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Children with Special Health Care Needs or Disabilities

Services for Children with Special Health Care Needs or Disabilities and Their Link to School Readiness

All Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve children with disabilities, and special health care needs, children who are at high risk for developmental delay.1

Staff support children with special health care needs or disabilities by:

  • Identifying health and developmental issues through screening and ongoing child observation
  • Working with the child's family and health care professionals to make referrals for further evaluation or more intensive support when necessary
  • Implementing individualization plans that include specific instructions for adaptations to ensure that each child can participate in program activities

Your program can improve the effectiveness of its health services and support children's school readiness by:

Modifying and adapting services to meet children's unique developmental needs.

  • Develop individualized plans to accommodate children with special health care needs and/or disabilities in collaboration with:
    • Families
    • Health care professionals
    • Developmental specialists
    • Special education and related service providers
  • Use observation and culturally and linguistically responsive ongoing child assessment to individualize instructional experiences, activities, and environments.

Increasing staff knowledge and skills on inclusive practices to promote children's access to learning.

  • Ensure ongoing, multi-disciplinary approaches to learning by collaborating with health, mental health, special education, and related service providers.
  • Use the multi-disciplinary team's input to create an inclusive approach to all program activities that are responsive to and represent all children.
  • Provide staff with professional development to support inclusive practices including training by outside experts including special educators, related service providers, and health care professionals on:
    • Promoting a positive learning environment for all children
    • Individualization for children with specific learning and health needs
    • Supporting families of children with special needs
    • Classroom management in inclusive environments
    • Curriculum modifications and embedded learning activities
    • Adaptive or other special equipment

Capitalizing on partnerships to expand school readiness and health activities that improve access for children with special health care needs and disabilities.

  • Work as a team to avoid unnecessary duplication of services and make it easier to share information about each child's health, learning style, and progress.
    • Consider formal models like Case Management and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)
    • Include all professionals working with a child and his or her family when:
      • Developing and implementing individualized plans
      • Sharing information about service needs and plans while protecting confidential health and educational information
      • Providing accommodations for child assessments to accurately determine progress and level of school readiness
  • Maintain a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) or interagency agreement (IA) with the local special education agency to coordinate and implement services. Partners include local education agencies—Part B, Section 619 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—and early intervention programs—Part C of IDEA.
  • Work with your Health Services Advisory Committee (HSAC) and other community partners to address gaps in services and identify professionals who can support children with disabilities, children with special health care needs, and at-risk children and their families.

Research Connections 

Head Start programs have positive impacts on school achievement of participating children with disabilities through their early elementary school years.2 Children with disabilities are included in the Head Start setting with adaptations as needed. These include changes in instructional practices, procedures, materials and/or equipment to improve children's access to learning. "(Staff) allow children to use their current skills while promoting the acquisition of new skills. Adaptations can make the difference between a child merely being present ... and a child being actively involved."3


1Shackelford, J. (2006). State and jurisdictional definitions for infants and toddlers under IDEA(NECTAC Notes 21). Chapel Hill, NC: National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved from: http://ectacenter.org/~pdfs/pubs/nnotes21.pdf [PDF, 284KB]

2U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. (2010). Head Start Impact Study. Final Report. Washington, DC. Retrieved from: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/executive_summary_final.pdf [PDF, 282KB]

3Circle of Inclusion Project. (2002). Accommodating all children in the early childhood classroom. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas. Retrieved from: http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/Disabilities/program%20planning/accessibility/accommodatingall.htm

Topic:School Readiness

Keywords:Special needs

Resource Type: Article

Last Updated: February 12, 2018