Integrated preschools provide benefits, lessons for all
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 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."
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.
- University of Washington's Experimental Education Unit (EEU), http://depts.washington.edu/eeuweb/index.htm, 206-543-4011
- Boyer Children's Clinic, www.boyercc.org/programs02.html, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, 206-325-8477
- Kindering Center, www.kindering.org/615.html, e-mail: email@example.com, 425-747-4004
- Many local public school districts also offer integrated preschool programs, including Auburn, Bellevue, Federal Way, Fife, Highline, Kent, Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Renton, and Seattle.