Placement Options for Preschool Students Receiving Special Education Services


There are a number of placement options to consider for your preschool child. The Individualized Educational Program (IEP) team – which includes you, the parent – will decide which placement or placements are appropriate. The placement decided upon by the IEP team will be paid for by the school district in which you live as part of your child’s Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

When considering an educational placement, the IEP team must decide what is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) where the student can make progress towards the IEP goals. In making the placement decision, the team should consider the most inclusive setting first and progress to consider more restrictive environments as needed. It is important to remember that an educational placement can change over time. The IEP team must discuss placement at least once a year to make sure that the placement continues to be appropriate, in light of the development of new skills or new challenges.

For a preschool-age child, the requirement of a LRE placement is often complicated by the fact that most public school programs currently begin at age 5 when children go to kindergarten. Very few states and districts offer preschool or pre-kindergarten services to children without disabilities or other concerns. Whether or not a school district operates a public preschool program for children without disabilities, however, the district must make available a full continuum of placements, including regular classes, special needs classes, and special schools, for preschool students in need of special education.

Typical Preschool Environment:

Being a part of the typical preschool environment or regular education classroom is also referred to as inclusion or mainstreaming. Inclusion means that the child with a disability or delay attends a regular education class with same or similar age peers, most of whom do not have a disability or delay.

When a regular education environment for a preschool student in need of special education is appropriate, the IEP team may place the child in a government run preschool (such as Head Start or PreK Counts), a private preschool program, a community-based childcare facility, or a regular education kindergarten class (not appropriate for a younger preschooler). The school district must provide appropriate supports and services in that inclusive environment. A placement will be considered “regular” if at least 50% of the children in the placement do not have a disability.

Many preschool students on the autism spectrum will need accommodations or specific services to be successful in the typical preschool environment or regular education classroom. For example, the student may need the class to be co-taught by a special education teacher, may need a personal care assistant or aide to accompany him or her, or may need modified materials to participate in the class. What the student needs to be successful in the typical preschool or regular education environment will be determined by the IEP team.

Sometimes, the accommodations and/or modifications necessary to make the student successful in the regular education classroom are themselves so restrictive or prohibitive that they make the typical preschool placement ineffective. For example, if a child needs a 1 on 1 aide to continuously prompt the child to do work or if the activities need to be modified extensively, the child may actually be more independent and be better able to make progress on the IEP goals in a special education placement.

Mixed Placement—Part-time Typical Preschool and Part-time Special Education Setting:

A part-time typical preschool and a part-time special education setting is exactly what its name describes. The child attends a typical preschool classroom for a part of the day or on certain days of the week, and a special education classroom for part of the day or on different days. Some children may benefit from being outside of the typical preschool environment for a portion of the day or week, for example for specialized services or instruction. These children may attend a special education class in the same facility as the preschool classroom or may go to a different location to receive services.

For example, your IEP team may decide to send your child to a typical preschool for 3 days a week, where your child can have the benefit of socialization with typical peers and positive peer modeling, and to a special education setting for two days a week, where specific skills can be taught and rehearsed. Services and supports will follow your child in both settings, as needed. The teacher in the special education classroom will have specialized training in working with students who need special education. The teacher in the regular education setting most likely will not have much special training.

A mixed placement means that the IEP team has decided that there is more than one appropriate setting for your child. If the team recommends a mixed placement, both placements will be a part of your child’s Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). In other words, both the typical preschool environment and special education components should be paid for by your school district.

It is often the case, however, that the IEP Team does not recommend a mixed placement. Instead, it may recommend only part-time special education services. Or the IEP team may recommend a mixed placement, but the regular education component offered by the school district is not one to which the parents would choose to send their child (for example, a Head Start classroom). In each of these scenarios, many parents choose to enroll their children in private preschools. School districts are not required to pay for the private preschools chosen unilaterally by the parents. It is within each district’s discretion to decide whether to offer services (such as occupational therapy or speech-language therapy) within the private preschool or to require the child to come to a public facility to receive special education services.

Special Education Placement Within the Child’s Home Community:

A special education placement means that a child is placed with other children with disabilities for the majority of the school day. These placements/classrooms may be disability specific – for example, an autism support classroom – or may integrate children with different disabilities. Each state has regulations concerning how many children can be in a self-contained classroom. For example, in Pennsylvania, an autistic support classroom may not have more than eight children, unless a waiver is obtained. For a child who is easily distracted, socially anxious, or who simply needs more personalized assistance, having fewer children in a class may be an advantage. These classes are taught by special education teachers who have gone to school and have specialized training in working with students with disabilities. They may also have an assistant teacher or aide assigned to help.

Out of District Placement:

Sometimes the appropriate educational placement for a child does not exist within the child’s home community. The child’s home district may not have the appropriate classroom or staff to meet the child’s needs. In this case, the IEP team may decide that a public educational program in a neighboring town or county is most appropriate. Because the school is out of district, it may mean a longer bus ride for the child.

Out of district placements are common for preschool students who need specialized services because these specialized programs usually exist in just one town in a county or region. In Pennsylvania, for example, county Intermediate Units (IUs) often offer specialized preschool programs for students who live in districts within the IU’s jurisdiction and for other students whose districts agree to send them.

Specialized School Placement:

Specialized schools provide comprehensive special education services for students with disabilities. Many are created around students within certain disability groups, for example, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or with special learning, behavioral, or emotional needs. For children on the autism spectrum, a specialized school may provide a more structured environment and may offer the opportunity to work on academic, behavioral, and social goals throughout the day in a coordinated and integrated way that might not be possible in a typical school. Specialized schools are generally much smaller than the typical public school and may have a higher ratio of teachers to students. Teachers and staff, as a whole, may have more experience with students with disabilities than their counterparts in public school. Specialized schools are expensive to run, however, and it may cost your district a lot of money for your child to attend. Cost should not be a factor in determining educational placement, but parents should be aware that this may be a concern of other members of the IEP team. Also, because specialized schools are expensive, there are fewer of them. This may mean that your child will have to travel a great distance to attend one, which could mean a long bus ride twice a day. Some specialized schools are residential, which reduces travel time for the child, but means that the family is split apart while the student with disabilities is in school. This option is rarely suggested or offered. Most districts and intermediate units responsible for preschool special education services and supports are able to educate the children residing in their area within other available options.

Private Schools:

Some specialized special education schools are known as “Approved Private Schools” or “APS.” An APS is a private school that is licensed by the state and which has been given special status by the state to educate children, who, by the nature of their disabilities, cannot be appropriately served in public school special education programs. School districts receive state money to help pay for APS placements. There are also private special education schools that do not have the designation of an APS. Like an APS, a child may be placed in an non-APS private school if the placement is deemed appropriate by your IEP team. Children placed by the IEP team in a private school are entitled to all of the same procedural safeguards as other preschool students receiving special education services, including but not limited to the timelines for reevaluation and revising the IEP, mandatory IEP team membership, and discipline rules.

Home Environment:

In certain circumstances, the home may be considered the child’s least restrictive environment. When children receive services in their home, an early childhood special education professional, such as a teacher or therapist, visits the home and provides the services and supports identified in the child’s IEP.

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Last Updated: May 29, 2020

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