Visit to the Special Ed Preschool

This morning Michael and I, along with Finn, visited the special ed preschool class in which Finn’s IEP “team” (sans parents; I use the term “team” extremely loosely since there has been no collaborative effort from day 1 of this process) recommends he be placed, post-haste.

It’s true that, for a variety of reasons, we have already decided that we are leaning against placing Finn in any preschool program at this time, and it’s also true that we (or at least I, maybe more so than Michael) have our hackles up about a segregated special ed program.  That said, I really wanted and attempted to go into this morning’s visit with an open mind.

Finn’s IEP “team,” in their last communication with us (see here), offered to make arrangements for us to visit the preschool program they are recommending for Finn.  Given the adversarial nature of our relationship to date, however, I didn’t want to make the arrangements through the “team,” and figured we were pretty capable of contacting the school and making the arrangements ourselves.  So a couple weeks ago I contacted the school, a Title 1 school, and was put in touch with the school psychologist to arrange to visit the preschool class.

In an interesting turn of events, it turns out that this particular school psychologist has replaced the psychologist originally on Finn’s IEP “team” (I know, it’s irritating seeing those quotes around “team” all the time, but I will keep using them until the “team” actually starts being a team that values us, Finn’s parents, as members), and she is the mother of a classmate/friend of Joey’s.  I don’t know at this point if this is a good or a bad thing (or meaningless), but I did think it might be worth some name-dropping this morning when we met with her.

Anyway, she was nice enough (maybe friendlier, knowing that her son and our son are friends/classmates?).  She oohed and ahhed over Finn (I’ve gotten used to this, but still rarely know how to take it) and took us over to the special ed preschool classroom.

My initial internal reaction was, “Well, this doesn’t seem so bad.”  In a lot of ways, it looked like a typical preschool classroom, with lots of artwork on the walls, toys and books and little tables and chairs.  There were twelve children in the class, ranging in age from 3 to 5, and there was one teacher and two aides.  There was a section of tables and chairs in the center of the classroom where most of the children were sitting, each engaged in a different activity: one was painting, one was playing with a puzzle, one was banging some kind of toy on the table, one was looking at a book, etc.  Two children at a time were pulled from the group and taken to “stations” at the periphery of the classroom where they received specialized instruction in 10-15 minute segments (I believe one of them was receiving speech therapy, and the other station involved a computer).  I could see that two of the children had Down syndrome; the rest of the children appeared to have varying diagnoses.  There were no “typical” children in the class.

It took a few minutes of being there to start getting a sense of what I didn’t like about it:

  • There are no typical children in the class; no typically developing peer models.
  • There did not seem to be a real sense of cohesiveness to the class.  Because there are varying diagnoses/needs/ability levels/behavior issues among the children, to a large degree it seemed like the teacher and aides were engaging in crowd control (not that it’s a big crowd; it is a small class, which is a plus), trying to keep each child occupied and on task.  But each child was engaged in a different activity, I assume based on that child’s IEP (??).  We were only there for a half hour, but we didn’t see any group activities or any interaction between the children.
  • Neither the teacher nor the aides seemed particularly warm, and in fact, seemed a little harsh at times.  I saw the teacher and one of the aides, at different times, grab different children’s hands, say “Hands down!” sternly, and rather roughly move their hands away from whatever it was they weren’t supposed to be touching.  Frankly, I’m not at all keen on my kid being manhandled like that.
  • This is a five-days-a week, five-plus-hours-a-day preschool program.  All the children in the class attend full-time.  There doesn’t seem to be an option for fewer days or hours of attendance.
The psychologist spoke to us as if Finn’s imminent attendance in this program is a given, and when I mentioned that we’re still not sure what we’re going to do and that we may even wait another year to put him in (any) preschool, we got the whole speech about how important early intervention is.  “The earlier you start addressing their issues, the more benefit.”  Blah blah blah.

Look, I know from a purely clinical standpoint, there is truth to this theory.  But I hate this line of thinking more and more all the time, for so many reasons.  First of all, it seems like every “expert” who has tried to sell us on this “fact” has come by their “expertise” by training and not by first-hand observation and experience as a parent of a child with Down syndrome.  The same way that obstetricians are trained to believe that highly interventive hospital births are by and large the safest option for having babies, SLPs are trained to believe that formal speech therapy from infancy is the best way to overcome speech issues, physical therapists are trained to believe that if not for their intervention, children with Down syndrome would come by their gross motor skills much later, and in the wrong way, and special ed teachers are trained to believe that kids with developmental delays of all varieties belong in special ed classrooms promptly at age 3.  I just can’t buy into this wholeheartedly.  Sure, this is true for some kids in some situations, but it’s not a one-size fits all proposition.  And it overlooks the value of organic learning that comes from just being loved and cared for and fully included in a family and that family’s experiences.

Also, this line of thinking promulgates the whole cultural belief that kids like Finn are a set of problems and issues to be addressed and fixed.  He is a human being, not a problem that I want a lifetime spent on trying to fix, or make as “normal” as possible.  Frankly, “normal” is an ideal that I don’t think he should have to spend his life trying to achieve; it only sets him up for failure and promotes the attitude that he’s defective.  This is not to say that certain supports at certain times throughout his life won’t benefit him, but I’m just weary of this whole notion that speech therapy is going to fix his speech, and occupational therapy is going to fix his fine motor skills and physical therapy is going to fix his gross motor skills, and special ed is going to . . .  what?  He’s always going to have Down syndrome, and this means certain things that can’t be changed.  I accept that, with all my heart.  It seems like it’s everyone else who can’t accept that.  Let’s try to improve him.  Let’s try to fix him.  Let’s try to make him as close to “normal” as possible, and then maybe, just maybe, he will be more acceptable.

I digress.  Obviously, this is an emotionally charged issue for me.  And I guess it goes without saying that I’m not sure.  Of course I’m not.  This whole thing would not be such a struggle for me if I were sure about everything.  Am I selling Finn short?  Am I overshooting?  In my heart of hearts, I don’t know.

Anyway.  The school psychologist explained to us that there is actually another special ed preschool class that is categorized as “mild to moderate” (this one, the one recommended for Finn, is “moderate to severe”), and the main differences between the two are that: (1) the kids in the “mild to moderate” class are fairly verbal, (2) they are toilet trained, and (3) there are more kids in the class and only one teacher and one aide, so a higher student-to-teacher ratio.  This explains why the IEP “team” wants Finn placed in the “moderate to severe” class: he’s not toilet trained (truth be told, we have not even attempted it yet, but I am psyching myself up to tackle it in the near future), and he has little speech (though, I have to say, he is picking up words left and right lately, it’s been pretty amazing to see just how verbal he has become in the last couple of months – and with no speech therapy!  Imagine that.).

She also told us that the goal is to have the kids “mainstreamed” by kindergarten (and in special ed, kindergarten starts promptly at age 5, period; the powers that be see no benefit in some parents perhaps wanting to delay kindergarten for a year as many parents of typically developing kids do).  Now, for those of you who may be under a widely held misconception, “mainstreaming” and “inclusion” are two entirely different animals.  “Inclusion” means that the child is in a regular classroom with regular, typically developing peers, full-time.  They may have an aide, and they may get pulled out of class for things like speech therapy and the like, but they are enrolled in a regular classroom.  A lot of lay people think this is “mainstreaming,” but it’s not.  “Mainstreaming” is when a child is enrolled in a separate, special ed class, and is allowed to spend limited periods of time each day or each week with the typical kids.  The school psychologist told us today that for this particular preschool program, the goal is to have them “mainstreamed” by kindergarten, which she explained specifically to mean that in kindergarten they spend 30 minutes a day (or less) with their typically developing peers.

Sigh.  So where does all of this leave us?  Good question.  What I can say is that what we saw today, and what the school psychologist explained to us about how his future education might look through the eyes of the school district is just not what I envision – or would like to envision – for Finn.  We visited the preschool program today so that we could go to the next meeting with the IEP “team” and be able to articulate our thoughts about their recommendations.  I’m not in favor of this placement for Finn; I think it is very possible, and not unrealistic or unreasonable to think that he could start preschool in a year at some type of preschool with typical peer models, perhaps do two years of preschool, and maybe start kindergarten, fully included in a regular kinder classroom at our home school, by the time he’s 6.

As it stands right now, we have been waiting two weeks to hear back from the IEP “team” about scheduling a meeting.

And that’s all I have to say about that.  For now.  

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16 Comments on “Visit to the Special Ed Preschool”

  1. Tricia Theis Rogalski
    September 13, 2011 at 2:50 am #

    Lisa, I like your “digression” paragraph. My thoughts exactly.

    Just curious, have you looked into private preschools yet? For when you are ready to send FInn? I have several friends here in MD who have their kids in Montessori and Waldorf ($$ around here, but not everywhere) and they love it.

    • Lisa
      September 13, 2011 at 3:37 am #

      Tricia, I have not as yet, but do plan to look into private preschool programs over the next few months. I know montessori is an option, and there is also a community based co-op preschool that several of my friends have sent their “typical” kids to for preschool that might be an option.

      • Tricia Theis Rogalski
        September 13, 2011 at 4:42 am #

        Yeah…I meant to say that there are plenty of local families (to me) sending their kids to the various and sundry church (your fave!) and neighborhood preschools around here, too. I feel very lucky to have G in the program she is in. I don’t know why each state is so different!

  2. Gina
    September 13, 2011 at 3:33 am #

    Lisa, I have never commented on your blog, but I have been a follower (and admirer!) for quite a while. Guess I just never had an input before. I just wanted to throw this out there. As a past job, I worked as a home care assistant to young people with disabilities. One of the young people I worked with was a man who was just finishing up high school, he was 21 and his parents were in the same type of predicament. (I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, but I wasn’t there when he was younger) They were faced with the decision of what to do with a severely autistic son while they continued to work, and have as little disruption to all of their lives as possible. Ultimately the decision was that he would “work” (if you can call it that) in a workshop with other adults with disabilities at a facility designed just for that purpose.
    Throughout his entire life, and school career he had been included in everything that his normal functioning peers had been doing, including two older brothers. (School, boy scouts, prom, baseball team) so he was used to a normal lifestyle, with the typical interruptions for therapies as needed and all was done with the help of his parents, and school aides. This workshop was only disabled people, and he knew it. He did not want to be included in a room full of people that were screaming and pounding and needing their diapers changed, etc. He didn’t see himself as “One of them”. In the end, he rebelled, and digressed so much in behavior management that he was pulled from that program and stayed at home with the help of more health aides. I believe the decision his parents made to treat him as an equal to the other children really helped him to see himself that way.

  3. Lisa
    September 13, 2011 at 4:18 am #

    I think it’s great that you both visited the program. And it’s great that you can see the advantages and disadvantages to it. As a side note, it was interesting that at Sheridan’s IEP the school psychologist said that Sheridan is headed for a general education kindergarden class, but then also use the word mainstream in the same breath. When I asked for clarification, the team said they were looking at general ed (I’m assuming that’s “inclusion”) but in all honesty I didn’t push on it. It’s not written in his IEP anywhere (but we did formally state that our goal is for Sheridan to be fully included in his neighborhood or the charter public Waldorf kindergardens – neither schools have special education classrooms on site – and everyone talked about how great those schools would be for Sheridan). In the end, I felt we were on the same page (or at least close enough to it) that I didn’t worry about kindergarden placement discussions at this point. But that will definitely become much more important as he gets older.

    One last thing, before Sheridan was born everything I read about education for boys (again, you know I’m a research hound) indicated that boys benefit from an extra year before entering kindergarden. Sheridan turns 5 right at the beginning of the school year – so he’d be one of the youngest kiddos in his class (not inherently a bad thing, but something that definitely makes me think about taking an extra year for a pre-K).

  4. Amy
    September 13, 2011 at 5:42 am #

    Hi Lisa, my daughter attends 1st grade and has a girl with DS in her class. She is included in the main classroom for a good part of the day. I would say at least half of the day if not more. She has an aide that is with her all day/everywhere she goes. She attends specials (art, PE, library, etc.) with the class and eats with them in the lunch room. She plays with them on the playground and is considered a part of the class. Their teacher talked to the class about Hanna before she came to class. She explained what DS is and said it takes her a little longer to learn things so she gets extra help. That was it, she is “one of them”. The kids know her, play with and talk to her just as it should be. She does leave and go to a Special ED classroom for the rest of the time. This is all relayed to me by my 6 year old 🙂 I couldn’t get major details from her except to say that my daughter thinks no differently about her. She talks about her just as she does her other friends. She is INCLUDED and given the extras she needs to be treated like her peers. So there is hope. I don’t know much about her disabilities, is she high functioning? Is it possible that not all other DS kids are treated this way if their disabilities are too severe? I don’t know since my experience with this School District is limited since my little girl is my first school-ager. But I am happy with what I see so far in this respect. We live in AZ, not sure what the options are for where you live. Good Luck with your decision! Amy

    • Lisa
      September 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

      Amy, it really varies from school district to school district. At the heart of it seems to be (a) funding, and (b) the attitudes and philosophies of school district personnel in charge of special ed. Unfortunately, parents are at the whim of these factors.

  5. jen
    September 14, 2011 at 1:54 am #

    I’m really interested in the way you question the status quo. It should always be questioned.
    I would like to point you to a few areas of research. I haven’t read them and I don’t know what their position may be. I’m not trying to pick sides in any way here. They’re just examples of work that address an issue that you seem to be questioning, so maybe they could help?
    1. Numeracy for adults with Down syndrome: It’s a matter of quality of life. Faragher, Rhonda; Brown, R. I. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, Vol 49(10), Oct 2005, 761-765. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2788.2005.00747.x
    2. Quality of life. Therapies and rehabilitation in Down syndrome. Baccichetti, Carlo, Rondal, Jean-Adolphe (Ed); Rasore-Quartino, Alberto (Ed), (2007). Therapies and rehabilitation in Down syndrome, (pp. 195-205). New York, NY, US: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, xiv, 214 pp.
    3. Effectiveness of early intervention for children with Down syndrome. Hines, Stefani; Bennett, Forrest. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, Vol 2(2), 1996, 96-101. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2779(1996)2:23.0.CO;2-V (also talks about quality of life)

    • Lisa
      September 14, 2011 at 3:40 am #

      Thanks, Jen. Not sure what these are – books? How did you come across these, just out of curiosity? Do you have a personal interest in this topic?

      • jen
        September 15, 2011 at 12:44 am #

        They’re journal articles in nerdy journals. I’m in a different but related field. It’s the kind of research that programs are supposed to eventually be based on if the system is working right – not sure how much they really are. I have access to the PDFs, not sure how to get them to you though…. And I’m sure they’re terribly boring anyway. 🙂 You can probably find the abstract by typing the title in google.

  6. Hannah
    September 14, 2011 at 3:39 am #

    Hi Lisa,

    I have just stumbled on your blog recently (all the way from Sydney Australia) and I must say I am hooked. I have a son Flynn who is 4 and happens to have Down Syndrome. This post really got me thinking about the choices I make for Flynn. I have chosen to use all “private” therapists here which basically means I get to choose when they see Flynn, how often they see him for, and have a large say in what the goals are that we are working on. I did this because I could not understand why Flynn should have to be placed on a waiting list to attend a group therapy session, to be “fixed”. Our therapists are engaged with Flynn, know and love him and our family and really make a big difference to our lives. Because this process has worked so well for us, I approached pre-school in much the same way. It had to feel right to my husband and I. We have been incredibly fortunate to be able to enrol Flynn in a local community pre-school where he is fully “included” with the support of the most beautiful aide I could have hoped for. Although Flynn still relies heavily on using key word sign to communicate his pre-school overcame this by educating all staff and children at the school. Whenever you “drop-in” to the centre you will see the children either singing and signing or the teacher reading a story using signing, so that Flynn can fully participate and answer questions.

    I think for me though the highlight has been that Flynn is engaged with “typical” peers. They have provided him with amazing role models and I know this beats any type of therapy I could offer him. As Flynn is getting older they are now implementing peer supported learning where Flynn is paired with one of his classmates and together they work on a learning activity. This process is providing Flynn with more and more independence, not to mention a big boost to his confidence.

    To me, Flynn appears a well liked member of his pre-school classroom, yes his peers will sometimes ask questions about why he doesn’t talk as much as they do, or how come he can’t yet ride a bike, and I am more than happy to answer these. I must say though that more often than not the kids are to busy playing together to notice his Ds. Flynn has made 2 best friends who he absolutely adores, and who run to him the second they see him on school mornings. Again, as this is a chosen pre-school placement we have enrolled Flynn only 2 days a week (what “typical” 4 year old attends 5 days a week, and to be honest Flynn would be so tired that it would be a waste of time).

    I guess my point to this rambling is absolutely trust your instincts. From reading your blog, you obviously love your children deeply, and you will make the right choice when it is necessary. At the end of the day no-one will know Finn’s capabilities like you will, so trust in that knowledge and use it to offer him the best opportunities you can, the same as you will for his brothers and sisters.


    • Lisa
      September 14, 2011 at 3:48 am #

      Thank you, Hannah! I really appreciate your perspective and kind words!

  7. Bill and Ria
    September 14, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Hi Lisa! I admire how you think things through and not settle for the status quo, especially if it doesn’t sit well with you. A mother’s instinct is better than any expert’s when it comes to her own children. We chose to place Matthew in the special ed program in our area. I am surprised that in your area, preschool is for so many hours in a day and all week. That does seem awfully long for a preschooler. Matthew goes 4 days a week and for only 3 hours in the morning. They made some changes this year cutting class size down from 12 to 6. But unlike last year, the class does not have any peer models this year in his class. A couple other classes still have peer models. The absence of a peer model in his class didn’t sit well with me either although the teacher and speech therapist has said that they are making greater gains in communication with fewer kids in the class. My goal is to enroll him in private Kindergarten when the time is right. I guess my approach was to have special ed as a stepping stone in some way.
    I wish you all the best in your decision! One size does not fit all and I’m sure you will be able to provide Finn the best opportunities for him to maximize his potentials.

  8. starrlife
    September 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Hey there! Kayli has always been in an inclusion setting with break out SLP and no PT, some OT and had typical friends. We both are employed outside the home and thus she has been in full time pre-school since before she could walk much less toilet trained! Not day care – school. She is born in Sept so she was 5 in K. and we decided to keep her an extra year so that she could get a bit of an edge going into 1st. That worked really well. She knows a lot of kids and parents from pre-school in her classes and is in an afterschool program 4 days a week with mixed grades. This is helpful since she often makes friends with kids a bit younger than her. However, she still has friends with kids she met in pre-school and they are totally accepting of her, often understand her language when others do not and act as mentors in social groups. We presented ed re: DS to her 4th grade class and that was helpful and we had started discussing it with her as well about that time. So far does not seem to faze her.
    Push back hard for what you want and make the school system pay for it!
    That being said- we did have EI (but not pushed down our throats) and I think it was helpful but most helpful was the sign language for speech I think (If you want the signing times vids let me know). I believe that the school paid for part of Kayli’s pre-school, most of it, but I would’ve been willing to pay for all of it- it was well worth it. I really think that Kayli was well prepped for school. However, you have lots of other kids and we only have the one so we really needed the social piece to balance things out!
    It’s a lot of work but will be worth it I think in the end to find the right path for Finn, whatever works for him. And you will make the right decision I have no doubt.


  1. Another Footnote in the Ongoing School District Saga | Life As I Know It - September 23, 2011

    […] and I visited the proposed preschool placement on our own, which I wrote about here.  We followed up that visit with an email to the “Program Coordinator” (I don’t […]

  2. WE FOUND A PRESCHOOL FOR FINN!!! | Life As I Know It - March 21, 2012

    […] wanted him to attend all day (6+ hours/day) five days a week (at three years old!).  Michael and I visited the class and it just wasn’t at all what we wanted for Finn.  In the end, we decided to forego any […]

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