Selecting a preschool for your child is a daunting task no matter the situation, but if she has a special need, finding the right school becomes vital to her overall development.
In addition to searching for a program that is high quality and provides a loving, rich environment, you will need to find a preschool program that has experience working with students who have special needs.
Types of Programs Available
There are different kinds of programs available that can provide the right environment for children with special needs, each with its own pros and cons.
Public Special Education Preschool
Every child aged three to five with a special need is entitled to a free special education preschool and support services.
Pros: These preschools are staffed by credentialed early childhood special education teachers who are trained to work with a variety of ability levels and needs. The adult to child ratio and group size is often lower than other school choices. Children can receive most, if not all, of their supportive services within their school day, such as speech, occupational, and physical therapies. There is no cost associated with the services.
Cons: Public special education preschools usually only operate for half of the day and only on school days. They are often closed for all breaks and holidays and part of the summer. This can be difficult for parents looking for full-time care. Also, because all children in these classrooms have a special need, students are not part of an inclusive environment.
Community-Based Private Preschool Programs
Community-based preschool programs range in philosophy, quality, and cost. You can find a quality community program with staff that has worked with children with special needs.
Pros: Your child will be part of an inclusive classroom where she will learn side-by-side with children who have special needs and those who are experiencing typical development. The programs often have more flexible hours, with full day care, to accommodate working parents. Private preschool programs also offer a variety of philosophies so you can select a school that fits your family’s values. Many quality programs have gifted teachers that meet each child’s needs and create learning experiences that are meaningful for all children.
Cons: Tuition at private preschools can be expensive, and the education requirements for teachers at a community-based preschool program can be less rigorous than at public schools. Support services are not included in the program and may need to be arranged for your child. Also, some teachers may not have the necessary skills to include your child in all of the classroom activities.
Combination of the Two
If you are like many families and need a full-day school program, the public special education program may not seem like an option; but if you can find the right community-based program, your child can attend both schools part time to complete a full day.
Pros: She will get specialized education and related services as well as interaction and socialization throughout the day with children who are developing typically.
Cons: If your community preschool does not provide transportation, you may need to take your child from one school to the other in the middle of the day.
What to Look for When Selecting a Program
When you are selecting a preschool program for your child, you need to first look at what your main goal is for your child. Are you looking for mastery of pre-academic and academic skills as well as daily life functional skills, or are you looking for your child to socialize with peers who are the same age? Knowing what you are looking for will help you in the selection process.
Tour the Schools
It is important to tour the school before accepting placement or selecting a community-based program. You want to look at the school to see if the environment will meet your child’s individual needs.
Place yourself in your child’s shoes: would she be able to access and utilize the entire classroom and all activities? Look for how the room can be modified to meet her needs, and give suggestions.
As you prepare for your tour, write down a few questions to ask the teachers and administrators.
Here are five questions you may want to include:
1. What is your curriculum’s focus?
This goes back to knowing what you want as a parent and what your child needs to be successful. An ideal curriculum will be one that you can envision your child participating in and that you think will be developmentally appropriate.
2. How are IEP goals met?
In a special education preschool program, every child will have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Understanding how teachers will support the goals laid out for your child, and how they will keep track of her successes and challenges, is key to setting your child up for success.
Private schools are not obligated to provide an IEP. If you are touring a community-based school, ask how teachers will adapt their program for your child’s specific needs, and how they will keep track of her growth.
3. What is the adult to child ratio and total group size?
The smaller the group size and ratio, the more individualized attention each child is given, but this is not the only factor is determining how much support each child receives.
4. How do you foster a connection with students’ families?
Understanding how you can be involved during school day and overall education for your child is important, and knowing the expectations schools have for parents will help avoid problems down the road.
5. Have you ever worked with a child with the same challenges as my child?
Be specific about concerns you have about your child’s development. If she uses adaptive equipment, ask about the teacher’s experience with those tools.
Observe the Classroom
Spend time in the classroom observing how the teachers and children interact. Watch for individualized care and attention, the way children interact with one another, and the pace of the classroom. Think about it from your child’s perspective; would she be happy and thrive in this environment?
Advocate for Your Child
If you are unable to send your child to a private preschool and feel that the recommended special education placement would not be right for her, ask for other options from the district. Explain why you don’t think the placement would be a good fit, and offer suggestions on how the environment could be adjusted to work for your child.
Once you find the right placement for your child, continue to think of the best ways to support her. As your child grows, her academic and daily function needs will evolve, and you may need to guide the preschool in addressing them.
Depending on your child’s strengths and developmental levels, each year at her IEP meeting you may need to evaluate if her current placement is still the best choice for her. Just because you are in a program does not mean you need to stay there if you determine that it is no longer the best fit for your child’s changing developmental needs.
Want to learn more about the different preschool options in your area? Follow this link to use the Noodle preschool search to find great preschools nearby.