For effective transition planning to take place, the difficulties faced by all children in transition must be understood. These difficulties arise from differences between home, daycare, intervention, preschool, and kindergarten environments. At home and in intervention programs, accommodations are made for the child's needs, but in preschool, and more in kindergarten, children must learn to conform to the school's expectations. Children with disabilities may find transitions especially difficult. Federal law provides parents of children with disabilities with Individualized Family Service Plans and Individualized Education Plans to aid their children's transitions.
Keywords Categorical Disability; Early Intervention; Individualized Education Plan (IEP); Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP); Noncategorical Disability; Preschool; Service Coordination; Special Education Services; Transition Planning
The word "transition," as used by experts in early childhood development, refers to different kinds of external changes that can occur during the early years of a child's life. Some transitions - such as the brief change from one activity to another in a preschool classroom - are relatively insignificant to a child's overall development. But other transitions - such as the one from preschool to kindergarten - have lasting impact (Lombardi, 1992). If these kinds of major transitions do not go smoothly or are mishandled by parents, teachers or caregivers, they can have a lasting negative effect on the child. Transition planning, therefore, refers to steps taken by adults to ensure that major periods of change during early childhood go smoothly.
This article examines the most significant transitional periods in the lives of children in two categories - those with learning and physical disabilities, and those without disabilities - and makes suggestions on how to ease and facilitate these times for both groups. The three transitional periods that will be examined in children with disabilities occur between infancy and 6 years of age. The first stage, entrance into an early intervention program, happens shortly after birth. The second, progression from early intervention into a preschool class or program, happens at 3 years. The third, progression from preschool into kindergarten, occurs between ages 5 and 6. The three significant transitions in the lives of children without disabilities are: home-rearing to childcare (between infancy and 3 years); entrance into preschool programs (around age 3); and starting kindergarten (age 5 or 6).
Public Laws 94-142
Of the two groups of children examined here, those with disabilities have, in recent years, seen the most reform and legislation enacted on their behalf. In 1975, Congress passed Public Law (PL) 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Until then, the quality and continuity of education offered to preschool and elementary school disabled children differed from state to state. PL 94-142 put an end to this inconsistency by requiring all states to provide disabled students with an appropriate education, free of charge. The act also guaranteed that disabled students would be educated in the "least restrictive environment" (Sack, 2000), which could mean (to students with milder disabilities) taking instruction in classrooms with regular education students (Chandler, Fowler, Hadden, & Stahurski, 2003). The result was increased continuity in intervention programs, preschool, and kindergarten for children with disabilities, and easier transitions between each.
Today, PL 94-142 is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Because of IDEA's least restrictive environment clause, parents of disabled children have the option of choosing - depending on the extent and severity of their child's disability - preschool programs in which at least some of their classmates do not have disabilities. This means that a child can enroll in a regular education public school that also offers special education preschool classes (a way in which many states are meeting the least restrictive environment requirement). Children can also participate in the federal early intervention program, Head Start, in states that provide special education services within the program. And there are private preschools that enroll both regular education and special needs children (Chandler et al., 2003).
In 1986, Congress amended PL 97-142 by passing PL 99-457 (the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments). While the IDEA originally applied to children age 3 and older in public schools, PL 99-457 extended coverage to younger children in early intervention programs. PL 99-457 gave money to states to establish multidisciplinary intervention systems for children under the age of 3 diagnosed with developmental delays (Black, 1991) or who were deemed "at-risk" for developmental delays. Children deemed at-risk had been exposed to certain early developmental risk factors (such as premature birth) but who had not yet been formally diagnosed with a disability. PL 99-457 greatly increased the number of children eligible for services, though the federal government left final determination of eligibility to individual states (Florian, 1995). The act increased continuity in early intervention programs and eased the transition to preschool for children with disabilities.
For effective transition planning to take place, the difficulties faced by all children in transition must be understood. These difficulties arise from differences between home, daycare, intervention, preschool, and kindergarten environments. Children who are used to being at home are accustomed to a warm, one-on-one relationship with adults. This changes when they move from home care to early intervention and preschool and are placed in groups of children, and most significantly when they enter kindergarten, where their relationship with adult teachers becomes more impersonal and formal. At home and in intervention programs, accommodations are made for the child's needs, but in preschool, and more in kindergarten, children must learn to conform to the school's expectations. Teaching and learning styles also change, most significantly after a child leaves preschool. Kindergartners must go from years of learning with objects and manipulatives to using words and symbols (Myers, 1997).
The adjustment from preschool to kindergarten is, for most children, the most difficult. For many, it means switching from a discovery-through-play learning model used in many preschool programs to more formal learning styles like the ones used in later grades. Classrooms become less freeform and children are expected to sit, listen, and follow rules. Teaching styles change, too. Students are asked to switch from the primarily verbal and rote instruction styles they were shown in preschool to more formal, literacy-based methodology. Many children from minority families must quickly pick up a second language - often without help - and assimilate a school culture that is dictated by the dominant ethnic group. Some children have no brothers and sisters and have never participated in early intervention or preschool programs, and so must go straight from home to kindergarten. Having little experience in peer interaction, they struggle to develop social skills (Myers, 1997).
Elements of Effective Transitions
Despite the complexities faced by all young children when going from one learning environment to the next, it has been found that sound transition planning hinges on just a few basic principles. Studies dating back to the 1960s have revealed that smooth transitions are less dependent on efforts to bridge the different stages than they are on ensuring that certain elements are present during each stage. These three elements are:
• Developmentally appropriate education,
• Parental involvement, and
• Support services (Lombardi, 1992).
Developmentally Appropriate Education
The first element, developmentally appropriate education, applies to a number of areas in which young children should be encouraged to grow: cognitive and motor functioning, attention span and focus, social skills and cooperative play, interest in things outside their immediate environment. Between early childhood and elementary school, a child's mind grows by exploring and discovering its world and through interacting with peers and adults. Teaching at this time should encourage natural curiosity and a love of learning and offer experiences that expand on earlier experiences. Rather than design activities around play or academic subjects, educators should craft lessons that build language, math, and reasoning skills through exploration and cooperative problem solving...
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