For many children, special education begins with early childhood. It is strongly recommended that a child as young as preschool age or even younger, who exhibits behaviors or developmental delays, begin an early intervention process within special education if possible. Ensuring this is done is the key to success for the child!
- Is my child a candidate? For most states, early childhood special education begins at three and lasts through five years of age, usually when kindergarten starts. If the child is delayed by about 30 percent or more in age equivalence when compared to peers in social-emotional skills, physical development, speech and language, and self-help skills, then he or she may be eligible for early childhood special education. If a child isn't in preschool, then often times a parent will notice the delay and bring it to a physician's attention. If the child is in preschool, many times the preschool is the first to notice a significant delay and will then discuss the concern with the child's parent. Most often, the preschool can do a screening to determining if the delay is significant enough to warrant early childhood special education, or the physician can recommend a testing site to complete the screening.
- Screening process. The child who may have a delay will be recommended to have a complete screening done in order to determine if special education is necessary. The following skills will be screened for the child: speech, language, cognitive ability, readiness for school, self-help skills, motor skills, social skills and vision and hearing. Most often the child will be observed in his or her classroom setting if the child is in preschool or at home in a setting in which the child is at ease and can be observed without causing stress to the child. The school will have a designated person who does the screening, often times a psychologist, the preschool director, or even someone from the school's education association who is trained in screening preschool children for special education.
- Additional evaluation. Once the screening has been completed, the results should be shared with the parents, the child's doctor and the school and staff in the school. If there are legitimate concerns, then there will be more evaluations completed before enrolling that child in special education. This additional evaluation will take about two hours and usually takes place at a location, such as a the early childhood special education room or building of the local school district. This evaluation usually takes place with the child, two early childhood specialists and the child's family. Choose a room that is comfortable for the child and provide toys for the child to play with. The specialists, during this evaluation time, will administer standardized tests to the child. These tests and the observations that take place during the evaluation will be used to determine once and for all if the child should be enrolled in early childhood special education.
- Meeting to discuss results. Once the evaluation has taken place the education specialists have scored the standardized tests and reviewed the observations, another meeting will take place. The parents of the child, the teachers at the school, other support staff from the preschool, and the early childhood special education specialists will meet to discuss the results. If the special education specialists recommend that child qualifies for special education, then the process for enrollment will begin, should the parent give the 'okay' to proceed.
- Individualized Education Plan. Once the child has been approved for early childhood special education, an IEP, or Individual Education Program, will be written for that child. The goals and objectives should be directly related to the delays determined by the evaluation and need to be written in the IEP. Services that are recommended in the IEP do not always include the child being placed in a special education preschool class. Instead, the child may receive services through a therapy program, an inclusive preschool class, or may even be put into a preschool class with younger peers. This will be determined by what is written in the IEP and what is agreed upon by the group meeting to write the IEP.
- Enrollment. Once the paperwork and the eligibility have been determined, the child is officially enrolled in early childhood special education. It is important that everyone involved with the child's education follow the IEP and that the IEP is reviewed often by teachers. Parents should regularly ask for updates on it.
Enrolling a child in early childhood special education can be a very emotional process for parents. During this long process, it is important to remember that the sooner a child receives the assistance he or she may need, the better chance that child will have a successful school career down the road. Early intervention is key!