Early education classrooms are bright and fun, but they’re not always open to young children with disabilities.

Massachusetts works hard to meet these children’s needs through its Early Intervention program, but a new paper – “Early Childhood Special Education in Massachusetts,” written by Strategies for Children interns Annapurna Ayyappan and Marisa Fear — points out that there’s room for the state to make improvements.

In 2014, the federal government addressed the problem with a policy statement jointly released by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that said in part:

“It is the Departments’ position that all young children with disabilities should have access to inclusive high-quality early childhood programs, where they are provided with individualized and appropriate support in meeting high expectations.”

Getting this work done in Massachusetts, Ayyappan and Fear write, is essential:

“Early childhood education has the potential to provide children with the positive experiences that will establish a strong foundation upon which they can grow… Early intervention for children with developmental delays or disabilities targets the brain at a time when its services can have the greatest positive effects.”

These positive effects include meeting children’s current needs and preventing future needs.

One example, Ayyappan and Fear write, is North Carolina where Duke University researchers looked at “the impact of North Carolina’s Smart Start (SS) and More at Four (MAF) initiatives on Special Education placements in third grade.” Smart Start’s goal was to improve “the delivery and quality of child care and preschool services to children from birth to age five.” More at Four “provided access to high-quality preschool for disadvantaged four-year-olds.”

The results: Smart Start reduced third-grade special education placements by 10 percent, and More at four reduced them by 32 percent.

For their research on Massachusetts, Ayyappan and Fear spoke to academic researchers and state officials, and they “paid special attention to communities that are recipients of the Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG) and the Commonwealth Preschool Planning Initiative (CPPI).”

Among the challenges they found:

• While Massachusetts has the second highest rate of identifying children with disabilities — which is a crucial first step to providing help — the state’s identification rates vary wary by region, suggesting that children may go undiagnosed and not receive services because of where they live

• expulsions and suspensions are a problem: “black preschool students tended to be suspended 2.2 times more than other students, and students with disabilities and emotional behavior disturbances were more likely to be suspended than their peers”

• data analysis is limited: “the data collection process is not granular enough to include data on individual student disabilities data by race and gender in the birth-to-three category,”

• there is a “lack of communication between different entities responsible for delivering Early Childhood Special Education services across the mixed- delivery system,” and

• diagnoses vary by age range: “The five most common disabilities for 3-to 5-year-old children are: Developmental Delay, Speech and Language Disability, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury, Other Health Impairments.

“The five most common disabilities for 6-to-21-year-old children are Specific Learning Disability, Speech and Language Disability, Other Health Impairment, Autism, Emotional Disturbance.”

This data is significant because “because we found that children with some of the most frequently diagnosed disabilities in K-12 (Autism and Emotional Disturbance) would have benefited significantly from Positive Behavior Supports in early childhood.”

Ayyappan and Fear suggest a number of strategies for meeting these challenges, including:

• using Universal Design for Learning principles and guidelines. This approach allows for students to “be accommodated in a more natural way by incorporating areas of choice and accommodation into curriculum, rather than adding them on for students later, which may draw attention to the ‘difference’ of the student,”

• decreasing preschool suspensions and expulsions by using Positive Behavior Supports such as the Pyramid Model. This approach makes a difference in Boston and Somerville where PK-12 out-of-school suspension rates are lower than Holyoke’s rate of 15.4 percent and North Adams’ rate of 12.7 percent.

• better educating early childhood teachers and providers about childhood development so that they can share this information with parents, and

• continuing to support Massachusetts’ State Systemic Improvement Plan, which is “devoted to improved social emotional outcomes for preschool children” with special needs

“This investigation gave us important insight into the current state of early childhood special education in Massachusetts and the critical importance of system-level improvements,” Ayyappan and Fear write, making it clear that for all children to succeed, Massachusetts has to enhance its early education/special education infrastructure.

To learn more about the paper, or share your suggestions for improving policy and practice, contact Titus DosRemedios, Strategies’ director of research and policy, at tdosremedios@strategiesforchildren.org or (617) 330-7387.