Choosing a Kindergarten, Preschool or Primary School

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In early October Parents Education Network sponsored a Saturday morning discussion on the process of choosing a Preschool or Kindergarten for a child who has special needs. The focus was FINDING THE RIGHT MATCH.

Two professionals working in San Francisco took the stage for the first half and four parents were highlighted during the latter part of the morning.  Both segments were chock a block full of advice.

Starting the morning off were:

Leslie Roffman, Director of The Little School in San Francisco. In her preschool, each year 15%  of the new class has special needs.  She refers to these children as “bumpy kids”. Ms. Roffman has written a book on the topic; Including One, Including All: A Guide to Relationship-Based Early Childhood Inclusion.

Fiona Zecca, MA has an extensive experience including handling special needs students at the San Francisco Unified School District. Currently, she is a consultant and offers Sensory Social Playgroups.

Their presentation began with an upbeat statement:  There exists a school for every child.  The caveat is that there is no perfect school.

Now, to their recommendations andcomments for parents:

1.       Come up with a sane plane for identifying a preschool or kindergarten.  One that includes your fondest hopes/dreams along with a realistic statement of what you would accept.  In other words, broaden your point of view.

2.       Be willing to see your child clearly.  Parents tend to overestimate their child’s
capabilities. Take time to imagine them in a school setting and assess what you feel is the best they will do along with the worst. Remember a school environment for a bumpy child is much more demanding than the home environment.  Ask yourself the question:  Does your child need a more supportive learning environment? Nothing is more exhausting for both parent and child if the child is simply trying to keep up in the learning environment.

3.      Research and experience has shown that the emotional state of parents impacts the child.

4.       The Little School is looking for parents who trust and support the school and are willing to be involved.

5.       Visiting potential schools:

a)  Make a list of the bumpy child’s strengths and challenges using the following categories to organize your thoughts: social, emotional, learning skills, sensory behavior, and physical challenges as well as attributes. One way to assess your child’s need, in part, is to watch how your child interacts at a birthday party.  Does he or she seek the stimulation or prefer to be quiet?

b) When visiting a potential Preschool use this check list and complete during your visit:

Environment: If your child is one that needs space, does the preschool offer this?  Is there a break area where the child can have his or her own space? Is the environment visually over loaded or very organized?  What variety of seats do they offer: comfortable chairs, carpeted floor, colorful balls etc.  What does your child respond best to?

Curriculum:  Find out what is the curriculum and see what it might mean to your child. If your child is stronger in learning than social interaction, perhaps you want an academic environment.

Structure:  how many transitions in a day are there?   Is there a warning to the youngsters before the transition?  Does your child need breaks? Ms.Roffman has found that bumpy kids usually are best in a consistent environment.

Philosophy of the school:   Is there an overall plan or is the process individualized?  Is it okay if the child fidgets?

Social/emotional curriculum: Is the school only academic or is there a social component?  Is it okay to have a learning difference? Is it okay to make a mistake?   What is the school’s approach to different learning styles? Do they adapt the curriculum to the learning style?

How does the school work with families?  Are they open to this?

Now comes crafting the plan for determining which preschool or elementary school to approach.  You need several options for your child.

1.       Pre-school:  if you have a child who is going to need more support, apply to more schools.

2.       Elementary: Elementary schools require screenings/interviews. If you apply to many of them be aware that this will put extra stress on your bumpy child.

With screenings the bumpy child is likely not to do his or her best. It’s etter to describe your child’s difficulties as well as their strong points in advance. Parents who reveal to the schools during the application process that their child has a learning challenge usually have a better relationship  with the schools than those who don’t reveal. Ms. Roffman stated that she has never seen an educator who pays more attention to reports than the screening. To prepare your child for the screening, in advance of the screening, go to the school with your child and play on the playground. Take pictures of the school and put them on your refrigerator.  When starting kindergarten, cut out all outside activities.

Be sure to have a mix of schools to approach including a) your neighborhood school (caveat: if you like it), b) school you think would be most supportive for your  child c) fondest hope and wish d) a school that’s better than your least favorite school.  And, if you have a bumpy kid, include a good number of public schools.

Research the San Francisco Unified School District website:  

Finally, pre-school and elementary schools will accept bumpy kids within the limits of who they can teach. In other words, they take kids they can understand. They are more likely to take bumpy kids when they sense the parents will partner with them.

The second part of the morning involved four parents who have bumpy kids. The overall message was:  there is a lot of agony in the process but in the end the child seems to end up in the right place.  Have faith, it will work out.

The following are a few of their comments.

  • Sometimes parents get so anxious over the process that it becomes anxiety for its own sake. It was strongly recommended that parents find networks of other parents who are going through the same process.  Learn from each other,  gather intelligence from each other.  Two organizations to approach are:

Parents for Public Schools:

Support for

Several of the parents discovered that the San Francisco Unified School System has a more inclusive and varied program for bumpy kids than private schools.  And, they are more accommodating to the parents points of view.  It is also financially much more attractive.Parents of kids enrolled in private schools may need to finance extra help for their child.  During the interview be sure to ask what special services the private school offers.

A couple of the parents recommended getting the child evaluated as soon as it appears the child is struggling. The SF Unified School System offers the testing process which provides an IEP, Individualized Education Program, for parents and others. The child must be 3 years or older to be tested. One parent approached the preschools with an IEP in hand. They got their 4th choice in public school.  It is working out well and they re-evaluate each year. The child is smart and intelligent but doesn’t deal well with transitions.  They find the educators are willing to hear from the parents and have the goal of their child being successful.

One parent recommended developing a script for approaching each school. She tried her script out at a Catholic School.  It included what she thought the school would discover challenging about her child and said she was willing to partner with them.

One parent re-iterated what the professionals had said earlier:  Make sure you know and see your child as he or she really is, not as you want them to be.  Be prepared that the teachers and educators may have a different idea of what is best for your child.  Don’t put your eggs all in one basket.  Apply to several public and private schools.

One parent describing the emotional journey recommended channeling the anxiety into the information gathering process. Support groups for parents are important.

Remember, check your ego at the door.  Apply to the schools that are the best for your child.

One parent summed it up.  Your choices are important but not irrevocable.  Your decisions are a work in progress.