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Integrated preschools provide benefits, lessons for all

Published on: March 01, 2006

The Puget Sound area is home to many preschool programs that integrate
students with special needs into classes with their typically
developing peers. Can these schools address the diverse needs of all
their students? As parents and staff wholeheartedly assert, such
programs not only meet those varied needs, they exceed them.

Children
with special needs

For children with special needs, there are many benefits to an
integrated learning environment. Regardless of their ability level,
kids learn from one another. In an integrated classroom, children with
special needs have the opportunity to observe typically developing
children, who serve as positive role models by demonstrating the skills
that the teachers and therapists are trying to teach.

"Physical, occupational and speech therapists sometimes bring typically
developing children into the therapy session to model and facilitate
play or speech and create a little healthy 'peer pressure,'" notes
Cheryl Buettemeier, program director of Boyer Children's Clinic in
Seattle's Montlake neighborhood

Of course, typically developing children aren't always on their best
behavior, but that is also a benefit, Buettemeier says. "Parents of the
children with disabilities get to see the wide range of typical
behavior and realize that some of their child's behavior may in fact be
age-appropriate and not related to a disability." This helps establish
realistic expectations, she adds.

Being an equal member of a classroom community provides many important
social benefits as well, including increased self-esteem and the
formation of friendships. Nancy Burrows of northeast Seattle has a
typically developing son and a daughter with Down syndrome, who both
attended the University of Washington's Experimental Education Unit
(EEU). "EEU provides things that I, as a parent, simply cannot," she
says. "I can't have 16 children at my house for a play date."

The same positive experience was true for Nancy Simon of Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood, mother

of one son with autism and another who is typically developing. "EEU
was a life-saver for our entire family," Simon says. "I attribute my
son with autism's success to the integrated preschool program and the
loving, nurturing environment it provided. He was not judged for being
different."

Typically developing children

For children with typical abilities, some obvious benefits of an
integrated classroom include learning tolerance, developing empathy and
gaining an appreciation for diversity. Laurra Corsello of Queen Anne
has two children who attended preschool at Boyer Children's Clinic. One
was at risk for developmental delays, but both are now developing
typically. "Our experience has been phenomenal," Corsello says. She
hopes to have her third child, who is typically developing, attend
Boyer too. "From a very early age," she says, "the children see we're
all the same, and we're all different."

Adds Buettemeier: "One of the goals at Boyer is for typically
developing children to respect, value and understand diversity of
ability. We want them to be comfortable being around children who use a
walker to get around, use pictures to communicate or eat via a feeding
tube."

Another advantage is the presence of a wide variety of professionals,
which leads to very high teacher-student ratios. This allows every
child in

the classroom to receive personal attention and assessment, including
the typically developing kids. "We all have our unique challenges,"
Nancy Burrows says. "The program at EEU was great for my [typically
developing] son because it was so individualized. The staff was able to
identify all of his strengths and weaknesses and meet him right at his
level of need in every area. Every school should be that way."

Parents

Parents also benefit from access to those professionals. Jennifer
Pineda, development director at Bellevue's Kindering Center, says
Kindering's integrated preschool program, called Stepping Stones,
offers a highly qualified staff with a rich knowledge of early
childhood development. "Parents also have access to the center's
Childcare Consultation program," she adds, "with consultants who are
experts in early learning environments and both typical and atypical
development."

Laurra Corsello found similar support valuable at Boyer. "The access to
highly qualified professionals -- teachers, therapists, administrators
-- was a huge help. No matter what new problem we were having, they had
seen it before and knew exactly what to do."

Challenges

Integrated preschool environments do pose challenges, especially for
teachers, staff and administrators. "The biggest challenge for teachers
when children are functioning at very different levels is to bring a
given activity up or down to each child's level and to constantly be
challenging every child's skills," Buettemeier says.

Jennifer Annable, principal at EEU, agrees: "The basic challenge is the
same as in any classroom: meeting the needs of every child. Our
activities have to be very well planned, however, and have additional
scaffolding in place to support each child's level of ability." She
adds that despite the extra preparation required, teachers say it is
easier to teach an integrated class than a class devoted solely to kids
with special needs. "The teachers are able to see all of the kids as
kids first. The typically developing children help the children with
special needs follow along, and they also remind the teachers of what
is age-appropriate."

When asked why she chose an integrated preschool for both of her
children, Burrows sums it up: "You have to be able to look into the
future and think, what do I really want for my children? I want them to
grow into adults who lead independent and satisfying lives," she says.
"The real world is a diverse mix of people with a wide range of
abilities. The sooner you start preparing them for that, the better."

Laurie Thompson is a freelance writer and mother of two from Bellevue.

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