Schools anticipate increased special ed needs as pandemic babies reach pre-school age

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This article was originally written by Eileen O’Grady and published by Ink Link on March 20, 2023. 

Henniker Special Education Coordinator Lindsay Nye started holding preschool guided play and discussion sessions for parents of babies and toddlers this month after she realized many parents in her district didn’t know whether their children were meeting their developmental milestones after the isolation of COVID.

“I was hearing from some of the school board members and parents, questioning what’s normal these days,” Nye recalled.  “‘Should my child be talking at this point?’ ‘How many words should make up their sentences?’ ‘Should they be drawing a picture of a person at this point?’ ”

The weekly sessions start with a preschool morning meeting where specialists lead songs, activities and movement for the kids and their parents. Then the parents move to a different room to talk about preschool options, resources and recognizing developmental milestones while the specialists run targeted tabletop activities with the children, assessing their mental markers of development and checking for delays.

“Our hope is that we can reach out afterward if there were any concerns and say, ‘What can we help you with to help this child access their education?’ ” Nye said. “The earlier we can do it, the more successful they’ll be when they start preschool or kindergarten.”

Many New Hampshire school special education departments are anticipating an increase in pre-school age students with more severe needs than in past years and are attributing it to families not accessing early intervention services during the pandemic.

The Concord School District received 73 special education referrals for kindergarten-aged children this year compared to 10 last year and 97 referrals for preschool-aged children compared to 55 last year. Assistant Superintendent for Student Services John Fabrezio told Concord School Board members at a meeting in February that it’s a sign that parents and teachers are concerned about their children’s development.

Fabrezio said that among the 35 pre-schoolers who were deemed eligible for special education, many have autism spectrum disorder.

“Many of them are coming without a typical three-year process of services that would happen,” Fabrezio said. “It’s a concerning area for me, the preschool area right now because those students have a lot of needs right now. More than we’ve seen.”

Martha LeMathieu, Director of Student Services for the Weare, Henniker and Stoddard SAU, has been seeing an increase in referrals for pre-school-age children after referrals reached a low in 2020 and 2021. She’s also been seeing an increase in the severity of needs among incoming students.

“There are more on the autism spectrum, more with physical disabilities or mobility, which are increasing needs such nursing services, physical therapy, the whole wraparound gamut of services,” LeMathieu said.

Dierdre Dunn is the Bureau Chief for Family Centered Supports and Services within New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services, which is the state’s early intervention system, serving children from birth to age 3 who have developmental delays. She confirmed that her department is seeing an increase in the severity of needs among the children they see, though they do not have concrete data that could show a trend. She also attributes it to a lack of socialization during the early years of the pandemic.

“We’re starting to see kids who may not have participated in things, who are a little bit behind,” Dunn said. “They’re coming to us a little bit later; they’re going into the school departments maybe not having had the benefit of early supports and services.”

The state’s early intervention programs continued to operate during the pandemic, though many went virtual. Dunn said families who were already receiving services switched readily to a virtual format, but new incoming families were less likely to enroll in virtual services.

“During COVID families were home; they had a lot of stressors,” Dunn said. “They had their other kids at home, they were working remotely, they were teaching their other kids remotely, they weren’t seeing their pediatrician, they weren’t socializing, they weren’t seeing their kids compared to other kids, they weren’t going to childcare. So sometimes those kiddos missed out on a lot of opportunity for socialization.”

In New Hampshire’s early intervention programs, a trained specialist coaches families on how to enhance their child’s development. Floor play, crawling, interacting and read-alouds are all activities a specialist may recommend to enhance a child’s development. Dunn said when children receive early intervention services, they’re often able to enter school without a need for additional support services, because they caught up.

“When they get tested early, interventions can be put into place to help the child not fall behind, but put those supports in place so that they can catch up and then stay connected with their peers as they move through their educational experience,” Dunn said.

Henniker’s preschool, where the guided play and discussion sessions are held, is a special education-certified program that prioritizes special education students. Nye said there are so many special education students enrolled right now that there is a waiting list of general education students, and demand is high. On town election day Tuesday, Henniker residents voted to approve a warrant article that will expand preschool programming next fall.

“It’s definitely a need within the community,” Nye said.