Early Childhood Education

Portage Project


The Portage Project was developed in Portage, Wisconsin, in 1969 as a model early intervention program originally funded through the Handicap Children and Early Educational Program (HCEEP). Still a mainstay program in South Central Wisconsin, the Portage Project has grown and now offers training and replication services for other sites as well as a curriculum guide. The approach itself has also been widely disseminated as a model throughout the United States and many other countries. Since 1986 the International Portage Association has hosted conferences every two years.

Designed to deliver home-based services to children age birth to six years in rural areas with developmental delays and disabilities, the project promotes children’s physical, self-help, social, academic, and language development. Based on the rationale that a parent is a child’s first teacher, the Portage approach specifically teaches parents how to encourage their child’s development through weekly home visits. These home visits, with their heavy parental involvement and the use of a behavioral method of instruction called precision teaching form the core of the Portage model of early intervention.

The home-based design is based on the beliefs that the home is the least restrictive environment for young children, a place that represents a wide range of natural behaviors, and the most practical arrangement for a rural model. In addition, the program’s focus on training parents to support their child’s development allows families to have a voice in what their children are learning with the understanding that helping parents to be advocates for their children will have long-term effects for their child’s education.

Program services are delivered through weekly home visits, typically an hour and a half in length, by a teaching professional known as the home teacher. The home teacher has been trained to design individual curriculum for the child based on observations and parent input. Using the precision teaching model of behavioral analysis, the professional precisely defines targeted behaviors, breaks them down into smaller component tasks, and implements simple, highly repetitive teaching methods supported by continual assessment. To this end, each visit begins with the home teacher evaluating the child’s progress on particular tasks from the week before, then developing new goals for the coming week, and teaching the parent how to engage in the prescribed activity with their child. Three behaviors are targeted for development each week, with the goal of achieving a pattern of success that allows both child and parent to feel the benefits of continual progress. Assessment is an important part of the cycle and is based on formal, informal, curriculum-based, and ongoing observations.

In 1972, The Portage Project developed The Portage Guide to Early Education (revised 1976, 1996, 2003), a set of materials including a behavioral checklist and correlating activity suggestions meant to support home teachers in designing individualized curriculum. This guide is only a supplement to the program but is often confused as being the model in its entirety. During the 1970s, a wide body of research was completed documenting significant developmental gains for children who were provided Portage services. However, more recent reviews suggest that many of the studies were performed before today’s more rigorous standards of evaluation were in place, and additional scientifically based research is needed to empirically demonstrate clear evidence of the program’s effectiveness.

Further Readings: Brae, Alan W. (2001). The portage guide to early intervention: An evaluation of published evidence. School Psychology International 22(3), 243-252. Shearer, David E. and Darlene L. Shearer (2005). The portage model: An international home approach to early intervention of young children and their families. In Jaipaul Roopnarine and James E. Johnson, eds., Approaches to early childhood education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 83-104. The Portage Project. Available online at http://www. portageproject.org/.

Lindsay Barton