Disability Services Coordinator Orientation Guide

Diving Into the Coordinated Approach and Legislation

"A coordinated approach is not entirely new. It's what our Head Start program has always tried to do. But what is new is that we have to be very intentional and planful to ensure that services and systems are in sync." – Head Start director

Mom holding daughter while she playsThis chapter focuses on the "what-who-why" of a coordinated approach. It also introduces the critical pieces of federal legislation that put services into place for children with disabilities and suspected delays. Because implementing a coordinated approach for children with disabilities is required in all Head Start programs—and is the driving force for your work as a disability services coordinator—let's take a closer look at what this means for you and your program.

Most likely, you are the person who leads the way to ensure quality implementation of a coordinated approach to serve children with disabilities and their families. You will need to spend time planning across program systems and services with management, staff, families, early intervention and special education partners, and other specialists. Federal laws guide much of your work, so it's important to become acquainted with the key legislation that affects children with disabilities.1

The HSPPS require a coordinated approach for children with disabilities to be in place in every Head Start program:

Management system, 45 CFR §1302.101

(b) Coordinated approaches. At the beginning of each program year, and on an ongoing basis throughout the year, a program must design and implement program-wide coordinated approaches that ensure:

  • (3) The full and effective participation of all children with disabilities, including but not limited to children eligible for services under IDEA, by providing services with appropriate facilities, program materials, curriculum, instruction, staffing, supervision, and partnerships, at a minimum, consistent with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. …

Key Ideas

  • A coordinated approach for children with disabilities helps build a culture of inclusion in Head Start programs.
  • IDEA legislation puts equitable educational opportunities into action from birth through age 21 and supports many services for children with disabilities and their families.
  • Federal laws that prohibit discrimination and protect the rights of people with disabilities, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, are central to a coordinated approach.
  • Planning:
    • Incorporates the use of data in the program to support quality improvement
    • Always includes the voices of families and takes into account their cultures and languages
    • Occurs across many systems and service areas to ensure a program-wide coordinated approach for disability services

Inclusion word cloudWhat is a coordinated approach?

Inclusion word cloud containing the following: assessment, facilitate, modifications, collaborate, evaluation, coordination, environment, families, intervention, children, education, curriculum, services, Head Start, IFSP, IEP, IDEA, LEAs, inclusion, humble, teach, access, MOUs, support, Performance Standards, screening, independence, accommodations, encourage, and engagement.

Do some of these words look familiar? If you're an experienced disability services coordinator, you have probably juggled many of these before. If you're new to the job, you still know many of the words—teach, facilitate, screening—though you may not know specifically how they apply to services for children with disabilities. You may wonder, "How will I ever make sense out of all of this?"

This is the point of a coordinated approach. When children's unique differences keep the Head Start program's comprehensive approach from fully meeting their needs, many considerations and players enter the picture to ensure the children and their families can fully participate.

Coordination takes the jumble out of the approach so staff can smoothly implement services.

Program-wide coordination takes it a step further. No single element of Head Start services or systems stands alone. A program-wide approach ensures that no child, family, or requirement falls through the cracks.

Looking more closely at the requirement for a coordinated approach, timing matters. At the beginning of each year and on an ongoing basis throughout the year, a program must design and implement a program-wide coordinated approach. As the disability services coordinator, keep assessing your program's coordinated approach to continuously improve services to children and families.

Remember that the whole—a coordinated approach—is greater than the sum of its parts.

Everything that applies to the implementation of a coordinated approach in your program also applies to your child care partners. They are responsible for implementing the HSPPS, and to do that, they likely need support from you and your program's management.

What is covered in a coordinated approach?

As a disability services coordinator, you need to keep your eye on all these pieces listed in 45 CFR §1302.101(b)(2)(iii):

  • Facilities
  • Materials
  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Staffing
  • Supervision
  • Partnerships

Many other HSPPS refer to children with disabilities and their families, ranging from regulations about recruitment to health to transportation. Taken together, they add up to a program-wide coordinated approach.

Who receives coordinated disability services?

The HSPPS spell it out clearly; all children with disabilities, including but not limited to children eligible for IDEA services. IDEA Parts B and C govern many aspects of the disability services in your program.

  • Part B includes provisions for children with disabilities ages 3 and older.
  • Part C covers services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and delays and their families.

Along with those who have been deemed eligible for services under IDEA, your program must also support children:

  • Waiting to see whether they qualify for IDEA services
  • With special health care needs
  • With a significant delay who do not qualify for IDEA services
    • They may qualify for services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
    • They may receive services or adaptations under a program's Child Action Plan.

Your program's coordinated approach must address the needs of all children. Later chapters discuss the referral and evaluation process and the different plans in more detail.

The local Part B agency provides special education services for eligible children ages 3 and older. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) spells out the services and educational goals for the child.
The local Part C agency provides early intervention services for eligible infants and toddlers and their families. An Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) indicates the services and goals for the child and family.

What is IDEA?

The foundation of the coordinated approach is the federal legislation referred to in the HSPPS. IDEA is also federal law. It is the bedrock that, as a disability services coordinator, you turn to time and time again. It shapes the very nature of your job.

First enacted in 1975, IDEA has undergone many revisions. The most recent authorization in 2004 guides your work. The law governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities.

IDEA applies to children from birth to age 5 in Head Start and Early Head Start programs. It applies to all program options (e.g., center-based, home-based, family child care, and locally designed options). It also applies to child care partners who serve Early Head Start children.

You work closely with the local Parts B and C agencies that are responsible for implementing IDEA. Once your program makes a referral, their team of professionals conducts an evaluation to determine whether the child is eligible for IDEA services.

As the disability services coordinator, you must be aware of the distinctions between Parts B and C of IDEA. There are different eligibility criteria, evaluation procedures, types of services, service settings and recipients, and systems of payment. Administration of services may vary from state to state, so learn about the specifics of your state. Later chapters cover these topics in more detail.

What other legislation is referred to in the coordinated approach?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Often called "Section 504" for short, this federal statute administered by the Office of Civil Rights prohibits discrimination based on disability. To be protected under Section 504, a child must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, have a record of such an impairment, or be regarded as having such an impairment.

Section 504 applies to students who are 3–22 years old. Public schools and Head Start agencies, as well as all other programs directly or indirectly receiving federal dollars, must comply with its requirements. Section 504 requires programs to provide preschool children with disabilities equal access to the program, with reasonable accommodations and modifications.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with physical or mental disabilities. It uses the same definition of disability as Section 504. This includes children who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, have a record of such an impairment, or are regarded as having such an impairment. In the area of education, Section 504 focuses on requirements for public schools related to serving children with disabilities. Although the ADA does not have the same specific requirements, ADA accommodation provisions apply to public as well as nonsectarian private schools.

The ADA applies to all settings, including public schools, community pre-K programs, and private child care and preschools. Programs operated by religious entities are exempt. The ADA states that "public programs are required to make reasonable modifications to program policies and practices to integrate children with disabilities, unless doing so would constitute a fundamental alteration." Facilities should be accessible to people with disabilities. Existing facilities must be "readily achievable," and new facilities and any updates to existing facilities must be fully accessible.

Other state and local legislation affect the systems and services in your program for children with identified or suspected disabilities. For example, regulations related to children's health services as indicated by the state health services agency or local health department may be of interest. Your program also has to be in compliance with local building codes. You can read about where other legislation and regulations connect with program practices later in this guide.

Learn more about the legislation related to disability services in the Services for Children Who Do Not Qualify for IDEA brief and fact sheet.

How does the legislation affect your role?

As a disability services coordinator, you will want to know the general purpose of the legislation and its implications for your program. You don't need to grasp all the details, but you need to be familiar with the timelines, process, and eligibility requirements. You also want to know the HSPPS that affect your work.

Your program will have interagency memoranda of understanding (MOU) that respond to the legislative requirements related to children with disabilities. These are formal partnership agreements between a Head Start program and the agencies responsible for evaluating children with disabilities and providing services. They describe the partners' roles and responsibilities. Tasks that you are responsible for in your program, such as referring children for evaluation and tracking their status in the process, are listed in an interagency MOU with the IDEA Parts B and C local agencies. See Chapter II for more information.

Talk to the program director if you have questions about the legislation; maybe consult with your program's board members who have a legal background. Reach out to other resources, such as the early intervention partners and the local special education providers who implement the eligibility and service requirements of the legislation. Many online materials explain the legislation and implications for disability service coordinators, as do online discussion groups. 

IDEA requires that children who qualify receive services. The ADA requires that programs be accessible. Section 504 prohibits discrimination. Together, they are a mighty trio! They are the backbone of your work as a disability services coordinator.

How does the legislation support inclusion?

The HSPPS use the term least restrictive environment (LRE) in 45 CFR §1302 Subpart F – Additional Services for Children with Disabilities.

A robust legal foundation supports the right to access inclusive early childhood programs, where children with disabilities learn alongside typically developing peers. The IDEA law supports equal educational opportunities for eligible children with disabilities. IDEA Part B requires that, to the maximum extent possible, children and their families receive special education and related services in the "least restrictive environment (LRE)." These settings might be a Head Start classroom or family child care home. IDEA Part C requires that all eligible infants and toddlers receive services in the natural environments of a child's home or community setting, such as an Early Head Start program. The ADA and Section 504 support inclusion, too. They prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in program settings and activities.

An inclusive environment invites children with disabilities to engage in program activities. Individualized accommodations and evidence-based services and supports promote children's development, friendships, and sense of belonging. Staff see each child as an individual with strengths and potential.

Inclusion goes hand in hand with your program's coordinated approach to serving children with disabilities and their families.

As a disability services coordinator, you are likely to use the term "inclusive environment" to describe your program's approach to serving children with disabilities and their families. The term is probably familiar to the general public, educators, and program staff. However, at times, you may need to explain how inclusion benefits young children with and without disabilities. There is scientific evidence to back you up.

Where does a coordinated approach fit in a Head Start program?

It falls under 45 CFR §1302 Subpart J – Program Management and Quality Improvement. The purpose statement reads, "A program must provide management and a process of ongoing monitoring and continuous improvement for achieving program goals that ensures child safety and the delivery of effective, high-quality program services." A coordinated approach for children with disabilities is embedded in a strong management system. This means that you, the disability services lead, need to be an active member of the management team and make sure that your voice is heard in decision-making.

Refer to the Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs. It was issued jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education on Sept. 14, 2015.
There is a reason why a coordinated approach belongs under 45 CFR §1302 Subpart J – Program Management and Quality Improvement; it is an integral part of sound management and a quality program.

As spelled out in HSPPS 45 CFR §1302.102, a program must establish strategic goals, conduct ongoing monitoring, and perform an annual self-assessment to oversee progress toward the goals. You can help shape the program goals that affect children with disabilities and their families. Your program's community assessment also provides critical information about the demographics of the service area, including the number of children with disabilities. Ongoing assessment of children's progress toward school readiness goals also informs your work. Identify any trends in their attendance that may hinder their progress. You rely on data to inform decisions and plan goals. Lucky you—you can go to many different data sources in your Head Start program!

As the disability services coordinator, you are responsible for keeping program management informed about what is and is not working with the disability services. To do that, keep in touch with families. Ask how the program is addressing their needs and those of their child with disabilities. The family services staff can support you because they know the families well.

Maintain regular communication with colleagues who are helping to implement a coordinated approach. Schedule meetings and create an agenda together. Program administrators and staff in all services and system areas can provide useful information about the program's efforts with children with disabilities and their families. The special educators, early intervention specialists, and other community stakeholders also can contribute to your ongoing appraisal of how disability services are being planned and implemented.

As part of your program's quality improvement efforts, you want to continue to build on the strengths of the disability services and work with staff, partners, and families to close the gaps. For more information on continuous program improvement, refer to Chapter XIII.

Tips to Strengthen a Coordinated Approach

  • Baby reading book about babiesStay updated on the federal and state laws that affect disability services. Be informed about changes in the current laws or new legislation.
  • Reach out to your IDEA Parts B and C local agencies. Communicate and ask questions; early intervention specialists and special educators are experts in their fields. Also, turn to community resources in health, mental health, and other service areas to learn more.
  • Communicate with parents and families. Ensure parents and families know about any changes that affect their child's eligibility or service delivery.
  • Review your program's strategic plan and ongoing revisions. Make sure the plan supports a coordinated approach for children with disabilities who are and are not eligible for IDEA services and for those awaiting determination of their eligibility. Confirm that the program goals are inclusive.
  • Keep channels of communication open with program staff. Learn about how the systems and services are being implemented for children with disabilities.
  • Meet regularly with program management. Keep them informed about how well the coordinated approach is functioning. Ask for their help when you need it.
  • Ensure your partners, including child care programs, are on board. Help them understand what a coordinated approach means and how to plan and implement it.

People to Help You

Everyone can help, because ensuring a coordinated approach is everyone's business! Consider reaching out to the following people:

  • Program administration
  • Program managers and staff in service areas, including education, health and mental health, nutrition, family services, and transportation
  • Program managers and staff involved in data systems, budget, facilities, and quality improvement
  • Staff engaged in recruiting and enrolling families
  • Special educators and early intervention specialists responsible for implementing IDEA
  • Governing bodies, Policy Councils, and advisory committees
  • Community partners providing support and resources for children with disabilities and their families
  • Former and current parents and families
  • Consultants to the program and regional training and technical assistance (T/TA) providers
  • Lead state agencies responsible for implementing IDEA
  • Head Start State Collaboration Office

Questions to Consider with Colleagues

  • How do we develop program-wide plans to include services for children with disabilities and children who need interim services?
  • Do our program school readiness goals include children with disabilities?
  • How do we engage families of children with disabilities in our planning?
  • What kind of support do systems or service areas need to ensure a program-wide coordinated approach?
  • How do we engage staff in planning inclusive services? What kinds of training do they need to implement the plan?
  • How effectively does our annual self-assessment review our disability services? Do the results lead to action steps?
  • How do we stay informed about changes in legislative requirements or learn about new laws that affect our disability services?


As part of its annual program self-assessment, Riverview Head Start and Early Head Start find that parents and families of children with disabilities are somewhat dissatisfied with services for their children. Families express concerns, such as:

  • "My child's needs aren't always being met. She needs to have quiet time, away from the group."
  • "I was afraid to speak up when I got his assessment results."
  • "I know the teachers mean well, but I'm not sure they know how to deal with my toddler with Down syndrome when he gets really active."
  • "I speak Spanish, and it's hard to communicate."

Staff voice their concerns, too:

  • "There are so many children in my class who need my attention, I can't do it all."
  • "When a child has IEP goals, I'm not sure how to modify the curriculum."
  • "The early intervention specialists seem to have an easy time interacting with children with disabilities in my Early Head Start classroom. But I don't. Who can help me?"
  • "I'm a new home visitor and I really need training to help a family plan learning experiences for their child with serious disabilities."
  • "Children with walkers have a hard time getting on and off the bus. How can we help them?"
  • "Do I have to learn sign language to communicate with a child with a hearing impairment?"

The disability services coordinator, Betsy, is new to the job. Both she and the program director feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and discouraged when they look at this self-assessment data. Although other program areas and systems function better, it's clear that the services for children with disabilities and their families are inadequate. There isn't much evidence that a coordinated approach is in place.

The director calls a management meeting that includes Betsy. All hands on deck! They review the self-assessment and prioritize the concerns; children's health and safety are first. They turn to their Health Services Advisory Committee (HSAC) and the governing board for support.

At the next planning meeting, the program invites representatives from the Part B local education agency (LEA) and Part C early intervention agency. The Riverview program has strong interagency MOU with these partners and a history of successful collaborations during the referral and evaluation process. It seems the gaps are in creating inclusive learning environments and working with families. Together, the Head Start team and their partners discuss opportunities for sharing and leveraging resources. They develop an action plan, a timeline, and identify internal and external resources for assistance.

Program management welcomes this opportunity for improvement. The LEA and early intervention providers plan joint professional development activities for the Head Start and Early Head Start educators, including the coaches. Specialists from the school district also visit the classrooms to demonstrate inclusive teaching practices. Family advocates receive additional training and solicit ongoing feedback from parents and families about the program and their child's progress. Betsy finds a mentor from a nearby Head Start program who is an experienced disability services coordinator. She also connects with a professional network. The fiscal management and human resources systems contribute to the improvement efforts. The director learns that they can get some assistive devices for children from the school district. The program recruits bilingual family service staff. All these efforts strengthen the program's implementation of a coordinated approach.

By the same time next year, the program self-assessment about services to children with disabilities and suspected delays is more positive. However, Betsy and the management team recognize that the services are not as good as they could be. There is still room for improvement. They describe their coordinated approach as "a work in progress." Everyone is on board—program management, staff, families, governing boards, and community partners—to ensure the full participation of children with disabilities and their families.

1 In this guide, the term "children with disabilities" also refers to children with suspected delays, unless specified otherwise.