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How to Choose a Preschool Program


Starting preschool is a big step for both your child and you. It may be the first time your child has been separated from you and other family members on a regular basis. It is not unusual for you to feel anxious about this step, as well as a little bit excited, as you anticipate this next stage in your child's life.

If your child has qualified for Preschool Special Education services, your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) will specify where your child will receive them. If your child receives services in a special education environment, there may be few options available in your area. However, it may not be any easier finding a typical preschool for your child to attend that can meet his or her needs. Regardless of whether your child will attend a special education program or a program designed for typical students, it is important to make sure that the specific placement is a good fit for your child.

A good way to get started with your search is to ask friends and therapists for recommendations. If you belong to a support group for parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or special needs, these parents may be able to provide valuable insight. However, recommendations (or criticism) alone cannot take the place of doing your own research. You will want to call several local preschools as well as visit them in order to get a sense of the differences between your local options.

A phone call can help you learn basic information, such as how many days a week children may elect to attend, the length of the school day, the number of children in a class, the teacher/student ratio, the composition of the classroom (mixed ages, for example), general information about the school's philosophy, the cost, and the application process (will your child need to visit?, do they accept students mid-year?, etc.). You will want to visit to verify the information you receive by phone and to get a better idea of what the school is really like.

When you visit, pay attention to the structure of the classroom. Is there a visual schedule for the children to follow? Are areas for different kinds of activities (art, reading, dress up, etc.) clearly delineated? How are transitions between activities signaled or forwarned?

What activities make up the curriculum? While many children learn letters and numbers in preschool, this shouldn't be the only focus. Learning self-help skills and how to play and get along with others is perhaps even more important during the preschool years.

How are children encouraged to work together? Solitary and parallel play is typical for children under age 3-4 and older children with ASD. You will want a program that helps your child learn to interact with others. Organized games (parachute play, for example) or small group activities are good ways to do this. Accomplishing this is not always easy. If your child is prone to tantrums or physical struggles, find out how the teachers redirect or discipline children if needed.

Is the classroom safe and clean? In particular, observe to determine if children can easily wander away from the classroom or playground. While your child may not have eloped before, wandering is a concern for all children with ASD, and should be guarded against. If your child has a food allergy, you will definitely want to know if the school can accommodate your child's needs. Some schools are peanut-free, for example. Others have designated tables for children with allergies to eat; this can isolate your child from others in the class, however.

Find out how toileting is handled. Does your child need to be potty-trained to attend? Urination and bowel movements? Does the school have scheduled bathroom breaks or reminders? What happens when a child has an accident?

Watch how teachers interact with the children. Are the teachers down at eye level with the children, playing on the floor? Even how the teachers dress can be a tip off. A teacher wearing a skirt and heels may be less likely to get down and dirty with the kids.

Find out how long the staff at the school have been there. Your child needs consistency. Too frequent turnover of staff can cause unnecessary transition problems for your child.

If you plan on sending your child to a typical preschool, find out if the school will allow therapists or aides to help your child during the school day and if the school is open to learning more about ASD. Is the school willing to allow your child's behavior therapist provide Applied Behavior Analysis techniques and create a behavior intervention plan? Can your child's occupational therapist regularly visit the classroom to do group activities? These can be fun for all children in the class, while teaching your child important social and recreational skills.

Does the school have an open door policy? Can parents visit or volunteer in the classroom? Some schools even have a two-way mirror to allow parents and/or therapists to observe behavior without being noticed by the children in the class. This helps parents visualize their child in the preschool environment without changing the environment with their presence.

Don't be afraid to ask the teachers these questions, not just the director of the preschool. Stay and observe as long as the school will allow you to be there. Some parents find it helpful to identify a child who reminds them of their own son or daughter and see how the staff and other children relate to him or her. Most importantly, trust your instincts. If something seems not quite right, ask as many questions as you need to ask to feel comfortable with the preschool your child may be attending. If you still have concerns after making a full inquiry, perhaps you need to keep looking.

Additional Resources:

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.