Transitioning to Arizona’s Early Childhood Special Education Program
Like many parents, Teresa Banas felt nervous when it was time to send her children to preschool. Her son didn’t speak as much as his twin sister, and she was concerned about developmental delays. After a referral to the Arizona Early Intervention (AzEIP), a team assessed her son and provided therapies. They then referred her son to developmental preschool in their neighborhood district in Scottsdale before his third birthday.
Banas said the AzEIP and school teams helped ease their son’s transition to the Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) program in their school district. His twin sister served as a peer model, a program used to help children in developmental preschool learn alongside their typically developing peers.
Hope Dobbins also had apprehensions about her son starting preschool. He’s now 12 and attended developmental preschool in Tempe. He had seizures and used a feeding tube and she wasn’t sure how a classroom could accommodate his needs. During his first year of preschool, they’d go to the local school, but both she and her son would get nervous and they’d come home instead. She felt he needed socialization, so she had him assessed and re-enrolled for the following school year. That time, the teacher met her at the door and suggested that her son could come in and have a good time.
“If the teacher hadn’t done that, I don’t know what our experience would have been,” Dobbins said. “It really healed me because his teacher showed me that they understood my son’s needs and were able to care for him while he was in school.”
ECSE is a state- and federally-mandated program that provides preschool-style sessions to children ages 3 through 5 with developmental delays. Statewide, the program serves 8,500 children, said Suzanne Perry, ECSE director for the Arizona Department of Education, Exceptional Student Services.
Children under age 3 with developmental concerns are frequently referred to AzEIP for assessment, and children who qualify for services receive home-based therapy services. Once a child is between the ages of 2 years 6 months and 2 years 9 months old, the AzEIP team will schedule a transition meeting for developmental preschool in the family’s neighborhood public school district, referring the child with parent permission.
Parents whose children don’t participate in AzEIP can contact their neighborhood school district directly to request assessments if they have developmental concerns. Families can refer their own children as young as 2 years, 9 months old.
School districts are also tasked with holding outreach events in their communities to help locate and refer any children of appropriate age with potential delays to their local district for assessment, a process called Child Find. Physicians, teachers and others who work with preschool-aged children are also expected to refer children to their local district for assessment when appropriate. Perry estimated that 30 to 40% of children who participate in ECSE preschool come through AzEIP.
Developmental preschool is free for qualifying students, and children attend two to three hours per day, three to four days per week. Children who qualify exclusively for speech therapy might receive only speech therapy one to two hours per week, but like everything it is an IEP team decision.
The child’s AzEIP service coordinator will start discussing preschool transition early in the AzEIP process, noted Tanya Goitia, AzEIP continuous quality improvement coordinator. The AzEIP coordinator also organizes the child’s preschool transition meeting before the child turns 3.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
Preschool transition meetings offer the opportunity for families to share information about their children, ask questions and voice concerns, learn about the preschool program and options including schedule and transportation and discuss any needed resources. If families are interested in other preschool options such as Head Start or private preschool programs, Goitia added, representatives from these programs could attend the meeting with parent permission.
The transition meeting should be held at a time and place convenient for the family and the school team. Many families want to meet at the child’s future school to become more familiar with the site and staff, but meetings can also happen in the family’s home.
During transition meetings, Perry recommends that parents ask about the ratio of children with and without disabilities and request the most inclusive setting possible. “Children in preschool are very generous, kind and supportive,” she added. “They start learning from each other early on, so it’s beneficial to be together.”
Children could be placed in classrooms with typically developing peers or in self-contained classrooms with only students with special needs. “We work with schools to look at the experiences of the child as they are coming into preschool,” Perry added. “Is it easy for the child to get along with others at the park or the library? Then it wouldn’t be very different in preschool.” She encourages parents to also discuss their child’s social/emotional abilities, knowledge and learning so far and self-help skills to help determine the child’s appropriate classroom placement.
Children who come through AzEIP and qualify for developmental preschool must be placed by their third birthday and can start whenever school starts again if it’s during a break. When parents contact the school district on their own, the school must complete a screening within 45 days and complete an evaluation within 60 days if they believe the child might have a disability. If the child qualifies, the school must write the student’s Individual Education Program (IEP) within 30 days. IEPs are developed based on the child’s identified strengths and needs as identified in the evaluation.
Whether a student comes through AzEIP or parent referral, qualifying children will receive an IEP and would be eligible under one of the state’s special education categories, which include Developmental Delay, Hearing Impairment, Preschool Severe Delay, Speech/Language Impairment, Visual Impairment or Autism. Historically, autism was not used as an IEP category for preschool, Perry said, but it is being added, along with others, as of July 1. Starting in July, all K-12 disability eligibility categories can be used for preschool IEPs.
Susan Olson-Shinn, director of the Flowing Wells Unified School District’s developmental preschool program and Sara Piekarski, speech-language pathologist, work hard to make sure children and families feel welcome in their program. The Flowing Wells district is located on the west side of Tucson.
“Transitions can be tough, but we have lots of tools in our toolbox,” Piekarski said. “Many of us are parents who had our own children go through this program.”
Teachers communicate with families through an app and provide newsletters, and parents and teachers participate in two conferences each year. “We are a community,” Olson-Shinn said. “We work together, and parents are part of that team to support the young children in our community.”
While developmental preschool programs provide transportation service to qualifying students, many parents are nervous about their 3-year-olds taking the bus. “The bus drivers are very kind,” Piekarski said to assure concerned parents. During transition meetings for preschool, parents can sometimes meet their child’s bus driver and teacher and see the classroom.
Parents who are nervous about their children taking the bus to school can also talk to their AzEIP service coordinator, who can help organize goals and activities to help them become more comfortable, Goitia noted. This could include taking public transit or reading books about school buses.
School districts provide ECSE programs throughout the state, even in remote areas like the Navajo Nation. Public school district developmental preschool programs might exist several miles or hours away, said Trudy Billy, tribal program manager for Raising Special Kids.
Families who live on the Navajo reservation could also request their child attend a developmental preschool program run through the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). Parents might prefer a BIE program if they have family members or friends who teach there. Families can learn more by contacting their local BIE school. A directory of BIE schools is available at https://www.bie.edu/schools/directory.
Some parents choose other options for their children. Parents of children with autism may opt in to full-time Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) treatment instead of developmental preschool. Or the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) can be used to fund services for preschool-aged children. Families can apply for their children aged 3 to 5 who have been determined to have a disability. The family receives a percentage of the funding the state would use to educate their child and agrees not to send their child to public school.
Renee Johnson’s son was diagnosed with autism at age 2, and once he turned 3 they participated in an assessment from their school district. The family decided to apply for ESA to fund private preschool and kindergarten. They used additional ESA money and insurance to pay for a 1:1 classroom aide. He made great progress in those years, Johnson said, and he now attends the neighborhood public school.
Parents whose children experienced developmental preschool encourage families to keep open communication with their school team. “There’s no wrong question,” Banas said. Her son completed developmental preschool in May 2023 and will start kindergarten in August.
“You can ask a question three times if you want to hear the answer three times,” Banas added. “Early intervention guided us through every step, and once our son was registered for preschool, the school reached out to us. The teacher walked us through a typical day, which was informative and hands-on. We are thrilled with how it went!”