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preschool special needs screening

On Wednesday, Rondel had a special needs screening with our public school district. Because I wasn’t able to find anything about what to expect before we went, I thought it might be useful for someone if I wrote up a description of the screening, along with some context as to how it fits in to the whole process of qualifying for special education services.

Important qualifiers: this information is specific to the Mesa Public School District (although from what I can tell it is fairly similar across all Arizona districts), and pertains specifically to the preschool/early education screening, without any prior early intervention services.

The Overall Process

Requesting an Evaluation

The first step in accessing special education services is to call the district and request an evaluation for your child. We did this after the incident at church that resulted in Rondel joining the special needs ministry there, as the director of that ministry recommended it as both free and most likely faster than a developmental pediatrician. When you call, you’ll need to provide your address and contact information as well as your child’s name, and they’ll let you know the time, date, and location of the next screening. (By law, this must be within 45 days of your request. Our district does screenings weekly but there can be a lot of demand, so your wait time may be short or you might end up waiting a month or more like we did.)

Screening

The district uses the screening process to limit the number of children receiving in-depth, individual evaluations, for obvious reasons of time and expense. So the screening is designed to determine which kids qualify for that additional evaluation (which is the next step towards receiving services). You’ll receive a brief questionnaire in the mail ahead of time, and it is worth your time to fill it out as completely as possible to ensure that all of your concerns are addressed. The special ed teachers carrying out the screening will read it thoroughly and bring up aspects of your input during the screening.

Evaluation

If your child is determined to qualify for an evaluation (there are several different criteria which I’ll go into later), you will schedule it at the screening. Unfortunately, there will be a bit of a lag time here – Rondel’s evaluation is set for almost two full months after his screening – so it is beneficial to start this whole process as early as possible.

IEPs/504s/etc

This is the part of the process we haven’t reached yet 🙂 Your child’s needs and strengths will be considered in great detail at the evaluation, and if those needs are believed to require additional assistance in the classroom or special services outside the classroom (like occupational therapy or speech therapy), a team of people will work with you to get those services in place. That can be done through the structure of an IEP (individualized education program) or a 504 (federal disability law). This is where you’ll get into the minutia of how to best capitalize on your child’s strengths, accommodate his weaknesses, and teach him the skills he needs most. But like I said, I don’t have personal experience here yet!

A Typical Preschool Special Needs Screening

The Criteria

At the screening, your child will be evaluated in six different developmental areas:

  1. Sensory Skills (hearing and vision)
  2. Cognitive Skills (thinking, concepts, reasoning)
  3. Motor Skills (fine and gross)
  4. Speech and Language Skills (articulation, speech patterns, understanding)
  5. Psychosocial Skills (social/play skills)
  6. Adaptive Skills (eating, dressing, toileting)

To qualify for additional evaluation, a child must score below the cutoff in cognitive skills or in any two of the other skills areas.

Sensory Skills

The first portion of the evaluation is a brief hearing and vision test, to make sure that no physical problems are interfering with the rest of the evaluation. For the vision test, the Welch Allyn spot machine is used; this machine can detect a number of visual abnormalities and if any are flagged, the district will refer your child for a full eye exam. Rondel failed the vision test because the machine detected his anisocoria (that is, one of his pupils is larger than the other; this is sometimes associated with disease but is often just a variation of normal), so a failure here doesn’t necessarily mean something is severely wrong. It’s more of an alert than anything else.

For the hearing test, a earbud-type headphone probe is inserted into each ear, one at a time, and a computer sends sound waves out and records the child’s response. I’m not 100% sure how it works as I was more focused on keeping Rondel from pulling the earbud out before the test was complete. The audiologists running this test were, at least in our case, very understanding of squirmy, sensitive, preschoolers and even said it would be ok to skip the second ear after the first one had passed; however, since he has speech/articulation problems, I had them test both ears. And they both passed – so that was a relief, at least!

I don’t think this kind of test would pick up something like central auditory processing disorder; it is, as far as I could tell, looking purely at the physical mechanisms of hearing. So if that is a concern for your child, you should be aware of that, and potentially address it at the subsequent evaluation or at a private audiologist. Any medical forms like the results of an audiology or eye exam should be brought to the evaluation and will be considered there along with the district’s own observations!

All The Other Skills

After vision and hearing tests are complete, you and your child will meet with a special ed teacher who is going to ask your child some questions and give him some tasks to do with manipulatives and pictures. The teacher will also ask you questions about his self-care and social abilities. There were sorting tasks, stacking tasks, instructions with manipulatives to test understanding of prepositions (e.g., “can you move the bear out of the circle?”), fine motor tasks like drawing and folding, gross motor tasks like walking on a line and hopping on one foot, timed “I Spy” kind of tasks looking for items within a picture, and more. For each task or question, the teacher scores 2, 1, or 0 for a great response, partial response, or inadequate response. The questions and tasks span a wide variety of skills and activities, so you don’t need to worry that your child won’t qualify because they have one really strong area, or that they will look worse than they are because of one really weak area. It seemed rather balanced, especially for simply being a short preliminary screening.

If your child’s speech and understanding seems off, the teacher may call a speech pathologist over to assist with the evaluation, to ensure that articulation difficulties don’t lead to an incorrect assessment of your child’s skills.

Behavioral struggles can, however, lead to lower scores than your child is actually capable of, because there’s no way for the evaluator to know if your child can complete the task and is just choosing not to, or if they are actually unable to complete it. On the other hand, if your child’s behavioral struggles are interfering with following instructions and even carrying out fun activities like some of the manipulative tasks, then they probably need special services anyway and ought to be qualifying for further evaluation! An inability to sit still for more than 2 minutes at a time, or to be quiet when others are talking, or to express frustration in non-violent ways, will definitely make education more difficult for your child, and that needs to be addressed and accommodated.

Summary

While they say to give yourself at least 90 minutes for the screening, it only took us about an hour. They were moving fairly quickly and we were one of the first people in, which probably helped. I’d say the whole thing felt kind of like taking an IQ test adapted for preschoolers… if I had to describe it in a way that my preschooler could understand, I’d tell him that he was going to get to answer questions and show a teacher how smart and capable he was at doing different kind of things like building and sorting and jumping. I’d also tell him that it would be a somewhat noisy, stimulating environment with a lot of other people around, and that he would be expected to control his body and his words as if he were in a library, so that he could be prepared for that.

What I’d tell you, the parent considering taking their child for a screening, is not to be anxious. The evaluators are therapists, special ed teachers, and speech pathologists; they don’t have to worry about the bottom line of the budget, and they genuinely want to see the best possible outcome for your child. The sincerity, compassion, and helpfulness of everyone I encountered blew me away. Even if you are unsure of the educational path you’ll be taking with your child, it’s worth the time to get them evaluated so that you, the parent, have a name for your child’s struggles and recommendations for how to work with those struggles. It can help you adjust your expectations of your child to a more realistic standard, and give you the perspective you need to approach them from a respectful, relational direction instead of from a paradigm of discipline and punishment.

So if you have any concerns about your child’s development, especially if someone outside your family can corroborate those concerns, don’t hesitate to call your school district and request an evaluation! The earlier you know what’s going on, the earlier you can structure your child’s environment in the most helpful way possible for their development. I hope this gave you a more complete picture of what to expect at the very beginning of the special education process!

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