The early learning experience can have long-range impact on the young child. Because this is often the first time that they have been away from home without a parent, finding the right experience is crucial.
Parents choose preschools for many different reasons: geographical convenience, social reasons (this is where my friends take their children), religion, cost, physical appearance.
While all of these issues are important the list needs to also include:
• Experience of the teachers
• School certifications
• Philosophy of the school
• Size of the classrooms
• Number of classes per age group
• Ongoing continuing education for teachers
• Frame of reference for age-/class-specific curriculums
• Structure of the school
• Classroom facilities
• Extra-curricular experiences available
• Outside consultants (OT/speech, nutritionist, psychologist)
• Accommodations/modifications for the child with early learning needs
These issues become even more important when you are selecting a school for a child with special learning concerns. This is where parents may go to the occupational therapist for help in making specific decisions that are essential for a successful early-learning experience.
The right environment must fit the child and it must fit the parents. Evaluating the home philosophy is as important as evaluating the child. It might also be helpful, particularly in the case of the toddler with special needs, to visit the school with the parents before enrolling the child.
More often, however, the OT is brought into the preschool situation after problems begin to arise.
Such was the case with "Bailey" (not his real name), 3, who had been attending preschool for three months. It was his first time attending school full time and at first he refused to nap and acted out. After about a month, however, he seemed to be adjusting; he had started to nap and was behaving well.
"Then about two weeks ago," his parents told me when they called, "he started to regress into not listening to his teacher when she asks him to do something, general disruptive behavior, self-control issues, and at times outbursts. His teacher and the school's owner and doctor all say he is an extremely smart child. and he scored very high on his developmental and cognitive assessments. We know that at home he will get bored easily and we will simply change what were doing to a new activity or give him something more challenging, like a puzzle outside his age group (which he has no problem completing). If he is focused on something he wants to do he will sit for hours doing it, so the school has ruled out ADHD as his behavioral problem. But they would still like to have him assessed by a professional for suggestions of ways to handle his moments of bad behavior."
Bailey has trained his parents to circumvent issues before they arise by changing his activity. However, it is not practical for this to happen in a classroom of 8-10 young children with a teacher and teacher's aide.
I also noted that the parents used the word "regress," which is often associated with severe developmental concerns. I find it is often used by parents as a code word to tentatively bridge the "question" they often do not want answered. The language the parents use is often an indicator of their hidden concerns.
Changes in behaviors in young children are common. To jump to conclusions about interpreting meanings can be emotionally stressful and is often unnecessary.
The occupational therapist can help by giving the parent a definitive profile of the child's current abilities. Some testing measures that may be appropriate include the Test of Pictures/Forms/Letters/Numbers/Spatial Orientation and Sequencing Skills, the Denver Developmental, the Motor-Free Visual Perception Test, the PEER, the Visual Motor Inventory, and the Wide Range Assessment of Visual Motor Abilities.
However, over and above these standardized measures, a simple (OT-constructed) criterion-referenced developmental checklist may provide valuable information. A sample of one that I developed is available online at www.advanceweb.com/OT. It is copyright protected but may be used with permission and acknowledgement of authorship.
Equipped with an attentive ear, an evaluative eye and some measures for synthesizing the data accrued, the OT becomes a valuable asset in this early learning process.
Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, is the author of Learning Re-enabled, a guide for parents, teachers and therapists. The book is endorsed by the National Education Association and the International Learning Disabilities Association. She is also the author of WIN™, The Handwriting on the Wall 12-hour program to penmanship. She is CEO and executive director of Children's Special Services, LLC, in Atlanta, GA. Reach her at www.childrens-services.com or through www.YourTherapySource.com.