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For the Benefit of All Children: Why early education is vital for children with disabilities

The first few years of a child's life are crucial as they set the stage for their future academic and personal success. During the first five years of a child's life, their brain develops rapidly, allowing them to retain up to 80% of their lifetime knowledge.

Children play in a classroom setting

Access to high-quality early childhood education has many benefits for young children, including aiding the development of social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Such benefits are no different for children with special needs.

“We’re meeting them where they are,” Sharon Thompson, Step Forward’s Early Childhood Inclusion Coordinator, said. “We work to promote social and emotional well-being for Head Start students, their families and staff.”

Head Start, an early education program that promotes school readiness in children from birth to age five, provides students with the opportunity to begin their education on the right path. Head Start provides a variety of services to students, including health, nutrition, and family support. It is the largest federally funded early childhood education program for preschool-aged children in the country.

Step Forward is the largest Head Start program provider in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The agency serves more than 1,000 students every year and is no cost to income-eligible families.

“We prioritize inclusive learning environments by reserving at least 10-percent of our enrollment slots for children with disabilities,” Thompson explained. “While Step Forward Head Start does not conduct disability evaluations, our education staff do use research-based assessments to gather information on students' social, emotional, physical, mental, and intellectual skills. This information is used by Early Childhood Inclusion Coordinators to create personalized learning plans, such as individualized education plans (IEPs) and individualized family service plans (IFSPs). Families are also referred to community partners for further evaluation and support.”

Children learn through music

“Early identification is paramount,” Renata Turner, another Step Forward Early Childhood Inclusion Coordinator, added. “Early identification changes a developmental path and improves outcomes for children with disabilities."

Data shows inclusive services improve social development in children as well.

“Children with disabilities can benefit from socializing with their peers and developing better social skills,” Turner said. “This helps them establish stronger relationships and have a greater sense of belonging."

"Not to mention, children with disabilities who are included in the classroom have a greater sense of belonging, which can lead to increased self-esteem,” Turner went on. "This is important because it supports the emotional needs of children and shows them that they are valued and shouldn't be ashamed of who they are.”

By being included and empowered in the classroom, children with disabilities have the opportunity to learn and grow alongside their peers, which reduces the stigma often associated with disabilities.

"Inclusion is Important to all children regardless of their ability, because it fosters a culture of empathy and understanding among all students,” Thompson said. “It encourages mutual respect and appreciation for differences.”

If you are interested in enrolling your child with Head Start, click here.

Step Forward Head Start is hiring!

The agency is offering a sign-on bonus of $1,000 for full time employees and $500 for part-time employees. Positions include teachers, family service workers, nutrition aides and more. Step Forward Head Start is looking for education staff passionate about preparing young students for the future and helping them develop a love for learning early. Take a step toward a new fulfilling career today! Learn more and apply to open positions here.

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