'Adaptations for Children Who Are Advanced in Development' [in] Adaptations for Individual Children

Personalizing programs to meet the special needs of children is an idealistic but obtainable goal - you just need the right curriculum and a little sensitivity to your child’s development level. This section of the Leaders Guide focuses on adaptations for children with advanced development and is intended to assist education managers and program directors lead efforts to implement the Head Start Program Performance Standards and prepare children for success in school. Teaching practices that support children’s advanced learning and development are identified in the Head Start Child Outcomes Framework; adaptations for individual children are incorporated.

Adaptations for Children Who Are Advanced in Development

A central principle of Head Start has always been to recognize each child as an individual with unique combinations of strengths and limitations, gifts and needs. As required in the Head Start Program Performance Standards (2002), programs respond to and support the individual abilities, interests, temperaments, developmental rates, and learning styles of young children. The foundation is a quality early childhood program that ensures the participation of all children.

The Head Start Child Outcomes Framework identifies the long-term goals for all enrolled children to achieve by the time they are ready to enter kindergarten. However, there are many ways to achieve these outcomes. Different curricula identify a wide variety of experiences through which children can learn as they progress toward meeting the long-term goals identified in the Framework. Some children might progress more quickly than others, but the long-term outcomes are the same for all Head Start children.

Additionally, because children develop in their own unique ways, it is up to teachers and home visitors, with input from parents and specialists, to identify the short-term goals, individual experiences, and paths on which children will travel to achieve those long-term outcomes. The short-term goals or "next steps" are identified through the teaching team's observation and knowledge of each child so that just the right amount of familiarity and challenge are presented. As they select materials and activities, provide support and extended conversation appropriate to each child, and periodically assess the child's progress, teaching staff are "individualizing" the curriculum. That is, they are making adaptations based on children's individual needs.

The knowledge and experience of the teaching team enable them to tailor any given activity into the specific experiences needed for individual children. Thus, a single activity may provide appropriate experiences for different children, depending on which aspects of the activity the staff and child focus on. It is this carefully chosen ‘focus’ of the activity which illustrates the intentionality required in the teaching process, and creates the ‘experience.’ Take the activity of finger-painting as an example. With a toddler, the teacher or home visitor may focus on the feeling of the paint or the different parts of the hand being used. The adult may suggest the child mix the colors and "see what happens next." With an older child who has used fingerpaints many times, the focus may be on making straight or curved lines. But for another child who rarely uses this material, gentle encouragement and describing "how it feels" may be appropriate. And with one preschool youngster, the teacher may discuss what scene the child has depicted on the paper and with another child, the similarity of some elements on the paper to letters or words. The critical point is that the focus of the activity–the essence of the experience– is defined not by the whim of the staff, but through careful observation of each individual child and knowledge of the developmental progression: what is the next step for this child on the path to achieving positive outcomes.

For many years, Head Start has been known for its "inclusive" policies. That is, children with disabilities have been enrolled, and an educational program has been provided to meet their individual needs. Head Start, like other early childhood programs, also includes children whose learning and development far exceed expectations for their ages. They, too, may require adaptations in the Head Start curriculum. All exceptional children, (The Council for Exceptional Children, a professional organization for special educators, uses the term "exceptional" to refer to children with disabilities as well as children who are advanced in development (2002).) whether those with disabilities or those showing precocious development, are fully included in the Head Start child outcomes. Programs will need to gather data on their progress. Because it is often challenging to meet the needs of exceptional children in Head Start classrooms, effective strategies for individualizing the program are provided in this chapter. Many of these strategies are also relevant to English language learners and to children who are making limited progress. In fact, they are familiar to many early childhood educators as well-known developmentally appropriate practices that emphasize active learning and supportive relationships with adults and peers.

Adaptations for Children who are Advanced in Development
Some preschoolers stand out because they tend to be fast learners and have precocious abilities and talents. At a young age, they appear to be adept problem-solvers, capable of abstract thinking, and intensely curious (Smutney, Walker, & Meckstroth 1997). In elementary school, they may be assessed as "gifted" by professionals who then plan appropriate educational interventions.

Sometimes, preschoolers' extraordinary abilities may be noticed in one Domain, such as creative arts, literacy, or mathematics. Other children may demonstrate unusual or accelerated knowledge or skills in multiple Domains. Yet they may still need a great deal of support in other areas of development where they seem to lag behind their age mates or even have an identified disability that requires an IEP. In all cases, Head Start has a responsibility to motivate and sustain their growing knowledge, interests, and skills during the Head Start experience so they go to school ready for even more.

Individualizing the Head Start curriculum for children who display advanced development involves thoughtfully and intentionally implementing good early childhood practices. That is, teachers and home visitors need to provide an environment that invites inquiry, supplies a range of complex materials, encourages the pursuit of children's interests, promotes choice and independent decision-making, stimulates extended child-adult conversations, and nurtures creative self-expression. Young children, no matter how advanced in development, require active involvement with learning materials and opportunities for self-expression. Many strategies for extending the thinking and learning of young children are described throughout this Guide and are effective with children who display advanced cognitive or other skills.

However, specific modifications and adaptations are sometimes needed to meet their unique needs. For example, teachers and home visitors can:

  • Enrich the learning environment with varied resources, including books with extensive written text, unusual hands-on materials, and guest speakers.
  • Brainstorm ideas, such as "What would happen if..." "What else do you need to know?" Likely, the child will generate ideas the adult has not thought of.
  • Give space and time for children to explore their interests in depth. If a child has a superior knowledge of outer space, encourage him to represent his learning by constructing a space ship out of cardboard boxes with many realistic details involving pipes, gears, and dials. Encourage him to engage in research by writing (or dictating) a letter to the planetarium or to an aerospace company asking for information or resources. This project may go on for weeks as the child continues to pose questions and search for answers.

As Head Start staff plan curriculum experiences, it is always important to observe individual children and build on their strengths. Some children may have surpassed specific learning outcomes in the Framework by the time they come to Head Start. If a preschooler is already reading at the first grade level, then encourage reading of more complex texts and help build comprehension skills. It is not necessary, and in fact, will be frustrating and boring, for the child to participate in group activities where the focus is on learning the alphabet. Likewise, if a Head Start child can do addition and subtraction problems in her head, she has already mastered the basic numeracy skills that her classmates are learning. To meet the needs of children with such extraordinary abilities, it may be necessary to draw upon the resources of other educational specialists, such as librarians and museum educators, and to reach out into the community at large.

Head Start Program Performance Standards (2002) require individuation for each child to benefit from the program. The first step in meeting all children's individual needs is a developmentally appropriate curriculum. When modifications and adaptations are made for exceptional children, they often represent well-known early childhood teaching practices. As the teaching team identifies appropriate short-term goals for individual children and makes the necessary adaptations to the educational program, they will be helping children progress toward the long-term goals—that is, the child outcomes specified in the Framework.

See also:
A Guide to Disability Rights Laws

" 'Adaptations for Children Who Are Advanced in Development' [in] Adaptations for Individual Children." The Head Start Leaders Guide to Positive Child Outcomes. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2003. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2008

Last Updated: October 7, 2014