An Assessment, Two Preschool Visits, and Some Musings on Preschool Education

This week, I received Sam’s draft assessment for his upcoming IEP meeting. As usual, I didn’t find it the most accurate assessment ever, but I do keep in mind that the assessors see him and capture his skills at a very brief moment in time—unlike his teachers and his family, who see him every single day and thus know how very capable he is.

There was good and not-so-good in the assessment. Let’s start with the good! My notes are included in bold next to the sections lifted from the assessment. Among other things, the assessment said:

  • He was good at cleaning up when outside play was over. He following verbal directions the first time they were given, and he sat patiently on a curb for his turn. [Woohoo! He’s not even three years old, and he follows directions the first time they’re given and waits patiently for his turn? Way to rock it, Sam! I know some kids twice his age who can’t do this consistently yet! Not naming any names, but seriously…this is pretty darn impressive for his age, I think!]
  • During circle time, Sam sat appropriately and was attentive for the duration. He was very aware of all his peers and could identify them when their names were said. He smiled and clapping in approval of classmates actions. He completed all of the gross motor movements to songs. [BAM! A major component of preschool is teaching kids to do some level of “circle time” together, where they do the activity together and as directed by the teacher. Sam has mastered this already! Again…I know kids who took much longer to be able to do this.]
  • Sam responded appropriately to yes/no questions. Sam uses gestures/signs paired with vocalizations to communicate which assists in the listener’s ability to understand. Sam used gestures more often than words to communicate, but verbal communication has increased during the evaluation process.  The use of words for a variety of pragmatic functions is emerging.  He requests actions or objects, as well as answers yes/no questions. [This is incredibly helpful in communicating with him. He may not have much spoken language yet, but he can clearly answer yes/no questions, which enables him to communicate with adults. And the spoken language is emerging.]
  • He transitioned well between activities and participated in the snack routine, trying other foods before requesting more of his preferred food that day (crackers). [Learning to transition: Again, a major component of preschool. Sam already does it!]
  • Sam can drink from an open cup and uses a spoon and fork to feed himself. He can put things away in the appropriate place. [More major preschool bits here: Self-care and cleaning up after themselves. Sam’s got it covered!]
  • [On the social-emotional scale], Sam can take something from one person to another person, and he can keep busy for at least 15 minutes either watching TV, coloring, building, or looking at pictures. He knows what my means and he would prefer to play with other children as opposed to alone. This is an area of relative strength for Sam and his skills are age appropriate. [Do you see this here? His social skills are age appropriate! Not “appropriate for a child of his age with a developmental disability,” but “age appropriate.” BAM! That means he’s just like any other almost-three-year-old in this area. MAJOR component of preschool is helping kids learn the socialization skills necessary for school, and he’s right on target with those already.]
  • [On the topic of gross motor], Sam is able to walk up and down small stairs using two handrails. Out on the playground, Sam enjoys playing on the riding toys, pushing with feet on ground, steering with feet moving together and reciprocally (alternating). He navigated around the playground independently, walking up and down the hill, climbing onto the ladder to go down the slide, sitting down on the slide, stepping up and down a 6-inch curb slowly without hand support. With hand support Sam walked on a wide balance beam, stepping forward with one foot. Sam would run towards staff up to 5 feet without stopping. [In other words, he can safely navigate a child’s playground.]
  • Sam is an engaging and cooperative almost 3-year-old boy who loves to race his peers on ride-on toys. He exhibits appropriate play skills and follows the routine of the classroom well. He enjoys school. His social skills are rated as age appropriate. [Sounds like a great candidate for any typical preschool, doesn’t he? In fact, I’d say better than great, given that he’s actually cooperative, which sometimes young children are not.]

And now the not-so-good:

  • He did not yet use 2 two-word phrases or sort objects by type. He was not yet able to match objects or draw a vertical line in imitation. Sam’s performance on this measure was in the poor range of cognitive ability. [Good thing they work on these sorts of skills in preschool, right?!]
  • He does not yet undo fasteners or wash and dry his hands and face. He is not yet toilet trained. His skills in this area are below average. [True, true. He still needs to practice on these (though he does know how to wash and dry his hands), and the toilet training may be slow…though that’s a subject for another post.]
  • Sam exhibits below average receptive and expressive language skills. He received a Total Language Score of the 9th percentile. He currently communicates through signs with some single words, word approximations and routine phrases.  Verbalizations are increasing.  Articulation (sound production) is significantly below age expectations but Sam will imitate a verbal model. [Exactly what I’ve been saying—speech is by far his biggest area of delay. That’s why we are so concerned with getting the right environment for him to learn in.]
  • Sam exhibits significant gross motor delays. The assessment describes skill level within the very poor range. [Huh? But they enumerated all of the strong gross-motor skills he has! This one confuses me. However, note that he refused to cooperate with the physical therapist who did his assessment because she pulled him out of circle time to do it, and no one gets between that boy and his circle time! His teacher reports that he flat refused to do anything for the PT until she (the teacher) intervened…and even then, he shot the PT the stink-eye the entire time. Thou shalt not mess with circle time, lady!]

And finally this:

  • Sam appears to meet the eligibility criteria per CA education code as a child with an Established Medical Disability, however final determinations on eligibility will not be made until an IEP team meeting is held and all members are present. Should further evaluation following intensive services show global delays it is likely that delays may result from an Intellectual Disability (formerly known as mental retardation.) His current performance on standardized tests does not warrant such a qualification at this time but as expectations become less concrete and more abstract a change in eligibility may be needed in the future. [This is a bunch of boilerplate gobbledy-gook, but note the italicized part: His current performance on standardized tests does not qualify him for services based on his intellectual disability. If that is indeed true, then why must he be in special ed and not in an inclusion or mainstream class?]

If you’ve read along this far, bear with me as I explain two other events this week: my visits to two preschools. One is the district-recommended special ed class, which is what they’re prepared to offer us. It’s classified as a Learning Handicapped class supposedly focusing on language. The other is a typical developmental preschool. (And developmental doesn’t refer to anything related to developmental delay; rather, it’s simply a type of preschool that is based on children’s developmental stages and is often play-based or socially based. There are academically focused preschools, Montessori preschools, Waldorf preschools, developmental preschools…of those, developmental refers to the typical preschool you normally think about, where kids do a lot of learning through playing.)

On paper, the Learning Handicapped (LH) class that the district offers is sort of ideal: It focuses on kids who have speech delays (or other mild delays) and preps them for kindergarten. And honestly, it seems like a nice enough class. The teacher was very friendly, and I’ve heard good things about her. The aide seemed friendly as well. The two kids in the class looked reasonably content. One was even talking a bit.

But did you hear me there? Two kids. Sam would have two peer models. Maybe three, as I think there is sometimes a third child in the class. Four children total and two adults (teacher and aide). The student-to-teacher ratio is great, but the number of peer models is not so great—especially since at least one isn’t talking, and we’re really looking for Sam to have peer models who are using language typically.

I asked the teacher whether the kids in the class speak, and she said that one is new, but he seems to speak a fair amount. The other one, not so much. And she didn’t mention anything about the one who was missing. She said, “Well, we do a lot of prompting here. A lot of prompting.”

Hmmm. I’m fine with Sam getting prompting during one-on-one speech therapy. It’s part of therapy, and I think it’s useful in limited doses. But I’m not so sure I’m thrilled with the idea of him being heavily prompted during class. Here’s why: Typical children aren’t heavily prompted when learning to speak (at least, not generally—some parents are more into prompting than others, of course). Instead, they begin to experiment with language and talk to their parents, and their parents respond. Then they begin to talk to their peers, and their peers respond. They learn language fluidly and naturally, by conversing with others.

Back in my grad school days, one thing I learned is the theory that grammar can’t really be effectively taught. Drilling students on grammar tends to have very poor results; people learn grammar best by being repeatedly exposed to it in the form of good writing and in listening to and using proper language. And I think of speech as similar: The best way to learn language is to use it and to hear others use it and to be part of a team. Learning by constant prompting seems…forced. And maybe necessary for some kids who are really struggling, but that’s not Sam. He’s delayed on speech, yes. Significantly, yes. But literally every single day he is exploring new words and more verbal communication. Every…single…day. You know what that sounds like to me? A typical child…albeit at a slower pace. So then I think, “Why wouldn’t we let him continue to learn language like a typical child does? Why would we push him by continuous prompting when he seems to be learning quite effectively in a natural way?”

So in that sense, I’m in favor of a typical preschool environment, where kids are talking to other kids, and teachers are conversing with kids as well. The prompting is fairly minimal; it’s more often a genuine exchange of ideas. And as for the prompting…well, Sam will surely get it at speech therapy each week.

And then there was the LH class teacher’s repeated comment to me that, “We work a lot on teaching the children to socialize with each other, and how to socialize with their peers.” Again, a good thing. When Theo was in that class (he was in a very similar one, but with a different teacher), that was something he needed to learn. He wanted so badly to interact with the other kids but didn’t know how—and he didn’t know how to conduct himself in a classroom. But that’s Theo, not Sam. Notice that in his assessment, Sam was listed as being in the typical range for social skills—and they specifically noted his strengths in socializing with other children and participating in classroom activities. So while I appreciate that the LH classroom works on those skills, it’s just not something that Sam needs.

And then I visited the developmental preschool…and several days later, I took Sam back so he could visit. And it was wonderful. Really, really wonderful. He walked in, said a cheerful, “Hiiiii!” to the director and the teachers, and immediately began exploring. He’d say, “Ooooh!” in a tone of wonder as he explored each new thing. He joined the other kids for outdoor recess and then for indoor circle time. And you know what? He completely rocked it! He was awesome! He did everything I knew darn well he could do! Was he completely compliant? No, he didn’t want to leave the train set at one point. And you know what’s great about that? It’s completely typical. Any child coming into a new environment at his age is going to do exactly that—and the director smiled and noted that as well.

The director, the aide, and the teacher who were there during our visit couldn’t get over how capable he is. They marveled over his gross-motor skills as they watched him on the playground. They were impressed by his self-care skills during hand-washing time in the bathroom. They loved his enthusiasm for the circle time songs. They included him in the circle-time activities (which he sometimes declined in favor of the trains, but which he sometimes participated in). Quite honestly, although I don’t think they underestimated him to be negative in any way, I think they were pleasantly surprised by just how capable of an almost-three-year-old he is. I think he surpassed their expectations.

I don’t say this to brag about Sam (although, okay, he’s completely awesome…we all know this!). I say it to underscore my point: that he is so, so capable of trying a typical preschool. If it proves to be too much for him, then we can reevaluate the LH class and see if that’s a better fit. But there’s just no reason to start him there, because I honestly and truly, with every part of my heart and mind, think that he is going to thrive in a developmental preschool with typically developing peers. He’s going to rock it. Because he’s Sam, and that’s what he does. 🙂

A little quiet reading in the school's reading nook. Sometimes a guy just has to take a load off...
A little quiet reading in the school’s reading nook. Sometimes a guy just has to take a load off…


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