Should Early Educators Assess Children for Special Needs and Disabilities?

In a perfect world, early education centers would have staff on hand (or contracted) that specialized in mental health and disabilities issues.  This person could be a school psychologist, a nurse practitioner, or another trained and licensed health professional.   In this perfect world, if a teacher or parent had a question or concern about the development of the child, they would immediately communicate this with the mental health and disabilities professional.  This professional would then do classroom observations in conjunction with an education coordinator, specially trained in learning environments and teaching strategies.  The two experts would put their ideas together and outline a preliminary action plan that included specific strategies for the teacher, specific modifications to the environment or schedule and a timeline for follow-up.

A meeting would be conducted between the experts, teaching staff, and parent(s)/guardians(s).  A discussion would include a request for parent and teacher input and recommendations.  Then the plan of action would be revised based upon input from the parents and teachers.  Teachers and parents would be brought in only at this second stage, because I think it would be important for the strategies and interventions to be initially focused and targeted by experts.

We DO NOT live in a perfect world.  Today, budget cuts are effecting programs across the country.  California is especially hard hit by such changes, with budget cuts that will directly impact child development programs expected to be announced during December 2011.  I suspect that teachers will be asked to do more for less pay while concurrently being expected to advance their professional expertise in both formal and informal education settings.

Given the harsh reality, I would recommend that children NOT BE ASSESSED as a part of their school experiences.   Teachers of preschool-aged children in State Funded programs, already hard pressed to collect documentation for 43 “Measures” of development as many as three times per year per child, have already sacrificed the quality of their engagement with the children.  Clipboard or journal in hand, they expend energy on data collection, which although valuable, compromises the very early learning best practices which would optimize child outcomes.  School-aged children endure the same scrutiny in State-Funded after school programs, although there are far fewer measures of development assessed.  When these children are adding to their already stressful school day time to complete their homework, and assessment of development – they lose the essence of childhood play and socialization opportunities once available to us.

I believe that assessments are necessary.  These assessments should be of the learning environments and of the teacher-child interactions.  Tools such as the Adult Involvement Scale (AIS) by Carolee Howes, the Program Administrators Scale (PAS), and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) are all widely available.  By assessing teaching and environments, specific adjustments in environments such as room arrangement, presence or absence of specific learning areas, as well as adult-child engagement, scheduling, transition strategies and more could be evaluated and accommodations made.  Such adjustments and accommodations would help many if not most of the children currently identified as needing further professional health and mental health assessments.

Easy to use parent-administered assessments such as the ASQ and ASQ:SE and the Nippissing (from Canada) would provide a picture of the child that could be taken into account along with the environmental and teaching strategy considerations.

I am thoroughly dismayed (a stronger description came to mind) that in the quest to justify our existence by using standardized, research-based assessments, the quality of our programs has actually been compromised.  Overworked teachers minimize valuable learning experiences that cause a mess – trying to reduce clean-up and preparation time in order to reserve more non-class time for documentation , assessment, and reporting.  I have witnessed first-hand degreed teachers begin their data collection as early as the second day of school while the children are crying and exploring their new environments.

Middle childhood is no different as teachers feel compelled to teach to the test as canned district-purchased curricula replace innovative ideas for many if not most grade school teachers as schools and teachers are “rated” on the performance of the students on high stakes tests.  Fearful administrators hesitate to implement new ideas and simply enforce traditional ideas more stridently.  Children who have learning disabilities or language learning status are “discouraged” from applying for charter schools and tested early to identify them at traditional public schools.  Every effort is made to optimize the performance of the school “on paper.”

Do other parts of the world share this myopia?

In Japan, “a 2004 study carried out by Special Olympics (SO) of 4000 middle school students from across Japan” found that the students “underestimated the capabilities of students with intellectual disabilities and were hesitant to interact with them” while North American students were far more willing to interact with and had higher expectations for the competencies of students with intellectual disabilities.  This appeared to be due to a greater exposure to such students in the US.  60% of adult Japanese surveyed thought that students with intellectual disabilities should be taught separately from “typically developing” students  (Hannon, F, Senior Researcher, 2006, Disability Research Series, National Disability Authority, Literature Review on Attitudes towards Disability).

Interestingly, only 1.3% of Japanese children receive special education services through resource rooms, special classes in neighborhood school, or special schools (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; 2002; Special Support Education in Japan).  According to the Ministry of Education, children in special classes join with their peers to the fullest extent and when appropriate.  This percentage is far less than the percentage of children in the United States receiving Special Education services.  According to the Washington Times, April 29, 2008, “about 14% of public school students have been diagnosed with a disability and receive special education services.”  This would seem to indicate that one or more of the following is present:

  • the “range considered to indicate typical development” is broader in Japan
  • the tolerance for challenging behavior is greater
  • cultural values engender greater “cooperation” with school staff and officials
  • there are fewer teratogenic causes which lead to disability

What does this mean to me as an early education professional in the US?  I went to a meeting yesterday (December 9, 2011) at which I asked if there was any chance we would consider eliminating the required DRDP (Assessments) in response to the threat of reduced funding.  The response was a resounding no.  Somehow, assessment has come to equate professionalism and quality.  My experience tells me otherwise.  I am hoping to hear your thoughts.


On December 11, 2011, the Los Angeles Times had an amazing Front Page Piece on Autism.  The article provided insight to a number of questions that my original post brought up.   In the article, “Unraveling an epidemic”, by Alan Zarembo, it was reported by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that “nearly 1% of children across the country have some sort of autism – 20 times the prevailing figure in the 1980s.”  The article goes on to discuss the question of whether this is due to environmental factors or better awareness and diagnoses.  I will attempt to identify key ideas presented by the article:

Factors accounting for increased identification of autism include:

  • an expanded definition of autism
  • increased awareness of autism 
  • improved diagnostic tools (including the expanded definition of autism spectrum to include Asperger’s disorder in 1994)
  • increased allocations of resources to autism (California state-funded developmental services for people with autism increased by 300% over the last 10 years.  The number of children in California public schools that receive autism-related services has increased approximately 500% during that same time)

This increased awareness is not universal.  

  • Rates in identifying children with autism vary greatly, with autism representing vastly differing rates of the caseload at the Regional Centers in California that arrange for services for people with developmental disabilities:
  • 14% of caseload at the Central Valley Regional Center
  • 34% of caseload at Los Angeles County Regional Centers

Rates vary across the United States.  The autism rate in Minnesota is 10 times higher than in Iowa.

Rates vary according to education, access to treatment, and the presence or absence of people with autism in the immediate neighborhood, and the advocacy of parents, service providers and physicians:

  • The influence of neighbors alone sharing information and awareness about their family members with autism may account for an estimated 16% – 42% of the increase autism cases in California.
  • A child whose diagnosis of autism was contested by a Los Angeles area Regional Center had that diagnosis confirmed when the family moved to Orange County in California.
  • The increased advocacy of parents and even physicians for services for children who would “benefit” from an autism diagnosis.
  • After lawsuits during the 1990s, Ocean View School District in Orange County has now identified 3% of grade-school children (6% of white, boy students) as having autism.

Rates vary internationally:

  • South Korea believed autism to be extremely rare in its country.  When U.S. and South Korean researchers examined a suburb of Seoul, they reported their estimate of 2.64% of the children as having autism.  This demonstrates how perceptions of behavior and cultural norms and values may influence rates of diagnosis.

Should Early Educators Assess Children for Special Needs and Disabilities?


3 thoughts on “Should Early Educators Assess Children for Special Needs and Disabilities?

  1. Alicia says:

    Hi Gregory,

    I thought it was particularly interesting that Japan only has about 1% of their children in special education compared to 14% in the United States. It would be interesting to research the reason for this large gap. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Geralyn says:


    I would agree that there are many benefits that can be derived from classroom and teaching assessments. We are using the Toddler CLASS for the first time and I am very interested in seeing the results. As you point out, data from such assessment could provide valuable information about changes that could lead to improved outcomes for children. Information from tools like the ITERS-R and the CLASS could provide valuable information about needed changes to the environment, schedule, transitions, relationships or expectations. It is common to see classrooms where the teacher is requesting help with a “problem child” when the problem is directly related to classroom practices.

    When I worked on the Early Reading First project, we used many assessments to track children’s progress in addition to some classroom assessments. One of the most beneficial uses of the data was to link the assessment data to professional development. Almost all of our professional development was guided by what we learned from the assessment data.

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