Choosing the Right Preschool Program for Your Child with Special Needs

by Joshua Metz, MSW

Choosing a preschool for a toddler is an exciting time for a family. Open houses are attended. Friends are queried for their preferences or experiences. Online research is conducted. Credentials are considered. Family schedules are reviewed to determine the right days or time.

Many families go into this process with an idea of what their priorities are for their child’s first education experience. Pre-academic exposure is considered, as is opportunities for the development of social skills (sharing, peer play, group dynamics). All of these priorities (and many more that parents consider each year) can be boiled down to the same question: “Which Preschool is right for my child?”

For the family of a child with special needs resulting from a developmental delay or autism spectrum challenge, finding the right preschool can take on even greater importance. Can the preschool support the child’s unique needs? Will he or she be welcomed by the other children? Do the teachers and staff have any special education training?

Special education preschool programs offered through public elementary schools are the answer to many families who have sought help through County early intervention programs (e.g. Child Find). Following an assessment to determine eligibility, children are provided with specialized instruction and environments designed to target the individual challenges of each child. They can also provide additional services to the child and family, including speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy, and resources for parents (e.g. parent support and education groups).

Some families are looking for alternatives to public school programs, or may wish to augment the public school program with a private preschool program.

When considering a public or private preschool program for the child with special needs, here are some things to keep in mind:

Social & emotional development through play is emphasized over pre-academic skills.
A preschool program rich in play and social experience should be sought over one that emphasizes pre-academic skills. Providing young children with opportunities to engage in play-based activities that foster social and emotional development is a critical foundation for future academic success. Research shows that optimal child development occurs in the context of social relationships and interactions that solidify newly acquired skills and challenges the child to master new skills. For the child who has difficulty communicating or engaging in social relationships, such an environment is even more important. He/she might be very good at math or even reading as a toddler, but may lag behind peers in the pretend play or shared activities. An environment rich in play and opportunities for interaction works to shore up these social deficits.

Balancing structure and flexibility in classroom routines.
All children benefit from structure and routine in their lives, especially preschoolers. Bedtime is easier when a routine is followed. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided at regularly scheduled times and in the same setting. At the same time, flexibility in schedules and structure provides the child with the experience of “newness” and change in routines that are part of daily life. Preschool programs should strive to strike the right balance between structure (all children sit for circle time or snack) and flexibility (providing a child with a ball to bounce on instead of a chair, or allowing a child to take a break to calm down).

Small classroom sizes.
A small class size provides the child with special needs with greater opportunities for individualized support and assistance in successfully navigating the classroom environment. Teachers are more available and can develop a richer understanding of the child’s strengths and challenges. Smaller classes sizes also provide an opportunity for peer models and one-on-one interactions play interactions.

Collaboration is encouraged and supported.
Fostering a collaborative partnership with preschool staff helps to ensure productive communication and feedback on the child’s experience in the classroom. Preschool staff should be willing to work with parents on establishing and monitoring goals for their child in the classroom. Parent involvement in the classroom should also be encouraged. Therapists or professionals working with the child should be welcomed into the classroom to observe and offer support to the staff, particularly when specific behaviors or issues arise that need a more collective approach.

Staff training and experience.
Parents should take time to learn about the experience and training received by the preschool staff. . A background in special education is important, but should not be the only criteria one looks for in a preschool program. Experience and tenure in staff helps to create continuity in how programs are structured and maintained. Ongoing training and opportunities for staff development should be available through teacher in-services or outside institutions.

These are but a few of the considerations that families should make when exploring preschool opportunities for their child with developmental delays and/or autism spectrum challenges. For more information on early childhood education and preschool programs, see the following web sites:

National Institute for Early Education Research (

National Association for the Education of Young Children (