Special ed preschool: What to expect

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Your special needs child is now ready for preschool. This transition can be harder on us parents than on our children. We are asked to trust that the school district will challenge and support our child in their academic, social and emotional skills. To help reduce your fears, here is what to expect from a typical public school special education preschool program.

by Holly Olmsted-Hickey, One Place for Special Needs


Enrollment procedurepreschool teacher iStock photo
Special education preschool offers your special needs child the free and appropriate public education they are entitled to by law under IDEA, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act.  If your child is enrolled in your community’s early intervention program (usually through the ages of 0 – 3), your caseworker should automatically notify your home school district of your child’s possible special education needs.

At age three, your son or daughter with special needs is entitled to be enrolled and actively receive educational and related therapeutic services through your home school district.  The process to receive these services usually begins about six months before your child’s third birthday with a review of your child’s early intervention therapy records, additional evaluations and testing by the school district.  

Finally there is a meeting to determine the services that will be offered to your child through the school district.  This can include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language therapy and/or social work or psychological services.

If your child is not enrolled in an early intervention program, but you have specific concerns about the development of your child, you may have your child evaluated by district school staff members before his or her third birthday to determine their eligibility. 

Preschool screenings are often held twice a year within a school district.  Check with your district’s special education department on when those are held or request a private evaluation within six months of your child’s third birthday.  While it may vary, funding, in part, is a combination of local, state and federal taxes and these services are offered free-of-charge as a resident in your school district.

Staff qualifications
Through the public school’s special education program, your child is educated by professionals with specific training, understanding and often a true love and desire to work with the special needs community. 

A public special education teacher is required to have a bachelor’s (4-year) college degree along with a state-issued teaching certificate or license.  Depending upon the state, there may be a further qualification of a specific grade point average or a Master’s degree in special education after certification. 

Continuing education and professional development courses are often required to keep teaching licenses up-to-date and most states require a background check in order to teach.

Extra support services
The special education classroom is an enriched environment offering a lower teacher to student ratio as well as an overall lower classroom size. 

Classrooms are often staffed with a teacher assistant as well as paraprofessionals who work one-to-one with a specific child or with two or three children in a small group.

In addition, special education preschool classrooms are often staffed intermittently with a speech therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, other professionals or parent volunteers. 

The classroom set-up can vary from teacher to teacher, but generally they are center-based rooms addressing group time, quiet time, reading, building, dramatic play, eating/snacks and art.  Some teachers may incorporate certain educational approaches (Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, multiple intelligence, etc.) into their instruction and environment providing additional richness to the curriculum.

Types of classroom
In typical special education preschool programs, students are in self-contained classrooms. This is a classroom comprised of all special needs students who are provided with highly-individualized and highly supervised instruction.

Blended classroom
Public school districts are beginning to offer programs strategically blended classrooms comprised of special education students, students at-risk for a developmental delay and typically developing students.  Students who qualify for special education services attend the preschool for free while typical students pay tuition, usually at a reduced rate from private preschool programs.

The blended classroom offers individualized learning for all students. It provides a close-knit environment for learning academics and social/emotional skills. It provides the specialized knowledge and experience of an educator who not only understands typical early childhood development, but also atypical early childhood development.

Questions to ask
Make it a goal to ask questions about your school district’s preschool program.

What is the student to staff ratio?

Will my child be pulled out of class for therapy services or will the therapist come in the classroom (this is called push in or pull out).

How many minutes a week will your child receive each type of therapy service?

What is the best way to communicate with my child’s teacher throughout the school year?

Will there be a daily communication sheet so you know what your child learned and did that day?

Is there a particular curriculum the teacher will follow?

Do they have a philosophy on learning?  Is it more play-based, center-based, rote learning, etc.

Can you view the classroom?  Is it cheerful and inviting?

When viewing the classroom, are the other students on a similar developmental level as your child? 

Will they use visual systems to help with routine?

If your child is nonverbal, do they offer switch technology or other speaking tools?

Will children be notified of fire drills ahead of time? Not knowing what to expect can cause intense fear in some children and a lifetime fear of alarms.

Will the class take any community outings or field trips?

More reading

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

Division of Early Childhood (DEC) through the Council for Exceptional Children


Great Schools

Magnet Schools of America

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

National Center for Education Statistics

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)

National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (NECTAC)

Parent Technical Assistance Resource Center

Private School Review

Public Charter Schools

Public School Review

State Preschool Program Data



Holly Olmsted-HickeyAbout the writer

Holly Olmsted-Hickey is the married mom of two boys, an autistic spectrum teenager and a typically developing six-year-old, each with their own gifts and challenges.  She is the Development Manager for One Place for Special Needs and, in her spare time, the leader of The Windy City Chicagoland Apraxia Network and blogger/writer at waitingroomtherapy.wordpress.com.  She drinks a lot of coffee, plays softball to relieve stress and enjoys an occasional nap. Reprint permission granted if you include: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs http://www.oneplaceforspecialneeds.com