When you hear most special ed folks discuss “transition” most of the time they are talking about the older transition, when the child is either graduating or aging out of the system. But, the kindergarten transition is so important and so often overlooked. I’m not scolding parents, I get it. Many times we are just struggling to accept diagnoses and getting our feet under us during the preschool time.
Having a good transition to the school district is essential to create a path to success for your child. So this needs to go to the top of your priority list when it is time. Devote time to it and it will pay off.
The Special Education Preschool to Kindergarten Transition
Ok, the IEP transition into Kindergarten, let’s dig in.
Should you hold your child back until they are 6, or the latest age allowed by your state?
This is a personal decision. There are a zillion articles online about red-shirting your kindergarten-er. To add to your decision, there are many who believe that preschool services are better and more plentiful than school age services. Therefore, you should give your child the extra year of those services. Once you read the section below on building a good groundwork first, you may need that extra year to do just that. Personally, my son started receiving much more when he started kindergarten, so I did not hold him back for that reason. I have a friend who kept her child out of school until age 8, what our state mandates, and he did just fine too. It’s very individual.
1. Use preschool to lay the groundwork for a solid IEP.
Make sure that the child in front of you is the same child on paper. Make sure that the IEP/IFSP is thorough and accurate and that his every need is identified and addressed. A developmentally delayed child who is 3 or 4 years old is not really that delayed, just by virtue of only being on the planet for 3-4 years. It is a much different story to have a 9th grader who has the reading and social skills of a 5th grader. But at age 4, you can’t really be 4 years behind.
Make sense? What I’m trying to get across is that even if the child is only 6-12 months behind their peers on some skills, keep pushing for more to close the gap. Your team, even your pediatrician might be saying “don’t worry, he’ll catch up.” Really? How do they know that they will catch up without intensive interventions? Do they have a crystal ball?
Get your child in social skills instruction if they need it. This is one area where I see a ton of push-back from the schools, so better to have it going into the transition than waiting.
Your end result should be a near perfect IEP when your child is 4 or 5. It should have all of their areas of need identified and be strengths-based. The way the IEP process works, is that if your child’s needs are identified, and the strategies in place are working for them to make progress, there is little legal justification to take it away.
What you may hear from a Kindergarten team is “Well, we don’t do that here” or “we want to try something else” but you can disagree. “No thank you, we’ll stick with what is working.”
2. Going through the actual kindergarten transition
Your district will likely evaluate the child all over again, even if they are not due for their 2 or 3 year eval. Many parents and advocates will encourage you to go through the whole process at age 4 “just to see what they are going to offer.” As a general practice, I don’t like that. I don’t think it benefits anyone to do a bunch of evals and have meetings if you have no intent of following through. That’s wasting resources that our schools already don’t have. But, that is exactly what I ended up doing.
However, I was unhappy (and he was regressing!) with his preschool program, so I had every intention of enrolling him in the school district. Until they offered the IEP and the placement, and I did not have the data I needed to get him a different placement. It took me another year to gather that data to show that the placement (where he is now) is appropriate for him and what they were offering was similar to the placement where he regressed.
Basically, if I was coaching you, I’d tell you this. This is it, the big game. You need to be prepared. Don’t take this lightly. This sets the stage for their educational career. Please don’t take an attitude of “well, we’ll just wait and see what they offer” or “well, we can always change it later if we don’t like it.”
No, go in STRONG! Know what you want for your child. Know what it is going to look like. Prepare a VISION STATEMENT with your child’s other parent, particularly if your child is higher needs. What is a priority for you–academics or adaptive skills/life skills? Many children who use wheelchairs and are cognitively normal are assumed to be cognitively impaired, so keep the focus on the academics if your child is automatically deemed to be “life skills.”
3. 15 things to consider for kindergarten special education and IEPs
- class size
- pull out services vs. push in
- individual services (speech, OT, vision) vs group services
- individual services vs. just a consult with the therapist and the teacher(s)
- self contained classroom or regular ed
- pull out to small setting for some subjects?
- if a 1:1 is necessary, whether it be behaviors or health needs
- behavior plan and what that will look like in new setting
- socialization and making friends (is the playground even accessible for your child?)
- “specials” and what that will look like for your child
- any specialty programming (such as ABA) and who will implement in new setting
- how does your child best learn?
- does your child need medications during the day
- Eating: Does you child have feeding or allergy issues?
4. Placement is last decision. And there is “no list.”
I find that this is the one concept that throws IEP moms the most. They want to know where their child will be every day. What placement are they going to offer? And can I see a list of potential placements. I’ve said it before. The school district is never going to hand you a list of all their IEP placements. Not going to happen. And placement is the last decision in the IEP process, not the first. Read that link for more information on choosing placements.
5. Get an Independent Evaluation.
If you can afford it or your insurance pays for it, get an independent evaluation. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t, but I’ve found this tip to be extremely successful. The more years I spend doing this, the more I find schools being really stingy at kindergarten transition time. A lot of “Well, let’s wait and see and if he needs it, we’ll add it.” Too many, “Well, what we’ve found that works here is…”
Going in with an IEE report cuts away a lot of the bs from the beginning. The school is aware that you know what’s up. I find teams to be less stingy when the parent already has a thorough IEE detailing a child’s needs.
Final Thoughts on Kindergarten Transition
Going in strong means you get a strong IEP. Doing a “eh, let’s see what they offer” means that it will likely take you 2-3 years to get your child on track. In that time they can fall significantly behind their peers in reading and math. Ask any advocate and they’ll tell you that they have a huge surge in clients who are in 2nd-3rd grade, for exactly this reason.
Stick to it, hire an advocate if you need support. Don’t let yourself get nervous by timelines. My own son did not start at his kindergarten placement until school had been in session for 3-4 weeks.
Yes, it was very unsettling to see school buses roaring down the street and knowing that I still did not have a placement or IEP that I agreed with. K was still sitting at the table in his jammies! It was nerve-wracking, but I survived, and you will too. It was worth sticking it out to get what he needed because now he is in a good placement that meets his needs and we’ve been able to cut back on some services. So don’t sign anything just because “school starts next week!” If it’s worth it, it’s worth waiting for.
Join parent groups or whatever your community offers. Become connected. Be proactive and be a partner with your child’s team. Stay positive, don’t listen to all the Negative Nellies who try to convince you that it’s always “you vs. them.” I promise you that is a losing strategy for the long term. Your teachers want to help your child. Help them do that. You can be both a great advocate for your child and have a pleasant relationship with the team.
Finally, pat yourself on the back for looking for IEP advice before Kindergarten. I mean that. Too many parents allow themselves to be overwhelmed, or they don’t know what to do, so they put off seeking assistance. Congratulate yourself on digging into this early.
Good luck, keep us posted, and as always, I’m open to any suggestions I may have missed.