Special Education’s Top Three Lessons for Architects of Universal Preschool


As policymakers work on President Barack Obama’s universal preschool plan they should look to special education for lessons on how.


This was a message Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered this summer, suggesting that decades-long efforts to create inclusive preschools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act could help Congress and the White House design effective preschools for all students, Education Week reported.


They could definitely learn something from the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit (EEU). The school has been at the forefront of early special education for nearly half a century, creating a truly inclusive preschool where typically developing students are taught alongside children with a wide range of needs, from Down syndrome to undiagnosed disorders.


So I asked Ilene Schwartz, director of the EEU and the university’s chair of special education, what she thought the top lessons special education has for universal preschool.


  • Focus on Intentional Instruction: In early learning, special education teachers have known for decades that preschool is a time for intentional instruction. Instead of placing children with autism or other disabilities in a room full of toys and art materials, teachers use curricula based on established research to teach academic and social skills. This is happening in higher-quality general education preschools and child care, but it should be more common.


“We need to make sure if you want children to learn something you need to teach it to them. If we are going to universal preschool, what is the goal we are trying to accomplish?” Schwartz asked.


In addition, a growing mountain of research shows that developing social and emotional skills, along with academic ability, in early education are important to a student’s long-term success. This is a connection that teachers in early special education have been focusing on for years, according to Schwartz.


  • Develop True Inclusion: Inclusion is a tricky word because it means different things in different schools and systems. In early learning, educators have created truly inclusive classrooms by using strategies that go well beyond simply putting students who are developing typically with children who have disabilities in the same room. When they succeed, an inclusive preschool can help both types of students.


“We know that both children with and without disabilities learn better when they are in inclusive settings,” Schwartz said.


  • Build Community: In early learning, special education teachers can form strong relationships with parents, who often face intense challenges raising children with special needs. In fact, it seems preschool teachers generally focus on having positive relationships with parents. While this lesson is easier said than done, it is important to encourage teacher-parent cooperation in efforts to reform K-12 systems.