I chose the LABB School because it seems so innovative. They have a preschool program designed for children with special needs, but they also enroll children with no difficulties. Because of this, preschoolers who attend The LABB School get both specialized services and the normality of attending preschool with children who have no disabilities. I was very curious to see how The LABB School makes this concept work.
When I went in I expected to see the children with disabilities separated in some way from the children without disabilities. I also wanted to know how well both groups progressed. I observed in detail and interviewed a teacher, an occupational therapist and a teacher aid to gather information. I did not ask to interview a parent.
The LABB School is spacious and set against woods. The rooms are airy and bright. They have a playground that is brightly colored and scaled to suit the needs of preschool program. The LABB School is actually located on the campus of Burlington High School. The LABB director told me that high school students in child development classes often volunteer some time in the facility. This means that the children interact with a wide variety of people who have varying degrees of background in either child development or special education. Of course, high school students are given guidance and supervised closely.
The classrooms are also brightly decorated, and in the room I observed, for three-year-olds, hands-on activities were everywhere. Many objects in the room had cards attached to them giving their name. For instance, the teacher's desk had a card taped to it that said "desk." The trashcan was labeled "trashcan," and the window and door as well as many other features in the room had similar signs. I asked the teacher about this. It seemed to me that children, especially children with disabilities, were too young to learn to read.
She told me that although the great majority of children were working on learning their letters or other pre-reading skills, it was important that they see the connection between the written word and the real world. In addition, she explained that even when a child has a disability, very often that child has strengths and weaknesses. She pointed out a little girl with spina bifida, which she said affected her ability to use her legs. However, she said the girl was very intelligent and had a small sight word vocabulary. She could read most of the labels in the room.
I had a number of assumptions before visiting this school. I expected that the classroom would be much like classrooms I experienced as a child, with children working in groups and directed by a teacher, everyone more or less doing the same thing at the same time. This room, however, was quite different than that. I could see, after observing for a while, that the teacher was in charge. However, this role was not immediately obvious. The children were participating in a variety of activities. In one area, someone was reading a story to the children. It was a story about animals, and the children had animal puppets. When the duck spoke in the story, the child with the duck puppet would move its mouth. They seemed to be familiar with the story and appeared to be enjoying the activity.
In one corner, a woman was working with a child by helping him lie on top of a large ball. The woman said she was an occupational therapist and that she was helping the child develop a sense of balance. The child was struggling with the task but the occupational therapist was helping him stay on top of the ball. He was laughing and having a good time.
After the occupational therapist was done with the child, she explained to me what her role was in the school. She said that in preschool children, occupational issues are common, especially when the child has some special need. She said that a lot of these activities actually relate directly to later school success. I asked her how balancing on top of a large ball would contribute to school success. She explained that children are expected to sit at desks and to be able to do things such as pick up a dropped pencil without falling out of the desk. She said that this was a special kind of balance and coordination. She also pointed out that the ability to participate in everyday activities, such as swinging on a swing, which requires both coordination and balance, can contribute to the ability to make friends. A child who can't easily play with others because of unnecessary physical limitations will have fewer opportunities to play with other children.
I was clearly an outsider in this setting, and that had some advantages, because I could ask questions without looking as if I should have already known the answer. I found, interestingly, that although I had made assumptions, many of them erroneous, about this setting, the people I spoke with asked questions of me while answering the ones I had posed to them. For instance, I noticed one child with cerebral palsy (as I was told) who walked with an awkward gait, knees pointing in. The child seemed to make tremendous effort to move each leg, and I commented on the child's struggles. The teacher, however, had an entirely different perspective. "Three days ago he couldn't walk at all. We had a little party for him when he was able to walk into the room!"
I asked about how well this child was able to learn and was surprised by the answer. The teacher told me that they really didn't know yet, because he was hard to test. His cerebral palsy included his hands and speech. Most tests of cognitive intelligence, she said, require both verbal responses and use of hands to do things such as puzzles. This child has difficulty with both things, So they assess his cognitive abilities more informally. For instance, when he was working on colors, she set up a situation where she colored but the little boy told her what colors to use. So she would ask him, "Should I make the boy's shirt blue or green?" The boy would say, perhaps, blue. She would pick up the green crayon and watch for a response. Six months ago, she said, he didn't notice her errors. Now he does, and using other such activities, they an see that he recognizes six colors. In addition, he recognizes the first letter of his name -- G.
She suggested that I go ask "G" how old he was. To answer this question, he had to sit down, set his crutches aside, and then use one hand to help keep the right number of fingers up, but he was able to do it. He held up three fingers and smiled at me. It took considerable effort for him to answer the question. I felt that I had been mean to the child in some way, and told the teacher that. She responded that it would have been far more mean to not ask because he has an alternative way of answering. He doesn't see it as difficult, she said, because he knows nothing else. For him, walking into a room is a big achievement. For him, holding up three fingers is a victory as well as an answer.
Overall, the culture of the classroom was one that possesses specific values. Each child is accepted as he or she is. While the attitudes toward the child's disabilities are quite positive, they aren't sugar-coated: no one denies that some of the children have significant limitations. The staff makes a conscious effort to keep those limitations in mind but to always actively seek ways that they will not deter the child from learning or socializing. The teachers have devised a variety of ways to do this. For instance, "G" has been taught how to build with blocks by using both hands as fists. The children without any disabilities have no difficulty grasping a block with one hand, but before I left I observed "G" playing with the blocks along with two children who apparently had no disabilities at all. As it turned out I was wrong about that. One of the children had a more invisible difficulty: he had very little hearing. The teacher had me observe the group for a while and then tell her what I noticed, and I did eventually notice what she was getting at: "G" has learned to talk to the boy with the hearing loss when he is looking directly at "G."
I commented to the teacher that the staff must have a lot of patience, and was gently corrected. "It doesn't take patience," she said. "It takes training. The teachers have to know what they're doing and why. Coloring with "G" isn't just a game between teacher and child. It's an assessment." She said that…