Find Special Needs Programs to Fit Your Child

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Finding the right program for a child with special needs can take a little extra research and thought. Be sure to start the process well in advance to give yourself time to observe several programs and think through the decision. Here are some tips to help you in your search for the best program for your child.


When looking for a day care or preschool program for your child, the most important thing is to find the right fit for your child and your family. "I strongly recommend, in looking for day care services, that the parent and the child's comfort level is pretty high at the top of the list [of priorities]," says Jane Johnson-Chavis, executive director of the The Arc of Durham County Inc.

Get recommendations from sources you trust

Getting recommendations from friends and therapists can be a good place for parents to start when researching centers and schools. It is also important to remember, however, that even though a center has a great reputation and other parents rave about it, it might not be the best choice for your child's particular needs.

If your child is receiving services through the North Carolina Early Intervention program or your local school system, check to see if your child qualifies for any day care or preschool programs they offer. Many of these programs are staffed by trained early childhood educators and specialists who know how to work with children with special needs.

Johnson-Chavis also recommends that parents look at the state's rating of each program, in which five stars represent the highest level of quality. She adds, though, that in many situations a three- or four-star program might be the best choice for a particular child.

Consider an inclusive or typical class

Parents should also consider the benefits of having their child in a program that includes both children with special needs and their more typically developing peers or even a center that is geared toward typical kids that can accommodate your child's particular issues.

When Vanessa Mouton's son Carter was a toddler, she found that he benefited from being in a setting with both typically developing children and those with special needs. Carter has Down syndrome.

"As heartbreaking as it can be to see another 1½-year-old child running when yours is barely crawling, [being in a program with more typically developing children] gave Carter the motivation and drive to try to do what he saw the other kids doing," says Mouton, a Cary mom of three.

Take a tour

Visit the program during the day and observe a class. Watch the interaction between staff and the children. Consider whether the routine would work for your child's needs and interests. If your child has physical limitations, note if the classrooms and facilities are accessible for your child's disability. Parents of children with sensory issues should note if the noise level, class size and classroom environment would be overstimulating.

Be honest about your child's needs

Because each child has differing needs and levels of functioning, parents should be honest about their child's strengths and limitations when talking with potential day care providers. Johnson-Chavis says that center administrators should be willing to talk to parents to learn about their child's behavior, topics and activities that interest him, and situations that may upset him. Parents should also talk with the staff about field trips and other outings to see if their child's needs can be accommodated during these events.


Activities such as sports, music lessons and camps can be great ways for older children with special needs to make friends, develop skills and have fun. As with finding a day care or preschool for younger children, parents can help their school-aged children have a successful experience in these kinds of activities by doing a little homework before signing them up.

Keep your options open

Many great programs, such as local parks and recreation departments' specialized programs, Dream League baseball and Special Olympics, were specifically developed for children with special needs. Many parents find that programs geared toward kids with special needs are more accommodating to their children's issues and provide a very accepting environment for both the child and parent.

However, as with early-childhood opportunities, parents should be open to programs for more typically developing children that might be a good fit.

"Be open-minded, and if there isn't a special-needs program for an activity, think outside the box," Mouton says. "Talk to [organizers of activities for typically developing children] and see if it can work for your child." She also suggests asking if an aide or "shadow" can help if your child needs assistance for an activity.

Talk with instructors and coaches

Even if you've found a program that looks like a good match, take time to meet with coaches or instructors before

registering. Sheila Knapp of Cary, mother of a son with autism and co-founder of Autism Parenting Solutions, recommends that parents be very specific about their child's needs and limitations.

"If they aren't going to accept your child for their differences, you don't want to be there, anyway," Knapp says. She recalls a music class she was considering for her son where she explained to the instructor that her child would not be able to sit through circle time, adding that if that behavior was going to a problem, the program was probably not a good fit for her family.

Knapp suggests that parents make a plan with the instructor or owner before the program starts in case the class or league is not a good fit. See if you can sign up for a trial class or receive a partial or full refund if the activity does not work out, she says.

Think about your child's interests and abilities

Above all, experts say, pick an activity that focuses on your child's interests and strengths. Not every activity needs to have a therapeutic purpose, either. It is important just to have fun, too.

Elizabeth Worley, of Project Enlightenment in Raleigh, emphasizes that parents should be honest with themselves and the program providers about their children's needs.

"If your child needs more structure and support than a program provides, then going into a typically developing group might create more stress for everyone," she says. "You can wish that your child can succeed in this arena, but it is most important that it be a positive experience for your child."

Think about what situations your child is successful in and note what accommodations are made for that activity.

"The goal for any kind of program is for them to feel successful, learn a new skill and feel good about themselves," Worley says.  n

Jennifer Gregory is a freelance writer who lives in the Triangle with her husband, two kids and three dogs.


Jane Johnson-Chavis, executive director of The Arc of Durham County Inc., recommends parents of children with special needs ask the following questions when considering an early-childhood program:

*    What are the credentials of the staff, and who will be around your child?

*    What is the schedule for the day's activities?

*    What therapies does the school provide? Can private therapists work with your child at the school?

*    How does the staff communicate with parents?

*    Does the provider make opportunities for parents to meet and network?

*    Does the program have a board of directors for parents to share positive and negative experiences?

Also ask for a copy of the policy book and verify that there is a grievance process.

The Inclusion Subcommittee of the Local Interagency Coordinating Council (LICC) recommends asking the following questions before enrolling a child in an inclusive program:

*      How many children attend the program? What is the staff-to-child ratio? Are the children divided into groups by age or in some other way?

*      How many hours of training does the staff receive? Is inclusion one of the training topics? What experience has the staff had in working with children with special needs?

*      What is the discipline policy?

*      If your child is unable or would prefer not to do an activity (for example, a field trip or swimming), what is the alternate activity?

*      If your child would like to do a certain activity but may need additional support, is the staff willing to make individualized accommodations (such as help changing into swimsuit, headphones during loud times, help with using the bathroom, etc.)?

*      Are staff members willing to have a support person come in to facilitate inclusion efforts for your child and others?

For additional inclusion resources, visit LICC's website at and select Community Resources.

Visit Carolina Parent's Special Kidsguide for more resources.


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