The Special Needs Child

How to ensure success

by jennifer molk

We’ve all heard about the milestones our child should reach at one month or six months, and on through the ages. Most of us will mark the day he forms his first word and again when the first whole sentence is spoken. We’ll nod with pride at the pediatrician when she has hopped on one foot and caught a ball.

But for some parents, those moments won’t come when they’re supposed to, or will be significantly delayed, and their child will eventually be found to be in need of special services. No matter what the degree of developmental delay, it is crucial to discover those needs as early as possible, says Joan Watts Brown, coordinator of the Preschool Special Education Program for Billings Public Schools. She has spent over 20 years teaching preschool special education.

“We are strong believers in early intervention,” she says. “We believe that the earlier the child starts receiving intervention, the more success that child will have.”

Watts Brown works with the youngest children who are eligible for special needs services through the school district from three to five years of age. She says early intervention improves the capacity of the child to benefit from their early learning experiences, because she and her staff are getting them into whatever kinds of extra help they need as early as possible.

“We do feel that it reduces the intensity of services they might need once they start elementary school, or they might not need extra help at all once they start elementary school.”

Special needs in children cover a wide range of disabilities, including cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and Downs Syndrome. School District 2 blankets all of these disabilities, and others, under the classification of “developmental delay” for children who are between three and five years old.

Learning disabilities such as those associated with autism, ADD and ADHD, are assessed more specifically later in childhood within the district after the age of five, and after a child has begun a formal curriculum.

What is Developmental Delay?

“If a child becomes eligible for preschool special education program, they have to meet the requirements for a disability category,” Watts Brown explained.” So what we’re looking at the three- to five-year-old level is a disability category called ‘developmental delay.’”

The criteria for developmental delay is for a child to be age three to five and showing significant delays in development in one or more of the following developmental categories:

Social skills

Adaptive skills

Cognitive skills

Communication skills

Motor skills

Screen now for success later.

Watts Brown encourages parents to bring their child to a screening at the first sign there might be something wrong. Every year throughout the school year, School District 2 holds screenings for children from birth to five years old who have not yet begun Kindergarten. It is at these screenings where specialists can uncover potential issues that the child might be dealing with and are not quite obvious yet to the parent.

“We do preschool screenings seven times a year,” she explains. “This is the main vehicle that we use for starting the process for screening children.”

The purpose is to provide an overall developmental check of the child and help the family determine if they’re developing appropriately for their age and also to locate children with future problems.

“The speech therapist might say a child is making some errors in how they’re saying their sounds,” Watts Brown explained, “but those sounds could be very typical. Most three year olds are not able to say their ‘r’s. We don’t even worry about that until they’re in the third grade. So a lot of times we’re able to reassure parents.

If you’re concerned,” Watts Brown suggests, “talk to your pediatrician first. Then come to a screening.”

At the end of the screening, the parents are given the results and referred to further testing if necessary.

What happens if my child has special needs?

One thing Watts Brown wants parents to know is that children as young as three are covered by the same federal and state guidelines as older children. “The law covers children ages three to 21,” she says. “Billings Public Schools provide special education services for three- to five-year-olds and it is part of the law. We are required to meet those needs.”

How do I Provide a good early environment?

Watts Brown says along with early intervention, creating the right environment at home is the best thing parents can do for any child, especially one who might have special challenges to overcome in life and in education.

“Read to your child,” she urges. “Go to children’s hour at the library. Turn off the TV. Have a language rich environment in your home. Read for 10 or 15 minutes. That’s all it takes. That’s so important.”

And she adds, “Come to a screening.” SFM

Jennifer Molk is a freelance writer who resides in Billings. She enjoys writing about topics and issues she herself seeks the answers to. she is a mother of two.