Power of Inclusive Preschool: Children Benefit When Classes Serve Students of All Abilities

By Zalaznick, Matt | District Administration, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Power of Inclusive Preschool: Children Benefit When Classes Serve Students of All Abilities


Zalaznick, Matt, District Administration


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 school 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 6 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 (DAmag.me/dec). 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. …

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