With the advent of inclusion in special education over the last few decades have come integrated preschool programs with a typical peer model. These programs, which many school districts in Northeast Ohio offer, educate students with disabilities alongside peers who don’t have disabilities, often at a 1-to-1 ratio in the classroom.
There are many benefits to these programs, special education experts say.
“An inclusion program is a wonderful experience for all of the children,” says Sarah Rintamaki, executive director of Connecting for Kids, an organization that provides education and support to families in Northeast Ohio. “Typically developing children can learn valuable character traits such as empathy, compassion and kindness when they attend an inclusion preschool program and children with delays often learn skills quicker when around same-age peers.”
School Psychologist Ashley Ruedisueli, preschool supervisor for Wadsworth City Schools, agrees.
“Both groups of students develop great skills,” she says of the district’s integrated preschool program, Jump Start, at Overlook Elementary. “The students with needs have those role models to help develop their language and play skills, and the typical peers get the benefits of differentiated education and develop compassion for students who are different from them.”
This year will likely look different for school districts’ preschool special education programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most likely, they will start the school year with a modified schedule for special needs students and won’t permit typical peers, Ruedisueli says.
Despite the prevalence of peer role model special education programs, many parents are unaware of their children’s eligibility for them.
“We’re always trying to let parents know that we’re there,” Ruedisueli says.
Children with disabilities who qualify for special education services may be eligible to attend at no cost, per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, which requires children with disabilities to receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Typically developing students may be permitted to attend as peer role models, sometimes at a reduced tuition compared with traditional preschool, depending on the school district.
Some private schools offer inclusion preschool programs, although they are typically tuition-based, Rintamaki says. With the exception of students who have an autism diagnosis and qualify for the state’s Autism Scholarship Program, there is no funding for preschoolers on Individualized Education Programs to attend private schools until kindergarten.
Rintamaki points to Middleburg Early Education Center as one private school where children with special needs learn side by side with typically developing peers. Other local preschools may offer inclusive preschool programs through partnerships. For example, The Music Settlement has a partnership with The Monarch Center for Autism.
If you suspect your child needs preschool special education or related services like speech, physical or occupational therapy, the first step is to contact your school district’s special education department to ask for a screening, Ruedisueli says.
Concerned parents can also reach out to Connecting for Kids for personalized support or to be put in touch with a family resource specialist, Rintamaki says.
Benefits of Inclusive Education
The benefits of inclusive education are many for both students with and without disabilities.
For Students with Disabilities
- Increased social initiations, relationships and networks
- Access to peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills
- Increased achievement of IEP goals and greater access to general curriculum
- Higher expectations
- Better family integration into community
For Students without Disabilities
- Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences
- Increased understanding and acceptance of diversity
- Preparation for adult life in an inclusive society
- Opportunity to master activities by practicing and teaching others
- Greater academic outcomes
Source: Kids Together Inc.