At a glance
Only a handful of states have free, universal preschool for every child.
But all states offer preschool special education services to kids ages 3 to 5 who need it.
Kids who are delayed a lot or who have a disability may qualify.
If your child is between 3 and 5 years old and is behind other kids or has serious challenges, you may wonder how to get support for your child. Most kids this age are still too young to attend kindergarten in a public school. And private preschool is expensive. You may have another option, though: free preschool . Learn how it works.
Who Qualifies for Free Preschool Special Education
Federal law offers help for kids with disabilities from birth through high school. The law is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
One part of IDEA—called Section 619—funds services for preschoolers. With this money, all states offer free special education to preschool kids ages 3 through 5 who need it. Your child can qualify under Section 619 in a few ways.
First, kids who are delayed in their development may be eligible. For example, a young child who never talks or who never makes eye contact might get free preschool services. Or a preschooler who lacks enough muscle tone to hold the body up. Each state has its own rules on how delayed a child must be.
Another way to qualify is if your child received early intervention before age 3. (These are services for babies and toddlers who have developmental delays.) If your child got these services, the state may continue them.
Finally, kids may qualify if they have a disability in one of 13 categories in IDEA and need services. This is less likely, because when kids are this age, it’s often too early to see their challenges. For instance, it’s very hard to diagnose a learning difference like when kids haven’t even started school.
Again, each state has its own rules for which kids are eligible.
Who to Contact for an Evaluation
To get free preschool services, the local school district has to evaluate your child. This screening is free.
Get the ball rolling by contacting the district and looking up the director of special education. If you can’t find this person, contact the superintendent of the school district. Ask where to send a written request for an evaluation. (You can find a sample request here.)
A school evaluation is more than just one test. A team from the school district will probably visit your home, observe your child, and ask a lot of questions. They may also perform a set of tests to see how your child is doing compared to other kids.
If you run into roadblocks, reach out to your state’s 619 coordinator. This is the person in your state who is responsible for preschool special education. The 619 coordinator can tell you about your rights and connect you with local programs and services. Sometimes, this person can even attend meetings with you.
Here’s how to find the 619 coordinator in your state.
What Preschool Special Education Looks Like
Once the school district decides that your child is eligible for services, it will work with you to develop an . This blueprint for your child’s education will have services that address your child’s needs. But how they’re offered may look different depending on where you live.
It’s possible your child is already in preschool or a childcare program. Maybe you live in a state with universal preschool. Or maybe you take part in a local program. If so, your child’s preschool or childcare program will likely provide special education there. They may pull your child out of class every so often for extra help.
If your child isn’t in preschool, the school district may look for one. Most districts have special programs for kids who need help. Sometimes, kids do better getting services at home.
Often, being in a standard preschool classroom is the best option for kids. This lets them be with classmates who are developing at a typical rate. That can help keep kids from falling further behind. Just like other kids, it’s good for your child to play, hear language, and build reading skills with classmates.
Learn more about how special education services are offered year by year, from birth through high school. And get tips on how to help young kids who are behind other kids.
The school district has to evaluate your child before you can get free preschool special education services.
Each state has its own rules for who qualifies.
Your state’s 619 coordinator can be a good resource to talk to.
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About the author
About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.