11 Things to Look for When Choosing a Special Needs Preschool

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My son, Ethan, attends The Sewall Child Development Center in Denver, Colorado. As luck would have it, this excellent preschool just happens to be located right down the road from us, so it was easy to choose this school for my son. And what a great choice it was!

If you’re in the market for a preschool program for your special needs child, you may be wondering what to look for, what questions to ask the teachers, and how to make your final decision. There are many things that I love about our school. Here’s what I would recommend you look for in your prospective program:

  1. There is a high ratio of teachers to students and small class sizes. In Ethan’s first class, there was about a 1:2 ratio (4 teachers to about 8 students). That is unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere, but the higher the ratio, the more individual attention your child gets.
  2. Our school has a lesson plan that is communicated to the parents on a weekly basis. This means that not only do I know that Ethan’s different therapeutic needs are being met, but I also know what to talk to him about. I can ask him about his day with prompts from the lesson plan and know whether he’s telling me what actually happened or talking about something else. Since Ethan is really hard to understand sometimes, this is really important forme. And before he was talking much, it at least gave me someplace to startwith “yes” and “no” questions.
  3. My son’s teachers are available to give advice and updates on his progress at least once a week, if not more often. Since they get to see his behavior with a clinical eye, they are invaluable resources for advice on how to deal with challenges we have at home. For instance, they gave me a lot of ideas to help Ethan socialize with other kids.
  4. There are monthly Family Unity Nights (FUN) where the school provides child care and parents get to meet to discuss parenting challenges or hear a speaker give us advice or answer questions.
  5. There are monthly meetings for the parents to talk about school functions and arrange volunteer programs, address problems, or organize fundraisers. It’s sort of like PTA.
  6. All of the teachers are well educated in dealing with children with special needs. All of Ethan’s teachers have at least a Master’s degree in an area related to special needs kids. In each of his classes there is at least one speech specialist, one physical or occupational therapy specialist, and one special educator. I believe that they all have a teaching certification as well, which is certainly not required for teaching preschool anywhere, as far as I know. His physical therapist has her PhD, and all of the teachers regularly takes classes and seminars to keep up-to-date on tools and techniques.
  7. There is an observation window in every room so that I can see my son in class without him knowing I’m there. This seems minor, but seeing him interacting with his peers and teachers is so much different when he thinks I’m not there than when he knows I am. Plus it makes me feel that much better about the school, knowing that I can observe any time that I want to.
  8. There are a variety of children at the school. Not all of the kids have special needs, or the same needs. There are kids in his class ranging from profoundly disabled to completely normal and the activities provided are intended to stimulate all different levels of development. I feel like this benefits Ethan because he will never be the best or the worst at everything. He gets to see other kids make mistakes and have triumphs and that makes him feel more a part of everything.
  9. The teachers annually administer tests to gauge my son’s progress and make recommendations concerning his treatment. The state only requires that this be done every three years, but Ethan’s school does it annually, which makes a lot of sense considering the amount of change there is in children especially before age 5. His physical therapist recommended that he get orthotics and fitted him for them herself. His teachers recommended that he take a music class to increase his socialization by using his favorite subject. All of these suggestions have helped Ethan very much.
  10. The teachers, our public schools coordinator, and I all sit down together once a year to talk about Ethan, where he’s at, and to make goals for the coming year to include in his IEP. The idea that we’re all on the same page about where Ethan is, and where we want him to go makes his challenges so much more manageable. Plus his IEP is much less of a hassle when dealt with this way.
  11. There is a social worker on-staff. She was incredibly helpful in getting us extra help from the city, providing most of the suggestions about separation anxiety that we tried, and getting Ethan’s dad more involved in parenting. I used to think of a social worker as “the family police,” but now I see that as the least of her functions.

I can’t imagine anything else that I could ask for in a school. Ethan and I are so lucky to have Sewall. There may be other therapies or programs that your child will need that aren’t provided by your preschool program, but you can always add those extra therapies to your child’s schedule. At least one of the students in Ethan’s class, for example, also takes some classes at the local school for the blind (Anchor), and her dad loves Sewall too.

When choosing your preschool program, also remember that your child may be in preschool longer than other kids. At least one parent I know petitioned the city to let her son stay an extra year in Sewall because he was getting so much more out of it than the month they tried at kindergarten. They allowed it, and it was a hugely successful year for him.

Good luck and remember that all your hard work now will pay off later when your child is happy and successful in a preschool that works well for the both of you!

11 Things to Look for When Choosing a Special Needs Preschool

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