Preschool and your special needs child
Choosing a preschool – and transitioning your child – can be even more stressful for parents of a special needs child. There are additional things to consider: What sort of program can meet the particular needs of your child? How do you figure out what special services your kid might be entitled to – and which preschools are capable of providing them? And how can you advocate on your child’s behalf once he or she is in school?
Evaluation and entitlement: Children ages 3 to 5 with documented disabilities are legally entitled to preschool special education and any related services they need – like speech or physical therapy – at no cost to the family. You can have your child evaluated for free by your school district – usually by a psychologist, social worker and/or teacher – to determine whether he or she has a vision or hearing impairment, a developmental delay, or speech or motor delays. If your child does need extra help, you can consult on his or her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which lays out your child’s required services and goals. Your child is entitled to be educated in the “least restrictive” environment available, in order to allow him or her to interact with children who do not have disabilities. For more information on available services and appropriate programs, you can also consult with organizations like the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities or early-intervention service coordinators who may already be helping your child.
Type of preschool programs: Depending on what’s available near you, you may be given several different options:
- A self-contained special education preschool, in which your child is in a class made up exclusively of peers with special needs. Because teachers may be trained specifically in providing instruction for children with developmental delays, this may be a particularly good choice for kids who need a fair amount of extra support and services.
- If you’d like your child to have a chance to interact with and learn from children without developmental delays while still getting the special services he or she needs, however, you may want to consider a preschool for children with special needs that also includes typically developing children in the classroom. (Parents of typically developing children may find this sort of program appealing due to a favorable student-teacher ratio.)
- Another good option for children who do not have severe disabilities is a mainstream community preschool with support services for students with special needs. Your child is in the classroom with typically developing peers but will receive additional therapy and program modifications as needed. Note: In this last option, you’ll likely pay for tuition, though the school district may pick up part of the fee or cover the cost of the special services.
Making the best decision: Consider what would be best for your child and your overarching goals for preschool: socialization? Mastery of basic skills? Talk to the preschool administration and teachers to make sure they are willing and able to meet your child’s needs. Ask about applicable experience and training, the program, and how the school intends to accommodate your child’s IEP. And, as any parent would, look for a preschool program that is warm and play-based and developmentally appropriate for your child and has a small class size and a good student-teacher ratio.
Keep in touch: Monitor your child’s preschool progress. Talk to your child’s teachers and therapists regularly. And make sure you continue to advocate for your child to make sure you get the help and services that are needed. After all, no one knows your child better than you.