It’s no secret that the Baton Rouge school system is…well….complicated. Parents of “typical” kids often struggle with the decision about whether to send their kids to public, private, magnet, charter, or home school. When your kid has special needs, there is a whole other layer of complexity added to this already complex space. And if you are anything like me, you sometimes doubt whether or not you know what the actual “right” decision is. This year since the kiddo is turning 4, our big “are we making the best decision?” dilemma has been preschool.
I have a saying about our lives raising a special needs kid and maybe all parents feel this way: I feel like our lives are like an old bucket that is full of holes- we are constantly duct-taping back together, trying desperately to hold water, and one day the duct-tape will fall apart and we’ll need to do it all again. What I mean is there seems to constantly be some new issue in our lives that we need to make a decision about and rarely do I feel confident that we’ve actually made the best decision. So we evaluate the situation, make a plan and we go with it- hoping it sticks. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and even when we are able to successfully “plug one hole” another leak seems to burst through. We’ve duct-taped together medical testing, sleeping arrangements, therapy schedules, and financial obligations for special things our child needs to make it through the day. Now we can add preschool to that list.
In our process of picking a preschool, we felt like we had three options on the table: leave him at the child care center he is currently at, enroll him in public preschool in a special ed classroom, or attempt to get into a special therapeutic preschool. All the options had their pros and cons and even though we’ve made the decision already, I still have this nagging feeling of whether we’ve done the “right” thing. If there is such a thing. So here is how we worked through our options.
Option 1: Keep Him in his Current Setting
At first pass this seems like a really good option- it’s familiar and it’s easy. He is already comfortable in the environment which is really important for a kid with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). The teachers are fabulous and treat him and us with the utmost respect. He is starting to make friends-his very first friends. It’s easy for us to get to, it fits into our budget and our schedules, and we generally just don’t like change. It’s also really great for him to be around neurotypical kids so he can see what his peers are doing and be challenged to rise to their developmental level. BUT! None of the staff really has any experience in working with kids with autism and generally they allow him to do whatever he wants rather than try to stretch him and risk upsetting him. It’s good in the sense that he’s mostly happy there because he gets to do whatever he wants, but it’s bad because that’s not how the world works. He has to continue growing and stretching and he needs to have his boundaries pushed.
Option 2: Public Preschool in a Special Ed Classroom
During our last IEP (Individualized Education Program) we sat with his therapists and the school system administrators and made a plan for what it would look like to send him to a public preschool in the fall. The ultimate plan we all could agree on was that he would do best in a special needs class with some time spent everyday in a typical class with the help of an aide. It’s free, it’s convenient, he’d continue working with some of the therapists he works with now. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this plan except for the fact that it’s the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system. I’ll just leave it at that and you can infer whatever you want.
Option 3: Private Therapeutic Preschool
The place where our kiddo already goes for speech and occupational therapy also offers a therapeutic preschool. It’s a 5 day/week program that has the curriculum of a preschool in the context of therapy. Therapeutic exercises are part of everything, and children are encouraged develop new skills while also being challenged to improve their existing ones. Every child has an individualized plan, the staff is well versed in autism and works primarily with kids who have autism, and our son is already familiar with the environment and the staff. I know what you’re thinking- why wouldn’t you choose this? Why are you even considering other options? Well, the preschool can be difficult to get into (25 kids applied this year and only 10-12 were accepted), it’s expensive, and it doesn’t really work with our work schedules. When we found out that Jo had been accepted, it left us to examine our finances and our schedule and see if there was any way we could make it work.
Ultimately we went with Option 3- the therapeutic preschool. It doesn’t make much sense for me or my husband in terms of our finances and our day to day lives, but it’s what’s best for our kid and that’s really what matters. There are times as parents that we should and get to put our needs first, but this wasn’t one of those times for us. I am not excited about pinching pennies, I still have anxiety as I look to our educational future, and I worry that we are just avoiding the inevitable entry into the public school system. But I am praying that the duct-tape holds, at least until the next school year.