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The search process: choosing an early intervention program.


Early intervention, day care and preschool centers are essential parts of today's "special needs" family experience. Yet the gap between children in need and the number of facilities available widens each year. A scarcity of quality programs and disparity between good and poor facilities is troubling to both parents and professional advocates.

The search for a good facility often results in a frustrating and confusing experience. Advocates complain bitterly about the lack of guidance in confronting the process. They are understandably perplexed at the prospect of selecting a new school or day care placement. Infant/ preschool/day care centers do not have well defined criteria or standards, such as those for school-age children. There is no broad-based national criteria. Standards vary from state to state, city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, professional to professional and parent to parent. To compound the problem, staff and funding sources fluctuate. The number and types of children in a facility change annually. What may be a good program one year may be inadequate the next, and vice versa. Additionally, there are conflicting opinions about the types of programs preschoolers benefit from (e.g., "special needs" integrated or segregated, in a mainstream population or just a few children in a setting, children with varying disabilities or single focus of disability).

The search and selection process is further complicated by widespread naivete as to what is involved. Those who have experienced it know how unsettling and confusing the search/selection process can be. Seldom are either parent or professional advocate adequately prepared. Selecting a program can be made for a myriad of reasons.

Some advocates report that they have selected a program because it is nearby. Others have said a friend or acquaintance recommended it. Many report being influenced by emotional reactions to staff or physical set-up, or simply being swayed by the program's reputation. Some admit that they could not be bothered looking indepth and took the first program suggested.

Professional advocates are prey to the same whims and emotional reactions as parents, but emotional response is a risky method of selection. Many inappropriate placements have resulted in lengthy, unhappy experiences for children and families. During this formative preschool period, a child should have positive, appropriate, stimulating and carefully designed learning activities in a well-staffed, responsive and happy environment. For children with special needs, this is critical to their immediate and long-term learning abilities. A planned search/selection process can help you obtain the best possible learning situation. for your child.

The checklist included in this article is designed to help your search. It will not encompass requirements for every child, but it can be used as an additional tool to help you prepare and focus on important elements of preschool learning requirements.


When approaching the search, seek to broaden your thinking and planning before focusing on particular concerns. Before making visits to prospective programs, consider your goals not only for the coming year, but also for the next few years as well. Your visit will be worthwhile if you know what to look for in a general sense and if you can describe precisely your child and his/her needs.

A review of developmental checklists and books on learning activities for preschool children with disabilities may be helpful. This can inform or remind you of expectations your child will encounter. Consult professional and family members who know your child. They may suggest pertinent materials and convey information you might otherwise overlook. However, avoid bombarding yourself with people's opinions, materials and information. You know a great deal about your child already. It is a matter of prioritizing and focusing on what you know and what you want to convey.


When you visit a potential program, you may want to bring important records relating to your child's personal learning style and development, such as the Individual Service or Education Plan (ISP/IEP). Other materials can be sent at a later date, if you decide to pursue placement.

Your ISP/IEP is a powerful preparatory and acquisition tool in times of transition. It can be a marvelous means for sharpening and focusing on long and short term goals at pivotal junctures. It also can be used to help you obtain program services. It can even aid you in gaining acceptance into a desired program or type of program.

In addition to personal learning development, preparation relating to appropriate learning environments is important. This realm has been largerly overlooked. The checklist is designed to help you become aware of important environmental learning elements. The list can be used to screen facilities, as well as to assess sites over time. The list may also be helpful in your work with a staff to create the ideal learning place for your child needs.

On-site screening is a must! Be prepared to look at the entire program, not just aspects that appeal to or concern you. In addition to a visit of three to four hours while a program is in session, arrange interviews with administrative, teaching and/or day care personnel.


Parents are sometimes reluctant to ask many questions. However, questions and comments help staff appreciate the unique needs of your child and your family. Your questions establish that your child's welfare is a central concern and that you do not take this transition lightly. Responses to your questions should clarify misunderstanding, provide information, and convey an educational philosophy.

The quality of your exchange with staff members can reflect the type of relationship a program has with parents and outside professionals. Your questions should be welcomed. They indicate that you strive for partnership in this endeavor. A rich, informative dialogue is a good beginning for positive parent-professional partnership.

If you are a professional rather than parent advocate, it is important that you not dominate the discussion and questions if the parent is with you on the visit. Any discussion should encourage active parent participation and free expression of parental concerns. It is the parent who will live with all the decisions. It is the parent who will work in partnership with this new staff.

Plan to visit while a program is in session and try to span your visit over a variety of activities. If you have concerns about particular needs or activities, your visits should include periods relevant to those concerns. Arrange to speak directly with the staff and therapeutic personnel who will interact with your child during such activities.

You are seeking the most informative answers to a simple question: "What kind of morning or afternoon will my child experience in this environment?" You need assurances that--if you were the one hired to work with your child; if you were the one responsible for selecting the rooms, materials and activities used; if you were the one to choose the conditions in which your child could interact--the place you eventually select would suit all of these standards and all of your child's needs.


Plan to make your first visit without your child. Your attention should be undivided. If a program appears good, a second look with your child present is needed. Your initial focus should be on the physical facility, personal ambiance, teaching methods and educational/learning/play provisions. Your follow-up visit can then center around your child's reactions to staff, rooms, materials and children, along with the facility's response to your child's particular needs.

It can be useful to get the name of a parent leader or participant with whom you can talk by telephone or in person. Although the information and opinions they convey may not always be synonymous with yours, another parent can alert you to tips and experiences that might not be readily apparent.

It is sometimes helpful for both parent and involved professional to visit potential sites (together or separately). Parents, particularly single parents, may also wish to bring a friend or relative who knows your child well. Talking together during visits should be minimized. If you are invited to participate in activities, make sure that such involvement does not detract from your central purpose: to observe and to make notes on the benefits and shortcomings of this placement for your child.

Feel free to bring a pencil and paper on visits. Plan to note impressions, questions and opinions--as they occur. You will be taking in a tremendous amount of information in a very short time. It is easy to forget small things, especially over time. Accumulated bits of information, observations and comments may be invaluable later.


The checklist can be used before, during and/or after site visits. Because it is difficult to look at the list and the program simultaneously, it is suggested that you fill in most responses immediately after, rather than during, observation. Do not allow much time to elapse before filling in the checklist. Impressions clutter and fade rapidly.

It is important to realize that the checklist is designed as a guide, not as a formal assessment tool. It will not encompass all your child's needs or all preschool situations. It covers a broad range of functioning levels (from severe to mild), and some areas will be more applicable than others for you and your child.

Keep in mind your child's personality, emotional, cultural, family, physical and medical needs as you screen learning environments. What makes him happy, what rewards her learning efforts, and what reinforces a sense of ability and worth in your child will enhance happiness and provide a spring board for long term learning and living achievements.

PHOTO : Catherine L. Carpenter is Director of Education at the First Unitarian Society in San Francisco, Calif. She received her masters degree from Boston College in special education of the multi-handicapped. Catherine and her husband, Victor, are the parents of a son, Tyler, 29, and two daughters, Gracia, 25, and Melissa, 24, both of whom have disabilities.
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Author:Carpenter, Catherine L.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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