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Early Childhood Special Education


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Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) services for preschool children and their families are provided by Area Education Agencies (AEAs) and local school districts. Preschool children who are eligible for special education and support/related services and their families are entitled to the rights and protections guaranteed under the federal law Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  (IDEA) 2004 and Administrative Rules of Special Education

Infants and toddlers with disabilities (ages birth to 2 years) and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C, Iowa's Early ACCESS. Special education information for children ages 3 to 21 years of age is also available on the Special Education webpages.

Legal Requirements and Reports

Under IDEA 2004, Individualized Education Program (IEP) Teams, including parents and educators, develop and implement services to meet the unique needs of each child, enhance development and learning, and support the priorities and areas of concerns. An IEP Team must adhere to legal requirements pertaining to the development and implementation of an IEP for children, 3 to 5 years of age, eligible for special education. Iowa's early care, health, and education leaders, providers, policy makers, and community members lead many statewide efforts to increase access to and the quality of early childhood programs and services. Despite the expansion of quality early childhood programs, there has not yet been a proportionate expansion of providing ECSE services in regular early childhood programs. 

Least Restrictive Environments

One of the fundamental elements of the IDEA is commitment to provide children with individualized and appropriate supports in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The public agency responsible for providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to a preschool child must ensure decisions are made in accordance with the requirements for placement [Iowa Administrative Code 281-41.116].

Definitions: The provision of special education and support/related services and the LRE requirements are fully applicable to the placement of preschool children, aged three through five. Sessions or classes serving children ages 3 to 5 on an IEP must maintain stated ratios throughout the school year as defined by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). 

  • Regular Early Childhood Program  Session or class that includes less than 50% of children on an IEP for support and/or instructional special education services. When documenting on an IEP, this is considered a regular early childhood classroom or general education setting (e.g. EC setting). The minutes of service delivered in this setting are not a "Direct removal from Gen. Ed. setting."
  • Special Education Program  Session or class that included more than 50% of children on an IEP for support and/or instructional special education services. When documenting on an IEP, this is considered a special education classroom, session, or program (e.g. ECSE setting). The minutes of services delivered in this setting are a "Direct removal from Gen. Ed. setting." 

All districts are required to develop a District Develop Service Delivery Plan for special education services including early childhood special education. Documents developed to assist districts as they develop their plans. 

Preschool Program Standards

Iowa's school districts and their community partners operating preschool classrooms providing early childhood special education (ECSE) instructional services must meet approved preschool program standards. Additional information is available on the DE Early Childhood Standards webpage.

The following are recognized in Iowa Administrative Code chapter 281-16 (2007) as the three approved preschool program standards that meet the characteristics of quality early childhood programs.

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Program Standards and Accreditation Criteria
  • Head Start Program Performance Standards
  • Iowa Quality Preschool Program Standards

Iowa Early Learning Standards

The Iowa Early Learning Standards - 3rd Edition (IELS) are descriptions of the knowledge, behaviors, and skills that are appropriate for children from birth through age five. They describe the developmental, academic, and functional skills and appropriate activities for young children of similar age without disabilities. Iowa's school districts and their community partners operating preschool classrooms that provide early childhood special education (ECSE) services implement instruction to enhance the IELS content areas. Additional information is available on the DE Early Childhood Standards webpage.


GOLD Online Assessment System: Iowa Code section 279.60 requires districts to assess all preschool children with the GOLD online assessment and maintain local agreements with Teaching Strategies, Inc. under the GOLD State Service Umbrella Agreement.  Information regarding the assessment guidelines can be found on the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program webpage.

Guiding Practices

The early childhood staff in AEAs and local school districts may provide professional development, resources, and support to early childhood providers in community settings such as preschool, child care, and Head Start programs to meet the developmental learning needs of young children. Also, families and early childhood providers may be interested in information about appropriate expectations for children's development and learning. 

The following are some nationally recognized resources to support the implementation of early childhood services and programs for preschool children.

Division for Early Childhood (DEC) Recommended Practices: Provides guidance to practitioners and families about the most effective ways to improve the learning outcomes and promote the development of young children, birth through age 5, who have or are at-risk for developmental delays or disabilities. The 04/14/2014 DEC Recommended Practices is of particular interest.

Recognizing and Performing the DEC Recommended Practices: Visit the Early Childhood Technical Assistance (ECTA) Center website for additional resources and products to support the implementation of the DEC Recommended Practices. 

Visit the DEC Position Statement webpage for position statements on specific topics and issues such as Inclusion, Leadership in Early Intervention and ECSE, and Child Maltreatment.

Joint Policy Statements: The U.S. Department of Education and Health and Human Services released the following statements to support early learning.

Technical Assistance and Support

Below are a few early childhood assistance centers and organizations that provide supports and resources to strengthen the availability and successful implementation of quality early childhood programs and services.

United States Federal Department:

National Technical Assistance Systems:

  • Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA): Improve state early intervention and early childhood special education service systems, increase the implementation of effective practices, and enhance the outcomes of these programs for young children and their families.
  • The IRIS Center: Improve education outcomes for all children, especially those with disabilities birth through age twenty-one, through the use of effective evidence-based practices and interventions.
  • ACF Early Childhood National Centers for Training and Technical Assistance: Develop and disseminate high-quality, evidence-based resources and practices, and provide training and technical assistance.
  • Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO): Strengthen the capacity of State Education Agencies (SEAs) to lead sustained improvements in early learning opportunities and outcomes.

Early Childhood Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (EC PBIS):

Family Information and Support:


The Iowa Department of Education supports quality learning opportunities and environments for young children by developing, implementing, and monitoring preschool programs and services provided by, or in partnership with, school districts. Here are documents developed to guide discussions and the delivery of services and programs for young children receiving early childhood special education services.

District Developed Service Delivery Plan - All districts are required to develop a District Developed Service Delivery Plan for Special Education services including early childhood special education. Documents have been developed to assist districts as they develop their plans.

Early Childhood Services in AEAs: A Blueprint for the Future - Facilitates discussion among decision makers at the state, regional and local levels, establish early childhood priorities, and define Area Education Agencies' role in the statewide efforts to build a strong early care, health, and education system. Six priorities are addressed in the document.

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on September 28, 2022 at 8:33am.