Music, Play Help Pre-Kindergartners Build Skills

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The 15 special education pre-kindergartners in Terri Legassie's room at Julia Randall Elementary School know that their school day starts with a song.

It is all part of the planned routine to make learning language and having better control of motor skills for these children.

"By catching language and motor delays early we are making a dramatic effect on kids before they get to kindergarten," Legassie said, as she cleaned a table from lunch, her eyes darting around the room to see if any of her students needed help.

There are children talking to their friends and children finishing up their lunch. Others have already picked up a floor mat and are sitting expectantly in a semicircle.

Classroom aides give individual attention to a boy and a girl.

Legassie is grateful for her full-time aides who have stayed with her many years -- Bonnie Wiley, who has helped for seven years and Cheryl Wright, who has been with the Legassie for six years.

"They refer to each other as my left arm and my right arm." Legassie said. "They read my mind."

The mixture of 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children face a variety of challenges -- such as being autistic, emotionally or mentally handicapped or needing extra help with speech and language.

"Yet look around the room, they are just a bunch of kids," Legassie said, her smile for her charges broad. "They are so neat."

The aides are taking roll.

JRE serves 55 children in its pre-k program in morning and afternoon classes that include a meal and last two-and-a-half hours.

The program is very language-based. Children sing songs and listen to and tell stories.

"We have fingers, open and shut and put them in your lap," Legassie sings as she walks around the room. She stops for a moment to hug a little girl and get her interested in the song then goes onto the next child, a boy and moves her hands back and forth in time with his own movements.

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Terri Legassie

Praise and smiles punctuate the attention she gives each of her students.

Legassie and her staff make "dictation books" for each child. The adults write the story in the child's own words under a picture the child has drawn.

Each day there is time for small group interaction. While one group is practicing how to sound out words correctly, another group has their hands in clay.

"We use lots of Play-doh and watercolors and markers," Legassie said.

A wall of pictures, made of construction paper mosaic squares, hangs above the coat racks.

Tearing the paper was tougher than cutting, but art activities increase the children's motor skills.

"We teach them to get along with each other and get them ready to integrate into special-ed or regular kindergarten," Legassie said. "Most go into regular kindergarten."

The pre-k program is through the government, and, if a child qualifies, is at no cost to parents.

Often children come to the program through pediatricians' referrals.

Or sometimes parents may see their children interacting with other children of the same age and if they note developmental differences, become concerned.

Once a month, Legassie and the speech pathologist interview children and talk to their parents.

"About 50 percent of the time, the child is doing a great job," Legassie said.

"I've raised two special-ed children of my own, so I think that gives me an understanding perspective when I talk to parents," she said.

If the child is referred to the program, he or she is evaluated to determine the best way to meet their needs.

The intake phone number is (928) 468-2635.

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