Monday, September 15, 2014

Preschool Service Locations

This post continues the discussion begun in the August 19 post on “Hours and Places.” Where are school districts putting their resources for preschoolers on IEPs?

Location and Placement

According to IDEA, special education services should be provided in the least restrictive environment, and the IEP should ensure that the child’s placement is as close as possible to his or her home. Many preschoolers are “placed” in a setting the IEP team considers to be appropriate to meet the child’s needs, even if that child is or would be attending another child care setting. Therefore, it’s not unusual for preschoolers to have three places where they spend time most week days: home, a designated placement for preschool services, and child care. In this post, I explore who should get the help from special educators and therapists, why this decision should be different for preschoolers compared to school-aged children, dual placement rules, and investment in itinerant services.

Who Should Get the Help?

The people who should get the help are those who care for the child for significant amounts of time—say 15 hours a week. This is often not the policy in preschool special education programs; they often send their ECSE teachers and therapists to the place where the child spends the least amount of time, which also might be where you find the highest qualified staff. Let’s look at one scenario:
Here we have a child placed in a setting—perhaps a public preschool program—for two mornings a week (8 hours, to give maximal benefit of the “morning”). If this child goes to child care during the rest of the week, perhaps while the parent is at work, he or she spends 52 hours a week there. That’s three mornings and five afternoons. This leaves 49 hours of awake time at home: 2 hours in the morning, 3 in the evening, during the week, and 12 hours on the weekends. This is a simplistic breakdown, I realize, because it doesn’t account for transitions, other places where the child might be, and so on. Nevertheless, if the paid setting (i.e., the place where the school district is paying for the child to go) is the placement on the IEP, this is often the only place where the ECSE teacher and therapists will go. That paid setting likely has a certified teacher, whereas the child care and home settings might not. Most important, however, is the number of learning opportunities in each setting. Those who have the most opportunities are clearly the child care providers and the family. Let’s look at another scenario:
It’s similar, but here the paid setting (i.e., the official placement) is a week-long, mornings-only program. Although this might seem like a full-time setting, in fact it’s still only a third of the time the child would be in child care, ignoring travel time between the two, if the locations are different. Again, should the ECSE teacher and therapists go to the 15-hour-a-week place or to the 45- and 49-hour-a-week places?

Why Should This Decision Be Different for Preschoolers?

If we were discussing school-aged children, this might be a different story. Older children, especially if they have cognitive strengths, can retain and transfer skills and knowledge from one place to the other. They also can learn with massed trials. Young children, however, learn better by having distributed “trials” implemented in the places and at the times where the skills are needed. In other words, we teach them skills as they need them for successful participation in whatever routine they’re in at the time.

Dual Placement

Dual placement, or providing services in two places, is allowed in some places and not in others. Legally, I think dual placement needs to be an option on the IEP, but in practice many school districts say they’ll provide services only in one setting—the primary or only placement. This is short sighted. To add to the possibilities and complexity, some children are served in specialized, self-contained settings (i.e., “special classes”). Here, the classroom teacher is an ECSE teacher. If the child is enrolled in such a classroom for significant amounts of time (e.g., > 15 hours a week), the teacher has a chance of having an impact on the child’s development and learning. If the child is enrolled in such a classroom for a couple of mornings a week, we’re back to the dosage issue: The child is receiving special ed for too little time to make much difference. If that teacher spends no time consulting with the child’s other caregivers, then, really, the impact is low. If the teacher spends afternoons consulting with children’s other caregivers, he or she might be doing some good. It depends on what he or she does, but I’ll leave the topic of quality itinerant work for another time. Right now, the issue is whether special ed and related services are going to the right people.

Invest in Itinerant Services

LEAs that rely much on itinerant ECSEs and therapists have the opportunity to make a difference. Whether the itinerant should be a primary service provider or one of a number of professionals going into the classroom (i.e., multidisciplinary) is another matter. If we want good inclusion and we want to maximize the effects of ECSE, we need to send qualified teachers and therapists into the settings where children spend the most amount of time, not the least amount of time.

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