Monday, April 9, 2012

A letter to moms thinking about a special needs pre-k

** promise of cute Easter pictures soon - I forgot my camera to download today!

On my favorite DS message board many of the moms are trying to make the tough decisions about whether to put their 3 years olds in public pre-K program.  This is such a hard decision because children with special needs that are being served by a public program like Babies Can't Wait which provides in home or daycare therapy are transitioned to the public school system when they turn 3 years old.  It is comfortable to deal with a public system for your baby when the therapists come to you and you have some control over who & where and probably even get to attend and/or participate in the sessions.  It is much harder to throw your 3 year old into a public school system with teachers you didn't pick and have no control over.  The other factor is that sometimes of our kids have had therapy since birth and attended typical daycare or have the skills to so we as parents want them to be in an inclusion program once they get into school - either in a completely typical classroom or an inclusion room with both kids with IEPs (Individual Education Plans) and typical children.  That's what everyone tells us we should want for our kids.  Well many (and I'd guess most) school systems don't have 3 year old typical pre-k program so we are forced to go against what we hope for and have been told to fight for and consider putting our 3 year olds in a self-contained special needs pre-k class.

I've had a couple of ladies send me notes asking for more specifics when I voice my opinion for participating in a special needs pre-K program.   I know not all school systems are as great with special needs as our but the bottom line is you have to see it for yourself.  Listening to advice of the people around us - other moms in the school district, the moms in our DS group, and the moms on our boards - is great and helpful but really only gets you so far.  Each child is different and each school system is different.  The only way to know if it is the best thing for your child is to try it and see, one visit won't tell you, one transition meeting and set of evals won't tell you either.  This is our story and the basis for my opinion.

Our district doesn't have a general ed pre-k for 3 year olds, the only option is one special needs class that meets 5 days a week for 3 hours a day.  We were so hesitant to put her in that we actually didn't do it when Babies Can't Wait transitioned us there when she turned three and instead we left her in her daycare situation which we loved.  I think I was scared because of the label - I was envisioning a whole room of kids who didn't speak correctly and had behavior problems. My timing had been poor and the couple times I'd tried to visit the kids hadn't been there for one reason or another.   But when the new school year rolled around I decided to look at it again because I was afraid we'd lose our waiver that would at least allow us to get speech therapy.  So that fall we decided to enroll her 3 mornings a week, thinking if it didn't work out we'd pull her.  Sure there were kids in her new class that didn't speak well, there were some at Cate's level and a couple with other issues that spoke perfectly.  We never had a behavior related issue with any child in the room and Cate's behavior did not suffer in the least.  I think the two biggest positives were that the whole class centered around speech and the skills of being at school.  Almost every activity was focused on vocabulary, sentence structure and speaking.  The teacher are trained to do this and do it purposefully.   Our daycare was a "learning center" style facility and they did a great job teaching Cate new things, I really thought she was getting what she needed there.  So I was very surprised to see how much she grew and learned after only a few weeks in the special needs pre-K.  The most obvious change was the expansion in her language.  We were so impressed that we didn't hesitate to put her in 5 days a week the following year.  That class was even more amazing for her.   The building that houses the special needs pre-K class in our district also has the HeadStart program, which is a federal funded pre-K for "at-risk" kids.  We were lucky to get one of the non-financial need based spots in the HeadStart pre-K class so Cate did a full day starting the fall after she turned 4.  She spent the morning (7:30 am- about 11 am) in the HeadStart room which had 18 kids in in, 6 special needs, 12 typical who mostly came from non-English speaking households, taught by a teacher and two - three para professionals.  She had lunch in the cafeteria with all the classes, then spend the afternoon in the Special Needs room (until 2:05).  I could not have taught her the things she learned there like how to deal with a daily classroom schedule, how to manage eating lunch in a cafeteria, and how to raise your  hand participate with group.  All these are things that typical kids might not know going into kindergarten but they figure them out.  For Cate this wouldn't have been so natural - she needs to be taught these skills or she will act out.  She came out of two years of prepre-K teachers deserve so much thanks and praise.

So my opinion is don't listen to me or to the other moms - give your pre-K a chance.  If it doesn't work out you haven't lost anything, there is no contract or cost - so you are only out some hassle.  But if it does work out you have the chance use the self contained pre-K attention to give your child a good base for moving on to an inclusion or mainstream kindergarten situation.  Good Luck!!!

Cate's Pre-K graduation


  1. Thank you for the post! I'm setting up the visits in a few minutes :)

    I totally appreciate your time. You have beautiful girls!


  2. Great post, great advice!! Btw, I wanted to address what you were saying about whether or not Cate would qualify for ESY this year without a history of least where we live, if the child is also at a *breakthrough* point with something (suddenly starting to take off with something, like speech, reading, whatever), you'd be eligible. If there are just PT, ST or OT needs, they might only grant *those* services, not the classroom setting. Samantha's both at a breakthrough point and at a risk for regression in one particular area that makes a classroom setting crucial - group participation, which will become more and more important from 1st Grade onwards. Good luck with your IEP meeting!