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Early-years Education for Children with Special Needs: Objectives and Tasks

Background and aims

Social developments and a changing legal framework have altered the target population for early-years education for children with special needs. Today, provision for special needs education in younger years is no longer primarily targeted at children who display a manifest disability due to an early impairment, but is also available to children whose development is at risk.

Special needs education is now an important factor in the provision of professional support for young children with disabilities and those who face development risks in their family and care environment. However, there are few studies about the impact the changes have had in practice. The aim of the proposed study is to obtain systematic, differentiated insights into the realities of professional life and the work actually done by early-year educators.


The research is structured around key tasks and the activities that serve them, which are tested for current relevance. Drawing on the classification in Weiss et al. (2004), the following key tasks are examined:

  1. Preventive measures and early detection
  2. Diagnostics
  3. Development support for children
  4. Advice and assistance for carers/family
  5. Coordination of support systems

The study examines which activities are demonstrably taking place in practice, what weight is attributed to them, and how early-years special needs educators personally experience their skills within these fields. The empirical identification of activities should serve to attribute these to the key tasks defined in the theory, and features flagged up by experience sampling will be discussed.


The experience sampling method (ESM) was used to obtain snapshot data about current activities and how the subjects experience their own skills in everyday professional work. The quantitative survey was conducted using texting (smartphones) with 117 female early childhood special educators and 4 male early childhood special educators in 16 Swiss cantons in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. On five work days, the participants were sent eight texts per day to capture ‘snapshots’ of their current activities and experience. With 121 persons, this results theoretically in 4,840 snapshots, of which a total of 3,799 snapshots were included in the analyses. In addition, at the end of the ESM week, the participants filled in a questionnaire on personal data, educational background and various aspects of their current work situation.


  1. The early childhood special education professionals were currently engaging in the task area ‘promotion of the child’ at 52% of the snapshot time points and in ‘advising and supporting parents and other key persons’ at 14% of the time points. They were engaging in interdisciplinary cooperation at another 14% of the time points and in ‘diagnostics’ at 12% of the time points. They were engaging in ‘early detection and prevention’ at 2% of the time points. At the remaining 6% of the time points the professionals were engaging in team tasks or tasks that could not be assigned to any of the task areas.
  2. The educators’ reported subjective importance of and estimated expenditure of time for the task areas tended to differ from their actual time expenditure. This was especially the case for the task areas ‘promotion of the child’ and ‘advising and supporting parents and other key persons’: Time expended for ‘promotion of the child’ was clearly higher than subjective importance and estimated time expenditure would indicate, but in the task area ‘advising and supporting parents and other key persons’, the opposite was the case:  The educators’ reported subjective importance of and estimated time expenditure for that task area was clearly higher than the time that they actually spent on it.
  3. The participants reported that they were relatively stressed at just one third of all snapshot time points. Found to be potentially stressful were mainly conversations with parents within the task area ‘advising and supporting parents and other key persons’ and conversations with other professionals (in the task area ‘interdisciplinary cooperation and coordination of help systems’).



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