How to Choose a Special Needs Preschool

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Homework and parenting go hand-in-hand. The big question is who does it!

When your child gets a little older it is a little bit easier on you. There is a standard definition of “homework” and he or she will (or is supposed to, anyway) do most of it.

But for the first 5 years or so it is all on you. You can read books and do Internet research, but your time is limited so you have to decide what is worth learning about.   Are you going to research your child’s diet? His or her special needs? Child care and preschool, the best learning methodology? Something else? Unfortunately there is no “standard curriculum” for parents.

If you have a special needs child, the most challenging part of your homework may be choosing a special needs preschool. The sheer number of variables involved presents a huge obstacle. Where can you even start, let alone make a conclusion?

Fortunately the most important thing to remember is easy. Special needs children are first and foremost children. Ensure that a warm and loving dynamic exists between your child and his or her teacher and the rest of the details have a way of falling into place.

That being said, you still need to pay close attention to those details especially when it comes to identifying your child’s specific needs. In this post we give you a quick breakdown of your four key assignments.

Assignment #1: Diagnosis

Make sure you are comfortable with your physician’s diagnosis of your child’s condition. It may be appropriate to get a second opinion. The important thing is to make a decision and stick to it as you move through the next steps.

Assignment #2: Special school, special program, special anything?

Depending on your child’s condition, it may be more beneficial to keep him in a regular care environment that, for example, introduces some positive stress while forcing him to keep up with the other children. At the same time doing so may risk frustration for him. Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule to abide by as every child’s situation and diagnosis is unique. You should also consider that some schools have special programs “embedded” inside their standard programs and they may be a fit for some scenarios.

Assignment #3: Define “special needs” (and don’t be shy about asking about them)

If you decide that a standard program is not a perfect fit for your child, try to be as specific as you can about what his or her special needs actually are. Examples might be:

  • A teacher with specific training, qualifications, or experience
  • A particular piece of adaptive equipment
  • A specific accreditation for the preschool
  • Small group sizes

Once you have identified a specific set of requirements, you are within your rights (literally) to ask any preschool to provide care for your child. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all businesses (including child care businesses) to provide “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities.

That does not mean that a preschool has a legal obligation to make special arrangements only for your child. It may be that the required investment in staff or equipment is simply not reasonable for them.

The point is: it doesn’t hurt to ask. It could be that the preschool has already received several similar requests from other families or will receive tax credits for investing in the special equipment, for example. Go ahead and ask; even if a particular preschool cannot be of assistance there is a good chance they can recommend one that can.

Assignment #4: Generate options and make a short-list

Word-of-mouth is a great way to find all inclusive and special needs child care programs, especially smaller centers or even individual teachers that are not “advertised.” Start with your child’s physician or therapist. He or she will generally be familiar with local child care providers and other parents in similar situations. Online, you can check out:

  • Easter Seals, which has a specific emphasis on special needs early education centers
  • CareLuLu (that’s us!) You can filter your search according to “Special Needs” in the DC area, and we’re working to add all-inclusive child care and preschool programs nationwide.

The first two assignments can be particularly challenging and time-consuming for you as a parent. Don’t give up. After they’re done you can generally stick to “standard” steps such as meeting the school management, verifying credentials (especially for your child’s specific needs) and going for a preschool tour.

Remember that for all children, with special needs or not, teachers and caregivers should be loving and respectful. The first item on your daycare or preschool checklist should be a warm, caring environment in all the classrooms!

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