The Preschool Transition: Choosing a School and Preparing for Your First IEP

Congratulations! Your little one is growing up and getting ready for preschool. You may be feeling simultaneously excited, terrified, and overwhelmed. Selecting the right preschool for your child can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not yet sure what to look for. What type of classroom do you envision your child thriving in? What questions should you ask of potential schools? How do you start working with your school and other professionals to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your child? Read on below — we’ve got you covered! 

  What to Consider When Choosing a Preschool

Let’s start with the basics: think about what will work best for your child and family. What kinds of schools are available to you and what services do they provide? What will your child need to be successful? List the things you want and need by asking yourself: What is essential, and what would be convenient to have? 

Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • What kind of preschool would you like your child to attend? 
    • District-provided general education class
    • Special day class (SDC)
    • Private preschool
    • Head Start or other federal or state programs
  • Do you want a neighborhood school? Are you willing to drive farther to a school that better meets your family’s needs?
  • Do you want your child to attend an inclusive class with neurotypical peers, or would you prefer a special education classroom that offers more specialized support, such as an autism classroom?
  • Do you need a school with more or fewer hours? For example, does your child need a shorter day (between two and four hours) or an extended day (between five and eight hours)?
  • Do you want your child to have access to school-based occupational, physical, and speech therapists? (Read more about the differences between school and clinic-based services here.)
  • What specialized support does your child need to stay safe? Make a list of every support you think they may need — and check out our list of accommodations for preschool here! It’s better to know the school can accommodate something your child doesn’t end up needing than to find out it’s not available later if your child does need it. 
    • While you’re considering the supports your child might need, think about how a school program might best play to their strengths. Write down some of their wins and successes. What kind of program do they do best with? Do they do well with the freedom to choose their own activity, or do they do better in a structured environment? 

      It’s a good idea to consult your child’s doctors, therapists, and specialists for recommendations, especially if you’re unsure. Ask any early intervention providers for exit documents that may contain recommendations.


Placement Options

When considering placement, ask your district program to share information about all options with you. If they decide to only show you one kind of placement, remember that placement cannot be decided before the IEP meeting or without your input. You are an equal member of the IEP team, and you can’t discuss placement without knowing about all the options.

As you’re considering different placement options, remember that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that your child be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means that every student should have access to the general education curriculum while their academic, social, emotional, and behavioral progress and growth are supported. For example, suppose your child can be in a general education classroom with the support of a classroom aide. This is what should be provided. Your child should only be removed from a general education classroom if supplementary aids and services cannot meet their unique needs in that environment, or based on your or their preference. (You can read more about IDEA here and LRE here.)

Keep in mind that seeing placements you think you might not want for your child can also be beneficial. For example, you can narrow down your choices by excluding any programs that do not provide models or services your child might need, such as:

  • inclusive model that includes typical peers
  • aides or instructors who use sign language
  • physical therapists and other accessibility features for children with orthopedic impairments

Learn more about placement options here.


Touring Potential Preschools

Once you have your list of questions, wants, and needs ready, contact the schools you’re considering or the district to set up tours. Ask to tour all class options that may apply to your child (for example, a general education class or a special day class, or SDC) so you’ll have a firm understanding of what is offered in each class. You may also consider touring a private school that may be a more appropriate match for comparison; however, remember that the district is not legally required to implement your child’s IEP in a private school setting. Many parents feel uncomfortable asking hard questions during tours, but remember that you are your child’s most important advocate, and you should never feel bad about making sure they will be supported and safe at a school that fits their needs. Many quality programs encourage parents to help school staff with safety checks throughout the year; your feedback can help improve a school’s environment and procedures.

It’s a good idea to write down any questions you may have before the tour to make the most of your time with school administrators and teachers. It’s also helpful to get a phone number or email address if questions arise later. Take a notebook with you to write down anything that might come up during your tour — and be sure to download our comprehensive tour checklist to take with you!


  Preparing for Your First IEP Meeting

Attending your child’s first Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting can be overwhelming. You’ll come across many new words and acronyms, and the IEP itself has many parts. In this section, we’ll help you learn the essentials and get organized!

What is an IEP?

An IEP is an outline of services and supports that the school or district will provide at no cost to the student’s family to ensure their needs are met. All students who receive special education services must have an IEP — and all IEPs must ensure that the student has access to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), as outlined in IDEA. You can read a quick explanation and background of the IDEA and FAPE here.

• Who Is Eligible for an IEP?
A child is eligible for an IEP if they meet the criteria for one of 13 eligibility categories and cannot make adequate progress in school without special education services.

• Who Develops an IEP?
After a formal assessment by the school or district, the IEP team is created — read about the members of the IEP team and who is legally obligated to attend here. The team will meet and review the assessments to determine whether a child is eligible for special education services. If so, they will design a program to address the child’s educational needs that arise because of their disability; this program is outlined in the IEP.

• How Will My Child Be Assessed?
A thorough assessment is the key to creating a strong IEP that accurately reflects a child’s goals, strengths, and areas of need. To qualify for an IEP, a student must receive an initial full assessment by a school psychologist, special education teacher, or other service provider. A full assessment is multidisciplinary, meaning it will include multiple areas of interest, such as social skills, communication, and academic performance. 

• When Is an IEP Developed?
An IEP meeting must be held within 30 days after a student has been deemed eligible for special education and related services. Learn more about IEP timelines here

• Types of IEPs
Your child’s initial IEP will include the following components:

  • Present levels of performance (PLOP)
  • Annual IEP goals
  • Progress monitoring measures
  • Related services
  • Supplementary aids and services
  • Extent of non-participation in the general education setting
  • Statewide testing and accommodations
  • Service delivery (offer of FAPE)

Once your child’s initial IEP is complete, you’ll have annual and triennial IEP meetings, as well as other options for reassessment and amendments. Read more about types of IEPs here.


Translating IEP Language and Common Special Education Acronyms
During the IEP process, you may come across many acronyms and unfamiliar words. Check out our comprehensive guide to these here.

Parent Training
One essential service an IEP can provide is parent training and counseling. You can request this at your IEP meeting to help you learn skills to support your child at home. Read more about parent training here.


Accommodations for IEPs and Section 504s
Accommodations help remove barriers that make it difficult for your child to learn the same material as their peers and allow them to participate fully in school. Some common accommodations are:

  • Assigning your child to sit near the teacher or additional personal space.
  • Extra time to complete tasks.
  • Giving the child fidgets or sensory seats to promote attention and self-regulation.
  • A plan to help manage medication side effects.
  • Supervision during mealtimes.

Read more about preschool accommodations here.


1:1 Aides
A 1:1 aide is a staff member who works individually with your child to help them access FAPE. You can request a 1:1 aide at your child’s IEP meeting if you feel your child may benefit from this service. There are many reasons the IEP team may determine your child needs this support, including but not limited to help with toileting, health and safety, or behavior management. Read more about 1:1 aides here.


Writing a Parental Concerns Letter
As a parent, you are an integral part of your child’s IEP planning and decision-making team. One way to make sure your input and suggestions are part of your child’s file is by writing a parental concerns letter about what you would like to see addressed at an IEP meeting. This is a chance to share information that only you know about your child.

If you feel it would be helpful for your upcoming IEP meeting to draft a parental concerns letter, see our article with tips from special education attorney Grace Clark and special education advocate Dr. Sarah Pelangka.  

You can also learn more about parent participation and procedural safeguards here


Strength-Based IEPs
Unfortunately, the language used in your child’s IEP can influence adults’ perception of them. Creating a strength-based IEP using positive child-focused language can help the adults working with your child learn about them as a whole person. 

A strength-based IEP focuses on a child’s needs, goals, abilities, and possibilities. Instead of more attention being placed on something a child can’t do, it focuses on what supports they need to accomplish their goals. For example, if a student has difficulty communicating verbally, a strength-based IEP might state, “enjoys communicating with peers with a speech-generating device.” 

You can help create strength-based goals for your child by writing a vision statement, where you discuss your hopes for the life your child will lead, which can become a focal point for the IEP team when creating goals. Read more about vision statements and strength-based IEPs here.

IEP To-Do List
You probably have a lot of questions about the IEP meeting itself. How do you prepare? What will you need to do beforehand? What will you need to bring? In this section, we’ll break down some basic things you’ll need to know and prepare for.

When your child is about two and a half years old, your Regional Center service coordinator will ask for your written consent to send your local school district a referral packet, which may contain the following:

Once eligibility is determined, you should receive a request from the school or district inviting you to the IEP meeting (if you don’t, read about how to request an IEP meeting here). If the date and time work for you, accept the request and let the school know whether you will be bringing a friend, specialist, attorney, or advocate with you. (You can read about the differences between special education attorneys and advocates here).

Bring the following items to the meeting — it’s a good idea to create a binder to organize your documents so they’ll be easy to find while you’re there:

  • A picture of your child for the cover of the binder
  • Your vision statement and documentation of your child’s strengths and interests (You may also want to add this to your child’s Undivided account so it can be included in the IEP Summary your Navigator will create for you.)
  • Recent progress reports and assessments as well as videos from current and previous therapists
  • Any relevant communications with your district or preferred school
  • A list of your concerns and solutions you feel may work. Bring this list to the meeting and use it to keep track of what your team agrees to, when they will start working on it, and who is responsible for each concern. Use this list of concerns template for handy note-taking at the meeting

We recommend you begin preparing for your meeting two days before by:

  • Packing your laptop/device or favorite pen and a pad of paper for note-taking.
  • Checking with the person you asked to accompany you (perhaps they can take notes for you!)
  • If you plan to record the meeting, write the school to let them know you will be recording the meeting at least 24 hours beforehand.


  Say What!? Five Myths about IEPs


1. The district does not have to provide a general education placement if it doesn’t have a general education preschool.

This is a common misconception based on the fact that districts are not required to operate preschools for children without disabilities in California. However, LRE requires that children with disabilities be taught alongside their non-disabled peers to the “maximum extent possible.”

This means that unless your child’s needs prevent appropriate mainstreaming in a general education classroom, the district must provide general education placement. This can be accomplished in several ways, including working with another district to provide services or reimbursing the cost of a private preschool.


2. If your child has a special day placement, you do not need a general education teacher on the IEP team.

IDEA requires that both a special education teacher and a general education teacher are participating members of your child’s IEP team.


3. You shouldn’t consent to a functional behavior assessment (FBA) because doing so will help the district remove your child from their general education classroom.

An FBA is an excellent tool for keeping your child in their general education classroom, as it will help identify the reasons behind your child’s behavior. When you know why your child exhibits certain unwanted behaviors, you can create goals to reduce or eliminate them. At the same time, the FBA team will likely promote alternative behavior that may help your child achieve more in their current placement.


4. IEPs are always the parent vs. the district. 

IEPs are meant to be collaborative processes, with the parent serving as an equal team member. If any team member approaches the IEP meeting with an adversarial attitude, it can disrupt the process and create frustration. Your child stands to benefit the most from a group of people working together with the child’s unique needs and interests at heart.


5. Your child doesn’t need an aide; there are enough people helping in the classroom.

This isn’t always the case. Teachers and staff often have assigned roles and tasks that need to be completed throughout the day, such as providing meals, running activities, and leading circle time. As a result, they cannot always give a child the specific support they need.

Your child may benefit from a 1:1 aide for a variety of reasons: behavior management, instructional support, activities of daily living (such as toileting), safety (for health or mobility), social skills training, and task redirection, just to name a few. A dedicated professional can also provide support during meals and help your child interact socially and in many other ways. You can read more about 1:1 support here.


Do you have any questions about your child’s upcoming IEP, or any of your own IEP myths or stories to share? We’d love to know!

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