Creating an Inclusive Preschool Classroom: Best Practices for Family Engagement and Special Education
The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is committed to creating inclusive preschool classrooms that enable all children to enter Kindergarten with a solid foundation for future success. Inclusive preschool classrooms offer the opportunity for special education students to learn and socialize with typically developing peers in their least restrictive environment. An important component of creating an inclusive classroom is engaging families of children with Individualized Education Program (IEPs).
Research shows that when families are involved with their children’s education, children tend to perform better in school. For children with IEPs, families can provide valuable insight regarding their child’s strengths and abilities. When families and programs work together, a partnership of support for children with IEPs can develop to ensure that IEP goals are met and skills are generalized across a variety of settings.
Getting to Know All Children Well
Some children will come to preschool already receiving special education services. Other children may be identified as needing services once they enroll in preschool. It is important for every program to know each child well so that his or her individual strengths and needs drive classroom decisions and lesson planning. Families can share critical information and documents so that programs can learn as much as possible about children and their needs. When programs meet or communicate with families, they can ask:
- What are your child’s strengths, challenges, and interests?
- Can you please share any important documents that will help us learn more about your child’s needs including his or her IEP, medical information such as allergies and medications, and previous services, evaluations, and interventions?
- What can you tell me about how your child learns, socializes, and behaves?
- How do you support your child when he or she needs help?
- Is there anything we should know about your child’s educational or family history?
- What have providers, evaluators, and the Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE) shared with you about your child?
- How can we, together, support your child in reaching his or her IEP goals?
Prior to a Family Making a Referral
Before making a referral to the CPSE, families and programs should work together to collect information, support the child, and determine next steps. During this time, programs should take the following steps:
- Implement a variety of developmental and academic interventions to support a child;
- Collect ongoing, authentic assessments such as classroom work, photographs and videos, and observation notes;
- Analyze authentic assessments to determine the child’s developmental progress and make decisions about planning and supports; and
- Share authentic assessments, as well as the decisions that are made after considering the data collected, with families.
If, after implementing a variety of strategies and/or supports, programs and/or families still have concerns regarding a child’s progress and believe that he or she may need additional support, the parent can make a referral to the CPSE for special education services.
During the Referral Process for a Family
Programs can support families in many ways as they undergo the referral process:
- Continue to support the child in the classroom by collecting and analyzing authentic assessments, and making classroom decisions using this information;
- Meet with family members to learn more about the child’s needs and home life, and share how the child is responding to targeted interventions;
- Build the family’s skills so they can support learning and social-emotional development at home;
- Connect the family to additional resources and community organizations to support the child’s needs and answer the family’s questions;
- Assist the family in writing a referral letter. Referral letters should:
- Be made in writing and sent to the CPSE that covers the family’s home district, or the school district where the family lives.
- State that the parent(s) and program are concerned about the child’s development;
- Request a preschool special education evaluation;
- Describe any specific areas of concern and any services the child received in the past;
- Provide the parent’s full contact information, including an address and telephone number; and
- State the preferred language of the family, if it is not English.
- Support the family in arranging a preschool special education evaluation. After the referral letter is received, the CPSE will mail the family a referral packet including a list of approved evaluation sites. Families must set up the evaluation and provide consent in order move forward. Programs can:
- Confirm the family received the referral packet;
- Assist the family in identifying an evaluation site considering proximity to home, the site’s availability, and the family’s preference;
- Call the evaluation site on behalf of the parent(s) to schedule an evaluation; and
- Remind the parent(s) that they must provide their consent in order for the approved site to evaluate.
Preschool teachers are part of the CPSE team and can play a very important role at CPSE meetings. Often, teachers spend the most time with children and get to observe their academic, social, and behavioral strengths and needs regularly. The rich amount of knowledge teachers have about the child and his her development, general education curriculum and interventions, and day-to-day workings of the classroom provide a unique and valuable perspective to the CPSE team.
The CPSE arranges meetings directly with families. Because of this, it is important for programs to stay in regular contact with families so that families can invite teachers to attend CPSE meetings. CPSE meetings can be held in person or over the phone. A general education teacher must be present at a CPSE meeting if the child is or may be participating in the general education environment.
At CPSE meetings, teachers can share knowledge of how the:
- Child is currently performing in the general education environment including strengths, weaknesses, and needs;
- Child interacts with peers;
- Classroom operates in terms of approach, pace, and dynamics;
- Classroom interventions and supports were put into place and how the child responded;
- Child is progressing or could progress toward IEP goals in the classroom;
- IEP drives or will drive planning and instruction; and
- Teacher(s) works with preschool special education providers to integrate services in the classroom, if appropriate.
Additionally, CPSE meetings are an opportunity for teachers to learn more about the child and collaborate with preschool special education professionals and the family on how to holistically meet the child’s needs.
After a Family Makes a Referral
Children’s needs and their IEPs are not fixed and can change. Because of this, it is necessary to setup a system of ongoing and effective communication and collaboration with families of children with IEPs. Programs can:
- Ask families their preferred mode for communication between school and home (e.g., phone, email, a shared notebook that travels back and forth with your child);
- Request that families notify the program of any upcoming evaluations and/or CPSE meetings;
- Update families whenever a preschool special education provider stops coming, changes the schedule, assigns a new provider, or there are concerns about the quality and/or delivery of services; and
- Meet with the family regularly to learn and share about the child and his or progress in the classroom and towards IEP goals.