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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska


by Colleen Chinn
Yukon-Kuskokwim Parent-Child Program


Although I hold an Alaska state teacher's certificate, I have not taught at the elementary level in a number of years. I am the Special Needs Coordinator for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Parent-Child Program (YKIPCP), which is a Rural CAP agency and a Head Start Grantee. I also coordinate family/social services for this agency. We are a home based program serving children birth through three. I work closely and collaborate with outside agencies and school districts serving the six Delta villages in which we operate. I also have four children in Lower Kuskokwim School District.

The topics addressed in readings in Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned will be the focus of this paper. The issue of family and individual needs is common to special education and cross-cultural education. In fact, because of the "failure syndrome," noted by Helen Roberts in her article in LT/LL, many cross-cultural children end up in special education by default. The cultural factor, which influences everything from identification and diagnosis to IEP planning and placement, must be addressed before children's, families' and communities' needs can truly be met.

The 1986 federal legislation creating PL 99-457 enhances services for special needs children from birth to six years of age. This law provides incentives to states to serve young children with disabling conditions and creates a supplementary program to address the special needs of infants and toddlers birth-three. The legislation is very supportive of families and includes a directive to create an Individual Family Service Plan after completing a Family Needs Assessment of the strengths, goals and aspirations of the entire family, rather than the traditional Individual Educational Plan. The law also encourages inter-agency collaboration which allows for more comprehensive services and better coordination and innovative practice to meet individual, family, and community needs than has occurred in the past.

A philosophy of education (special or regular) and curriculum planned around principles of an integrated approach, family involvement and support, and community-referenced instruction benefits all participants, including students, teachers, parents and administrators. The perspective of cultural eclecticism, as discussed by Barnhardt in LT/LL, relates to all children who are not quite in the mainstream - and what child ever feels part of the mythical mainstream? In this approach, it is assumed that each minority group has unique characteristics that distinguish it from other groups, and that all groups share characteristics common to the larger society. As Barnhardt points out, all students with individual differences gain when the school "assists the student in understanding the nature of the diverse experiences which are a natural part of his/her existence, and thus contribute to the development of an integrated cultural perspective suitable to the student's needs and circumstances."

A phenomenon occurs within the world of the handicapped that is similar to what occurs with other racial and cultural minorities; that is, some individuals and some groups wish to stress the minority culture, while others are oriented toward the dominant culture, with still others desiring the "best of both worlds." Some of these decisions are made because of the type of community and educational experiences an individual has had, so I would support the notion expressed by Barnhardt when he states: "Our concern then is with the development of an educational approach that respects this vast diversity, while introducing everyone to the range of options available, so that they themselves are able to exercise some degree of choice in their individual or group lifestyle and goals...It is through such variation and diversity that the vitality of the society at large is maintained, and our understanding of the range of human potential and capabilities is deepened."

This recognition of diversity as a normal condition is certainly ignored in many special education settings as children are placed in self-contained special education classrooms, sometimes according to disability. I would advocate a curriculum and program philosophy that incorporates the notion of the naturalness of diversity. Our educational practice of grouping children in 'litters' as Lillian Katz describes it, is not in keeping with the natural human experience outside the classroom. Too often, children are grouped according to age, grade, skill level, behavior and other factors.

An integrated, multi-cultural, multi-exceptionality, interagency approach that recognizes parents are usually the most important and most constant factor in a child's life and that family and community are integral to the process is one that will likely be the most effective in preparing a child for life in a varied and diverse world.

The 'nuts and bolts' of this type of program planning have to address how to incorporate these philosophical views in policy decisions. Collaborative planning between schools and other groups and individuals affecting the child have to take place at all levels, including identification, diagnosis, IEP development, curriculum planning, placement and transitioning (both from preschool and into adult life).

The amount of stress families may feel is related to the nature of the problems, the family's resources, perceptions of the problem, and coping strategies. Families must meet many demands, ranging from economic and domestic to recreation and self-identity. In early childhood it is difficult to meet the needs of an individual child without considering the constellation of the whole family and the many agencies that interact with the family. The school can play a role in helping families cope with stresses that lie beyond the realm of education, whether it be a service role or a referral and coordination role. It is one thing to accept parent participation and acknowledge parents as the main decision-makers for their children and their community, and another to leave them to their own devices in the search for and coordination of services. Assisting families in coping within the family, recognizing and utilizing social support, and building better professional support can be a goal of public education from early intervention through vocational training. Going through each of these stages of the special education process, we should consider family functioning style, individual differences, social support, outside agency services, and cultural factors.


If a child has been identified by Public Health Service or other medical professionals and/or has been receiving special education services from a non-public educational agency, then the first contact the schools are likely to have will be as the child makes the transition to the school district. However, many children are identified for the first time by the school district during the process of district screening programs.

One of these early identification programs is the "child-find" process implemented in many areas. This is usually a district-wide effort to identify children with special needs by three years of age, in keeping with Public Law 99-142. One of the principles set forth by this law is that schools must provide non-discriminatory evaluation. That is, they must test and classify children fairly, essentially by administering non-biased tests in ways that do not put children at a disadvantage but that allow them to display their educational abilities and disabilities. This law also calls for parent participation and due process or opportunities to consent or object to their child's identification, classification, or program.

One of the problems in screening and identification of children who are bilingual or multi-cultural is the lack of a non-language based and non-culturally biased screening tool. Many Infant Learning Programs and Head Start agencies have devised their own observational checklists, though these are usually not criterion-referenced or validated from a testing standpoint. But they do provide additional information in identification and curriculum planning for children whose cultural variances do not always mesh with the standardized testing required by regulation. AsHelen Roberts states in LT/LL, "Education in a mass society is subversive and assimilative, especially in cross-cultural situations." Whereas public law has ensured education for all, it has also imposed regulations that serve to uniformly group children, while protecting their rights. The concept of local community control and an integrated, cross-cultural approach, as stated by Helen Roberts, needs to be addressed with regard to special education programs as well as regular curriculum and program planning.

Outside of readily diagnosed handicaps usually identified by medical and other special education professionals, there are children identified by the school districts as developmentally delayed, language delayed, emotionally disturbed, etc., where cultural factors often have not been taken into account. There are also children who are not diagnosed because of cultural factors, and children 'at risk' who are not identified as such for the same reasons. The preschool regulations of Alaska regarding special education services state that children should not be identified as 'at risk' or otherwise handicapped if the condition is thought to result from cultural or environmental factors. This type of vague guideline does not serve to enhance the screening and identification of special needs children. Before children can be identified as needing special services, research and screening tools must be developed that reflect appropriate skill levels in a child's primary language and take into account cultural variables in skill development.

The families and community must make decisions about multi-cultural goals for their children. Do they want them to be able to enunciate p, b, d, f, v, k, g, m etc., as reflected in English, or do they want them to be able to pronounce sounds typically enunciated by age three in the Yup'ik or Inupiat or Athabaskan languages? Or do they want both skills, and if so, what is developmentally appropriate or expected of a child speaking two languages in terms of phonetic development, receptive and expressive language, and cognitive expression? These are questions that must be addressed by the state and university in collaboration with local communities so that appropriate regulations might be formed to ensure that children who need services receive them, consistent with parental goals, regardless of precipitating cause. Another factor in special education screening, identification and diagnosis is that of parent and community participation. Disenfranchisement is only increased by an assimilative and 'imposed' approach.

The Ketchikan Borough School District utilizes a team assessment approach together with extensive community and parent involvement. This type of approach would be applicable in many districts. The pre-screening information dissemination and volunteer recruitment, as well as the use of outside agency professionals in addition to school personnel, would all involve the community and increase awareness and agreement with the goals of the screening. The inclusion and collaboration with local community members and school staff, who can serve as interpreters, facilitators, planners, etc., would be more in keeping with an integrated approach to education and would reduce the feeling of being imposed upon by outside, district, state, and other bureaucracies.

Referral and Assessment

A referral is a formal request for multi-disciplinary assistance in identifying the special needs of a child. A more comprehensive evaluation of functional areas of development is provided. This process of referral and assessment can be accomplished in a culturally sensitive manner if overall coordination by the assessment team takes into account respect for the family. Trust and rapport must precede decision making. One member of the team should assume responsibility for communicating with the family to provide notice, obtain consent, and carry out other aspects of the parental contract. A person who already has established a good relationship with the family and is involved on the local school level is the ideal choice for this responsibility. Overseeing the transition from an Infant Learning Program or initiating the family into the workings of the school and the special education services available should be the duty of one team member. This person could conduct a family need assessment if the child was at the pre-school level. Family strengths, concerns, needs, support systems, and functional style would be assessed, as well as a developmental history of the child. The case manager would ensure that the family is aware of their rights and had given consent, and are functional participants in the entire process from assessment through program implementation.

When a special need is not initially identified until during the school years, more attention to the pre-referral stage should take place. Since more mildly disabled children are usually identified during the school years and referral often occurs because of success or failure in performance of class work and tests, or as a result of behavioral observations, schools should provide consultation assistance to teachers considering referral. A pre-referral process might consist of an assessment of the discrepancy between the student's performance and the teacher's and/or parents' desired expectations. The first step then could be implementing a program to narrow this discrepancy with an integrated approach, rather than separating the student from the regular curriculum.

Planning and Implementation

For the very young child, it is appropriate that the focus of intervention should be the interaction between parent and child. For older children, it is imperative that the parents be active participants and collaborators in all areas of programming. The case manager can ensure that the family has information about local and regional resources to meet their needs and that their knowledge base is expanded in areas that directly or indirectly affect child and family. The inclusion of family promotes an integrated approach to education. Keeping 'professional' information privy only to the professionals undermines parents' capacity to be part of their child's development. Home visits, modeling effective practices, listening, and addressing concerns and questions are all part of a respect for parents of any culture.

The steps outlined by Barnhardt for implementing a project-centered approach to curriculum design and instruction for minority students are also applicable to minority students with a disability or to exceptional students who are a minority among 'normal' students. These steps in curriculum planning and implementation include:

1) Obtaining information from the social environment

2) Formulating and testing hypotheses about forces and processes present in the environment

3) Selecting and describing some part of the situation which is to be changed or altered

4) Planning action to solve the problem

5) Carrying out action, enlisting the help and cooperation of others

6) Verbalizing attitudes, perceptions and tentative learnings from the experience

Thus content, process and experience can be integrated in a collective approach, which can work very well in collaboration with families to address the problem of program planning for the exceptional student.

In conclusion, I would like to state that the philosophy and policy of taking into account cultural differences, including exceptionality, family style and preferences, and fostering community involvement and control, can only be implemented with changes in attitude, education and training at every level of the educational process. To the extent that people are diverse and varied, they have individual characteristics and preferences that must be taken into account, and communities should have an option for local consensus and the implementation of that consensus of opinion within the local schools. Every culture has its own ways. As Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, has pointed out, "If we were to truly understand the French, or Italians, or Japanese, or Egyptians, we must do more than study their geography, history, and literature or learn to speak their language. We must make an effort to see the world from their point of view It's the differences among us, after all, that make life interesting. They define and enrich us. And as long as we try to recognize in our behavior our own hidden cultural assumptions, perhaps we can avoid those awkward situations that keep us from getting to know each other better" (National Geographic, July, 1989).

 King Ugluk


Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
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Last modified August 18, 2006