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The roulette wheel of qualifying for preschool special education services.

Posted Jan 18 2011 2:56pm
I received a referral today for Trevon, who I initially evaluated eight months ago. His mother was concerned about his development and asked the school system for help when he turned three years old. The initial OT evaluation indicated that he had significant fine motor delays and a speech evaluation indicated that he had significant speech and language delays. The school approved speech therapy and a special education teacher but declined the occupational therapy.

Eight months later, I received an authorization to provide services because the motor concerns were impacting his participation in preschool. In the interim months when there was no OT intervention a second OT evaluation was completed which had essentially identical findings to the first evaluation. Apparently, the lobbying efforts of the preschool teacher and speech language pathologist helped convince the district that the OT services were required.

There are many studies that have been completed that discuss the value of prevention and early intervention services for children - I linked a couple good RAND summaries below for primer reading. I wish that we had more sensible policy about child identification - specifically entrance and exit criteria for pediatric services. So much is left to the decision making of committees, and so often the reasoning behind what is or is not approved is impossible to decipher.

In preschool services, a school district has approximately 24 months (between the ages of three and five) to identify children and provide an intervention program. In Trevon's case, this particular district's whimsical decision making threw 8 of those 24 months away. Based on typical patterns within this school district, it is likely that he will be declassified at the end of his preschool career and an additional 1-2 years will pass before he is reconsidered for CSE participation. How much more opportunity will be lost?

There is no doubt that failure to identify needs and failure to provide services saves money in the short term, but in the above referenced studies it is reported that the returns to society for each dollar invested in early intervention services extend from $1.80 to $17.07. The large variability is due to the nature of individuals. For some, early intervention prevents the need for special education services in later grades. For others there are longer term benefits to society like crime prevention and decreased reliance on social safety nets. Short term savings are notoriously shortsighted.

None of this even touches on the subject of the cost to Trevon. In class he is frustrated and now he tantrums when someone places crayons or scissors in front of him. He has the functional skills of an eighteen month old - and now the world is demanding things of him that he can not do. He could have had support, and his family could have received training and education on how to help him, but we have tossed 30% of his available preschool years away.

If there was reasoning behind the school's decision it is not apparent. He didn't qualify before but now he does. We will improve our system tremendously by employing common sense guidelines for related service entry and exit. There will always be room for individual decision making on borderline cases - but real criteria would allow us to appropriately target children who have needs and who would benefit from timely help.

It shouldn't feel so much like a roulette wheel with the likelihood of a child getting the help they need being governed by chance or house rules.

References
Karoly, L.A..; Greenwood,P.W., et.al. (1998) Investing in our children: What we know and don't know about the costs and benefits of early childhood interventions. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

Karoly, L.A., Kilburn, M.R., and Cannon, J.S. (2005). Early childhood interventions: Proven results, future promise. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.
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