By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 9

Sensory W.I.S.E. Solutions Podcast for Parents
Finding the best preschool program for your SPD child

This episode has been highly requested, but… by the time this airs, it might be a little awkward timing since school has already started… but maybe this will be timely for you if you’re starting a winter/spring program, or just pocket this for next year.

We’re talking all things preschool and what kinds of learning environments are more conducive to a neurodivergent brain. I’ll also share my top 2 “red flags” when looking for a preschool program. 

I do want to preface this episode by acknowledging the fact that- to be able to be in the position where you even get to choose the preschool program is a privilege. I am well aware that in some communities with limited resources, overflowing classrooms or geographical challenges, you may not even have the option of choosing between preschool programs. Totally get that.

This episode is for anyone who has the option between preschools and “shopping around” for the best program for your child. It can get quite overwhelming when you’re weighing all the factors… and I do have to say… it’s so rare to find one program that checks every single box. You might have to sacrifice on things like: location, budget, days or certain time availability, etc. 

On top of all that, maybe you find the perfect program and there’s a 2 year waitlist!

So… not to burst your bubble but those are things I just like to remind parents and at the end of all of it… the most important “fit” is that between your child and the teachers. A good set of preschool teachers will do their very best to accommodate your child’s learning needs. 

Assuming you filter out preschools that don’t fit your location filter, your budget filter or the waitlist filter and you’re still left with more than 1 school to decide between, here are the things I pay attention to. 

Deal breakers in preschool programs

First, I’d like to point out some huge red flags or things that were deal breakers for me when I was interviewing and touring preschools. If they didn’t pass these 2 filters, I crossed them off my list.

  1. Classroom management: Preschoolers have lots of challenging behaviors, with our without SPD. But the thing is, a LOT of SPD behaviors can “look” like bad behaviors or things that would normally get a child in trouble if they were in a standard behavior based classroom. So one thing I always look out for is how the teachers manage behaviors. If you see a preschool classroom that uses things like: clip charts or card charts or any publicly displayed behavior chart… I would cross it off your list.
    1. A clip chart is when each child’s name (or in the classroom I toured had each child’s PICTURE on it which was horrible) is put on a clothespin, and there’s usually like a color chart with a range of colors like red, yellow, orange, green, blue- and usually like red or purple is “bad” and means you have to go see the principal or get a call home to your parents or even worse- miss recess! And every time you (the child) does something “bad”, your clip moves down a color. It’s a form of public shame and is so bad on so many reasons. There’s several styles of this behavior management, using stickers or cards that kid’s have to pull, or just writing their name on the board and adding a checkmark for how many strikes they get… it’s all bad. So if you see any form of this public style of behavior management… cross that school off your list.
    2. If you have a child with SPD, chances are they have meltdowns often, or may have a hard time keeping their body to themselves, may get aggressive more often, etc…. So you want to know how this is handled. I made sure to ask if the teachers used “time out” or like sending the child to sit outside or be by themselves at all. If they said yes to those 2 things… I crossed it off my list (usually this coincided with programs that used the public forms of behavior management anyway.) 
  2. The 2nd deal breaker for me was making sure there was a 2nd teacher or 2nd adult in the classroom at all times. Most preschool programs have some ratio of like 1:8 or 1:12 but there’s usually a classroom aid if not another actual teacher there. Sometimes the office has some “floating” admin staff who can help… but I knew that my daughter would need some significant help especially during meltdowns or other sensory trigger times that if there were only 1 teacher available, she would not get the help and support she needed. 

Best preschool programs for children with SPD

Now let’s talk about some general aspects of preschool programs that work for any sensory profile of SPD. So whether your child is a sensory seeker or sensory sensitive, a preschool program with these aspects would get brownie points in my book.

  1. Small class sizes. It  goes without saying, of course we all would love our children to be in a small class size. 

But for kids with SPD, this can make a huge difference, and not just in the way that they get access to the teacher. For a sensory sensitive child (one with a small sensory cup), less students in the classroom means overall less sensory stimulation (less sounds, less clutter, less crowds). 

For a sensory seeker, this means more space and less chance for them to bump into peers or have difficulty with body awareness. It also may mean that the classroom and teacher has more time/ability to focus on providing any sensory supports or tools for each child (whether they’re a seeker or a sensitive child). 

  1. I mentioned this earlier in the deal breaker list- but making sure there’s more than 1 adult available in the classroom (ideally another teacher, but sometimes there’s a classroom aid or another teacher’s helper).
  2. Some structure: children with SPD thrive with structure. I want you to imagine preschool programs have a spectrum of how much structure they offer. Where the lowest structured programs are the free-choice all day, outdoor mostly programs and on the other side of the spectrum are the traditional, academic focused “sit at the table with your hands in your lap”, multiple transitions and structured activities in a day kind of programs. 

A sensory seeker will need a program with moderate structure, a sensory sensitive child or anxious child (remember sometimes they overlap- see episode 6) will need moderate to high structure. If your child has executive functioning challenges, the loose structure/no structure classrooms will also be hard for them. 

I do want to insert a little note here- there are pros to those outdoor programs, even the indoor  child-led programs and those that offer “free play” all day. The one thing I love about those is the sensory exploration and movement it provides, so in that sense it’s great for SPD kids, especially sensory seekers who would otherwise stick out like a sore thumb in a traditional academic based program. However, without any structure at all, it can breed more dysregulation in seekers and make it really hard for sensory sensitive or anxious kids to feel safe and really have confidence in how they engage in their environment. 

If your sensory sensitive child is also anxious and is anything like my child, then some of the child-led programs, (like Montessori for example) can be really hard for them with that open-ended nature of the classroom. Again, I want to stress, I do love the Montessori approach, it’s just not for all kids!

  1. Programs that focus or specialize in social emotional learning. If you have a program that has specific curriculum in social emotional learning, zones of regulation and also utilizes things like gentle discipline or conscious discipline, this is a real winner! When children with SPD become dysregulated in the classroom or playground setting, it can come out as a lot of behaviors that can be misread and misunderstood as bad, and you want a program with educators who can co-regulate with your child and meet their regulation needs vs. a program that will jump straight to discipline (or worse- punishment for those behaviors). 
  2. A preschool program with educators who actually know what SPD is. You’d be surprised how many parents I hear from who said after they interviewed their child’s prospective preschool, the teachers had a blank stare and didn’t’ know what SPD was. In 2021, I’d expect all preschool teachers to at least know about sensory and SPD, not be experts…. But recognize it in the very least.

Well, that’s it! I hope you found this information helpful when touring preschools and trying to make the best decision for your child and your family. 


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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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