Choosing a classroom or school for a child with special needs can be overwhelming; many parents simply don’t know where to start. And while each family will make its decision based on unique needs and circumstances, there are some common considerations that can help to guide your research.
Begin by making a preliminary list of schools based on factors such as location, schedule, holiday breaks, and transportation. For families of children with special needs, logistical, programmatic, staffing, and disability-support considerations may play more critical roles than for other families. For example, if you have a child who uses a wheelchair, she will need to attend a school that is on a single floor or that has elevators. Likewise, if your child has a speech-sound disorder, you’ll want to enroll her in a program with access to a speech-language therapist.
Many families have an idea of the type of school they want their child to attend, whether this is traditional or progressive, public, private, or charter. Individual websites, in addition to describing their overall teaching approaches, often include information about any special therapies or activities the school may provide for students with special needs. You can explore the Noodle K–12 profiles, which provide data on each school's enrollment, curriculum, and student-to-teacher ratios, as well as answers to any question you pose.
A School’s Culture
You can also gain important information about a school’s culture by reading its mission statement or “Message From the Principal,” both of which are usually posted in the “About” section on the school website. Consider whether the language conveys an inclusive message. Does the principal mention rigorous academics, arts, and technology? A range of extracurricular activities? Do the statements mention supporting the needs of all learners? Or fostering community?
You may also want to check out the school calendar, which can reveal a great deal about its priorities. Look for the types of events listed for students and families and whether the school participates in local offerings in its neighborhood, town, or city. Do these listings suggest inclusiveness and interest in the concerns of the larger community?
Now ask yourself what feeling you get after checking out each school’s website. Trust your instincts, and use the information you’ve gathered to make a list of your top schools.
At this point, you’ll want to call the schools to set up visits. Let them know that your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and if you are looking into charter or private schools, ask if they are accepting new students with special needs. Some may have waiting lists, while others aren’t equipped to meet the needs of children with particular disabilities. You want to be upfront about your child’s needs and learning profile as well as what you’re looking for in a school so that you don’t waste time on programs that are unsuitable for your family.
Visiting each school will give you an opportunity to ask more extensive questions than you can on an initial call. You’ll get a sense of what the school environment is like, and may even be able to look in on some classrooms and talk to a teacher or two. Even if you never get to leave the front office (though, if you don’t, this ought to tell you something about the school!), these are 15 important questions to consider:
1. What is the school environment? Does it feel friendly and welcoming or cold and sterile? Is there student work posted around the school? Do the kids seem happy in the hallways and classrooms?
2. What is the student-to-teacher ratio generally, and specifically in self-contained or inclusive classrooms?
3. What are the principal’s thoughts about inclusion? And if she doesn’t know much about this teaching approach, that’s important information as well.
4. What is the model of special education that the school provides? Do students with special needs spend all or part of the day in a self-contained classroom? Are they included with their peers for some subjects or special activities?
5. If your child has a medical need, is there a nurse on site at all times? Are the teachers and paraprofessionals trained to meet your child’s medical needs? If not, are they willing to get the necessary training?
6. If your child is still using diapers or pull-ups, who will be changing her and when?
7. What additional therapies, such as art, music, sensory, or even equestrian and aqua therapy, does the school offer?
8. If your child wanders or escapes, what is the school’s plan to prevent such an event?
9. Is the playground safe for your child? Is there equipment that she can use?
10. What is the school’s behavior plan? Is it followed by all teachers? Is the protocol different for students with special needs? Is the school able to make modifications in the classroom and schoolwide to accommodate behavior plans or IEP goals? The school should already have a protocol for working with parents about behavioral problems that any student exhibits.
11. If your child will spend most of her time in a regular education classroom, how much training does the teacher have in special education? Does she have experience with the modifications or accommodations that your child needs? If not, is she open to working with you and your child’s service providers to meet these needs?
12. What happens if your child meets or doesn’t meet her IEP goals? IEPs should be reviewed at least once each year, and more often if parents request it; this is true whether or not the goals are met. Moreover, the same goals should not be continued year after year if your child is not making progress with them.
13. What is the staff turnover at the school? High turnover rates can be a signal that teachers are unhappy or are not being paid adequately, which can in turn lead to hiring less experienced replacement staff. If you can’t learn this information from the principal, ask families whose children attend the school or check out online parenting forums to see if this issue has been discussed.
14. What is the school’s communication policy? Will you hear from the teacher regularly or just during parent/teacher conferences? How accessible are the teacher and principal to parents? Does the school consider the parent to be a member of the team that supports your child?
15. If possible, take your child along on the visit, and ask her later how she felt about the teachers, principal, and school. What did she notice? What activities or which staff did she like? Was there anything that made her uncomfortable?
A Final Thought
When you’re considering how to choose a school for your child, remember that no place is perfect. Not every school is going to have the ideal responses to all of these questions, though it’s likely that there will be a few places that stand out from the pack. Be sure you understand which aspects of a school’s learning environment and support services matter the most for your child and family. And, most importantly, ask which of the schools that you visited feels right to you and your child — and then you’re on to the applications!
For more guidance, check out this video guide to touring a school for a student with special needs.