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Kindergarten for Child with Special Needs
Q: I have a daughter who just turned five last month. We adopted her from a Russian orphanage when she was 21 months old. She had a great deal of sensory deprivation. She was diagnosed with amblyopia and had surgery at 32 months. She is doing great. Equal vision in both eyes. She spent this past year in our school districts special needs preschool. She has met most of her goals for the year. She is sociable, engaging, bright, and compassionate. She knows her letters and numbers and works on the computer. She has the vocabulary of a 7-year-old. She has worked with a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist this year. The staff at the school has said that since her fine motor skills are still lacking, she doesn't ask enough "W" questions, and she doesn't always stay involved with what she is doing when other things in the classroom are happening, she needs to stay in the developmental program for kindergarten.
We are not sold on this program in particular, since our daughter does not seem to fit the makeup of the rest of the kids. She will be put into a program with low IQ kids and English as second language kids. We feel that this will hold her back. We have been told that we will lose the speech and OT services if we want to mainstream her.
It's very late, but my husband suggested I find a Montessori school that still has a vacancy for next year and just forget about the public schools. How important is kindergarten? Should I be concerned that not all of her brain connections are fully made and that this needs to happen before she is six? She has progressed so far and is such a wonderful child, I'm afraid of making the wrong decision and messing up all of the progress. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you.
It sounds as if your little girl has really blossomed as a result of the special services she has received. Your description of her skills does suggest that she might be able to move into a more typical, integrated setting. It doesn't seem reasonable (or legal) that your daughter would lose OT and Speech and Language services if she were to transition to another program. It may be more convenient or cost-effective for the school to provide these services in the special pre-school, but that's not what should be guiding their decisions. If your daughter is ready for kindergarten and she needs supports to help her be successful there, then those supports should be provided. If you request a modification in her IEP so that it calls for these services in a regular program, then that is the plan that must be followed.
You may need to have an evaluation of your daughter's needs and strengths done by an objective professional outside the school system. Having this information would help you decide if the school's recommendation is appropriate. Having objective data would also help you make a case that the regular classroom (with appropriate supports) is the better option for her.
Be aware that your daughter's current teachers might be recommending that your daughter continue in the specialized program because they may believe that it would be unrealistic to expect the same level of support in the regular program. Unfortunately, they might be right. In that case, you'll have to decide if your daughter needs that level of support, and whether you and your husband have the energy and resources (an advocate, perhaps) to help you insist that the school provide her with appropriate services in the regular class.
Since your daughter's teachers are concerned that she is "not asking enough W questions," having her integrated with other kids with normally developing language would be a very good thing for her. Even if she stays in the special preschool, there should be many opportunities for her to interact with typical age-mates, and not only with classmates who might not be good language models.
A Montessori program would certainly offer your daughter a more typical, integrated experience, but it may not have the special services that she needs. Talk to parents and observe the program to find out how well the Montessori program accommodates students with special needs before you make this important decision.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.