Early Childhood Special Education

Early Childhood Special Education is a state and federally mandated program for three, four, and five year old children with developmental delays or disabilities, who are not old enough for kindergarten.

These laws are intended to ensure that all young children who require special education are provided a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, in accordance with their individual needs. The educational needs of these children (because of a disability or developmental delay in the area of cognition, communication, social/emotional development, physical development and/or adaptive functioning) are not able to be met without special education and related services. 

This group includes preschool children who are delayed or who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbances, hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain-injury or visual impairments. 

Preschool children with disabilities who meet eligibility criteria may receive services upon reaching their third birthday. Every school district or special education collaborative provides early childhood special education services. Currently approximately 2,900 (2012 data) 3-5 year olds receive individualized special education preschool services though school-based programs, across a continuum of educational environments.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004 included a heightened emphasis on accountability, focused on improving educational results for children with disabilities. As a result, the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) now requires that each state measure the percent of preschool children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) who demonstrate improvement in three outcome areas: positive social-emotional skills, acquisition and use of knowledge and skills, and use of appropriate behaviors to meet needs.

Rhode Island recognizes the importance of having a comprehensive early childhood curriculum and assessment system and has worked to implement systems and procedures for assessing child outcomes in the Early Childhood Outcomes Project. Teaching Strategies GOLD™ was selected as the tool for measuring child outcomes, not only because it meets federal data collection and reporting requirements, but also because it provides a research-driven, criterion-based tool that utilizes authentic assessment practices; is aligned the Rhode Island Early Learning Standards; and can be used to inform instruction which prepares children for school success both academically and socially. The use of Teaching Strategies GOLD™ allows special education teams to measure the three outcomes within a comprehensive assessment process informed by families and community partners that improves teaching and learning.

Outcome assessment data is reported to RIDE by Local Education Agencies (LEAs). Based on the comparison of entry and exit assessment data, RIDE aggregates the date and reports the following outcomes to OSEP:

  1. Percent of preschool children who did not improve functioning
  2. Percent of preschool children who improved functioning but not sufficient to move nearer to functioning comparable to same-aged peers
  3. Percent of preschool children who improved functioning to a level nearer to same-aged peers but did not reach it
  4. Percent of preschool children who improved functioning to reach a level comparable to same-aged peers
  5. Percent of preschool children who maintained functioning at a level comparable to same-aged peers

Early childhood outcomes data provides each state, district and program, as well as OSEP, with information to demonstrate the effectiveness and benefits of early childhood special education. Additionally, child outcomes data can inform program improvement and professional development initiatives at national, state, district, program and classroom levels.

Additional Resources


Positive Social – Emotional Skills (including Social Relationships)
  • Relating with adults
  • Relating with other children
  • Following rules related to groups and interacting with others
  • Attachment/separation/autonomy
  • Expression of emotions and feelings
  • Learning rules and expectations
  • Social interactions and play


Acquisition and Use of Knowledge and Skills
  • Thinking
  • Reasoning
  • Remembering
  • Problem Solving
  • Understanding physical and social worlds
  • Using symbols and language
  • Early concepts – symbols, pictures, numbers, classification, spatial relationships
  • Imitation
  • Object Permanence
  • Expressive language and communication
  • Foundations for Reading
  • Foundations for Writing


Use of Appropriate Behaviors to Meet Their Needs
  • Taking care of basic needs
  • Getting from place to place
  • Using tools (ex. fork, toothbrush, crayon)
  • Contributing to their own health and safety
  • Integrating motor skills to complete tasks
  • Self-help skills (ex. dressing, feeding, grooming, toileting, household responsibility)
  • Acting on the world to get what one desires

Children with disabilities and their families undergo a variety of transitions between various agencies, settings and providers. Evidence suggests that the quality of the early childhood transition process, particularly the transition from Part C Early Intervention to Part B preschool, has significant implications for children’s later success (Entwisle & Alexander, 1998).

In collaboration with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and in compliance with state and federal regulations, RIDE has developed transition guidelines which promote a smooth transition from Early Intervention to the local school departments.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) requires states to report the percent of children referred by Part C (EI) prior to age 3, who are found eligible for Part B, and who have an IEP developed and implemented by their third birthdays. OSEP requires states to meet 100% compliance.

(20 U.S.C. 1416(a)(3)(B))