Preschool Special Education Eligibility Criteria

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As a parent, it may be difficult to accept that your child needs some extra help in learning, communicating, getting along with others, or taking care of him or herself. Maybe you’re not sure what services – if any – your child needs to help him or her develop.

If you, your child’s doctor, or another trusted adviser has concerns about your child’s development, your child can receive a free evaluation to determine if your child is eligible for free special education services during the preschool years.

Federal law – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – sets forth which children are eligible to receive Preschool Special Education services. There are two sets of criteria: (1) age requirements; and (2) requirements related to the child’s disability.

Age Requirements: To receive Preschool Special Education services, your child must be at least three years old. (Some states may allow children who are about to turn three to enter a Preschool Special Education program if the child will turn three during the school year; Pennsylvania requires the child to be three.) Preschool Special Education services may continue until your child enters or is eligible to enter kindergarten.

In most states, children are eligible to enter kindergarten at age 5. States and school districts vary on when children must turn 5. Some require that children have their 5th birthday before the start of the school year, and others allow children to begin kindergarten at age 4 if they turn 5 during the beginning of the school year.

Sometimes children may stay in the Preschool Special Education program beyond age 5. IDEA allows kindergarten age-eligible children to remain in Preschool Special Education programs for an extra year, if the state regulations allow it. Most states do allow children receiving Preschool Special Education to stay an extra year in the preschool program. Not all do, however, and some who allow it have significant restrictions on doing so. For example, children who are in therapeutic preschools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania do not currently have the option to stay an extra year, although children from other parts of the state do. Choosing to have your child stay in preschool an extra year before transitioning to school-age special education services should be done only after careful consideration of the child’s needs.

Requirements Related to Disability: In addition to the age limits, to receive Preschool Special Education services, your child must (1) have a disability; AND (2) need special education and related services because of the disability.

IDEA lists a number of disabilities that can fulfill the first part of the equation, including autism, speech-language impairments, specific learning disabilities, and a catchall provision called “other health impairments.” For children under the age of 9, a child may be considered to have a disability if he or she has a developmental delay (as defined by the state) in one of the 5 primary areas of child development.

It is important to emphasize that having autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not enough on its own to qualify your child for special education after the age of 3 – your child must also demonstrate a need for specialized services. This is a marked difference from the Birth to 3 Early Intervention system. A full and individualized evaluation will determine whether or not your child needs special education and related services.

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Last Updated: March 16, 2014

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.


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