Finding a Preschool for a Child Who has Special Needs

By Corrie Pelc


Meeting Their Needs

Finding the right preschool for children in which both they and their parents feel comfortable and safe can be a long and tiring process. But when the child has a special need that requires being met, the search can become even more harrowing.


“I think that parents do run into a lot of difficulties a lot of times trying to find child development services for their kids,” says Karen Baas, assistant director of early intervention services at the child development services agency Kidango in Fremont.


“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety that child development staff show when taking children with special needs and a lot of them just don’t have experience with kids with special needs, so I think that’s where the fear and anxiety come from. And once they get used to a child with special needs or they’ve had some experiences, I think a lot of those fears melt away, but for a parent I know that it can be quite challenging.”


Frank G. Bowe, Ph.D., professor in the department of Counseling, Research, Special Education and Rehabilitation at Hofstra University and author of Birth to Five: Early Childhood Special Education, agrees. “Families need to find preschool and other services that provide accommodations to the disabilities of their children. Sometimes that’s easy, but sometimes it’s quite hard. Many families spend an enormous amount of time talking with other families to find possible programs, looking into those programs, negotiating with program administrators, et cetera. All of this can and frequently does take a real toll on families.”


Decision Time

When it comes to finding a preschool for a child who has special needs, in most cases the preschool supplements an early intervention program, explains Peg Hughes, early childhood special education program coordinator with the department of Special Education at San Jose State University. “Say they finish their early invention program where they’re getting all their special needs met with qualified teachers as most of these programs are half a day,” she says. “Then they go into the regular childcare programs that are run by other folks.”


But how can parents decide whether they need to place their child in a standard preschool or a special needs-oriented facility? According to Craig Roberts, executive director of Beginning Steps in San Jose – a school that serves children who have motor disorders such as cerebral palsy – it mainly depends on the disability of the child. “For the moderate special needs where it’s a behavioral issue or learning disability, a good preschool setting could deal with those issues,” he explains. “But for the more severe physical or vision issues and things like that you want them in a program that’s geared toward that diagnosis.”


However, Baas mentions there are positives to both special needs settings and standard preschools. “With specialized programs, those are going to provide specific treatment or specific training to a child’s development, physical or medical challenges, whereas the child development programs provide a natural learning environment and there’s also the big advantage of having typical peers surrounding them,” she says. “There’s advantages to both specialized settings and typical child development settings and the two settings really go hand-in-hand and special needs kids benefit from having both components in their lives a lot of times.” 


And if a parent of a child who has special needs wants to enroll them in a standard preschool, finding a facility that is willing and able to take children who have special needs is becoming easier in the Silicon Valley area thanks to a new training program from the Child Care Coordinating Council (4C’s) that teaches childcare providers how to include children who have special needs into their classrooms.


“The premise of the training is that for a child with special needs, 95 percent of their issues are the same as any other child, but the other 5 percent those services can be accessed elsewhere or those resources can be brought into a typical preschool setting,” explains Theresa Campbell, director of TLC Cupertino, who completed the 4C’s training. “The training mostly was giving ourselves – a typical preschool – access and information as to how to access services. If a particular child presents themselves with a particular need, then we were given the resources through that training on who to call, what resources are out there and step-by-step what to do.”


For teacher Kathryn Randle of Community Preschool in Sunnyvale, taking and completing the training allowed her to both enrich her background and allow the school to better handle student who had special needs. “We’ve had a lot of various disabilities come through our classroom at various degrees, so it was more to enrich our own self and more knowledge for our classroom, too,” she says. “It really gives an assurance to the parents that their child is going to be cared for just like they should be.”


Tips to Go By

So whether parents plan to place their child in a special needs-oriented setting or a standard preschool, what do they need to know and ask about?


“A parent who has a special needs child would start off with the same questions that a parent of a typically developing child would have,” Campbell says. “In other words come in and visit, get the feel for the school. If it feels warm and nurturing to you then that’s probably what it is. If you feel that it’s not, then it probably isn’t – try to get a gut feeling.”


Additionally, parents need to think about what their child’s special needs are and have to have a comfort level with the school’s staff, Roberts says. “Parents of kids with special needs, especially the younger kids, want to be guarded with what their kids are going to be doing and so they need to feel warm and fuzzy that the staffing is adequately able to deal with their child’s special needs in all areas, from outside free play to classroom time,” he explains. “And in some cases special needs are medical concerns – feeding tubes and things like that – and so they need to be able to have confidence that can be taken care of.”


When visiting preschools, Hughes advises parents to bring their child’s special education teacher with them. “Part of their job is to work with (the child’s) providers so they can spend as much time and coach, teach and collaborate and go in and model and demonstrate little ways to work with kids,” she explains. “They’re the best resource for actual instruction to the (preschool) provider.”


Bowe also advises parents to talk to others in a similar situation. “Families have told me over the years that they really value what they learn from other families,” he says. “That’s why professionals try to put them in touch with local, state and national parent groups. The family members need to know what their rights are, what is and is not available and what is and is not realistic to ask for. A lot of that they learn from other families.”


But most of all, Randle tells parents to not be afraid to talk to their child’s teachers about the child’s special needs as communication is the most important thing you can use. “A lot of times parents are afraid to share their information with the teachers for fear that their child’s going to be labeled,” she says. “They should take that fear away because if you hide something from the teacher, they’re not sure what’s going on and they may not be able to help your child unless they know what’s going on. I think teachers have changed their attitude over the years and I think today we know a lot more than we did say 10 years ago. I know I certainly do.”



Assessing Infants and Preschoolers with Special Needs, by Mary E. McLean, Mark Wolery and Donald B. Bailey, Prentice Hall, 2003.


Birth to Five: Early Childhood Special Education, by Frank G. Bowe, Thomson Learning, 1999.


Children with Special Needs in Early Childhood Set, by Lola Gorrill and Bev Strom, Delmar Learning, 2003.


Educating Young Children with Special Needs, by Louise Porter, Chapman Paul Publishing, 2002.


The Inclusive Early Childhood Classroom: Easy Ways to Adapt Learning Centers for All Children, by Patti Gould and Joyce Sullivan, Gryphon House, 1999.


Parents and Schools: Creating a Successful Partnership for Students with Special Needs, by Thomas M. Shea and Anne M. Bauer, Prentice Hall, 2002.


Widening the Circle: Including Children with Disabilities in Preschool Programs, by Samuel L. L. Odom, Paula J. Beckman and Marci J. Hanson, Teachers College Press, 2002.



California Association for the Education of Young Children – Sacramento, 916-486-7750,


California Head Start Association – Sacramento, 916-444-7760,


Community Childcare Coordinating Council – (4C’s)

Fremont/Union City, 510-790-0655. Castro Valley/Hayward/Newark/San Lorenzo/San Leandro (Alameda Co.), 510-582-2182. San Mateo County, 650-655-6777. Santa Clara County, 408-487-0749.


Preschool California – Oakland, 510-271-0075,