What is a Developmental Preschool or a Special Education Preschool?

How can this type of preschool help your little one with special needs

developmental preschool
In a developmental preschool, a slate of services are offered to children that need them. Neil Beckerman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

When you are choosing a preschool for your little one to attend, there is a lot you need to take into consideration. And if your child has special needs, that can feel like it is doubly true. You may have heard from your pediatrician or some other early childhood education expert that your child will do best if he or she attends a developmental preschool. But what is a developmental preschool or a special education preschool and how can it benefit your little one?

What exactly a developmental preschool is can vary, depending upon the region you are from and the context in which the word is being used. Sometimes, when someone refers to a developmental preschool, they are talking about one that is play or socially based. A school where the focus is on play and socialization, rather than academics.

However, the majority of the time, a developmental preschool (or a special education preschool) is a preschool especially designed for children with special needs, whether it is a disability or a developmental delay, usually after a child has "aged out" of an early intervention (EI) program. 

Developmental preschools or special needs preschools offer a full-slate of services which can include (but are not limited to):

  • speech therapy
  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • developmental therapy
  • social workers
  • psychologists 
  • early childhood education experts
  • art therapists
  • therapists who are specific to certain disabilities and special needs

In addition, developmental preschools are staffed with certified special education teachers and aides who are trained to best fit their students needs. If it is determined that your child needs a therapist that isn't available at the preschool, ask!


Students usually have to qualify to be accepted into a developmental preschool, so it is very important that you check with your local school district or municipality to find out how children are evaluated. In general, most students who attend a developmental preschool will need to have an Individualized Education Program (or Individualized Education Plan) both referred to as an IEP, or an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) in effect for your child by their third birthday.

The child is evaluated by a qualified special education teacher, usually through play. If it is determined that your child needs to attend a developmental preschool, the agency that evaluated your child will help you with placement. 

In some cases, tuition is paid for by someone other than the parents or caregivers -- health insurance, the local school district, or some other form of grant. As you tour the developmental preschool, ask the administrator how payment works. 

The day itself at a developmental preschool or special education preschool varies from school district to school district.

Some districts have inclusion classes, where special needs children are placed in a general education classroom -- teachers either "push in" or have full inclusion. Other developmental preschools have self-contained classrooms. Talk to the administrator of the school as well as the other early education experts in  your child's life to figure out what they think would be the best type of setting for your child. In some cases, bussing is available for children. Again, this is something you'll need to speak to someone at the preschool about and determine if it is something that is appropriate for your child. 

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