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PACEs in Early Childhood

Considerations for Building Post-COVID Early Care and Education Systems that Serve Children with Disabilities []


By Mallory Warner-Richter and Christina M. Lloyd, Child Trends, August 6, 2020

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all families, especially those caring for young children with disabilities. Of the 24 million children under age 6 in the United States, about 5 percent (1.2 million) have a diagnosed disability, which qualifies them for early intervention or special education services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).1 IDEA categorizes 13 different types of disabilities in children, including conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, speech or language impairment, visual impairment, deafness, intellectual disabilities, and other specific learning disabilities (i.e., dyslexia or auditory processing disorder). As a result of the pandemic, these children and their families may face challenges beyond those faced by other families.

This fact sheet examines the interrelationship between disability, race, and ethnicity, and how this plays out across the country. Next, it discusses specific impacts of the pandemic on families with young children with disabilities, and, finally, the resource offers considerations for states as ECE programs begin to reopen.


Access to early intervention and early childhood special education is critical to child development and learning for children with disabilities. IDEA services are individualized to each child’s needs and goals are set by their family and by practitioners and educators. Children are regularly assessed to gauge their progress toward meeting goals. For infants and toddlers, services are delivered in a “natural environment,” including at home, in an early care and education (ECE) program, or within another setting in the community. Preschool children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education (sometimes referred to as FAPE) in a “least restrictive environment.” In other words, children with disabilities receive services in many of the same settings as typically developing children their age. They rely on child care programs, Head Start, and schools to be open and accessible to receive services that support their development and learning. When COVID-19 forced many of these ECE programs to close, access to many of these services was cut off.

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