Making choices about the preschool years for your child with special needs can be stressful and confusing. With so much emphasis on the early years, it is not uncommon for parents to hear every single tick of the clock. It feels like there is no time for mistakes. One decision can seem like it will have repercussions for a lifetime. The fact is, you cannot predict the future outcome of your choices today, but you can make educated decisions based on what you know now.
Home preschool, typical preschool, specialized programs – each have their advantages and each their potential disadvantages depending on your child’s particular strengths and needs. The attraction of typical preschool is the access to typical peer role models. Its main limitation is typically a lack of specialized training. The attraction of a specialized program is the staff’s specialized training and access to support services. Its limitation is a lack of typical peer role models. Another drawback is, unless you get district funding, specialized programs can be costly. Home-schooling is a third alternative. It is attractive because you can tailor your own program, with hand-picked specialists. However, a disadvantage is the amount of time, effort, and coordination this takes.
Because of the relative advantages and disadvantages of each preschool option, many parents choose to take the best of all worlds and create a combo approach. If the schools are amenable, parents may send their child to a typical and a specialized preschool on different days of the week. Parents may send their child to typical preschool part time and round out the week with therapies. Another family may opt for specialized preschool part time in addition to play groups for socialization with typical peers. Federally funded preschool program, like Head Start, often provide children with special needs specialized services while integrating them with low-income typical preschoolers who are also served by these programs. You can be as creative as you like so that your child’s needs and your needs are being met.
If your plan for your child includes any amount of typical preschool, there are some specific features you may want to look for. Here’s what to prioritize:
- Strong communication with parents
- A low child-teacher ratio
- A philosophy that emphasizes working at each child's developmental pace
- Staff that will teach your child to do for himself, rather than doing for him
- Staff that is willing to review assessments, treatment plans, or IEPs
- Staff that is open to meeting with you about your child’s needs before (or very early in) the start of the school year
- Staff that is comfortable working with outside service providers, if necessary
- Staff that is straight forward with you (if they ever have concerns, you’d want them to be honest with you)
- A school that will help with transition planning when it comes time to move on
- A school that can accommodate your child’s diapering or toileting needs, if necessary
If a school demonstrates most, but not all, of these features you may consider proposing some creative approaches to see if it is a good fit:
- Inquire about a trial period or a summer program to try it out and to help with the transition
- Ask if there are supports you can provide such as attending with your child or hiring an assistant
- Ask about sending your child limited hours
- Offer to arrange for a specialist to do an in-service for the staff
If a school is not willing to consider these suggestions or if your child is not accepted into a school, try not to take it as a rejection. Try also not to take it as a sign that your child is so outside the norm that he cannot fit in. Not getting admitted to a school is merely a statement of the school’s limitations, not of your child’s limitations. If a preschool cannot meet your child’s needs, it is better to know ahead of time. Even preschools that advertise they accept children with special needs may have limitations such that they cannot meet your child’s specific needs. If your heart is set on a school and your child is not accepted, it is likely that your vision of the school is not consistent with what the school can provide in reality.
Finding a preschool that is a good match for your child, on top of identifying and locating services, and advocating for funding can be challenging. If you get stuck or believe you have made a wrong choice, don’t berate yourself. The process to finding the right programs or therapies may not be a linear one. It will likely be a fluid and ever-changing process. Poor-fits and wrong-turns need not be viewed as setbacks. They are opportunities to learn more about the kinds of support your child needs as you refine your choices about the preschool years and beyond.
Bio note: Erica Curtis is a therapist, frequent lecturer, and avid writer on parenting topics. A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Art Therapist, Erica works with children, parents, and families in her practice in Santa Monica, California. For more information go to: www.TherapyWithErica.com