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Choosing the Best School to Send Your Child with Special Needs

Choosing the Best School to Send Your Child with Special Needs

One of the first—and most important—decisions you’ll have to make as the parent of a child with a learning disability or other special needs is what school your child will attend. Find answers to common questions that go into the decision making process.


Decisions, decisions. When you are the parent of a child with a learning disability or other special needs, it can seem like your (all important) decisions never cease. Just when you think you’ve got your bearings, you must get used to another new idea, situation, challenge—and you have to handle all of this while managing your own emotions. It’s not easy, and once your child is in elementary school, things can become even more confusing. Help is here! Read on for the latest advice from noted special education experts.

One of the first—and most important—decisions you’ll have to make is what school you’ll send your child to. So we went to Mark Griffin, Ph.D., professional advisory board member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, with the most common questions parents like you have. 

I had a handle on preschool life, but the idea of elementary school is overwhelming me. What’s the most important thing to keep in mind? 

The key to choosing the right school is to be sure what your child’s strengths and needs are. Then, if a school can clearly and completely explain to you how they have been effective in providing good outcomes for a child such as yours, it may be a match. But remember: Development is, by definition, fluid. The strengths and needs you identify now will almost certainly change over time. To that end, the flexibility of school personnel and their approach may be a key criteria. 

What are the main differences in how public schools and private schools support kids with learning disabilities?

All public schools are mandated to search and find any children who may have special needs. This is not a one-time thing, but an ongoing process of parent awareness activities, screening, and evaluation. This process is called Child Find and is part of IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act). If you suspect your child has a learning disability, you should call the school district and ask for an assessment. Once identified, such children are referred for Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) or Special Education and Related Services, depending on their age, at no expense to parents. IDEA/Child Find doesn’t apply to traditional private schools. Private schools, in general, do not have the resources to provide the public school array of services under IDEA. But many private schools still support students with learning and attention issues. From tutoring to speech and language assistance, to counselors and in-house experts, some private schools have made such support part of their mission. Others have not, and admission personnel at those schools are typically open about the school’s limitations. 

When I’m visiting a potential school, what are key questions to ask?

  • What percentage of your students currently receive support?
  • What are the demographics of that population? (This will tell you what the range of needs are—how often they work with children who have similar needs to your child’s.)
  • What specific programs do you have in place for children with learning and attention issues? 
  • How and when are the supports delivered, and by whom? What level of training do those people have?
  • What have the outcomes been for children with profiles similar to my child (such as graduation rate, college or trade school attendance, employment)?  

What are warning signs that my child is not getting what he needs from a school? 

These will, naturally, vary by individual child, but you can spot a few general red flags. Common ones: An uptick in headaches or stomach aches on school days; comments such as “I’m stupid”;  switch in friends to a less academically-focused group; complaints that his teacher “hates” him; sudden refusal to do homework or study for tests; withdrawal from previously-enjoyed activities. 

Things just aren’t working out as I’d hoped with the school we chose. What should I think about when weighing whether it’s worth it to transfer my child? 

It is always best to try to make things work out where you are, particularly if your child likes the school and has friends. Many children who struggle in school didn’t always struggle. As schoolwork becomes more demanding, and formal and more difficult standards need to be met, children who previously did fine may have trouble keeping up. The first thing to do is meet with school personnel and get a clear sense of what they are seeing in your child. It is likely that they have seen other children who have struggled in similar ways and will have suggestions as to what to do.If your child has not yet been formally assessed by an outside (unaffiliated with the school) professional, it may be brought up now. This is called an IEE, an Independent Educational Evaluation. Even if your child has already been identified as having learning disabilities, it may be useful to redo the testing to figure out what’s going on now. Meet with the school and discuss the results. You are now in a much better position to take stock of the school’s capability and desire to support your child. Your child will probably receive additional support for a finite period of time before changing schools is seriously considered. If that additional support works, great! If your child continues to fall behind despite everyone’s efforts, though, it might be time to consider another school.  The good news is that when you look for a new school, this time you certainly have a solid picture of your child’s needs, as well as testing to back that up. You want to change schools as infrequently as possible, so the goal is to be as sure as you can that the new school will be a fit for the long haul.


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Christina Vercelletto


 Christina Vercelletto is a former editor at NYMetroParents, ParentingScholastic Parent & Child, and Woman’s Day. She lives on Long Island with her kids, a chiweenie, Pickles, and a 20-pound calico, Chub-Chub.

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