Pre-K programs for students with special needs vary widely in quality and scope. Some states and districts have long included students with special needs in pre-K classes alongside their more typically developing peers.
But other schools systems have been slower to adopt an inclusive approach that has been shown to have immense benefits and that is also endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.
“Kids learn from other kids, especially at the preschool age, and if you’re in a classroom and all you have are children who are developmentally delayed, it’s hard for them to learn typical skills,” says Jeanice Bryant, special education supervisor at Newport News Public Schools in Virginia.
“If we can get typical kids in the room doing typical preschool behavior, then our special needs children will imitate it, and grow from what they see and hear.”
Children with speech delays, for example, can model communication skills from students who are meeting age expectations. Consequently, an increasing number of district leaders have shifted their focus to enhancing the quality of pre-K special ed instruction, after years of working mainly to expand access.
But only 28 percent of 3- and 4-year olds attend preschool. And many administrators across the country are struggling to pay for inclusive programs, says Jenifer Cline, student services coordinator in Great Falls Public Schools in Montana and co-author of A Teacher’s Guide to Special Education (ASCD, 2016).
“Administrators need to be talking to their legislators, to their state education offices and to the federal government about following the research where we see such improvements,” Cline says.
Sharing expertise, pooling resources
Study after study indicates a strong start in quality pre-K can pay huge academic and behavioral dividends—particularly for students with special needs—as youngsters transition to elementary school. About 800,000 students attend preschool under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 619 program.
Nearly 80 percent of those students show greater than expected growth in both academic skills and social relationships, says Christina M. Kasprzak, director of the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve really been moving from access for children in special education to looking at accountability in outcomes and quality,” Kasprzak says.
The number of special education students included in preschool programs for typically developing children grew only by 5.7 percent between 1985 and 2012, according to the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.
Inclusion therefore drives the work Kasprzak and her team do with districts to raise the quality of their programs; that includes helping administrators implement practices recommended by the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Early Childhood. Among its wide-ranging guidelines are:
- embedding learning into all preschool activities, including— and sometimes particularly in—play
- working with families to tailor instruction and classroom environments to each child’s needs
- using intervention strategies to address challenging or negative behavior among children
- allowing regular collaboration among general education teachers, special ed teachers, therapists and other early-childhood educators and professionals
- providing regular opportunities for students to move and be physically active
While Race to the Top and other grant programs have expanded early childhood special ed programs in recent years, school districts, Head Start and other agencies should partner to share resources—such as ongoing professional development for teachers—in a time of tightening budgets, says Pamela J. Winton, a senior scientist at Frank Porter Graham Institute.
“In this new administration, my sense is there’s going to be an emphasis on charter schools and voucher systems,” Winton says. “We all have to be paying close attention to make sure the needs of children with disabilities, whether in early childhood or in general, are in the forefront of those discussions.”
Opening the ‘Solution Suitcase’
Blue Valley Schools, located in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, tracks the social-emotional development of its preschoolers with the same high expectations as it measures academic growth.
That’s one of the ways in which the 22,000-student system continues to refine the inclusive preschool classes it has provided for 20 years, says Kendall Burr, the district’s early childhood director.
“If a student can’t perform a skill, we see it as a skill deficit,” Burr says. “We feel the same way for a student struggling with behavioral or social-emotional needs.”
The district adopted a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports model to provide different levels of social-emotional instruction. The least intensive involves teaching students a set of skills the district calls “Solution Suitcase.” This gives students different ways to respond calmly and positively when, for instance, a classmate has a toy they want.
Students can set a timer for when they can ask again for the toy or teachers can help them find another activity. Students who still struggle with behavior will receive more one-on-one attention from teachers and therapists, Burr says.
Blue Valley splits its 26 preschool classrooms 50-50 between students who are developing typically and those with IEPs. About three years ago, the district opened an early learning center that has space for 15 of those preschool classrooms.
It provides teachers, therapists and other educators with shared office space to collaborate and refine their learning approaches to individual students, Burr says.
Throughout the district, specialists—as often as possible—provide speech and occupational therapy and other interventions as part of a child’s daily classroom routine. Students aren’t separated or pulled out of the room. “
The kids themselves don’t discriminate and our model lends itself to that,” Burr says.
In the River Forest School District in the Chicago suburbs, which in the 2016-17 school year launched its first inclusive pre-K class, teachers are already working to develop students’ soft skills.
For much of the preschool day, students can move around to various stations where the play activities have various academic themes, such as math, science or writing. A “play planning” exercise requires pairs of students to map out what they play, how they’ll do it and what materials they need.
They have to write it all down and sometimes they have to negotiate if a partner wants to do something differently, says Karen Boozell, the director of special education. “It’s one of the ways we naturally embed academic and pre-academic skills within play,” Boozell says.
A ‘growth continuum’ starts at 3
A majority of special education students who have attended inclusive preschool classes at Kingwood Township Schools in New Jersey have continued in a general education setting in higher grades, Superintendent Rick Falkenstein says.
The 350-student district—one of the first in that state to offer inclusive instruction in preschool—places all children on a “growth continuum” beginning when they’re as young as 3. This allows educators to track emotional and academic growth via daily observation through second grade—rather than using only sporadic assessments to measure progress.
Educators use iPads, among other tools, to record evidence of growth, including taking videos and photos that show students’ progress in regulating emotions or delaying gratification.
“Preschool might not close a developmental gap,” Falkenstein says. “We know growth can be uneven, and we want to be flexible because students with disabilities need more flexibility.”