Despite the fact that there has been much litigation with parents prevailing on the issue of inclusive preschools and much guidance from the Department of Education, this issue continues to be very prevalent. Schools persist in their lack of understanding that simply offering an self-contained early chldhood placement does not discharge their LRE obligations. More than 700,000 preschool children in this country, or 6.4% of the preschool population, have been identified as having special needs. And research has made it clear that many of these children will benefit from inclusive preschool placements where they can learn with and from their non-disabled peers. Four reviews of the literature undertaken since 1980 indicate that children with special needs placed in inclusive settings make at least as much progress on standardized measures of cognitive, language, motor, and social development as children in self-contained special education settings. According to researchers, inclusive placements afford preschool children with special needs learning opportunities that they will not have in a non-inclusive setting. In addition, some researchers feel that placement in non-special education settings is simply the right and ethical thing to do for these children and their families.
OSEP (Office of Special Education Programs) has made it clear that lack of school-run preschools does not absolve school districts from their obligation to educate special needs preschoolers in the LRE. In a February letter from OSEP, school districts are reminded not only of their statutory requirements regarding preschoolers, but also told to be creative in finding alternatives for those young students for whom inclusive settings (defined as a program in which at least 50% of participants are non-disabled) will be beneficial. In securing a non-inclusive setting for a preschool child with special needs, school districts should consider the appropriateness of a kindergarten placement, Head Start programs, public or private preschool programs, community-based child development centers or care facilities, or a child’s home. If the district determines that a private preschool program is most appropriate, it must be paid for by the school district and not the family to ensure FAPE.
It’s obviously not enough to simply place a preschooler in an inclusive setting and assume all will be well. The IEP team must plan for success. Many modifications may need to be considered, including environmental adaptations, instructional or curricular modifications, specialized instructional strategies, peer supports, team teaching strategies, assistive technology, or additional adults in the classroom. These adults may be special ed aids, special education teachers, or itinerant service providers. A child’s therapy and other related services can also be provided within the classroom. Classroom teachers and support staff will also need specific support, including training, in order to address IEP goals within the classroom. With everything properly in place, the special needs preschooler can hopefully learn and play alongside his or her non-disabled peers.