Texas Needs to Better Support Young Children with Disabilities

The first five years of life provide a foundation for a child’s future success both inside and outside a classroom. During this pivotal period, children begin to master new skills such as learning to grasp things, speaking their first words, and learning to share. Many of these skills first develop in the home, with close family and loved ones to help guide those first steps. In addition, when a child enrolls in an early learning program, whether it be a Head Start program, community-based child care provider, or a public school pre-k classroom, their world opens, and for maybe the first time, they interact with and learn from people beyond their family members. These early experiences are particularly important for children with disabilities. Educating young children with disabilities in the same classroom as their non-disabled peers helps ensure that a child with a disability or developmental delay isn’t shunted off into a corner and missing out on everyday activities. For some Texas families, seeing their child with autism or Down syndrome learning and playing in class alongside their typically developing peers is far from reality, despite the benefits inclusive learning can provide. 

Opportunities to interact with typically developing children may be beneficial for certain groups of children with disabilities. For example, one study with young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder found that cognitive outcomes were better for students in preschool classrooms with their neurotypical peers than when separated in a mixed disability setting. Children with disabilities and developmental delays in inclusive settings are also more likely to practice newly acquired skills, such as speech and language. When a child receiving speech and language interventions is able to participate in circle time with more verbal children, for example, it encourages them to practice those skills. Conversely, participating in circle time with exclusively nonverbal children may discourage a child from developing those skills.

Learning and playing alongside children with disabilities can also be beneficial for typically developing children. For children without disabilities, being educated with those who have disabilities and developmental delays helps them develop interpersonal communication skills, such as understanding nonverbal cues, and intrapersonal skills, such as learning how to identify and process big emotions. Research has also shown that children without disabilities who learn alongside children with disabilities develop a strong sense of self-security, self-assertion, and self-acceptance. By supporting policies that enable inclusion in early childhood programs, all Texas children will benefit and have stronger foundations to build off of during their educational careers.

Texas has taken important steps for young children with disabilities
Acknowledging the benefits for all children, Texas has taken steps to provide more support for our youngest children with disabilities and developmental delays.

  • Early Childhood Intervention (ECI): ECI services provide effective life-changing therapies and services for infants and toddlers under age three with autism, cerebral palsy, speech delays, and other disabilities and developmental delays. This often helps some children progress to the point where they no longer need interventions and can just enjoy being a child. During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers invested an additional $63 million to support ECI. This investment will increase the amount the state provides per enrolled child from $434 to $448. This funding increase is an important first step that lays the foundation for continued investment in a program that ensures young children with developmental delays and disabilities get the support and therapies they need.

  • The Preschool Development Grant: The Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B-5) is a three-year federal grant that Texas received to support our state’s early childhood services for children from birth through age five. Those funds have been divided and invested into several of the state’s early childhood systems, including funds to strengthen and build the child care and ECI workforce and to improve the quality of child care and pre-k environments. For example, the state distributed some funds to ECI programs to provide training to child care educators to create more inclusive early learning settings that serve kids of all abilities. PDG funds have also been invested in the development of the Texas Early Learning Needs Assessment and the Texas Early Learning Strategic Plan 2024-2026 to ensure continued efforts to improve outcomes for young children and their families.

  • Child Care Minimum Standards: Parents deserve the opportunity to drop off their infants, toddlers, and young children at child care centers across the state with the assurance that their teachers and staff are equipped to safely care for their children. One way to ensure teachers and directors know how to provide for the health, safety, and well-being of children in their care is by following the state-mandated Minimum Standards for Child Care. These standards outline the basic requirements for providers to follow to mitigate the risk for children who attend care outside of the home. During the most recent review of these standards, the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) added policies to make sure centers are providing care that is consistent with and considers a child’s special care needs. For example, if a child needs to utilize any adaptive equipment and it is available, then the teacher must use it. Similarly, new standards require that children with disabilities are included in activities with their peers without disabilities. These policies are beneficial because they clearly lay out for early education providers that they must include all children in their daily classroom activities while considering what adaptations are needed to ensure all children can participate fully.

Despite these important steps, there is more Texas should do to support these young children and their families.


While the state has taken good first steps to better support young children with disabilities, there are still several key challenges this population faces. These issues have been voiced by parents, teachers, and advocates from across the state, who are all seeing similar gaps in the systems that were built to provide the most support. These issues include:

  • Many parents in Texas and across the country struggle to find a full-day child care provider who will accept a child with a disability and educate them alongside their nondisabled peers. A recent survey conducted for the Texas PDG Early Learning Needs Assessment received several responses from parents about the need for inclusive care for their child with a disability. This challenge can cause children with disabilities to either enroll in early learning programs later than their nondisabled peers or miss out on early learning opportunities altogether. Texas should create more inclusive early learning options for young children with disabilities. Texas can accomplish this through continued training and additional resources for early education providers to plan and create inclusive classrooms. Texas can also accomplish this goal by adding children who have an individual education plan (IEP) to the eligibility criteria for full-day, public pre-k. An example of similar public pre-k eligibility can be found in the state of Kentucky’s Public Preschool Program.

  • When a child receiving ECI services turns three, they age out of the program and may be eligible to receive interventions and services at their local public school. This transition from ECI to Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) can be challenging for parents to navigate, which can cause the child to have gaps in services or be dropped altogether. Texas should evaluate how the state and/or ECI programs share information with parents whose child is transitioning from ECI services to ECSE. All parents should be able to easily access information about the transition to ECSE and the services that ECSE provides. The state should implement a recommendation in the November Federal Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs, which urges states to build strong partnerships between the state’s systems and programs that provide services to young children. Ensuring there is collaboration between HHSC, ECI providers, and the local education agencies will help to make the transition from ECI to ECSE as seamless as possible.  

  • Some school districts are struggling to execute special education evaluations in a timely manner, including evaluations for children ages three to five with disabilities who may qualify for ECSE services. Texas should explore strategies that reduce the burden on under-resourced schools that have found themselves inundated with requests for evaluations. 

  • Children under the age of three who have been diagnosed with a developmental delay – defined as being delayed at least 25 percent in one or more areas of development –  are eligible to receive ECI services. However, three- and four-year-olds with that diagnosis alone are not currently eligible for Texas’s ECSE program. Developmental delays can range in severity and scope and can affect many areas of learning – from motor and cognitive skills to speech, communication, social-emotional, and behavioral development. Early interventions, services, and supportive early childhood learning environments can help ensure a child is healthy and succeeds academically. Without developmental delay as an eligibility category for ECSE, disruption in services can occur during the transition between ECI services to ECSE if a child could benefit from some interventions but the child does not fit another specific disability (such as autism or hearing impairment). Texas is one of only three states that does not currently include developmental delay as an eligible category. The Texas Education Agency should add developmental delay to the list of eligible disabilities for ECSE services. 

Despite the essential work being done in Texas by teachers, providers, legislators, agency staff, and more to support young children with disabilities and delays, Texas has much more work to do to help these children thrive. By building on the recent positive steps and addressing the remaining gaps, Texas can ensure that young children have opportunities in the first five years of life that pave the way for success in school, relationships, and overall health for the rest of their lives.