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Overview of Professionals in the Preschool Special Education System


Many families don't realize how many different educational professionals work with their children on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. The list below provides an overview of some of these individuals and a description of the role they may have. Be aware that your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) will identify the individuals who work directly with your child and what each person does.

Regular Education Teachers

Whether or not your child interacts with a preschool regular education teacher depends on your child's educational placement. If your child is in a setting which also serves children without disabilities, regular education teachers may work directly with your child or may simply be adults with whom your child interacts with throughout the course of the day. Regular education teachers may or may not have formal training in providing instruction to preschoolers with special needs. Typically, they have had minimal training while in college or graduate school and also may have had the opportunity to attend in-service workshops since becoming a teacher. It may be a good idea to ask the regular education teacher what type of support or training he or she may need in order to enhance your child's preschool experience. You can include professional training for your child's regular education teachers in your child's IEP.

Special Education Teachers

Professionals who are designated as special education teachers (or “special educators”) must have special training in working with children with disabilities. Depending on your child's IEP, your child may work with one or more special education teachers during the week. A special education teacher may teach students in his or her own classroom, co-teach a class with a regular education teacher, or provide consultative services within your child's preschool environment. Special education teachers are usually responsible for modifying the educational curriculum for preschoolers with disabilities when necessary and may also act as a resource for regular education teachers. Often the special education teacher collaborates with the regular education teacher to modify the general preschool curriculum in order to benefit your child and provide individual supports to implement the specially designed instruction which your child needs. Some special education teachers have the added role of making sure your child's entire IEP is implemented as planned and may be responsible for planning and conducting the IEP meetings. Your child's special education teacher may be a good resource for you to learn more about how to help your child at home. But teachers are learners too! As a valuabale member of the team, consider asking the special education teacher what type of support he or she may need to enhance your child's preschool experience, and include these ideas in your child's IEP.


School aides are individuals who assist students and teachers during the school day. Depending on where you live, they may be called paraprofessionals, para-educators, instructional paraprofessionals, educational assistants, instructional assistants, one-on-ones, personal care assistants, TSS (therapeutic support staff), or teacher's aides. As the term one-on-one implies, an aide can be assigned for a particular student. Some classrooms have classroom aides who are there to assist all students in a particular class. If your IEP team determines that your child needs an aide, an aide will be listed as a service or support in your child's IEP. You should also make certain that the role of the aide is clarified within the IEP document.

Occupational Therapists (OTs)

Occupational Therapists (OTs) have specialized degrees in occupational therapy. Occupational therapy is a related service that your child may need to benefit from his or her educational program. Licensed therapists are regulated by the states in which they practice and must pass a national certification examination. Those who qualify are awarded the title of “Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR).” Preschool OTs help children with the “occupation” of being a preschool student. This can include a wide range of activities, including coloring and handwriting, playing, self-regulation, and self-care (for example, buttoning and tying shoes), which are determined based on the goals in your child's IEP. Therapy may be delivered in a group or individually. Preschool OTs are not always employees of the preschool or school district in which they work. They may work for outside organizations which the preschool program hires to deliver occupational therapy services. Even OTs who are school district employees usually work in more than one school and thus will not be at your child's school the entire school day or even every school day. Because of this, preschool OTs frequently consult and collaborate with teachers and other preschool staff to make sure all team members understand and enforce the child's occupational therapy goals.

Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs)

Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) must have at least a master's degree. Speech therapy is a related service that your child may need to benefit from his or her educational program. SLPs must be licensed and pass a national exam on speech-language pathology. Most states also have continuing education requirements for license renewal. There is generally a shortage of licensed speech-language pathologists, however, and schools in most states are allowed to provide an emergency certification to professionals who have yet to be licensed. Children on the autism spectrum can have a variety of speech-language difficulties, including difficulty speaking (ranging, for example, from an inability to produce sound to stuttering), difficulty understanding or processing language, and difficulty understanding non-verbal forms of communication. Therapy may be delivered in a group or individual session, but it must be provided by an SLP (or someone who has an emergency certification). SLPs may also provide consultation services for students who do not qualify for speech-language services and/or to enhance learning opportunities throughout the preschool day.

Physical Therapists (PTs)

Physical Therapists (PTs) have graduate degrees and are either licensed or certified. Physical therapy is a related service that your child may need to benefit from his or her educational program. PTs must pass a national physical therapy exam and must take continuing education classes to remain eligible to practice. School-based PTs work with students who have conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities. Preschoolers who receive physical therapy services may perform activities designed to improve gross motor skills, such as exercise and other movement oriented activities, that are determined based on the goals in the child's IEP. Often PTs are not employees of the preschool or school district in which they work. Instead, they may work for outside organizations which the preschool program hires to deliver physical therapy services. Even PTs who are school district employees usually work in more than one school and thus will not be at your child's school the entire school day or even every school day. Because of this, preschool PTs frequently consult with other school staff to make sure all team members understand and enforce the child's physical therapy goals.

Behavior Support Professionals

Sometimes a student on the autism spectrum may have learning or social behaviors that interfere with school. The role of the behavior support professional is to help determine the reasons for a student's behaviors and to design and implement programs to help change unwanted behavior or encourage positive behavior. The behavior support professional is responsible for discovering what motivates a child (for example, praise or tangible rewards) and for designing a program using these reinforcers. They collect data on behaviors targeted for intervention. They may work one-on-one with a student or may provide consultative services. There are different types of behavior support professionals. Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) have a master's degree or doctorate in Behavior Analysis, psychology, or special education. They must undergo supervised training and pass a standardized exam. Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs) have a bachelor's degree, with specific coursework related to behavior, and must pass an exam. Currently most states do not require that a BCBA or BCaBA provide behavior services in schools, however.

School Psychologists

School psychologists work with students in schools and collaborate with teachers, parents, and school personnel to create safe, healthy, and supportive learning environments. School psychologists address students' learning and behavioral problems, suggest improvements to classroom management strategies or parenting techniques, and evaluate and test students with disabilities to help determine the best ways to educate them. They also may evaluate the effectiveness of academic programs, prevention programs, behavior management procedures, and other services provided in the school setting. School psychologists must have a minimum of a specialist or master's degree. Most school districts require that a school psychologist be certified, meaning they have passed a state exam and have attended continuing education classes as required by the state in which they practice. While it is unlikely that your child's preschool will have its own school psychologist, your school district and/or Intermediate Unit, which is ultimately responsible for Preschool Special Education services for your child, will have at least one on staff.

School Nurse

Depending on where your child goes to school, the school nurse may play a large role in your child's special education. In some areas, the school nurse serves as a prominent member of the IEP team, perhaps even serving as the person in the school with primary responsibility for implementing the IEP. In other areas, the school nurse is involved with your child to the extent your child may need to take medication during the school day or when your child becomes sick at school.


In addition to the school professionals discussed above, there will probably be a number of other staff who will work with your child. These include the school principal (who may be involved in the IEP process and will also likely be involved in discipline decisions), the bus driver, recess monitors, and lunchroom staff. The IEP team should evaluate which of these individuals might need additional training to support your child and add this to your child's IEP.

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.