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A Mixed-Methods Investigation of Disparities in New York City Preschool Program Ecologies, Equitable Referrals, and Inclusive Practice

Start Date May 2021 End Date April 2023


In what ways do EC professionals’ program processes, teaching practices, and individual positionalities influence their decisions to refer and meaningfully include young diverse children in NYC? This study will examine the role of program ecologies in supporting early childhood professionals’ 1) equitable referrals to preschool special education, and 2) their use of high-quality inclusive practices. We characterize the preschool ecology as process, people and positionalities, and practices: 1) What processes are preschool programs using to support equitable referrals of minority children to special education; 2) Who are the people involved in supporting, implementing, and participating in these processes and what are their beliefs and experiences (e.g., positionalities); and 3) What practices are being used to engage diverse families and support their children in early childhood programs in meaningful ways? Project results will be shared through case studies that highlight strengths and areas for improvement. Results will be used to: 1) identify policy levers that will support EC professionals’ equitable referral of young diverse children to preschool special education; 2) generate strategies to engage diverse families in the referral and evaluation process; 3) and enhance early childhood professionals’ use of high-quality inclusive practices (e.g., universal, differentiation, individualization strategies) to support children, at a minimum, of diverse racial and ethical backgrounds, dual language and multilingual learners, as well as those with special education classifications across preschool settings in NYC.


This convergent, mixed-methods study will examine relations between program processes and supports (QUANT/QUAL), early childhood professionals’ referral decisions (QUANT) and inclusive practices (QUANT/QUAL), and families’ experiences (QUAL). Integrated data will be used to generate case studies.
Sampling: We will use purposive sampling to identify 6-8 early childhood programs that have referred children to CPSE within the past year and include children with identified disabilities. 
Participants and Data Collection 
  • Program administrators (n=6-16, 1-2 per site) 
    • Interviews about referral processes and infrastructural supports for inclusion 
    • Documents describing and/or illustrating referral processes and infrastructural supports for inclusion 
  • Professionals (lead teachers, assistant teachers, teachers’ sides, paraprofessionals, related service personnel) (n=24-40, 4-5 per site)
    • Positionality/experience life maps  
    • Interviews about site referral processes and infrastructural supports for inclusion
    • Inclusive Classroom Profile observational rating scores 
  • Families (n=6-16, 1-2 per site) 
    • Focus groups inquiring about family experiences with referrals, evaluations, and inclusion


Sarika S. Gupta, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Straus Center for Young Children and Families (PI)

Gregory Cheatham, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Special Education, School of Education and Human Sciences

Natasha Strassfeld, J.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Equity and Diversity in Special Education in the Department of Special Education

Contributing Institutions

Bank Street College of Education

University of Kansas

University of Texas at Austin


Authored November 2023

Sarika S. Gupta & Xiaohan Zhu

Institutions Bank Street College of Education
Type Policy Brief

This brief was shared with The NYC Department of Education during a briefing held in November 2023. It summarizes initial findings and recommendations from the Disparities in NYC Preschool Program Ecologies, Equitable Referrals, and Inclusive Practice study.

Examining the ecology of preschool inclusion in New York City: A mixed-methods study underway. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood (2024)

Authored February 2024

Sarika Gupta, Gregory Cheatham, Natasha Strassfeld, Xiaohan Zhu, Cristina Medellin, & Mark Nagasawa

Institutions Bank Street College of Education
Type Journal Article Abstract


Our team was awarded a grant by a private organization in partnership with a local research network to examine disparities in the special education referrals and services provided to young children in New York City (NYC). Our convergent mixed-methods study is exploring how the NYC preschool ecology—consisting of process, people and their positionalities, and practices—influences teachers’ decisions to refer and include minoritized young children who are at risk for or have developmental delays or disabilities. In this colloquium we: (1) describe key issues in the US and the NYC contexts that led to this design; (2) present the study methodology, including its theoretical underpinnings; and (3) discuss implications for systems change in NYC.



Gupta, S. S., Cheatham, G. A., Strassfeld, N., Zhu, X., Medellin, C., & Nagasawa, M. (2024). Examining the ecology of preschool inclusion in New York City: A mixed-methods study underway. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 0(0).