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Navigating the World of Special Education Preschool

By Amalah


I’ve been reading for years, and have a question that I think you can help me/shed some light on for me.

I have a wonderful sweet little boy who happens to have an extremely rare genetic disorder (think similar to Down Syndrome, but only about 150 cases worldwide for my son’s disorder). Like Down Syndrome, it seems to be a spectrum disorder and my son lucked out by being on the high end of the spectrum. He is 2 ½ years old and after millions of doctors and therapy appointments has caught up to age level in both gross and fine motor skills. As for his IQ, I think he’s just the smartest thing ever, but it’s really too early to say where he’ll end up. He is not talking (at all, zero words) but understands almost everything you ask.

We have had early intervention since 2 months old, and we are gearing up for him to start preschool in the fall. Due to where his birthday falls, he will end up going to preschool for 3 years, then turn 6 shortly after starting kindergarten. He is in the school’s special education program, so he will start Early Childhood Special Education (ESCE) preschool this fall, as opposed to “regular” preschool.

This is where my questions start – I have no idea how to research schools or where he should go, or if where they are sending him is the best place for him. My husband expressed shock that they are starting him out in special education so soon, as opposed to waiting and seeing if he NEEDS special education. I agree, since I want him mainstreamed, but how to get there and where to start? On one hand I think that the ECSE this year is good, since 1. It’s free and 2. He does not have to be potty trained to go (he is not anywhere near ready to potty train), but I don’t want to do it blindly, if that makes sense.

I have briefly looked into Montessori schools, but my son is not really a leader, he sits backs, observes and figures things out long before he jumps in, so that might not be a good environment for him. I have also briefly looked into a charter school and a catholic school. We live in a small town, so we don’t have to many options, but I don’t even know where to start – so I guess that is my main question – I have heard you say you found special schools for Noah, schools that allowed him to excel and progress and reach his potential, how do I find those schools? What questions should I be asking? What should his IEP look like? I know my son can excel in the mainstream classes, he will just need some accommodations, and I don’t yet know what those accommodations are or should be. I don’t want to fail him. I’m lost and while part of me knows that this does not need to be decided now, my brain is not letting it rest.

Thank you!

Okay, let’s start this off with a quick mini-recap, for anyone who might not be familiar with our special education journey or could use a refresher on the specifics (since we’re now talking about stuff that happened like, five and six years ago, oh my lands):

Starting around age 2, Noah received services through Early Intervention (EI) for speech and sensory issues, including a weekly social skills group.

A few months before he turned 3 (and would have been up for a transition evaluation with the school district, to see if he was eligible for the special education preschool program, probably much like the one your son has been accepted to), EI graduated him and told us he was ready for a mainstream preschool.

At 3, he started a part-time morning program at what seemed like a laid-back, play-based school, one that assured us they were comfortable with both speech and sensory delays.

Four months later, the teacher threatened to expel Noah because she couldn’t handle his behavior. We contacted the school district and began the slow, painful, seemingly endless process to get Noah re-evaluated and BACK into the system.

It took until practically the very end of the school year before everything was done, but Noah was indeed accepted into the preschool program at our local public school. Since they did not offer us any summer school and we were very concerned about how far Noah had regressed in the mainstream school (which was FAR), we looked around for special needs/OT/speech summer camps and found one offered by a local non-profit therapy center. (Does your area publish one of those local Family/Parent magazines, that are basically back-to-back ads for schools, summer camps and classes? If so, start there. They usually have special all-camp and all-special-needs editions a couple times a year as well, so you can get a nice list of places to check out.)

We signed Noah up for the entire summer’s worth of camp and hoped it would help. Every day he received OT, sensory integration activities and a more relaxed, understanding classroom-type experience. At the end of camp, Noah’s therapist suggested we look into the center’s private preschool program. It met in the afternoon; the public program was in the morning. Since we remained highly concerned about the previous “lost” year of preschool, we decided to double up and do both programs.

We did that for one year and it was a great combo — the public program focused on readying Noah academically and helping him become comfortable with a traditional classroom’s rules and routines. The private program focused more on Noah’s specific diagnosis and sensory/social needs.

The next year, both programs were in the afternoon, so we had to make another tough choice. We chose the public option, both because duh, it was FREE, but also because it felt like the best and most natural path to mainstreaming. (The private program fed into a private special school, while the public preschool is designed to put kids on the path to mainstreaming/integration.) I’d already learned the dangers of pulling Noah out of the system and trying to re-enter once things went south. And since we had always planned on using the local public school, it seemed best to keep Noah there for one last year of preschool and then let him attend kindergarten in an environment he was familiar with.

Whew. That wasn’t as mini as I was intending, sorry. And of course I need to note that my child is not your child, his needs are not your child’s needs, our experiences are in no way universally representative of what it’s like to use special needs preschools.

That said, I am really, really happy with the experiences we had. And even the “bad” stuff that happened taught me some very valuable lessons that continue to help me navigate our path to this day.

Lessons learned:

1) Special education is NOT THE SAME THING as remedial education. This is so important. The academic curriculum and goals are, whenever possible, 100% the same as general education. The presentation, however, is done in a way to meet your child’s special needs and unique way of learning. (Not to mention that the teachers are typically required to have their Master’s in special education, something most private preschools do not.)

This part of your email jumped out at me: My husband expressed shock that they are starting him out in special education so soon, as opposed to waiting and seeing if he NEEDS special education. I sense a fear here that special education is “lesser,” or only for kids with learning/intellectual disabilities, or for kids who can’t and won’t ever keep up with a mainstream classroom. Not true. You’ll likely see a very wide range of children with a wide range of challenges, and all of them have the potential for full mainstreaming at some point down the road, when they are fully ready.

Which brings me to…

2) Don’t rush to mainstream. It’s a great goal, of course. But it’s not a race. There are no ribbons or medals to whoever gets their EI kid mainstreamed first. Obviously I was (and still am) deeply affected by watching my child crater that first year of preschool, and give back basically everything we’d gained. I’m NOT saying that is what would happen if you decide against special education, since we’re talking about two very different kids.

But your son is still so little and has so much time to get wherever he’ll end up. For now, he’s newly caught up in some areas but still non-verbal. That’s a need. And that’s okay! Use the system, use the resources. Ease him into this. If you’re not happy with it after a few months or feel that there are things the program doesn’t address, you can call for a new IEP meeting and review, you can supplement with private services or a second preschool program (though probably not at this age — making him go full day across two programs would be a lot for not-quite-3-year-old, but it could be something to consider down the road). You can pull him out completely and re-enroll him somewhere else, and start compiling notes for your own future list of Lessons I Learned While Navigating Special Education Preschools.

YOU have time as well: nothing good will come out of you stressing yourself to death about getting everything Right and Perfect and Set For Life from the get-go.

If you were my friend and we were sitting together having coffee, yeah, I’d probably tell you to go with the public preschool option. For now, at least. Like you said, it’s free. It’s probably the least risky option of the ones you mentioned — there will be accountability there, with written goals and metrics to gauge his progress, and any lost skills or regression would be noted and dealt with. And if it’s even an even halfway decent program, it’s designed to ensure that he will have a successful and FUN first school experience. You don’t need him to be reading on his own by Christmas and doing algebra by summer, you just need him to like going there, to make some friends, do some crafts, and be in care of people who understand and can handle a smart, but non-verbal child. (And who won’t ignore him or fail to include him in creative ways.) You need to trust those people, obviously, and approach the IEP meetings as a team effort, while being fully aware of your rights as a parent. And you have many, MANY rights as a parent. Your concerns and input are to be taken as seriously as anyone else’s at that table. The only “wrong” questions at an IEP meeting are the ones you don’t speak up to ask.

And who knows, they might tell you after a year that he’s ready for a mainstream preschool. Or maybe they’ll recommend he stay there, but you could consider a second program for the other half of the day. Maybe there’s a private speech therapy center near you that offers a summer camp or weekly therapeutic play groups. There are a lot of options, I promise, and you will be able to find them when you know you need them. Right now, there are a lot of question marks hanging around and you don’t know yet. The not knowing SUCKS. But I guess eventually you get more used to it. You stop trying to visualize the next year and the year after that and kindergarten/junior high/high school/etc. and focus on what your child needs right now and what feels like the best way to give it to them.

I used to put these weird deadlines on myself (and Noah). We wanted him mainstreamed for preschool. Okay, by kindergarten. Definitely by kindergarten. Now, in second grade, I’m totally over the whole idea that having Noah 100% mainstreamed with zero pull-out time in special ed or the resource room is some kind of MISSION ACCOMPLISHED thing. Noah’s education is special, and you know what? It should be. He’s a special kid. Like all kids. How amazing is it that he has the options and flexibility during the day to stay in the big classroom for some things, go to a smaller group for other things, stop by an OT room whenever he needs it, to be surrounded by teachers who understand how he learns best and can make accommodations for him…and then send home a glowing report card that proves that all of it is WORKING?

Forget the stigma of special ed and screw the short bus jokes. I am so very, very privileged and blessed to be able to give my child this kind of education. (AND IT’S FREE. WHAAAAT.)

More on Special Education From Alpha Mom:

  1. Dear Teacher: My Disabled Child is Not Lazy
  2. A Commonsense, Non-Scary Guide to Your First IEP Meeting
  3. Pushing Back on a Pushy Therapist
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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