Disability Services Coordinator Orientation Guide

Individualizing Teaching and Learning

"My overall teaching has really improved since I've been working with the special educators. They have shown me how to use planned and intentional teaching strategies to target a particular skill with children with IEPs. But I can really put those strategies into practice with all the children in my class." – Head Start teacher

This chapter focuses on ways to provide positive learning environments that support children with disabilities or suspected delays.1 Specifically, it highlights teaching practices that help staff individualize in center-based and family child care programs. The chapter also addresses home visiting practices that individualize learning experiences.

A program must provide high-quality early education and child development services. As a disability services coordinator, you work closely with the program management and education staff to ensure children with disabilities or suspected delays can fully and effectively participate in all program activities. This requires a coordinated approach across multiple systems and service areas.

Key Ideas

  • Individualization is an effective approach for all young children in center- and home-based programs.
  • Learning environments must be developmentally appropriate and culturally and linguistically responsive to all children.
  • An inclusive setting ensures both access to the environment and participation in the curriculum.
  • IFSPs and IEPs under IDEA,2 Section 504 plans,3 and Child Action Plans provide guidance for individualizing.
  • Professional development improves teaching and home visiting practices.
  • A coordinated approach across systems and services creates a positive learning environment for children with disabilities and their families.

What are the education services in Head Start programs?

HSPPS 45 CFR §1302 Subpart C – Education and Child Development Program Services provides many of the requirements for educational programming in Head Start programs. They state that all children must receive high-quality early education and child development services, including children with disabilities. Programs have to promote cognitive, social, and emotional growth for children's success in school. A center-based or family child care program must also ensure responsive, effective teacher-child interactions.

A home-based program must provide home visits and group socialization activities that foster secure parent-child relationships and help parents provide high-quality learning experiences. It is also required to promote the parents' and family's role as the child's first teacher and the home as a safe, stimulating learning environment.

The teaching practices and home visit experiences must support growth in the developmental progressions described in the ELOF, build on children's strengths, and integrate child assessment data.

HSPPS 45 CFR §1302.31 provides specific requirements about the teaching practices for children who are DLLs:

  • For infants and toddlers, a teacher supports the child's home language by speaking it and exposes the child to English
  • For preschoolers, teachers focus both on English-language acquisition and the continued development of the home language
  • If staff do not speak the home language, use materials and other strategies to support the home language, including volunteers who are competent speakers

Kid watches teacher building projectThe HSPPS state that programs can integrate efforts to preserve and revitalize the tribal language into program services. Some tribal programs consider children who speak a tribal language to be DLLs; other programs do not.

The learning environment includes all aspects of an early childhood classroom or family child care home. Elements include the physical space, materials, teaching practices, daily routines, adult-child relationships, and peer relationships. A program must ensure teachers and family child care providers include learning experiences that offer opportunities for choice, play, exploration, and experimentation. The HSPPS specify:

  • For infants and toddlers, teachers offer individualized, small-group activities on a flexible schedule
  • For preschoolers, learning activities include teacher-directed and child-initiated, active and quiet, individual, small, and large groups
  • Teachers promote learning during activities, rest time, transitions, routines, and physical activity
  • Snacks and meal times promote positive teacher-child interactions and communication skills
  • Teachers periodically and intentionally adapt the learning environment to children's changing needs, interests, and skills

Additional requirements appear in 45 CFR §1302 Subpart F – Additional Services for Children with Disabilities. A program must provide services for preschoolers with disabilities, including, but not limited to, those eligible for IDEA services and their families in the LRE. More specifically, services for infants and toddlers and their families are to be delivered in a natural environment in the context of their everyday activities and routines. This could be either a center- or a home-based program. A program must ensure the full participation of children with disabilities by offering environmental adaptations, varied instructional formats, and individualized supports. These regulations about teaching and learning undergird a coordinated approach for children with disabilities.

HSPPS Related to Individualization

Plan for Partnerships

There are many opportunities to collaborate and deliver high-quality educational services.

  • Consider collaboration models between Head Start programs and Part B- and Part C-lead agencies, such as blended classrooms or joint funding for staff positions.
  • Explore delivery of early intervention and special education services in Head Start center- and home-based programs.
  • Include joint training to build relationships between teachers and specialists.
  • Describe how to share data about child and program outcomes to improve services. Respect confidentiality requirements.

The Framework for Effective Practice: "The House"

Framework for Effective Practice displaying all its sections.The Framework for Effective Practice outlines six elements of quality teaching and learning for children ages birth to 5 in all Head Start program options. Quality teaching and learning uses children’s and their families’ lived experiences, home languages, perspectives, and cultural ways of knowing and being to make learning more meaningful and engaging. It also creates equitable environments where all children feel a sense of belonging, and that promotes their social and emotional development and school readiness.

The six elements of the Framework for Effective Practice are:

  • Interaction and Environments: Providing nurturing, responsive, and effective interactions, and engaging environments
  • Curriculum: Implementing research-based curriculum and teaching practices
  • Screening and Assessment: Using screening and ongoing assessment of children's skills
  • Individualized Support: Embedding highly individualized teaching and learning
  • Families: Engaging parents and families
  • Equity-focused Practices: Promoting high-quality equitable learning environments

When these elements are connected, they form a single structure that surrounds the family in the center, the House Framework. Family is at the heart of the house. Each element is implemented in partnership with parents and families as co-educators in their cultural and community context. Equity-focused practices and policies not only surround the house but are embedded throughout each element to ensure equitable access, belonging, high-quality nurturing and joyful experiences, and positive outcomes for all children and families.

What does individualization mean?

Individualization is central to quality early childhood programs. It means the focus is on the individual child. Staff tailor their teaching practices and curriculum decisions to meet the child's needs, build on the child's strengths, follow the child's interests, and respond to the child's unique background.

As a disabilities service coordinator, the House Framework anchors much of your work with the education services. The roof of the house is divided into three highly individualized teaching practices: curriculum modifications, embedded teaching, and intensive, individualized teaching. Think of them as a pyramid that represents varying levels of support. See Appendix E for a list of curriculum modifications and embedded learning opportunities.

  • Curriculum modifications are small changes or adjustments to activities and materials that enhance a child's participation in learning experiences. They are the broad base of the pyramid and are used often in center- and home-based programs.
  • Embedded teaching refers to planned interactions that teachers, family child care providers, and home visitors use in specific activities, routines, or transitions. Embedded teaching helps a child get extra practice while learning new skills and concepts.
  • Intensive, individualized teaching refers to explicit or specialized teaching practices that give a child the extra help they need when learning a specific skill or concept. This teaching practice is at the top of the pyramid and is used less frequently.

The roof of the house—highly individualized teaching and learning—is built on the foundation of engaging interactions and environments. A strong roof requires a strong foundation to support it!

At times, all children may benefit from highly individualized learning opportunities that are linguistically and culturally responsive. They are not specific to children with disabilities or children at risk for developmental delays or to children with special healthcare concerns. These targeted practices help a typically developing child who is struggling to learn new skills or concepts for all sorts of reasons. Without this approach, the child can't access the learning. In other words, the child can't participate fully and effectively unless staff take a highly individualized approach.

For example, some children who need extra supports:

  • Are learning new languages
  • Display difficult or challenging behavior
  • Are quick learners who need to expand their skills and knowledge

As staff become familiar with the roof of the House Framework and gain confidence implementing these practices, these strategies will become part of their teaching repertoire.

Program staff or early intervention and special education providers may also refer to "accommodations" in the classroom environment. Accommodations are adjustments to materials, curriculum goals, or teaching practices that allow children with disabilities to participate fully in learning activities. Some staff may need your help understanding that accommodations are not an "add-on" to their busy days; rather, they are at the heart of working with young children because they support the individual child.

The Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC) offers a series of 15-minute In-service Suites that focus on highly individualized teaching and learning. They are organized around one topic. Program staff can view and discuss them during a break.

The Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (DEC) also provides a variety of professional development materials. The DEC Recommended Practices describe and provide examples of individualized teaching practices.

How do you support highly individualized teaching practices?

As a disability services coordinator, you can help implement highly individualized learning opportunities for children with disabilities. Where do you begin? There are multiple approaches to take.

Build on what staff already know and do. Remind staff that they already make modifications to support a child's learning and development. For example, they steady a shaky stool to help a toddler climb to the changing table or sit quietly every morning with a child who is sad about saying goodbye to parents.

Reach out to early intervention and special education partners, specialists in your program, education managers and coaches, and families. Discuss effective strategies with them. Some children who receive IDEA services work with consulting (i.e., itinerant or visiting) teachers or therapists. Staff can benefit from collaborating with them and learning about effective teaching strategies. When Head Start teachers and home visitors implement practices from the roof of the house, they are already using some of the specialized practices a consulting teacher or therapist may recommend. These practices will strengthen with additional support.

Check your program's interagency agreements or MOUs. Your Head Start or Early Head Start program and the special educators and early intervention providers in your community share responsibility for children with IEPs or IFSPs. The agreements spell out the collaboration process needed to optimize learning and development.

Gather information from an IFSP or IEP, Section 504 plans, Child Action Plans, ongoing assessments, and family notes. The health team can help you access health records. Review all this information with the education staff so they can set up the classroom or plan the home visit to ensure children with disabilities can access and participate in activities. Children have teaching strategies detailed in their IFSP or IEP. Data collection will be more frequent for these IDEA-eligible children. This timeframe allows the teaching team to adjust their teaching strategies as soon as necessary.

You may be asked to support teaching staff in their daily practice without the benefit of prior information on the child. The child has not yet been referred or evaluated. Staff are puzzled, frustrated, and curious about how to help a particular child. Observe the child. Ask education managers, coaches, or early intervention and special education providers to observe with you. Also, talk with the family to see what they have noticed and what works at home. Brainstorm strategies and try them out. Compare notes on the child's performance. Some practices may work, others may not. Decide whether the child needs a referral for an evaluation or a Child Action Plan or other intervention strategies.

Help coordinate professional development. As you observe and discuss with teaching staff and home visitors, you learn about their strengths and areas needing improvement. Collaborate with education supervisors and coaches to provide ongoing, on-the-job support. Effective supports include modeling interactions, using photos, or showing video demonstrations. You can help plan joint training with specialists and community partners.

Want to learn more about how to support teaching staff? Watch the Day in the Life of a Disabilities Coordinator series.

Culturally Responsive Teaching Practices

Become familiar with the Multicultural Principles for Early Childhood Leaders that inform culturally responsive programming.

Families in your Head Start program come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Their cultures shape their goals for their children. Their goals translate into the ways they parent and support a child's development, including how they hold a baby, respond to a toddler's crying, or handle a preschooler's conflict with another child. Adults within the same culture may have different views, too.

As the disability services coordinator, you will want to learn about the family's goals for their child with disabilities. By learning more about their goals and child-rearing practices, program staff can match the learning experiences of the program to those of the home. Using information about a child's cultural environment is a key component to individualization.

Here is how one Early Head Start program addressed cultural relevance while making curriculum choices and individualized adaptations. A suspected developmental delay, in fact, reflected cultural differences in child rearing.

A mother from Ghana enrolled her 9-month-old daughter in the program. The baby could not roll over or sit up by herself. The staff were troubled by these screening results. The mother seemed unhappy with the care that her baby was receiving but appeared unconcerned about what the staff perceived as delayed motor development. The mother said that she used a long piece of fabric to keep the baby wrapped to her body most of the time. In her culture, babies weren't placed on the ground.

Once staff understood this important piece of information, teachers helped the mother feel more comfortable with the care her baby was receiving. The head teacher explained why they put babies on the ground for tummy time. She asked for the mother's permission to implement teaching plans. If the mother didn't want the baby on the floor, could she lie on a foam mat next to a teacher? The mother agreed, but she still wanted the baby held more often. Teachers and volunteers held the baby as much as possible and in ways to support her gross motor development. They played bouncing games on their laps, let her lie across their legs on her stomach, and gave her large objects to hold. The program gave another foam mat to the mother to use at home with her baby.

The teacher respected and incorporated the mother's cultural practice into individualized learning opportunities for the baby. 

Tips to Promote Individualized Practices

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

  • Promote highly individualized teaching practices and home visiting practices for all children. Explain to education staff how the practices support individualization, the key to quality early childhood programs.
  • Integrate the House Framework into your work. Use the framework as your touchstone with teaching staff. Use it with parents and families, too.
  • Use data to inform plans for children. Observe which teaching and home visiting practices are effective and which are not.
  • Involve specialists from the Parts B and C local agencies in improving teaching and home visiting practices. Ask them to observe children, brainstorm strategies, and model effective practices. Use coaches to provide ongoing support to education staff.
  • Ensure programs use a coordinated approach. Review budgets, personnel policies, professional development plans, and facilities management that affect education services to children with suspected or identified disabilities.
  • Attend to children with disabilities who are also DLLs. Ensure staff implement the regulations around supporting home languages and English acquisition in learning environments.
  • Consider cultural factors. Be aware of how a family's culture and prior experience affect their expectations for their child's learning experiences.
  • Become a strong advocate for inclusion. Be ready to explain the benefits to staff, families, or others who question its value.
  • Take advantage of the many online resources available to support educational services. Become acquainted with the ECLKC website. Check out the topics listed under Education and Child Development. Also, look at resources developed by professional organizations.

People to Help You

  • Education manager, education staff, coaches, home visitors, child development specialist
  • Health manager and staff
  • Mental health consultant
  • Early intervention providers and special educators
  • Bilingual staff, consultants, volunteers
  • Families
  • Program management, including professional development coordinator
  • T/TA providers

Woman holding baby as she fills out a formQuestions to Ask Your Colleagues

  • Are our teachers and home visitors able to use individualized teaching practices with all children? For children with disabilities? Is it more difficult to match teaching practices with certain types of disabilities?
  • How do we help our families use modifications or accommodations with their children?
  • 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 staff 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 that they are effective?


Jordan and Valerie are teachers in a Head Start preschool classroom. At their weekly meeting, they plan individualized learning experiences to meet the learning goals of several children who have disabilities. They have worked with the disability services team to develop a Child Action Plan for Amir, a 4-year-old with motor delays. He's having a hard time learning how to be persistent and positive when trying new tasks. When an occupational specialist observes Amir in the classroom, she suggests the teachers develop specific strategies to help him write his name. The parents report that when he tries at home, he gets very frustrated. The teachers notice that he wants his writing to be perfect.

The teachers come up with a written plan detailing the what, who, when, and how they are going to support Amir's emerging writing. They run it by the therapist who gives it a thumbs-up. They post the plan on the bulletin board, along with their other curriculum plans for the week. They think about the roof of the House Framework and how to best implement highly individualized teaching strategies with Amir.

After a snack, Jordan plans to work one-on-one with Amir in the writing center, while Valerie rotates through the other learning centers. They will try this approach every day for a week. Then, they will reevaluate to determine whether they need to make changes in their plan. They will provide feedback to the parents and the disability services team, too.

On the first day, Jordan and Amir sit together at the writing table. She has made a card with his name in big letters. He is drawing with a big marker, and when Jordan asks him if he wants to write his name on the drawing, he says, "I don't want to write it now. Later." He frowns and presses down hard with the marker. She pauses and then asks him if he wants to do it with her. He nods. Together, they hold the marker and trace the letters on the card. Jordan notices that it's hard for Amir to write on the horizontal surface of the table. The next day, she brings in a slant board. She clips drawing paper and his name card to the board. They continue to spend time together at the writing center, and by the end of the week, Amir can write "A-M" by himself.

Jordan is proud of how she supports Amir's individualized learning. She intentionally tries a variety of strategies:

  • Curriculum modification: Using the slant board
  • Embedded teaching: Teaching during center time, a regular part of the daily schedule
  • Intensive individualization: Working one-on-one, side by side

The disability services lead and education manager follow up with the occupational therapist. They express appreciation for the therapist's assistance with Amir. In fact, they want to adapt the techniques Jordan used for other children. They ask the therapist if she can provide professional development to all the education staff. They have already checked and there is money in the program's T/TA budget. The support team and the therapist agree to develop a professional development plan. Everyone is excited about this learning opportunity to improve educational services to all children, not just those with disabilities.

(Adapted from the Head Start Center for Inclusion Individualizing Videos.)

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

2 IDEA refers to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

3 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act covers some children with disabilities.