The Right Preschool for Your Special Needs Child

Provided by Scholastic.com, Written by Ellen H. Parlapiano 

Whether your child’s disabilities are mild or severe, you’ll want a preschool that meets his or her unique needs. Here’s how to find it. No matter the nature of your child’s special needs, he or she deserves a preschool that can offer loving care and learning. If your child has special needs, you probably have many questions about choosing a preschool. What programs are you eligible for? How do you assess which are right for your child? Here are the answers you need to help simplify your search.

What Are We Entitled To?

By law, any 3 to 5 year-old with documented disabilities is entitled to free preschool special education and needed related services, like speech therapy. To determine eligibility, your preschooler must be evaluated by your school district. The free testing will verify whether your child has a “handicapping condition,” which can include vision or hearing impairments, developmental disorders such as Down syndrome, or milder speech or motor delays.

Where Should I Start?

Check with disability organizations, such as The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities to learn about special education resources in your area. If your child received early intervention services as an infant or toddler, ask your services coordinator to recommend preschool programs.

  • Contact your school district’s Department of Special Education and arrange to have your preschooler evaluated. A team of experts — usually including a psychologist, social worker, and teacher — will conduct developmental testing, and gather medical history and observations from you and professionals who’ve worked with your child. If special education is deemed necessary, the school district will recommend a particular program.
  • Consult on your child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which lists the services she requires, along with short- and long-term goals. The committee on preschool education will write the plan, with your input. Your child has the right to be educated in the “least restrictive” environment, meaning that, if possible, she should have opportunities to interact with children who are not disabled.

What Are My Options?

“Programs vary according to school district, and may be full- or half-day”, says Cheryl L. Beverly, associate professor in early childhood special education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Here are some choices you might be given:

  • A self-contained special education preschool. Your child will be in a class comprised solely of special-needs kids. He’ll receive direct instruction from teachers trained in developmental delays. But there will be little opportunity for him to interact with typically developing peers, who can model skills and behavior. These programs are usually best for children requiring extensive structure and support.
  • A special education preschool that includes children without disabilities. Disabled children and low-income preschoolers from the Head Start program are often combined in one class. Your child gets individualized attention, plus the chance to interact with non-disabled peers. “Research shows that inclusive settings benefit special-needs kids by providing positive role models and improving socialization and behavior,” says Samuel L. Odom, Ph.D., Otting Professor of Special Education at Indiana University in Bloomington.
  • A traditional community preschool, with support services. Your child attends a mainstream community preschool, and your school district provides a special education teacher to act as consultant there. That teacher meets with the preschool staff regularly to modify the program to your child’s needs. Sometimes the district also provides free speech, occupational, or physical therapy at the preschool. “When appropriate support is in place, this is one of the best choices for kids who don’t have severe disabilities,” says Dr. Beverly. However, you’ll be responsible for at least some of the cost. School districts don’t usually pay for private programs, though they may cover a portion of the tuition.
  • Combination plans. If your school district offers you a half-day special education class, consider supplementing it with another half-day program in a traditional community preschool. Your child benefits from tuition-free, individualized instruction in the special ed program, and socialization with non-disabled kids in the community program.

What’s right for your child?

“It depends on your priorities and the severity of the disability,” says Dr. Beverly. “If your primary goal is socialization, a community preschool may be fine. But if you want your child to master functional skills, the better choice might be a special education preschool that works on those throughout the day.” When weighing your options, remember to:

  • Visit programs. Talk to the director and teachers and explain your child’s challenges. Make sure the staff is willing to accommodate your preschooler. “The setting should be warm and nurturing, and you should have the feeling of unconditional acceptance,” says Barbara Lowenthal, Ed.D., co-author of Preschool Children with Special Needs. If you’re looking at traditional community preschools, make sure the staff has experience and training in including disabled children in the classroom.
  • Ask about the curriculum. It should be play-based, and developmentally appropriate.
  • Discuss how IEP goals will be met. Will they be part of the class’s daily routine, or will your child be pulled out for support services? “IEP goals should be seamlessly integrated into the classroom,” says Dr. Beverly. For example, an occupational therapist should be able to work with your child on self-help skills while she’s eating snack or getting ready for recess.
  • Consider class size and number of teachers. Small groups are best — ideally no more than 12 children, with at least two teachers. Also talk to the school district about an aide if your child needs one.
  • Foster partnerships. “Communication is key,” stresses Lindsay Miller, Assistant Department Director of BARC Early Intervention Services in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The preschool staff should be open to your feedback, and willing to work closely with your child’s therapists.
  • Advocate for your child. If you feel the recommended program is wrong for your preschooler, negotiate before accepting what the school district offers. Ask professionals who have worked with your child to write letters on your behalf. Get an independent evaluation done, at your own expense, to support your position. Then meet with the committee on special education to calmly discuss other options and, you hope, reach a compromise. “You know your child best,” says Dr. Odom. “Follow your gut to find the program that best suits your preschooler’s specific needs.”

Find Support

Are you looking for someone to talk to about your child’s special education needs?

Visit the My Child Without Limits support community and talk to fellow parents and caregivers about what worked for their children.

Resource Locator:

Looking for more information about how to find special education services for your preschooler?

Use the My Child Without Limits Resource Locator to find your state’s early intervention and special education services.

More Resources:

National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center
www.nectac.org

US Department of Education
www.ed.gov