Preschool classroom (198984)

In the state of New York, children between the ages of 3 and 5 years who qualify for special education services receive their services and support through the Department of Education’s Committee on Preschool Special Education. Often, for children who have been identified as having special needs that warrant the support of a related service provider or providers, and/or the support of a special education teacher (be it in a center-based preschool special education program or the support of an itinerant teacher who provides special education support in the home or in a general education program), preschool is the first time in which the children may have been identified as having a need warranting support. Other times, children who receive special education services and support through the Committee on Preschool Special Education have had services through the Early Intervention program that provides education and related services to children suspected of having or who have been diagnosed with a special need between the ages of birth and age 3.

During my time as a general education preschool teacher, I had conversations with parents regarding their children’s development. It is not an easy task telling parents about concerns regarding their children’s development. It is a very sensitive topic, and when discussing such concerns, teachers must be mindful of the language they use and the relationships they have established with the parents before this very sensitive conversation. Below is a list that I find helpful when faced with the task of possibly meeting with a parent to request consent for an evaluation for special education service.

  1. Establish relationships with the parents of the students in your classroom. Communicate regularly with your parents. Create an atmosphere in which parents view you as an ally and a resource. This effort starts at the very beginning. It is important as it usually makes less comfortable discussions and information easier to take. No parents want to hear from a teacher who barely communicates with them that you are recommending that their babies be evaluated for special education services. The discussion is difficult to have whether or not there is a positive relationship between parents and educator, but I have found that parents are more receptive to what a teacher has to say when there is an established relationship of trust and mutual respect.

  2. When you suspect that a child may require more support than you can provide as a general education teacher in a general education class, objectively document behaviors and skill deficits that warrant concern. Also implement strategies to support the child in the areas that you have identified as a concern. As classroom teachers, we are considered generalists, meaning that we educate the whole child. We work on every area of development (cognitive, gross and fine motor, social/emotional, communicative, adaptive behavioral). Document the strategies that you utilize. Sometimes what appears to be a deficit and requires need for intervention could simply require a different approach to learning.

  3. Remember that parents love their children more than anything in the world, so be mindful of the language you use. I find that you can rarely go wrong when you objectively describe behaviors and concerns, as opposed to giving subjective opinions interpreting what you assume the behavior to represent. For example, instead of saying, “He doesn’t like to play with the other kids,” say, “During free choice, children will initiate play with ‘Jimmy’ and he often tells them ‘no’ in response.” This simple change gives information without making assumptions. How do you know that he doesn’t like to play with the other children? A number of factors could be occurring in this scenario. Objectivity over subjectivity—always.

  4. Remember, although we are professionals, we are not doctors. Therefore, we are not qualified to diagnose or give our thoughts on what clinical needs a child may or may not have. If you believe that the child demonstrates behaviors that are often associated with autism, you keep it to yourself (many other developmental needs can resemble autism). Even if a parent asks for your opinion, just describe behaviors and describe what you see objectively. Not only is giving your opinion about what a child may or may not have unethical but also it could get you into trouble if the parent decides to report you. Be careful. No diagnosing please!

  5. Explain what the evaluation process entails. Many parents may not know what an evaluation is and what it entails, and not knowing brings about anxiety and hesitation. The word alone is enough to cause panic. The more information you can provide to the parents about the process, the better. Remember that in many cultures and families, special education services are taboo and rejected. Some parents may not want to hear you out. Being forceful is not always effective; instead, be resourceful. When you can effectively explain what the evaluation process entails, you have a better chance of easing a parent’s fears. Remember that for many parents, the preschool teacher is the first childhood professional (other than the pediatrician) that they have contact with. You have a very important job. Come to the meeting with information.

  6. Remember that it is the parents’ choice and right to decline the evaluation process for their child. It is not the job or the right of the teacher to try to force parents to consent to an evaluation. I know that it can be frustrating when you, as an educator can “clearly” see that a student in your class may require more support than you can provide, and the parent doesn’t see what you see. A parent’s reluctance can be based on a variety of reasons, so do not come to the conclusion that the parent is “in denial” (I so despise this term). A referral for an evaluation is just that, a referral for testing to determine whether a child has deficits in his or her development. It is not a conclusive document confirming the teacher’s concerns; it is the first step in a lengthy process.

  7. Whether or not the parent agrees to the evaluation, continue to document (objectively) the behaviors that elicit concerns. Support the child in every way you can using strategies and techniques. Hopefully, you have a support system (director, co-teachers, a social worker). Do not use a parent’s refusal to consent to an evaluation as a reason to report every single incident that occurs. However, you do have the right to readdress your concerns because you are an advocate for your students.