Toolkit: Looking for a Classroom for a Child with Special Needs

Identifying an appropriate classroom environment for your child can feel overwhelming. There are so many programs from which to choose. It is a good idea to try to see a few classrooms in action before making a decision about placement. This gives you a means to compare different environments, teaching styles, and strategies to find the most appropriate fit for your child.

You may consider first visiting the program without your child. This will allow you to focus on the school environment. Some programs offer the option of a follow-up visit. During this visit, you can bring your child to see how he or she responds to the environment, teaching staff, and other children.

Parents as Experts
As a parent, you have the primary relationship with your child. Therefore, you are the expert about your child. It is important that you be involved in the decision-making process about classroom placement. It is possible that you may not find the perfect classroom, but as you learn more about your child’s strengths and needs and what is available, you will be able to select the most suitable match.

Public and private school options are available in every county. There is often wide variability in philosophy and structure of programs, though all programs are required to follow guidelines based on their specific licensing agency, such as the California Department of Education or California Community Care Licensing. To maintain a consistent approach for your child, it is important that your philosophy is in alignment with the school’s.

If your child is eligible for special education services after age three, the Individual Education Plan (IEP) team, which includes you, will work together to determine an appropriate school placement. It is still important to try to observe these classrooms in action before making a final decision .

The following provides classroom descriptions, and questions to ask so you can more easily make an informed decision.

Classroom Descriptions
Classrooms vary widely by program and school district. The following descriptions will give you a general idea of what to expect. You will still need to contact programs in your area for more specific information. Generally, it’s best to call in advance to schedule classroom observations.

Early Intervention Classes: Parents often participate in these classes. This gives you the opportunity to interact with other parents of children with special needs. And you can work with a team of professionals to learn more about your child’s strengths, needs, and strategies, which can support his or her development. Professionals may include an early childhood special educator, speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and nurse, psychologist, or social worker. Eligibility and services are determined by the Regional Center team in your county.

Pre-Kindergarten Special Day Class: These classes serve children eligible for special education services. A California credentialed early childhood special educator teaches them with support from two to three aides, depending on the level of students’ needs. Enrollment generally consists of eight to twelve students. These classes may be cross-categorical. This means that they serve children with a wide range of disabilities. Or they may be divided into disability-specific categories, such as a classroom for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders. This varies by school district. Occupational and physical therapists, as well as speech and language pathologists, provide services based on each student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), which is developed with your local school district.

Typical Preschool Environment: Generally, preschool classrooms serve children between the ages of two-and-a-half and five years of age. Class sizes range from twelve to twenty children. Adult-to-child ratios depend on the age of the children enrolled and the size of the group. California requires at least a 1:12 ratio in all preschool classrooms. However, organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) require lower ratios for higher quality programming.

Both half- and full-day programs are available. Philosophies vary widely among programs, but should provide activities that support all areas of development. By law, programs may not deny enrollment to a child based on his or her disabilities. In considering a typical preschool for your child, you will want to ask a lot of questions to ensure that the program can provide the needed support to meet your child’s developmental needs.

Related Articles:

Getting Started with Services for Your Child: Birth to Three Years Old

Timeline for Transitioning from Early Intervention to Preschool Special Education

Individualized Education Program (IEP) » Links & Resources