interactions
  • Supporting children who are DLLs, as appropriate
  • Addressing challenging behaviors
  • Preparing children and families for transitions
  • Using data to individualize learning experiences for improved child outcomes

HSPPS Related to Staff Professional Development

A program also must ensure that staff can access mental health and wellness information. The HSPPS require programs to implement a research-based, coordinated coaching strategy. Based on staff needs, programs must offer intensive coaching to education staff who would benefit most. The coaching plan might include observation, feedback, and models of effective teaching or home visiting practices that align with program performance goals. Staff who don't need intensive coaching can receive other forms of research-based professional development.

All staff must complete at least 15 clock hours of professional development per year. As appropriate, the professional development should offer academic credit.

The Head Start Act of 2007 requires that a professional development plan is developed for all full-time Head Start employees who provide direct services to children. Such plans must be evaluated regularly for their effect on teacher and staff effectiveness. This requirement can be met by program-wide or individualized professional development plans, which are often supported by coaches and supervisors.

What is your role in professional development for staff?

As the disability services coordinator, you help ensure that all staff receive the training, supervision, and professional development they need to deliver high-quality services to children with suspected or identified disabilities and their families. This scope covers teachers, family child care providers, home visitors, and family service workers who are direct providers. It also covers other personnel. Consider the bus drivers who transport children with disabilities, the nutritionists who prepare meals for children with special health needs, and the specialists who analyze data about children with disabilities. Include volunteers in training, when possible. Of course, not all staff need to know all the details about disability services, but they need to know enough to support inclusive services and fulfill their roles. To implement a coordinated approach for children with disabilities, collaborate with the professional development system and its outreach to all staff members, volunteers, and other stakeholders.

Planning for Partnerships

Include joint training opportunities among partners to ensure consistent information. You can support effective staff development when you help:

  • Create tools and protocols to identify staff's professional development needs
  • Promote collaboration between coaches, early intervention providers, and special education partners to provide staff with consistent support
  • Think broadly about staff professional development. Learning about inclusion—its benefits and effective strategies—builds strong advocates for children with disabilities

Professional development content is broad. All of the professional development content areas for education staff listed in the HSPPS can be integrated with information about children with disabilities. As you and the program management plan professional development, topics may include IDEA and other laws, plus the HSPPS regulations. It's important to address recruitment, family support, and transitions. In fact, you may cover the topics highlighted in each chapter of this guide in staff professional development.

Make sure professional development about inclusion integrates cultural and linguistic responsiveness to children with disabilities and their families. Also consider the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the staff as you plan professional development. For some staff, inclusion may not be part of their past experience. Professional development may need to incorporate a rationale and the legislative requirements.

In 2017, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a comprehensive report: Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Chapter 10 discusses DLLs and English learners with disabilities. This resource can be incorporated into professional development for Head Start staff.

Keep in mind that the HSPPS require a research-based approach to professional development. Stay informed about new developments in the field that support inclusion. Integrate this information into staff professional development. The HSPPS also require a research-based, coordinated coaching strategy. Share the latest research with education managers, supervisors, coaches, and child development specialists about effective teaching practices, home visiting strategies, and inclusive learning environments for children with disabilities.

Consider grounding staff in child development research, especially those who work directly with children with disabilities. When staff know about developmental milestones, they are better prepared to support a child with suspected or identified disabilities. They might be alert to developmental delays that can lead to a referral. Also, a foundational knowledge of child development helps staff view children as individuals with different rates and paths of development. They can better understand why they must individualize their teaching practices or their home visiting strategies. You can point staff to your program's curriculum guides and to the ELOF, which provides developmental milestones from birth to 60 months.

It's important that staff know about the cultural factors affecting child development. If there are children with disabilities who are DLLs in your program, staff need to understand first- and second-language acquisition processes. Include information about how disabilities can affect language learning and processing. Plan training with input from the family advocates in your program. They have information about the families' cultures and languages. In short, the principles of child development guide staff's work with all children, including children with disabilities.

Woman holding kid while he playsWorking Together

When you develop positive relationships with program staff, they are likely to be interested and receptive to professional development that supports children with disabilities and their families. Effective communication is critical. If you are perceived as a partner who hears their concerns and wants to address the challenges they face, they are more likely to be engaged in professional development activities. Make it clear that professional development helps them do their job better.

"Creating a partnership generally involves getting to know the other person and establishing trust, gaining an understanding of another's priorities and needs, and reaching consensus on how best to work together." Learn more with CONNECT Module 3: Communication for Collaboration.

Work closely with the human resource (HR) department in your program. You might help write job descriptions for educators or managers who play critical roles in the coordinated approach. You might learn about professional development needs from performance appraisals of staff. Although the information on any one person is confidential, your HR colleagues may be able to identify trends or patterns. Become familiar with staff qualifications and required competencies in the HSPPS. An important piece of onboarding for new staff, volunteers, and consultants is learning about disability services in your program. You can use this guide as a valuable resource.

There are many ways for you to help plan and provide professional development in support of inclusion. Depending on the size and configuration of your program, it might make sense to plan professional development activities for large groups of staff in specific roles, such as teachers and home visitors who work with infants and toddlers with disabilities. You might also consider planning an orientation at the beginning of the year for staff, consultants, and volunteers. Work with a team to decide training priorities.

The Head Start Act of 2007 requires that all full-time Head Start employees who provide direct services to children have a professional development plan. These plans must be evaluated regularly for their effect on teachers and staff effectiveness. Often, coaches and supervisors help develop individualized professional development plans. Form a team with the educational staff to help shape individualized plans for teachers and home visitors to learn about inclusion and how to better support children with disabilities and their families. Based on assessment data and observations, a teacher or home visitor might identify particular learning goals to support inclusive practices, along with an action plan. Act as a resource, especially if a staff person has career goals related to special education or early intervention.

When teaching staff and home visitors receive professional development on intentional teaching and learning supports for children with disabilities, they are better prepared to use individualized approaches with all children.

Little girl using walking stickGetting Started

When programs build their professional development systems, they start by identifying staff needs. Through ongoing monitoring of program quality, staff self-assessment, and staff supervision, program management determines what kinds and levels of professional development staff need to provide a high-quality, inclusive environment. Planning professional development may involve:

  • Reviewing staff records for experience or training in disability services
  • Analyzing IEP or IFSP progress, child outcomes data, and school readiness goals
  • Reviewing transition data for children with identified or suspected delays
  • Learning directly from staff who work with children and families about their training needs
  • Consulting with others, including coaches, mental health consultants, and early intervention and special education partners
  • Reviewing staff evaluations from previous training activities
  • Using data from the community assessment and continuous improvement

The needs assessment may indicate that all staff need a refresher on the program's inclusion policies. You may also want to review the federal legislation about inclusion. Your professional development can provide the rationale for a coordinated approach. When educators, transportation and nutrition specialists, family outreach advocates, budget personnel, and other staff come together, they will appreciate the roles they play in ensuring children with disabilities and their families fully participate in the program.

The most effective professional development targets the audience's particular needs. Often, experienced staff need different training than inexperienced staff. You may want to tailor learning experiences for staff who work directly with children and families. Some may need intensive professional development related to a particular disability or specific practices. At times, professional development efforts may support a particular child and family. These specific needs may be addressed in a staff member's individualized professional development plan.

Volunteers also need to learn about inclusion during their orientation. If possible, they can participate in ongoing staff development.

Also, consider ways to support coaches and education managers. They may need to build their knowledge and skills about inclusive practices by learning from experts in the field at conferences or via online modules. The staff needs assessment will help you make plans that work for everyone.

Just as children's learning experiences are individualized in your program, so are staff learning opportunities.

Who can deliver the training and professional development supports? Here are some options.

As you plan professional development, cast your net wide in identifying trainers and resources.

Tips for Building Professional Development to Support Inclusion

  • Review all training and professional development plans. Make sure they are grounded in data, such as the needs assessment from staff, and also reflect the program's philosophy of inclusion. Integrate the HSPPS and legislative requirements into your plan.
  • Identify some professional development activities that are general and others that are specific to disability services. Topics like individualization apply to all children, but specific teaching and home visiting strategies might apply only to children with disabilities.
  • Support individual staff. Meet with them or their supervisors regularly to problem-solve and address the needs of children with disabilities. Be creative as you investigate professional development opportunities online and at local, regional, and national levels.
  • Coordinate with coaches and managers. Provide guidance to supervisors and others who support direct line staff working with children with disabilities and their families.
  • Ensure collaborations with partners. Review interagency agreements and MOUs, the community assessment, and the program self-assessment to identify joint professional development opportunities. LEAs may be sources of professional development for your program. Contact community colleges for credit courses and trainers.
  • Know your staff. Support their professional development goals. Help them find credit courses if they are working toward a degree or credential.
  • Think outside the box. Think about how staff who perform a variety of functions in the program can benefit from learning about children with disabilities. Include contractors, consultants, and volunteers, when possible. Help create a welcoming, inclusive environment for children and their families when they first walk in the door.

People to Help You

  • Program management who plan and budget professional development
  • Educational staff and home visitors
  • Family service manager and staff
  • Health manager and staff
  • Coaches, supervisors, and child development specialists
  • Mental health consultant
  • Parts B and C local agencies responsible for IDEA services
  • Other community partners
  • T/TA providers

Questions to Ask Your Colleagues

  • What content do we deliver in staff orientations? Does it include information about inclusion and disability services?
  • How do we ensure our program-wide professional development addresses the unique needs of children with disabilities and their families?
  • What training and support needs have our staff self-identified? What needs has the program self-assessment identified?
  • Do our education managers, coaches, child development specialists, and other managers need professional development to support the staff who provide direct services to children and families?
  • What is the best delivery system for professional development? Pre-service? In-service?
  • How do we assess the effectiveness of professional development? Do our staff and program self-assessments indicate improved classroom quality and teaching practices? Are we seeing increased confidence as staff interact with children and families?
  • What hiring policies and procedures ensure we have the best qualified staff work with children with disabilities and their families?


In a few weeks, 9-month-old Tamara is going to enroll in a local Early Head Start program. The teachers are experienced, but this child poses new challenges. She has hip dysplasia. They have a medical plan in effect. She's been referred to the Part C local agency, but she has not yet received an evaluation to determine eligibility for IDEA services. At this time, she does not have an IFSP. The child has just been fitted with a soft brace to hold her legs in position. The brace has to stay in place at all times, even during diapering.

Staff want to ensure they can provide a nurturing and responsive environment for Tamara. The medical plan doesn't address some of their concerns. They reach out to the disability services coordinator, Alexa, for help. Staff ask, "Is it going to be safe to hold Tamara? What if I hold her the wrong way and move her brace? Can I put her on the floor for play time? How do I chart her progress against the ELOF goals?" Staff express anxiety and fear that they may inadvertently harm the baby.

After consulting with the child's family, the medical provider, and the child's physical therapist, Alexa reassures the staff. However, this situation makes her wonder whether the teaching staff in Head Start and Early Head Start programs need support in working with children with identified or suspected physical disabilities or health concerns.

With the program management team, Alexa develops a short needs assessment for all teaching staff, home visitors, education managers, and coaches. The responses come back, and they affirm the need for more guidance about working with children with medical conditions. Alexa shares the survey results with the management team, and together, they create a professional development plan to address the staff needs. The program uses community partners, such as Easter Seals, Part C providers, the LEA, and members of the HSAC, to deliver the content. Supervisors and coaches follow up in the classrooms. Child development specialists and Alexa follow up with home visitors.

All in all, this professional development effort is a success. It began with one child, but the benefits spread to other children and families throughout the program. There's a ripple effect!