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Preparation of Early Childhood Special Educators for Inclusive and Interdisciplinary Settings

Stayton, Vicki D. PhD

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doi: 10.1097/IYC.0000000000000030
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  • ISEI Article


THE Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), with more than 29,000 members, was organized in 1922 and is the largest international professional association focusing on the “educational success of children and youth with disabilities and/or gifts and talents (CEC, 2011). Its mission statement identifies CEC as “an international community of professionals who are the voice and vision of special and gifted education (CEC, 2011). As one of CEC's 17 divisions, the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) created in 1973 is the largest professional organization “designed for individuals who work with or on behalf of children with special needs, birth through age eight, and their families” (DEC, 2014a, 2014b). On the basis of its mission statement, DEC promotes policies and evidence-based practices that support families and enhance the development of young children who have developmental delays or disabilities or who are at risk for developmental problems.

Both CEC and DEC recognize that one of the critical factors in the provision of evidence-based practices for children with special needs and their families is a well-prepared workforce. Thus, the policies and governance procedures of each professional association reflect its commitment to and respective roles in ensuring that early childhood special education (ECSE) professionals are well qualified. CEC's Professional Standards and Practices Committee, one of its nine standing committees, works with the CEC Executive Office staff and advises the CEC Board of Directors on matters specific to professional standards, policies, and supporting activities. DEC's end policies state that “DEC exists so that young children with disabilities and other special needs participate as full members of families and communities and benefit from competent, informed, and connected professionals....” And that “as a first priority ... teacher educators implement relevant CEC Personnel and Preparation Standards to fidelity” (CEC, 2014, p. 1).


At its organizational meeting in 1922, the development of professional standards for special educators was identified as one of the primary goals of CEC. In 1965, a conference on professional standards was hosted by CEC; however, it was not until 1981 that its governing body charged CEC to develop and implement national standards (CEC, 2009). Since the development of that first set of professional standards in 1992, the CEC professional preparation standards have undergone several revisions to ensure that they reflect the current evidence-based practices in the field. The standards are to be used to design, implement, and evaluate preservice and advanced programs within colleges and universities and for national accreditation of those programs. They should also be employed to guide the development of in-service content and state certification policies.

In its most recent 2012 revision, CEC's seven initial standards are designed to ensure that entry-level special educators possess the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to work effectively with individuals with special needs whether that initial preparation in special education is obtained at the undergraduate or graduate level. Those seven standards are as follows: (a) learner development and individual learning differences; (b) learning environments; (c) curricular content knowledge; (d) assessment; (e) instructional planning and strategies; (f) professional learning and practice; and (g) collaboration (CEC, 2012a).

CEC also developed seven advanced professional preparation standards in 2012 that are designed to expand the knowledge and skill base of special educators through advanced study in specialty areas or to pursue new roles in special education. Each of the seven standards has a range of two to seven elements that further explain the standard statement. These standards serve as the foundation for advanced masters, specialist, or doctoral degree programs and in-service content for practicing special educators. The seven standards are as follows: (a) assessment; (b) curricular content knowledge; (c) program, services, and outcomes; (d) research and inquiry; (e) leadership and policy; (f) professional and ethical practice; and (g) collaboration (CEC, 2012b).

In 1988, DEC developed and disseminated personnel competencies designed to provide guidance for Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) and state certification policies (McCollum, McLean, McCartan, Odom, & Kaiser, 1989). Subsequently, DEC collaborated with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Association of Teacher Educators (ATE) to develop a set of knowledge and skills for each of the then 10 CEC initial standards. These ECSE/Early Intervention (EI) standards were approved by DEC in 1993 and endorsed by both NAEYC and ATE and approved by CEC as the specialization standards for ECSE/EI (CEC, 2003). These knowledge and skill statements (now referred to as the initial ECSE/EI specialty set) were revised and revalidated through the CEC validation process in both 2001 and 2007 (Lifter et al., 2011). The reader is referred to Cochran et al.'s (2012) and Lifter et al.'s (2011) articles for a more complete discussion of the revision and validation process. An advanced ECSE/EI specialty set that adheres to the CEC advanced professional preparation standards was developed and validated using this same process and approved by both DEC and CEC (Lifter et al., 2011).


For more than two decades, DEC and NAEYC have collaborated on multiple policy documents, including professional standards. NAEYC members participated in the workgroup that developed the 1993 ECSE/EI standards. Since 1993, the NAEYC Executive Board has endorsed each version of the ECSE/EI standards. And NAEYC members provided input via the validation survey on the 2001 and 2007 initial specialty sets and the 2008 advanced specialty set (Cochran et al., 2012; Lifter et al., 2011).

As states began to develop blended Early Childhood Education (ECE) and ECSE certification requirements and IHEs developed blended ECE/ECSE curricula in the 1990s, DEC, CEC, and NAEYC initiated discussions as to how to support and provide guidance for these efforts. One outcome was approval by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE, now the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation) for NAEYC and CEC as the Specialty Professional Associations of NCATE to jointly review Program Review Documents submitted by IHEs for accreditation purposes. CEC actively recruits DEC members as program reviewers for the blended IHE programs. And NAEYC provided guidance to the field in developing and submitting blended programs for accreditation review in its 2003 edition of Preparing Early Childhood Professionals: NAEYC's Standards for Programs (Hyson, 2003). With the 2010 revision of the NAEYC standards, this collaborative initiative to encourage the development of blended programs and conduct joint accreditation reviews based on the standards of both CEC and NAEYC and informed by the DEC specialty sets was again emphasized (NAEYC, 2012). To provide additional guidance to states and universities/colleges, DEC developed and disseminated an alignment matrix for the standards of NAEYC (NAEYC, 2009) and CEC (CEC, 2009) and the DEC initial specialty set (Chandler et al., 2012). Both CEC and NAEYC now have a different set of professional standards; therefore, DEC, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)-funded Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC), and NAEYC are collaborating to develop a new standards alignment that is targeted to be available for dissemination in 2015.

The rigorous process employed by the previous DEC Alignment Workgroup (Chandler et al., 2012) was modified and implemented as follows: (a) DEC appointed an 11-member workgroup representing the diversity of DEC membership with support from ECPC. Regular communication occurred via an organizational meeting at the DEC Conference in fall 2014, conference calls, and e-mail. CEC, DEC, NAEYC, and ECPC staff were copied on all e-mails and invited to participate in the organizational meeting and conference calls. (b) Chandler et al.'s (2012) alignment guidelines were reviewed and modified with input from the workgroup. (c) Workgroup members used these guidelines and CEC and NAEYC standards documents (CEC, 2012a, 2012b; NAEYC, 2012) to complete individual alignments of the elements for CEC and NAEYC initial and advanced standards and alignment of the elements for the initial and advanced NAEYC standards with the DEC specialty sets knowledge and skill statements. At the initial level, each of the six NAEYC standards has a range of three to five elements and a range of three to six at the advanced level. (d) Conference calls were conducted after the individual alignments were completed to discuss the need for any additional guidelines, to clarify interpretation of specific guidelines, and to determine the consensus rule for alignment. CEC and NAEYC elements and NAEYC elements with the DEC knowledge and skill statements were considered aligned when 73% or higher agreement (n = 8–11 workgroup members) was obtained. (e) Discussion of the initial individual alignments resulted in greater clarity in applying the guidelines and development of additional guidelines. As a result, a second set of individual alignments was completed for both initial and advanced CEC and NAEYC elements and initial and advanced NAEYC elements with the DEC knowledge and skill statements for those items that had a percent agreement of 36%–64% (n = 3–7 workgroup members). (e) Follow-up conference calls were scheduled to identify additional standards with 73% or higher agreement based on the second set of individual alignments.

The total number of CEC and NAEYC elements with 73% or higher agreement is as follows: (a) initial CEC and NAEYC (n = 31) and (b) advanced CEC and NAEYC (n = 15). Elements with the greatest agreement for the initial standards seem to focus on partnering with families, collaboration, and content knowledge, whereas elements with the greatest agreement for the advanced standards address advanced professional skills (e.g., research, advocacy). Ten initial NAEYC elements and DEC knowledge and skill statements obtained 70% or higher agreement based on the first review. A second review of the 96 elements and statements with 30%–60% (n = 10 members) will be conducted. Individual alignments of the advanced NAEYC elements and the DEC knowledge and skill statements are also being completed. The targeted percent agreement for the additional reviews is 73% or higher.

After the DEC workgroup completes the alignment process, NAEYC will appoint a workgroup consisting of NAEYC members with expertise of the NAEYC initial and advanced standards to review the completed alignments. Once that workgroup's review is complete and any modifications to the alignments are agreed to by both workgroups, CEC, DEC, and NAEYC will obtain any needed approvals within the respective associations. The final alignment matrices will be disseminated via each collaborator's website. A handbook for IHE faculty with strategies for using the alignments will be developed through the ECPC, with target completion in fall 2015. Additional strategies for disseminating the alignments and supporting various audiences (e.g., state certification agencies, accreditation reviewers, staff development providers) in their application will be investigated.


The passage of PL99-457 in 1986 through its section Part H (now Part C) resulted in states developing systems of services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities and their families. These systems were typically characterized by family-centered interdisciplinary services provided by professionals from multiple disciplines (e.g., special education, physical therapy [PT], occupational therapy [OT], social work) in homes and other community settings. Such a service delivery model requires team-based collaborative approaches for working with children and families. The resulting changes in service delivery for infants and toddlers with special needs and their families created a need for research, policy, and position statements from professional associations and development and implementation of interdisciplinary curriculum in IHEs across multiple disciplines, not just ECE and ECSE.

Courtnage and Smith-Davis (1987), based on a national survey to determine the nature and extent of interdisciplinary training in special education IHE programs, reported that approximately 50% of programs provided training on working with teams; however, there was little in-service training on teamwork. Through the OSEP-funded Carolina Institute for Research on Infant Personnel Preparation, Bailey, Simeonsson, Yoder, and Huntington (1990) conducted a series of national surveys of IHE programs to determine the extent to which professionals from 10 disciplines (i.e., audiology, medicine, nursing, nutrition, OT, PT, psychology, social work, special education, and speech–language pathology [SLP]) were prepared to work with infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities and their families. Results indicated variability both across and within disciplines. Most students received information on typical and atypical development but less on infant assessment, infant intervention, working with families, and the interdisciplinary team process. There were few opportunities through field experiences to work with infants with disabilities and minimal work with families or on interdisciplinary teams.

Research such as this led to recommendations related to interdisciplinary competencies and training. McCollum and Stayton (1996) summarized the theme of these recommendations in the following statement: “When a child is young, discipline specific differences tend to be one of focus, context, or emphasis, rather than representing performance of mutually exclusive functions” (p. 71). Bailey et al. (1990) articulated four specific recommendations related to preservice preparation across all disciplines, in order for interdisciplinary work to be effective. On the basis of these recommendations, students should (1) be introduced to legislation specific to young children and families and be provided with an overview of available programs and services, (2) be exposed to family-centered services for young children and their families through field experiences, (3) receive expanded content on working with families, and (4) receive additional training on working in teams through both didactic and practical experiences. Bailey (1996) expanded on these recommendations to address how interdisciplinary preservice programs should be designed and implemented. He advocated that faculty in discipline-specific programs must share common values and a commitment to interdisciplinary preparation, infuse interdisciplinary courses and field experiences throughout the curriculum, and provide opportunities for students to interact with faculty and students from other disciplines as well as families.

Thorp and McCollum (1994) focused on competencies and recommended areas of competence unique to the disciplines, reflecting a specialist role, and areas of competence across disciplines, reflecting a generalist role. Categories for cross-discipline competencies were (1) child-related (i.e., typical and atypical development, observation), (2) family-related (i.e., family systems, sources of vulnerability, supporting families), (3) team-related (i.e., common vocabulary, joint planning and problem solving, conflict resolution), and (4) interagency advocacy-related (i.e., state legislation, program coordination across agencies). Thorp and McCollum (1994) used the same four categories to identify more discipline-specific skills. DEC supported and advocated for these recommendations in its joint position statement on personnel standards stating that “all individuals who work with children in early childhood settings must possess, to a degree congruent with their roles, the knowledge and skills for working with young children with special needs (ATE, DEC, & NAEYC, 1994, p. 2).

Recommendations such as these, as well as changes in community-based programs for infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities, facilitated interdisciplinary program development in higher education, interdisciplinary professional development models, external funding support for these initiatives, and some research about interdisciplinary programs.

Case studies describing various aspects of interdisciplinary programs, including program evaluation, seem to be most common in the professional literature (e.g., Barton, Moore, & Squires, 2012; Crais et al., 2004; Eaton, Gangluff, & Deere, 2004; McCollum & Stayton, 1996; Stayton, Whittaker, Jones, & Kersting, 2001; Surbeck & Brown, 2000). These case studies also highlighted key challenges and benefits in providing interdisciplinary personnel preparation.

Rosenkoetter and Stayton (1997) conducted one of the first national surveys of interdisciplinary field experiences with respondents from 155 (54%) of 289 ECSE programs. Of these programs, 38% (i.e., 20% of the total sample) offered interdisciplinary field experiences. Survey results indicated that the field experiences had been developed since 1990. Reasons for developing the field experiences included recommended practices, funding priorities through OSEP, and community-based service delivery models. On the basis of program responses, Rosenkoetter and Stayton (1997) concluded with recommendations similar to those of Bailey et al. (1990) and Thorp and McCollum (1994). Specifically, they emphasized the need for one set of competencies across disciplines with some discipline-specific competencies, opportunities for students to practice and reflect on collaboration, and professional development for faculty.

Bruder and Dunst (2005) conducted a national survey of faculty in OT, PT, ECSE, SLP, and multidisciplinary programs to determine the extent to which EI content across five areas was addressed: (1) family-centered practices; (2) Individualized Family Service Plans; (3) natural environments; (4) teaming practices; and (5) service coordination. Six 5-point Likert scale items per area were included. Of 247 surveys distributed, 155 responses were received. Fifty programs of the original 247 did not prepare early interventionists and thus did not complete the survey. The authors concluded that results were similar to those obtained by Bailey et al. (1990) approximately 15 years earlier. Family-centered practices were the only content area that had a primary emphasis across all disciplines. ECSE and multidisciplinary faculty reported more emphasis on teaming than the other disciplines, and ECSE faculty provided more training on service coordination. PT faculty provided less training in all content areas.

Data from the OSEP-funded Center to Inform Personnel Preparation Policy and Practice in Early Intervention and Preschool Education (2005) provide additional insight into interdisciplinary course content, as well as strategies for providing that content. A 62-item survey, divided into four sections, was completed by 1,139 respondents representing IHE administrators and/or faculty across all of the disciplines required under IDEA and representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Similar to Bruder and Dunst's (2005) results, the majority of programs offered courses focusing on families (87%) whereas fewer programs offered courses focusing on other content relevant to interdisciplinary preparation (e.g., team process—65%, inclusion/natural environments—59%). Fifty-five percent of respondents reported that they collaborated with programs outside of their discipline to offer cross-disciplinary courses or field experiences, with the resulting most common cross-disciplinary program feature being courses completed together by students from different disciplines (67%). However, when considering program features that might demonstrate the IHE's commitment to and institutionalization of cross-disciplinary practices, more limited collaborative features were identified. For example, only 39% of the programs reported joint course offerings or listings and only 32% reported that students across disciplines completed fieldwork together.

Research is limited regarding interdisciplinary preservice preparation, and it is even more limited regarding interdisciplinary professional development (i.e., in-service) efforts. Mellin and Winton (2003) followed up with 173 EI faculty members who had participated in two of the four regional faculty institutes funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Early Education Program for Children with Disabilities between 1992 and 1995. These institutes focused on family-centered interdisciplinary personnel preparation. Respondents represented four broad groups: medicine, education, allied health, and social sciences (n = 116, response rate of 67%). Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected via a survey focusing on interdisciplinary collaboration specific to time spent, past and present involvement, self-efficacy, beliefs/value, and barriers and facilitators across six categories of work activities. Findings indicated that time spent in interdisciplinary collaboration did not vary across disciplines. Of the six work activities, all faculty members spent the greatest percentage of time on preservice teaching; however, the percentage of time spent in interdisciplinary collaboration was small. The percentage of interdisciplinary collaboration in two of the other categories, research and curriculum development, was also small. On the basis of other research findings and recommendations, these are the three work categories in which one might expect to find interdisciplinary efforts. According to this research, the two factors that seemed to most influence faculty's engagement in interdisciplinary practices were work environment and the duration or length of time that faculty had spent in interdisciplinary collaboration.


Even though federal and state policies support interdisciplinary personnel preparation and external funds have been targeted to fund such programs, the research cited earlier leaves us with a bleak picture as to the extent of actual interdisciplinary preparation in EI. The professional literature has consistently recommended that resources and supports must be in place to facilitate faculty's involvement in interdisciplinary programs, and one of the resources recommended over time has been a common set of EI competencies across disciplines. The 2006 revision of DEC's personnel position statement advocated development of personnel standards within a collaborative framework with representation from key stakeholder groups (e.g., policy makers, families) and the range of professional associations that focus on the education and development of young children (DEC, 2006). In response to this need, the OSEP-funded ECPC, in collaboration with professional associations, has aligned the standards for ECE, ECSE/EI, OT, PT, and SLP.

This alignment has multiple applications for both preservice and in-service programs, as well as policy development. It may provide guidance to preservice faculty and in-service providers as they develop, implement, and evaluate interdisciplinary programs. For both preservice and in-service, it can be employed to determine content, practical experiences, assessments, and program evaluation. States may apply it to the development of policies regarding their Part C program.


The passage of IDEA and its subsequent reauthorizations impacted service delivery for young children with special needs and their families within public education programs and other community settings. Inclusive programs address the IDEA principle of least restrictive environment, whereas services within homes and community programs for infants and toddlers promote the principle of natural environments. To ensure that professionals are prepared to provide services in such settings, professional associations have advocated for more inclusive and interdisciplinary preparation of personnel across disciplines. And, in an effort to provide guidance and support for the development, implementation and evaluation of IHE curricula that are more inclusive and interdisciplinary have advocated for and participated in the alignment of standards across disciplines. Yet, as discussed earlier, it seems that limited progress has been made in developing or modifying IHE curricula to address changes in service delivery over the last approximate three decades. If, in fact, inclusion and the need for interdisciplinary services are a reality for our communities, what can the ECSE field do to influence policy and research in these areas and facilitate change in preservice and in-service education?


Professional associations have and must continue to collaborate in aligning their respective personnel standards to highlight what is common across disciplines and what is more discipline specific and thus facilitate more effective use by IHE faculty, staff development providers, researchers, and policy makers, including state certification/licensure offices. In addition to collaborative development of the alignments, it is also important that professional associations take the next step of collaboratively determining who the primary audiences for the alignments are and how to best disseminate them, as well as to provide resources and activities as guidance for their application. Moving beyond “after the fact” alignment of standards developed by the respective professional associations involved in EI/ECSE, it would be more time- and cost-effective and -responsive to the needs of the disciplines if common standards could be collaboratively developed across associations as a first step and then discipline-specific standards developed by the respective association.


Within the United States, preservice curricula must be designed to ensure that program graduates meet state certification/licensure requirements in the respective discipline. Thus, certification/licensure policies shape course content and fieldwork requirements in preservice programs. Standards promulgated by professional associations representing the related services disciplines under IDEA do seem to be the foundation for certification/licensure requirements across states. However, this is not the case for ECSE. Even though CEC, DEC, and NAEYC (if it is a blended ECE/ECSE program) state that their standards must be the foundation for state certification policies, states often develop their own standards with limited to no alignment with the national standards (Stayton, Smith, Dietrich, & Bruder, 2012). Professional association standards are based on current research and recommended practices in the respective field; therefore, it is imperative that states and professional associations work together to ensure that state certification/licensure requirements are consistent with national standards. Dissemination strategies and resources designed specifically for this target stakeholder group may be the means by which professional associations can have greater influence on state policies. It is also critical for professionals within states, especially early childhood special educators, to assume leadership roles in development of state policies. State associations affiliated with CEC, DEC, and NAEYC must support and facilitate involvement in such leadership roles.


Limited research has been conducted specific to blended ECE/ECSE and interdisciplinary IHE programs and their adherence to national standards. The available research seems to focus primarily on one or a very small number of program descriptions, with some studies including program evaluation data. Studies representing larger national samples tend to be conducted by grant-supported research centers. However, most of the larger studies are also more descriptive, with data typically based on self-report survey data. Research reporting content analysis of preservice program content or state certification/licensure requirements in relationship to national standards or program outcome data is even more limited. Research in this area, whether focusing on program descriptions or a more involved examination of program outcomes, is both time- and labor-intensive and does not lend itself to empirical studies. It is critical that federal agencies continue to fund research centers to investigate how national standards are being applied in preservice and in-service programs and state policies and what is the relationship between adherence to those standards and professional competence. Research should also be expanded to compare the professional competence of graduates providing EI/ECSE services from programs that are more inclusive and interdisciplinary with those that are not and to compare the professional competence of graduates across states with different degrees of inclusive and interdisciplinary certification/licensure requirements. These centers or ones funded for follow-up should also receive sufficient funds to develop targeted dissemination strategies and resources for state certification offices, preservice programs, and in-service programs to apply the research to their practices.

Preservice and in-service

One of the primary purposes of personnel standards and the alignments is to provide guidance to training programs at both the preservice and in-service levels in the design, implementation, and evaluation of their curricula. The alignments provide guidance as to content for IHE courses, field experiences, professional readings, assignments, and other activities, as well as in-service content and activities. IHE faculty and in-service providers are encouraged to review the literature describing inclusive and interdisciplinary programs, as they collaborate to design, implement, and evaluated their curricula. Specifically, the alignments may be used to determine which courses and field experiences or in-service activities could be completed jointly by students or participants across disciplines and which ones could be collaboratively implemented. The alignments could also be used to determine which program evaluation tools and strategies might be implemented across programs. In addition, the alignments should facilitate the development of program documents to be reviewed for accreditation purposes. As community programs become more inclusive and interdisciplinary, it is imperative that professionals be prepared at both the preservice and in-service levels to positively impact the development and learning of young children with special needs and partner with their families. Collaboration across multiple stakeholder groups (e.g., professional associations, federal agencies, state agencies, IHE faculty and administrators, and staff development providers) is key to this occurring.


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    CEC personnel standards; DEC personnel standards; early childhood special education; early intervention; inclusive personnel preparation; interdisciplinary personnel preparation; NAEYC personnel standards

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