Caring for those in Need

Helping Prepare Your Bilingual Child with Developmental Delays for School

Every parent wants to prepare their child for the first day of school, but what if the child is born at 25 weeks (about five-and-a-half months) gestation with developmental delays?

BY Alma L. Contreras-Vanegas Ph.D. and Corinna Villar Cole, Ph.D. | February 2022 | Category: Diet & Nutrition

Helping Prepare Your Bilingual Child with Developmental Delays for School

As a first-time mother, I welcomed my new role, but as I delivered my daughter Kiwi (pseudonym), I was unexpectedly inducted into two different worlds. The world of first-time parents and the world of parenting a child with disabilities.  

As a former bilingual schoolteacher and current bilingual teacher educator at a university, I knew I wanted to raise bilingual children, but despite my experience with bilingualism, I started to question this decision for my child with developmental delays. After a speech pathologist and a vision specialist suggested that I reconsider my decision to raise Kiwi bilingually, I conducted some research of my own which demonstrated that bilingualism was beneficial, no matter what type of disability a child had. As a result of this quest, my husband and I decided to teach her English and Spanish. Kiwi’s grandparents were her caregivers and spoke Spanish with her. Therefore, to communicate her basic needs, it was important for Kiwi to learn the language of her grandparents. Even though her therapists and doctors spoke English, the professionals responsible for her care supported our efforts of raising a bilingual child.    

Be Positive

When Kiwi turned three years old, she started the Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities (PPCD). Before beginning PPCD, special education examiners administered Kiwi many assessments that highlighted her struggles and deficits. As the examiners completed her paperwork, they pointed out that Kiwi’s case was extremely complicated. As her mother, I focus on her potential – how intelligent she is and how I am going to prepare her for school. I did not want others to concentrate on her deficits; therefore, my bilingual educator training helped me as I set out to teach Kiwi the colors, shapes, and numbers before entering PPCD.  

Kiwi has cerebral palsy and was non-verbal until the summer she turned 5 years old; therefore, working with her and trying to teach her proved to be particularly challenging. First, I had to find colorful and easy-to-grab toys and objects that would interest her and motivate her to reach out for them. I started introducing them one item at a time. I would place a familiar item in front of her and would ask her to point or to pick up that item. Once I knew that she had made the connection with one object, I would introduce the next one. After that, I would review both items and continue to add more, always making sure that she had correctly identified the color, shape, or number of items. This technique of starting with easy items and increasing the difficulty as the child successfully masters the task is called scaffolding and it works well with children who are verbal and nonverbal. 

Interview Teachers

Before Kiwi entered school, my husband and I had a choice between two schools—a bilingual campus outside our school zone and an all-English campus in our school zone. After interviewing the teacher in the bilingual campus, we learned that she was not bilingual, but her assistant was. Furthermore, this teacher did not seem well prepared as she had not studied Kiwi’s records before our meeting. When we met the other teacher who was in our school zone (all-English campus), she had studied Kiwi’s folder and seemed very well prepared to answer all our questions. Even though we had planned and hoped for a bilingual school setting for our daughter, we decided to choose the all-English campus with the teacher that seemed most prepared. Finally, we decided that I would continue speaking Spanish at home with Kiwi, and my husband would begin speaking English at home; thereby, providing her with a connection between the home and school languages.   

When Kiwi was ready for kindergarten, my husband and I were faced with another decision involving which school she would attend. The school she attended for PPCD did not offer the life skills special education program, which is designed to provide specialized support for children with special needs. Therefore, we needed to choose between a dual-language school (same as before) or a school that was all English; both schools were not in our school zone. Once again, my husband and I made an appointment to meet the teachers that would instruct our daughter.

The current PPCD teacher arranged a meeting between us and the potential new kindergarten teacher from the all-English school. This meeting was extremely successful, and it revealed how kind and understanding this new teacher was. He not only answered all our questions but was interested in knowing about Kiwi. We brought Kiwi’s five-month-old younger sister to our visit with the new teacher and as the meeting progressed, she became unhappy and restless and, without losing a beat, the teacher scooped her up and entertained her as we continued our meeting. Both my husband and I were extremely impressed and pleased with how this potential new teacher showed his kindness and patience. Despite our gratifying experience with the potential new teacher, we continued to investigate the dual language program for Kiwi and arranged a visit to meet the teacher at the school that could provide bilingual education to our daughter.

I was excited to meet the teacher at the dual-language school and hoped for a successful conclusion this time. However, as the meeting started, the teacher informed us that she had a previous engagement in 15 minutes; therefore, she seemed pressed for time and continually looked at the clock on the wall behind us. She also indicated that she was not bilingual even though her aid spoke Spanish. Both my husband and I continued to ask her about suggestions on how to better support our daughter, and she responded with generalities without focusing on our daughter’s specific needs. After the meeting ended, I was disappointed because I had built my expectations for this option to work out. My husband and I once again concluded that the best placement for Kiwi would be an all-English school and that we would continue to promote and speak Spanish at home.

I am pleased to say that we have been extremely happy with Kiwi’s education, and I have developed close relationships with her teachers. As we plan for Kiwi’s future, our goal is to help design her individualized education plan (IEP) and work very closely with her life skills teacher and all her therapists. Every child needs a collaborative team to help them reach their goals while keeping their best interest in mind. 

Continue to Challenge Your Child

Kiwi is now eight years old, and I continue to speak Spanish to her at home. She prefers to speak English, but easily translates from Spanish to English and understands everything that is said to her in either language. She continues to attend an all-English school with encouragement from her teachers who support her bilingualism. Kiwi absolutely loves school and enjoys learning. She especially loves her reading time and can read on a screen that enlarges the font. She can type with a keyboard and play educational games on her tablet and computer. Although she prefers to read in English, she has memorized books in Spanish.

Today, our daughter continues to show growth despite any challenges she may have. If parents play an active role in their children’s lives and education, obstacles can be managed. 


Alma L. Contreras-Vanegas Ph.D., is an associate professor at Sam Houston State University in the department of the School of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). There she teaches courses that prepare future educators concerning bilingual education, second language acquisition, and English language learners. Alma’s doctorate is from Texas A&M University in Educational Psychology with an emphasis in bilingual education. Her research interests include Bilingual/ESL/Dual Language Education, Hispanic Gifted Identification, and bilingual children in Special Education.

Corinna Villar Cole, Ph.D., Associate Professor/Coordinator of the Bilingual (Spanish) Educational Diagnostician Graduate Certificate at Sam Houston State University (SHSU). She is Director of Appraisal and Diversity of the Garrett Center (GC) at SHSU. For over 30 years, Dr. Cole has been an enthusiastic advocate and trainer of parents of children with disabilities. Texas Educational Diagnosticians’ Association (TEDA) past president, university advisor for Hou-Met, TEDA Chapter, and director of the Bilingual Assessment Leadership Group (BALG). 

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