The Portage Project: Empowering Children with Disabilities through Early Intervention

Posted in Development and Learning Early Childhood  |  Tagged ,

by Ella Kulicki (GU’25)

Early intervention is crucial for providing children with disabilities the support they need to thrive. The Portage Project emerged as a pioneering approach focusing on early childhood intervention, with a track record of success in various regions around the world. This blog post delves into the history, major characteristics, research on effectiveness, and the applicability of the Portage Project to children with disabilities.

The Portage Project was first developed in 1969 in the rural town of Portage, Wisconsin to support children with disabilities in the area (Shearer, 1976).  The Project was led by David Shearer and funded by the Education of the Handicapped Act P.L. 91-230, Title VI, Part C to support children with disabilities from age birth to age six (CESA 5, 2023). Its principles and practices have been embraced by educators, parents, and early intervention professionals, making it a well-established and influential framework for supporting children with disabilities.

The Portage Project is characterized by its family-centered and home-based approach. There is no classroom program and instead, the program is implemented by educators and families in the home (Shearer, 1976). It emphasizes the collaboration between parents and trained educators to support the child’s development in the natural environment of their home. This approach places emphasis on the importance of relationships in a child’s life, particularly with other family members. Strong relationships provide the base upon which the Portage Project can help children succeed (CESA 5, 2023). Families guide this work and are the primary decision makers. Additionally, this method recognizing the importance of a child’s environment takes an ecological approach in assisting students and families. Children exist within a certain context which is crucial to their development and thus, is very important to consider when educating children (CESA 5, 2023). The program focuses on promoting the child’s overall growth across various domains, including cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. It employs individualized teaching strategies tailored to each child’s unique strengths, needs, and interests, fostering a personalized and inclusive learning experience. The program primarily focuses on the child’s strengths and utilizes them to support the child (CESA 5, 2023).

Numerous studies have examined the effectiveness of the Portage Project in supporting children with disabilities. A study done by Peniston (1975) reported that a Portage Home Visit (PHV) program improved the cognitive abilities of multiply disabled children after 36 consecutive weekly sessions. Al-Wedyan & Al-Oweidi (2021) also found statistically significant differences in the performance of children with disabilities before and after the implementation of a Portage Intervention program. This study also measured the parenting abilities of mothers of children with disabilities and found that the intervention improved the mothers’ competencies as well. The study concluded that the program had large benefits to the children’s development, particularly adaptive behaviors (Al-Wedyan & Al-Oweidi, 2021). The early intervention provided by the Portage Project has shown to have a long-lasting impact, setting a strong foundation for future learning and academic success. Moreover, past literature has demonstrated benefits of parental involvement and empowerment, as parents become active partners in their child’s development journey.

The Portage Project is highly applicable to children with disabilities, including those with developmental delays, sensory impairments, and cognitive challenges as it was designed specifically for this population. Its individualized approach ensures that interventions are tailored to meet each child’s specific needs. Its routine and structure are also largely beneficial to children with disabilities (Higgs & McElwee, 2022). By leveraging the child’s strengths and interests, the program fosters engagement, motivation, and active participation in learning activities. Moreover, the emphasis on family involvement ensures that parents are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and resources to continue supporting their child’s progress beyond the program’s duration.

The Portage Project recognizes the importance of early intervention and the critical role it plays in maximizing a child’s potential. The program aims to mitigate the impact of disabilities, provide essential support, and empower children to overcome challenges during the early years.. The success and widespread adoption of the Portage Project globally highlight its effectiveness in improving outcomes for children with disabilities.

The Portage Project has been determined to be an effective early intervention approach for children with disabilities. Its family-centered, home-based model promotes individualized learning and empowers parents to actively participate in their child’s development. Extensive research supports its effectiveness in various regions around the world, demonstrating positive outcomes in cognitive, social, and adaptive domains. By embracing the principles of the Portage Project, educators, parents, and professionals can make a lasting impact on the lives of children with disabilities, setting them on a path to success and inclusion from an early age.

            In my opinion, the Portage Project has very strong values that are crucial for the development and success of young children. I think this approach is very helpful for students with disabilities and I appreciate its emphasis on a family- and environment-based  education. A child develops within many different environments with different people that impact them. Nurturing this environment and the child’s relationships with the people in it impact significantly their development. I also feel that the weekly visits with family help them to better understand their child and give them the tools they need to continue supporting their child at home.


Al-Wedyan, A. B. A., & Al-Oweidi, A. M. (2021, December 23). The Effectiveness of Portage Early Intervention Program in Improving Adaptive Behavior Skills with Intellectual Disorders.

Braaten, E. B. (2018, February 15). The sage encyclopedia of intellectual and developmental disorders. Sage Knowledge.

CESA 5. (2023). The Portage Project.

Higgs, P., & McElwee, J. (2022, February 8). ‘In the circumstances I think we’ve all managed really well’ an exploration of the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions on a Child Development Advisor (Portage) Service.

Peniston, E. (1975). An Evaluation of the Portage Project: A Comparison of a Home-Visit Program for Multiply Handicapped.

Shearer, D. (1976). Portage Project Readings. Cooperative Educational Service Agency 12.