Disability Services Coordinator Orientation Guide

Implementing Curriculum and an Inclusive Environment

"I worked with the disability services team to help classroom staff adapt materials. We glued little blocks on the top of puzzle pieces to help children with coordination issues and fine motor skills. We also glued Styrofoam on the pages of books to make them easier to turn. We used box lids to define individual work spaces. Best of all—these cost nothing!" – Head Start education manager

This chapter looks at engaging children in curriculum and ensuring their participation in an inclusive environment. Each program must use a curriculum to plan children's learning experiences and establish learning goals. As the disability services coordinator, you can help education staff and home visitors adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of individual children with disabilities. You can help families understand how their children participate in the curriculum. In partnership with other staff and specialists, you also assess the learning environments to ensure they maximize opportunities for children with disabilities.1

Key Ideas

  • Curriculum modifications are made as needed to ensure children with disabilities fully participate in learning opportunities.
  • The curriculum includes social and emotional learning goals.
  • The curriculum is linguistically and culturally responsive to children and families.
  • Creating an inclusive environment is a team effort that includes families, program staff, and early intervention and special education partners.
  • Assessing and improving the learning environment is an ongoing process.

What are the curriculum requirements in Head Start?

The curriculum is a key component of any learning environment. Staff use it to plan learning experiences and establish goals for children. 45 CFR §1302 Subpart C – Education and Child Development Program Services includes many curricula regulations. Early childhood curricula for classrooms settings, family child care homes, and home visiting programs must be:

  • Developmentally appropriate, research-based, and include any curricular enhancements
  • Based on scientifically valid research and have standardized training procedures
    • This regulation helps to ensure staff implement curricula with fidelity; in other words, curricula implementation looks similar across different settings
  • Aligned with the ELOF and state early learning development standards
  • Based on a developmental scope and sequence that includes plans and materials for learning experiences
    • This supports an individualized approach to learning

HSPPS at 45 CFR §1302 Subpart D – Health Program Services refer to children's mental health and social and emotional well-being. It addresses concerns about children's behavior and the use of mental health consultants to help staff improve classroom management and teacher practices. 45 CFR §1302 Subpart F – Additional Services for Children with Disabilities requires that children with disabilities and their families receive program services in the LRE and participate fully in all program activities. These regulations apply to all children with disabilities, including, but not limited to, children eligible for IDEA services. A program must also modify the environment and the instructional format and provide individualized accommodations and supports as necessary.

Other HSPPS include requirements related to curriculum implementation and staff support. Personnel policies and professional development are addressed in 45 CFR §1302 Subpart I – Human Resources Management. A program must:

  • Monitor curriculum fidelity
    • The education manager, supervisors, coaches, and child development specialists are likely to be involved in this process
  • Support staff as they effectively implement the curricula
    • The professional development system, including coaching, can facilitate staff learning
  • Provide a mental health consultant to identify curriculum and teaching strategies for children with mental health and social and emotional concerns
    • A consultant helps staff, parents, and families understand children's behavior
  • Hire well-qualified coaches and consultants

This list of curricula requirements is broad because the various systems and services are inter-related in a Head Start program.

HSPPS Related to Curriculum Implementation and Inclusion

Plan for Partnerships

Include T/TA opportunities to help staff provide a curriculum that supports full participation of children with disabilities in learning experiences.

  • Develop a process for planning adaptations and curriculum modifications. Identify who is responsible for using and monitoring them.
  • Plan joint training so Head Start staff and early intervention and special educators implement the curriculum consistently.
  • Identify the resources and assistive technology that children need for inclusion. Decide who pays for and maintains it.

Social and Emotional Curriculum

Head Start programs are required to use a curriculum that aligns with the ELOF, including goals in the social and emotional domain. Many programs implement a comprehensive curriculum that embeds social and emotional development into learning activities. Other programs decide to implement a separate, specific social and emotional curriculum to teach basic skills and promote positive guidance. Reach out to your program's mental health consultant for help in choosing an effective curriculum.

Choosing a curriculum can be a daunting task for any program. The ECLKC has resources to help you select a curriculum for center-based and home-based programs. It also offers implementation guides.

Social and emotional skills are the building blocks for getting along with others; asking adults for help; and being able to regulate emotions, behavior, and cognition. Social and emotional development is critical to children's readiness for school. It's also the foundation of young children's mental health.

Creating a truly inclusive environment means making appropriate adaptations to the physical space and materials and fostering social and emotional environment.

All the learning experiences that are part of your program's social and emotional curriculum must be designed to include children with disabilities. Some children with significant social and emotional needs may require an individualized approach. For example, some strategies to address significant social and emotional needs will be in their IFSP, IEP, Section 504 Plan, or Child Action Plan. A child's health plan may also include behavioral strategies. Turn to your program's mental health consultant for effective strategies to use in the program or at home when you're concerned about a child's behavior. Also, rely on the early intervention and special educators to help identify effective modifications and adaptations. See Chapter VIII for information about children who exhibit mental health concerns.

What is your role in curriculum implementation?

Instructor holding boy's handHelp educational staff and home visitors understand how the curriculum supports effective teaching practices for children with disabilities. Continue to refer to the House Framework, too. The first pillar is implementing research-based curriculum and teaching practices. Just like the roof and the foundation of the house, all the pillars support quality educational services.

Working with the education managers, coaches, and child development specialists in your program, help teaching staff understand what is meant by curriculum. The curriculum encompasses all aspects of the learning environment. It's more than the lesson plans and opportunities to play and explore. The curriculum includes:

  • Schedules and routines
  • Transitions from one activity to another or from indoor to outdoor settings
  • Materials
  • Organization of indoor and outdoor spaces

When staff consider modifying the curriculum for children with disabilities, they need to consider all these aspects. Are the transitions working smoothly for children with language and processing delays? Are the materials accessible? Does the floor space accommodate a wheelchair?

The Effective Practices Guides offer tips and examples of teaching practices that support social and emotional goals. They highlight three types of practices: interactions, environment, and individualization. Use or adapt many of these practices for children with disabilities.

Your role with home visitors isn't much different. You help them adapt and modify the curriculum, if necessary, for children with disabilities. Consider the materials, the child's schedules and routines, and the organization of the space in the home and group socialization setting. If a child needs assistive devices, you can help home visitors access them through early intervention and special education partners and community resources. Consider how the curriculum can be modified to improve the child's learning experiences and strengthen the parent's role as the child's teacher.

Help staff and families recognize the continuum of curriculum modifications. Communication provides reassurance and says that you are there to help. Sometimes the modifications are straightforward, such as supplying a large print book to a child with a visual impairment during story time or sandpaper letters to a child with sensory integration issues. Consult with your early intervention and special education partners about other modifications, including assistive technology. See Appendix E for a list of curriculum modifications.

An assistive technology device is defined as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." (From The Technology Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act))

For children eligible for IDEA services, deciding which curriculum modifications to use is part of the IFSP or IEP process. If the child is not eligible for IDEA, help plan modifications with family members, education staff, and other staff, such as the health coordinator or mental health consultant.

Teaching staff may turn to you as an expert in working with children with disabilities. Although you may know a great deal, keep in mind that you can turn to others for ideas.

Assessing an Inclusive Learning Environment

You are the eyes and ears of young children with disabilities or delays. Can they participate fully and effectively in the education program? The curriculum and the learning environment go hand in hand.

Keep in mind the IDEA requirements about service settings. Part B of IDEA requires that eligible children ages 3 years and older receive special education and related services in the LRE. This means that, to the extent possible, they learn alongside typically developing children and within daily activities and routines. Part C of the law requires that infants and toddlers with disabilities or delays receive services in environments that are natural or typical for a peer without a disability.

Having IDEA in your back pocket is a good idea. Over and over, you are likely to refer to it. The law specifies a learning environment that best supports an IDEA-eligible child's growth and development.

There is so much to do when it comes to ensuring an appropriate learning environment. Where do you start? One approach, called "scanning the environment," is used in a short space of time. For example, you can arrange to visit a classroom for an hour.

  • Look at the room setup and the daily schedule.
  • Are there materials that reflect the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the children?
  • Are there images in books or posters that depict children with differing abilities or who use assistive devices?
  • Does the organization of the space invite children with limited mobility or who use assistive devices to participate?
  • Observe teacher-child interactions and gauge the classroom climate.
  • Are children happy, engaged, and productive?

In a home visiting program, accompany the home visitor to a family's home and monitor the interactions and use of materials. Observe socialization spaces to ensure they invite children with disabilities to participate. Scan the outdoor areas, too; they are also part of the learning environment.

Another way you can ensure programs offer high-quality teaching and learning is to conduct a more formal environmental assessment. You need to collect and review environmental data for all the settings in your program that serve children with disabilities (e.g., classrooms, family child care, child care partners, and socialization sites for home visiting programs). If you have a large program, you may need a large team to help you.

When your program conducts an assessment for an inclusive environment, you learn how effectively your program implements a coordinated approach.

Cover these important aspects of inclusion in the environmental assessment:

  • Physical: Indoor space, accessibility to the materials and their appropriateness, outdoor space
  • Social: Interactions that occur between teachers and children and between children themselves
  • Temporal: Daily schedule, the timing of transitions

Environmental Assessment Process

To start the environmental assessment process, follow these steps:

Step 1. Work with your team to decide who to include. Do you think there should be representatives from each of the systems and services? Early intervention and special education partners?

Step 2. Your program may have its own tool for observing indicators of high-quality inclusion, or use one developed by the field, such as the Inclusive Classroom Profile (ICP). It includes items about teacher-child interaction and classroom environment. Your program's self-assessment provides information, teacher and parent surveys, and ongoing child assessment data. Other observation-based tools (not specific to inclusive environments) include the (ECERS) for preschool classrooms, the (ITERS) for center-based programs, and the Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale (FCCRS).

Although the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS®) is not designed to focus on children with disabilities, your program's CLASS® domain scores may be one indicator of an inclusive environment.

Head Start programs must comply with the accessibility requirements in Title II of the ADA. Your facilities manager can help you ensure that the facilities comply.

Step 3. Organize the information you collect so it's easy to understand and analyze.

Step 4. Identify strengths and challenges within each environment. Analyze your data that include children with disabilities. Consider the physical, social, and temporal aspects of the learning environments.

Step 5. Share what you see in the data with educational staff to learn more about their observations.

Step 6. Identify environments where children with disabilities and staff are successful or struggling. Analyze the contributing factors in the environment.

Step 7. Based on the results of the environmental assessment, you may want to review IFSPs, IEPs, Section 504 plans, and Child Action Plans to ensure all children have access to all areas of learning and individualized lesson plans.

The goal of the environmental assessment is to improve services for children with disabilities and to ensure the program uses a coordinated approach to maximize the benefits of an inclusive environment.

Your program is required to make continuous improvement efforts. Education staff continue to monitor the progress of children with disabilities, seek guidance from specialists, and plan to provide full and effective services. This information informs professional development plans and programming to support education staff in their work with children with disabilities. See Chapter XIII for information about improving the coordinated approach.

Tips to Promote Inclusion in the Curriculum

The HSPPS requirements for education services are comprehensive. They regulate the actual learning environment (e.g., classroom, group socialization space, family child care, or family's home) and the teaching or home visiting practices. Plus, they address the curriculum content. Here are some useful suggestions for your work as a disability services coordinator.

  • Review daily schedules, home visiting plans, transitions, and routines. Ensure they support inclusion and ELOF goals.
  • Consider curricula adaptations and modifications. Note gaps in addressing the learning needs of children with disabilities. Refer to modifications in a child's IFSP or IEP.
  • Use data to inform plans for individual children. Observe which curriculum modifications are effective and which are not. Use a combination of numerical and narrative data, if you can.
  • Ensure a strong social and emotional curriculum is in place. Work with the education staff, consultants, and specialists to ensure children with disabilities make progress on their social and emotional goals.
  • Help families support social and emotional development. Explain that school readiness includes social and emotional skills.
  • Provide curriculum modifications that are culturally responsive. Talk with family advocates and families about how to ensure the educational services for children with disabilities respect diverse childrearing practices.
  • Conduct an environmental assessment. Review all aspects of the setting—physical, social, and temporal. Aggregate the data across your program to identify strengths and areas of improvement.
  • Plan professional development based on the environmental assessment. Tap into your community partners and the T/TA system to support staff.
  • Learn about instruments and tools that assess inclusive environments. Talk to your early intervention and special education partners and other disability services coordinators.
  • Review children's assistive devices. Ensure they are up to date and that staff and children use them effectively.
  • Become a strong advocate for inclusion. Be ready to explain the benefits to staff, families, or others who question its value.
  • Ensure the program has a coordinated approach in place. Review budgets, personnel policies, professional development plans, and facilities management that affect education services to children with suspected or identified disabilities.

Little boy playing with blocksQuestions to Ask Your Colleagues

  • What kinds of curriculum modifications or accommodations do we use most? How effective are they?
  • Are social and emotional goals embedded in our curriculum?
  • How do we help families use modifications or accommodations with their children?
  • What assistive technology do we use?
  • What are the strengths of our inclusive environments?
  • What support do we need to improve the inclusive learning environment?
  • What internal support do we provide (e.g., professional development, coaching)?
  • What external support do we use (e.g., joint training, in-class visits with special education partners)?
  • How do we make decisions about curricula, interventions, and adaptations for children with and without disabilities?
  • Who participates in making decisions?
  • How do we review our interventions and adaptations to make sure they are effective?


Maya is newly enrolled in the Head Start program. She has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and experiences difficulties with social communication. The disability services coordinator, Clyde, has offered ongoing support to her classroom teacher; so has the mental health consultant who has been observing in the classroom. Maya has an IEP, and Clyde works closely with the special educators from the school district.

When it is time for music and movement, Maya often has outbursts and shouts and kicks. Usually, a volunteer removes her from the activity and sits with her. The teacher wants to prevent her from harming herself or others. However, this is not a very satisfactory solution because Maya doesn't like being isolated and can be disruptive apart from the group. The team consisting of Clyde, the teacher, the mental health consultant, and a special educator shares their concerns and observations with the family.

Together, the team and the family come up with a new plan. Before music and movement begins, the teacher approaches Maya and provides a choice—offering "movement" or "break." She speaks each word slowly, gesturing to the circle area and then to a quiet area of the room where there are headphones. When Maya says "break," the teacher guides her to the quiet area where she can listen to music using headphones. The teacher has recorded some of the same songs and rhymes that the other children are using at this time. For much of the program year, Maya prefers to wear the earphones during this class activity. The teacher reports that Maya's behavior has improved. The mental health consultant continues to observe and so does Clyde. The plan seems to be working.

This curriculum modification for Maya—access to the headphones—seems quite simple, but it has many benefits. Notably, Maya engages in the music and movement component of the curriculum. This is the heart of the coordinated approach—full and effective participation of children with disabilities. Maya learns appropriate communication behavior with one word to make a request. She also gets to choose how she will participate. This is an important step toward building her confidence and independence. Because Maya enjoys wearing the headphones, she is motivated to participate in other activities if she wears them. As a result, she's more engaged in the curriculum and shows progress in her learning goals.

(Adapted from Coogle, C. G.; N. L. Rahn; J. G. Ottley; & A. Zehner. “Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Increasing Social Communication with Evidence-Based Practices.” Young Children. (May 2018): pp. 81–87.)

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