University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities

Early Childhood Area of Emphasis

The Early Childhood Area of Emphasis at the Waisman Center encompasses work related to the healthy development and education of young children from birth through age 6. This work includes:

  • Local and statewide professional development, leadership and partnership activities
  • Direct service for children and families through the Waisman Center Clinics and the Waisman Early Childhood Program.
  • Dissemination of resource information through the Waisman Resource Center.
  • Research investigating key aspects of child development and strategies to optimize development.

Three guiding principles throughout these activities are:

  • Child Development: Each child's development unfolds uniquely in the context of relationships and environments.
  • Inclusion: All children deserve to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society for their optimal development and quality of life. In programs providing direct services, this principle is translated into the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), that is, activities are planned from their onset to be inclusive.
  • Focus on Ability: A belief that all children are capable of success and growth.

Challenges and Opportunities in Early Childhood

Cross System Coordination

The overall absence of a national early childhood education and care policy has created a system of early childhood programs that is disjointed and market-driven. Federal legislation for Head Start, early intervention and early childhood special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has demonstrated elements of comprehensive programs, but still supports separate and often uncoordinated approaches to service delivery. This lack of a coordinated approach in service delivery presents a challenge to families who have children with disabilities who need childcare and comprehensive, seamless supports and services. While IDEA legislation has, in effect, created a national educational policy for children with disabilities, the challenge lies in coordinating the early intervention/early education systems for children with special needs with the myriad of early education and care programs for children who are typically developing. Although recommended practice for children with special needs is service delivery in high quality, natural and least restrictive environments (e.g., home, inclusive preschools, family child care, and other community settings), the fragmented and uncoordinated system of early education and care is accountable only voluntarily to quality standards of practice. This status presents obstacles for achieving goals for inclusion.

High Quality Professional Practice

Professional preparedness for those working with children with a variety of developmental, learning and behavioral challenges at the local levels remains a considerable challenge. With current accounts of children with special needs approaching 20%, adequately preparing professionals to work with children having a range of developmental needs is a priority. Higher education opportunities may address some of the need for increased expertise, but the need for professional development for practitioners will be ongoing as the field of early childhood expands its knowledge base of research-validated practices. Even with professional development activities, continued low salaries in the early education/care and early intervention fields remain barriers to attracting and keeping high quality practitioners in community programs.

Access to High Quality Medical Services

Children with developmental challenges need access to high quality medical and health-related services provided by clinical practitioners knowledgeable in the unique needs of this population. Specific Illnesses and home-based medical care are associated with many developmental disabilities, and healthcare providers must have specialized skills to work effectively with young children and their families. Some of these skills include

  1. a clear understanding of typical child development;
  2. early identification of developmental concerns;
  3. an ability to work with children with significant behavioral and emotional challenges;
  4. sensitivity to working with families needing supportive partnerships for caring for their children; and
  5. knowledge of community resources and services that support young children with disabilities and their families

These, in addition to sound knowledge about low-incidence medical conditions, present challenges to families in having coordinated care across systems.

Access to High Quality Early Care and Education

Access to high quality educational programming in inclusive settings also provides a challenge for children with special needs and their families. Both the National Association for Young Children (NAEYC) and the Division on Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children recommend that educational intervention take place in natural contexts, one of which is preschool with typically developing peers. Inclusive early education and care contributes to school readiness in all areas of development, and to later success in school. While most community-based early childhood programs must admit children with special needs, barriers exit to doing so. Teachers may have true or perceived lack of skills in working with children with different abilities, or may lack an understanding of the concept of Universal Design for Learning. Another barrier may arise from lack of administrative support for inclusion. Administrators are crucial for successful inclusion of all children: they influence a program's emotional climate (gate-keeping vs can-do attitude), as well as determine how resources will be used to facilitate inclusion.

Early Childhood Mental Health

The relatively young field of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health has become recognized as a growing area of clinical need. Understanding the causes and effects of psychological distress in early childhood, and translating findings into effective, evidence-based intervention practices are at the heart of facilitating healthy emotional development for those at risk. Research in the area of attachment has shown that young children's dispositions and the contexts in which they are being cared for influence and are influenced by each other. The relationships thus developed between infants/young children and their parents/caregivers are powerful in fostering positive or less-than-positive outcomes in emotional development. Increasingly, recent research is revealing that early relation-based intervention influences the likelihood of emotional well being for children who:

  1. bring challenges in temperament to that relationship;
  2. are at risk because of medical or disability-related needs; or
  3. may be living in stressful environments.

The challenges for the field early childhood, then, is twofold:

  • acquiring increasingly sophisticated evidence-based information to understand early risks factors in emotional development; and
  • applying research findings to advance clinical skills in order to address the increase in and complexity of infant and early childhood mental health needs.

Early Childhood Related Activities at the Waisman Center

The following represent the Waisman Center's activity in the area of early childhood.

Direct Service to Children with Special Needs

Several programs in the Waisman Center provide direct services:

The Waisman Early Childhood Program (WECP) provides preschool programming in an inclusive setting to children with developmental disabilities for children ages 1 through 6. Up to 30% of the children enrolled may have diagnosed special needs. Using a classroom-based, team-teaching approach, individualized educational plans are embedded in a play-based curriculum. Speech/language and occupational therapy is also available, which is coordinated with the classroom program.

The Waisman Center Clinics offer diagnostic, assessment and treatment services to children and families in three areas: Developmental Disabilities (e.g., assistive technology, speech/language disorders, autism spectrum disorder); Neuromotor Disorders (e.g., cerebral palsy); and Genetics.

Waisman Resource Center provides information about resources available to families and professionals in response to their questions about a variety of topics related to children with special needs (e.g., approaches to learning, community programs, legal advice). Families of young children, often contact the Center with questions and concerns about inclusive early childhood experiences.


Pre-Service Training

The Waisman Early Childhood Program serves as a location for undergraduate student teaching and other undergraduate and graduate level field experiences related to early childhood.

Community Training and Technical Assistance

The Waisman Center provides local and statewide professional development activities for early childhood professionals through collaboration with local, regional and state agencies including the Birth to 3 Program, Department of Public Instruction, Head Start, Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health, The Registry, and the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.

Madison Area Professional Development Activities

WECP staff provide these professional development activities in the Madison area.

  • UW-Madison Office of Childcare and Family Resources professional development seminar series
  • Community Coordinated Child Care (4Cs) trainings
  • MMSD's continuing education programs, such as Launching into Literacy and Math
  • Grant-funded projects with Dane County Parent Council (Head Start)
  • Worthy Wage Campaign (advocating for living wages for early care and education providers)
  • Workshops presented by staff of the Waisman Early Childhood Program to area programs on topics such as including children with special needs in portfolio assessment; sensory regulation; and the role of administrators in creating inclusive programs.

Madison Area Consultation and Resources

WECP provides individual consultation to early childhood teachers and families in such topics as: (a) skills needed to work effectively with children with special needs and challenging behaviors, (b) understanding specific developmental disabilities and implications for educational programming, (c) planning inclusive classroom environments and routines, and (d) developing partnerships between families and early care and education programs

Early Childhood Statewide Professional Development
The Waisman Center contributes to the development of a cross-system professional development system in Wisconsin by providing leadership to these initiatives.

  • The Waisman Center UCEDD is a partner with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction within the Race to the Top/Early Learning Challenge Professional Development Initiative. Through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant and the WI Professional Development Initiative, the primary purpose is  to strengthen cross sector alignment around professional development initiatives across multiple systems within Department of Health Services, Department of Public Instruction, Department of Children and Families and the private sector early childhood community, to more efficiently and effectively serve the needs of all young children, including children with disabilities. Products such as the development of “Core Competencies” are currently in progress. The Waisman Center is convening many cross sector meetings, and also sponsoring multiple large events, such as Intersecting Interests.
  • The  Waisman Center Wisconsin Birth to 3 Personnel Development Project (WPDP) partners with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Birth to 3 Program to provide training, technical assistance and professional development opportunities for personnel within the Birth to 3 early intervention system.  The purpose is to design and deliver trainings, on-site technical assistance, and products defining evidence-based intervention practices for babies and toddlers with disabilities or delays in development, under the age of three. Funding comes through IDEA, Part C and the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Current focus is on full implementation of the Primary Coach Approach to Teaming within Natural Environments, with national support from ECTAC (Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center). 
  • Early childhood higher education provides leadership opportunities to support higher education faculty in collaborative activities
  • Early Hearing Detection and Intervention with Wisconsin Sound Beginnings

Partnerships include the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Birth to 3 Program and Children/Youth with Special Health Care Needs.
Early Childhood Mental Health
Two Waisman initiatives address the mental health needs of very young children:

  • The Waisman Center  collaborates with, the UW-Madison Department of Psychiatry and the Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health,  on the Capstone Certificate Program  in  Infant, Early Childhood and Family Mental Health, University of Wisconsin. This Capstone Certificate Program is an intensive, interdisciplinary, one or two year academic program for practicing professionals from the disciplines of mental health, health, social services and education who work with families in the prenatal and postpartum periods and with children ages birth through five years.
  • Brain to 5 Lecture Series is presented yearly by noted Waisman faculty to a range of audiences in the Fox River area. The overriding theme of the presentations is to provide research evidence about early brain development and the implications of adverse early life situations on mental health and other developmental outcomes for very young children.


National Professional Development Activities

Leadership activities, participation in and presentations at national early childhood organization meetings, such as

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • Council for Exceptional Children, Division on Early Childhood
  • National Consortium of Campus Childcare Programs (NCCC).
  • National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (NECTAC) and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs

Advisory Group Membership

UCEDD staff and faculty serve on the following committees relevant to early childhood.

Madison Area:

  • Campus Childcare Coalition
  • Madison Metropolitan School District 4K Planning Committee work groups.
  • City of Madison's Office of Community Services, Early Care and Education Board.
  • Madison Area Association of Accredited Early Childhood Education and Care Programs.


  • Wisconsin Early Childhood Collaborating Partners Action Team
  • Wisconsin Birth to 3 Inter-Agency Coordinating Council
  • Initial System Redesign Taskforce of the Governor's State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care
  • WI Department of Public Instruction PI-34 License Renewal Support Centers and State Personnel Development Grant Advisory Committee
  • WI Early Childhood Association T.E.A.C.H. and R.E.W.A.R.D. Steering Committee
  • Social Emotional Foundations in Early Learning State Leadership Team

Research and Evaluation

Waisman faculty from a variety of UW-Madison departments conduct research on many topics relevant to the field of early childhood development and young children with special needs. A sampling of these investigators and their projects follows:

  • Jan Edwards (Communicative Disorders) is looking at how children use words to help them learn letter sounds.
  • Susan Ellis Weismer (Communicative Disorders) are examining linguistic processing abilities of toddlers with late onset of language development compared to those with typical patterns of language acquisition.
  • Maribeth Gettinger (School Psychology) is working with early childhood professionals to increase their skills in preparing preschoolers from low-income, predominantly minority families to enter kindergarten with the necessary language, cognitive, and early reading skills to prevent reading difficulties and ensure success in school.
  • Hill Goldsmith (Psychology) is studying young twins at risk for developing a range of emotional problems, and possible risk-reducing factors related to resiliency and adaptability.
  • Katie Husted (Communicative Disorders) is working on developing and validating interventions integrating augmentative communication strategies with natural speech in children with cerebral palsy.
  • Ruth Litovsky (Communicative Disorders) is investigating the ability of young children to discriminate speech sounds in noisy environments.
  • Julie Poehlmann (Human Development and Family Studies) focuses on the role of family relationships in the development of resilience in high-risk infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, specifically those who are born preterm or whose parents are incarcerated.
  • Seth Pollak (Psychology) is investigating the effects of child maltreatment, including severe neglect, on emotion processes in young children at risk for psychopathology.
  • Jenny Saffran (Psychology) is exploring aspects of the sound structure of language which may assist infants in discovering words.

Last modified Sunday 20th of June 2021 10:41:29 PM