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December 15, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A milestone in child development A milestone in child development (December 15, 2004)

Program mixes typical children with developmentally disabled children

by Dwana Bain

It's recess time at Milestones Preschool in Palo Alto.

Thea, a talkative 2-year-old, pauses as she scoots a Little Tikes car across the playground. William, also 2, decides she needs a little push. Although Thea is considered "typically" developing and William rarely speaks because of language and motor skill delays, on this playground they are simply two children having fun.

Such scenes are typical at C.A.R. Milestones. The preschool, which opened in September and currently has four teachers and 23 students, mixes developmentally delayed youngsters with children who are considered more "typical." By integrating the two populations, it is hoped the developmentally challenged children learn speech and play skills from their peers. Conversely, the "typical" children learn empathy and social skills.

"What we're about is giving all kids a really good start in life," said C.A.R. Executive Director Lynda Joyce Steele. "The more services and intervention you provide for infants at an early age the better chance they've got in overcoming or managing their disabilities."

The idea of "integrated" or "inclusion" programs has gained momentum over the past five years in preschools from Manhattan to Kansas to California. Traditionally, such efforts have occurred on a much lower level, with special education students visiting their "typical" peers a few times a week for specific projects.

At Milestones, there are 15 children in a classroom per day. In groups of five, they rotate among three "stations," which can be any combination of gross motor, fine motor, sensory or reading posts. This way, children with various levels of ability learn in group settings the entire day.

"This is one of the first programs that outright markets itself and calls itself an inclusive program," said Janel Astor, an infant development specialist who helped design the school. "I think it's a trend that you're going to see a lot more of."

The Community Association for Rehabilitation, or C.A.R., was founded in 1963 by a group of Peninsula parents. It started as a preschool, eventually adapting and expanding over the years with programs for everyone from infants to adults.

A few years ago, some of the program's therapists began an integrated Friday-afternoon playgroup. Infant program parents invited typically developing children of friends and neighbors. It was by all accounts, a popular success.

In 2003, C.A.R. received a $35,000 planning grant from the First 5 Commission of San Mateo County, allowing the staff the time to research and design this vision of a preschool. The program also received a $3,000 grant last year from the Weekly's Holiday Fund.

The Milestones classroom is designed for children with different levels of ability. The school uses a Picture Exchange Communication System -- small laminated pictures and symbols represent words or actions -- that helps children with language difficulties learn to communicate. The classroom also uses "picture schedules" to illustrate the day's plans for children.

The teachers often use basic sign language along with words.

"It's such a neat idea and we're really happy to be part of it. It seems like the way that things are supposed to be," said Andi Dehne, whose son, Riley, has Down syndrome.

Milestones parent Carla Craddock's 21/2-year-old twins Angela and Danny, are typically developing, but have a neurological disorder called Apraxia that limits a child's ability to form and speak words. At the age of 14 months, both children suddenly fell silent -- no more words for Danny, just a handful for Angela.

Speech therapy has helped the twins, but since starting Milestones, Craddock said, "It's just been like a language explosion."

The twins' language has improved so dramatically that they recently moved to a more advanced class.

Craddock saw a difference on the very first day of school.

"Angela came home and said, 'I had fun,'" Craddock recalled. "She'd never said a sentence like that. And she said it with great emphasis. She bent her knees and sprung up as she said it."

One recent day, Angela and Danny declared, nearly in unison, "School is good."

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