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What makes for the best special needs school?

Choosing the right special needs school or program for your child

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Quick summary

  • In choosing the right special needs school or program, the most important factor is fit. You should consider whether a school supports the special need(s) your child has, the environment it provides this support in, and how it delivers this support.
  • It’s also important that the school is the right fit for your family. For instance, you’ll need a school that meets your financial and transportation constraints, and that squares with your values.
  • Make sure you do lots of research, and compare and analyze schools. It’s also important to visit schools, meet with staff, and ask lots of questions before you make a final decision.
  • There are many great resources to help you in your search for the right school. These include special needs websites, open house events, and private school expos.

Students with special needs require a special education. No matter their challenge, whether it’s learning, developmental, physical, or behavioural/emotional, they’ll need some kind of educational support.

But what’s the right program for your child? And what’s the best way to find it?

Click here to view a list of special needs schools

Choosing a special needs school: factors related to your child

It’s important to find the right school for your child. If your child has special needs, this can be quite challenging. You should look at several schools and programs and choose one that’s the right fit.

What’s most important is whether the school is a good fit for your child. You’ll need to consider some crucial questions.

  • Type of special needs supported: What type of special needs does the school support? Does it support children with learning, developmental, behavioural, or physical disabilities? Does it offer support for your child’s special need(s)?
  • Type of support: How does the school support students with special needs? Does it offer accommodations, modifications, remediations, or additional services? Does it offer the kind of support your child needs?
  • Type of environment: What environment is the special needs support delivered in? A dedicated school or class, integrated class, withdrawal class, regular class with resource support, or regular class with indirect support? Is it the right kind of environment for your child?
  • Teaching and learning approach: Does the school or program offer individualized learning and differentiated instruction? If so, what does this look like? How can this approach support your child’s learning?

Often, kids who need lots of support for their special needs are better off in a full-time program. For instance, a child with severe autism may be best off in a dedicated special needs school or class. This may be an autism-only program, or one supporting kids with other special needs as well.

Kids who need less support for their special needs, meanwhile, may not need a full-time program. For instance, a child with mild dyslexia may be best off in a school with part-time special needs support. They may do well in a school with a withdrawal special education class or in a regular class with breakout groups.

 

Special needs questions (read our in-depth answers)

Choosing a special needs school: factors related to your family

Besides factors related to your child, you should consider factors related to you and your family.

  • Location: What city is the school in? How close to you is it? Is it easily accessible by car and public transportation? Location is a big factor in finding the right program. Luckily, there are great special needs schools and programs across Canada, including in Toronto, MississaugaMontreal, OttawaVancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton.
  • Cost: How much does the school or program cost? What exactly does this cost include? Is it affordable? Are financial aid, subsidies, or sibling discounts offered? Can you afford the school?
  • Values: What are the main values the school aims to promote? Does it promote diversity, family, community, social justice, religion, or any other values? How does it aim to promote these values? Do they match your family’s values?

Choosing a special needs school: general factors

Finally, you should also consider general factors. These relate to a school or program’s overall suitability. These are the kinds of factors you should consider when choosing any private school.

  • School size: How big is the school?
  • Class size: How large are the classes? What is the staff-to-student ratio in these classes?
  • Teachers: What are the credentials of teachers and staff? What is their training and experience?
  • Parent involvement: In what ways are parents involved in education? In what ways are they required, encouraged, or permitted to get involved?
  • Curriculum: Does the school follow, meet, or surpass provincial education guidelines? What happens if your child switches to the public system later on?
  • Environment: What is the “feel” of the school? Is it a welcome place? Is it clean, well-lit, and secure? Is public access limited?
  • Facilities: Is there a gym, library, playing field, music room, art studio, or other facilities? Where are they located?
  • Extracurriculars: What kinds of extracurricular activities are offered? Are sports teams, arts programs, or after-school clubs offered?
  • Communication: Is there an open line of communication with directors and staff? Who do you go to with your questions or concerns?

Making the decision

You need to decide what kind of special needs school or program is best for child. This is a big decision which shouldn’t be taken lightly.

We suggest breaking this decision down into three steps. Do basic research, narrow your choices down, and make the final decision. You should go through these steps in order. Don’t move to the next one until you’ve completed the preceding one.

  1. Basic research: Check out what’s included in different special needs schools and programs. Compare them in terms of different criteria. Look for a program using our advanced search tool, and comb through private special needs school listings throughout Ontario and across Canada.
  2. Narrow down your choices: Visit open houses, arrange tours, meet with teachers, and sit in on classes. Ask lots of questions (there’s no such thing as a bad question). It’s best to visit a school more than once, on different days of the week.
  3. Making the final decision: When you’re making a final choice, trust your instincts. You’ve done the research. You’ve visited schools and talked with staff. This should give you a strong sense of whether the school or program is the right fit for your child.

Helpful resources

There are many great resources to help you in your search for the right special needs school or program. Below, we discuss some of the main ones.

Answers to the question “What makes for the best special needs school?” from educational experts and school officials

Learning environment

Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“An ideal learning environment is one where there’s an emphasis on the well-being and specific educational requirements of the individual. Programming matches vary across domains, and change over time. There is choice—because children’s interests, aspirations, and learning preferences matter. Children are treated with respect and understanding. They’re encouraged to take pleasure in striving to do their best, and to recognize value from encountering and overcoming obstacles. There are opportunities for self-discovery and creative expression. And, there is ample support and guidance when children require direction or assistance.”


Una Malcom, director of Appletree Learning, a personalized educational support program in Toronto, Ontario
“A great special needs school needs to excel in both programming as well as environment. In order for a school to best support the needs of exceptional learners, the school needs to be aligned with current empirical research. The school must be using research-validated programming and pedagogy to best support these students. Strong instruction, however, is not the only aspect of a successful special education school. The overall learning environment must also be considered. Is it supportive? Is the school geared towards highlighting student strengths and progress? Are teachers warm, nurturing, and supportive?”


Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolf Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“The most important thing to know is that there is not one ‘ideal learning environment for special needs students. The best learning environment is one that meets the specific needs of each student. It is a place that takes the times to review all assessments and is willing to work collaboratively with the family to ensure the staff know where the student is (academically as well as socially and emotionally) and what are realistic goals and expectations. When possible, students should also be consulted and part of the ‘team.’”


Elaine Danson, educational consultant at Elaine Danson and Associates Educational Consultants, in Toronto, Ontario 
“There is no specific learning environment that is ideal for all special needs students. The ‘ideal environment’ is the one that fits the child's needs, not only academically but socially and emotionally.”


Simon Williams, co-executive director of Foothills Academy, a learning disabilities school in Calgary, Alberta
“The ideal learning environment for students with learning disabilities is one where students feel safe and supported. Many students have struggled in school, and their sense of self-efficacy may be low; in essence, they may have given up trying because they have seen no success, despite their efforts. Their frustrations may have grown too, as these students know they are capable, but their learning disability is simply not being served in the public system or at a regular private school, and therefore they are failing despite their best efforts. It is the job of the specialized school to provide the supports, academically, socially, and emotionally, which will allow students to feel like they can try again without fear of failure, and with the realization of success.

Much of this is created by having a teacher who understands each student’s emotional and academic needs, and can develop a strong relationship with each child. Teachers should build relationships to develop students’ autonomy and competence, which enhances students’ self-determination and ability to be successful in the immediate and long-term future.”


Kelley Caston, principal of Wildwood Academy, a special needs school in Oakville, Ontario
“Students with special needs benefit from small class sizes, where their individual strengths, needs, and interests are incorporated because this allows them to be successful. If students are in an environment where they are successful, their self-esteem and motivation to learn will increase. Positive reinforcement and attention to good behaviour create an environment that promotes learning and positive student-teacher relationships.”


Jeff Clayton, communications director at WillowWood School, a school with strong special needs support, in TorontoOntario
“The ideal learning environment for special education is probably the same as any ideal learning environment: positive, kind, patient, encouraging, challenging; with the fluidity and flexibility to allow for many kinds of learners. It is a place which students enjoy coming to in the morning and which they leave feeling good.”


Teachers

Dona Matthews, educational specialist, and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“The best special needs programs and schools have teachers and assessment specialists who are trained to see each child’s learning needs as unique, complex, and ever-changing. The teachers are given the training, resources, and support they need to meet those learning needs. The teachers and administrators realize that children’s abilities are in the process of developing. They therefore stay away from labels as much as possible. Where labels (e.g., attention deficit disordered, learning disabled, gifted, etc.) might be useful, they are used provisionally, to describe the kind of educational programming the child needs at a given point in time (e.g., “This child requires gifted-level mathematical challenges, at about the sixth grade level, along with support for focus, planning, and attention.”) Teachers, other support staff, and parents are encouraged to see the children’s special learning needs changing over time, with the right kind of support, challenges, and opportunities to learn.”


Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“Teachers play a crucial role in special needs schools and programs. A great special needs school and program should generally have a low teacher-to-student ratio, with experienced teachers who are open to working as part of a team. Qualified teachers should be knowledgeable of most recent research-based programs and best practices for each learning style, able to personalize lessons to match the needs and interests of each student, and experienced advocating for the student. Additionally, teachers should possess personality traits such as patience, kindness, compassion, flexibility, and insightfulness to provide appropriate emotional and academic support while working with students.” 


Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“Great (special needs) teachers help each student set and aspire toward realistic goals. They help children learn to recognize their limitations, capabilities, and emotions, and monitor their feelings, knowledge, and progress. Effective teachers help kids develop important skills, such as learning how to prioritize, plan, organize, and self-motivate. The best teachers are calm, and model resilience, mindfulness, and rest and renewal. They’re engaged in their own personal growth, solicit outside help when needed, and work collaboratively with parents, students, professionals, and others.”


Elaine Danson, educational consultant at Elaine Danson and Associates Educational Consultants, in Toronto, Ontario
“The teacher working with special needs students firstly requires the specific educational courses (as outlined by the Ministry of Education) to address the issues and be able to apply strategies. Professional development is key for all teachers, but keeping on top of issues and discussing strategies with peers is very important for a special needs teacher as well. The teacher typically will have a ‘toolbox’ of ideas and strategies, so that every child gets what they need. The same qualities that are important for all teachers, empathy, patience, and a sense of humour also, of course, are necessary for the special needs teacher.”


Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolf Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“What makes a great special needs/special education teacher is the same as any other teacher…they must know their students and deliver the curriculum accordingly. A great teacher is one who is prepared to work with the student and their family to ensure the program is meeting the needs of the student. A great teacher teaches the ‘whole child,’ academically, socially, and emotionally.” 


Kelley Caston, principal of Wildwood Academy, a special needs school in Oakville, Ontario
“A great special education teacher is a teacher who believes that every student can learn. As a result, they are motivated to discover what educational strategies work best for their students and know that their strategies may change day to day, even class to class or moment to moment. A great special education teacher does not think of themselves in isolation, but as part of a team. Teachers, school administration, parents, guardians, therapists, and many more, all should work in the best interests of the student.” 


What to look for in a school

Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“Here is a YES/NO checklist of critical questions to consider when looking at a special needs school. If the answer to a question is YES, go back and find out how. If the answer is NO, consider finding out why. And, if it is being addressed by the school, how.  

  • Are children safe and secure?
  • Is children’s well-being a priority?
  • Do teachers listen carefully to children? To parents? To each other?
  • Do teachers respond to children’s questions and concerns and behavioural issues with patience and understanding?
  • Is programming flexibly responsive to individual needs?
  • Are expectations clear?
  • Are students given ample opportunity for interaction with intellectual as well as age peers?
  • Is creative expression encouraged?
  • Are there open channels of communication across grade levels and subject areas?
  • Do teachers display intellectual curiosity?
  • Are teachers actively engaged in personal and professional growth?
  • Do children and teachers show respect for one another?
  • Is there support for teachers’ professional development? That is, do administrators  support teachers in becoming more knowledgeable about child development, special education, and various instructional methods?
  • Is there a collaborative spirit evident?   
  • Does the administration welcome parental involvement in the school?”

Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“When visiting a special needs school or deciding on a particular program, parents should look at the school’s environment, approach to teaching, learning and classroom structure, and opportunities for extracurricular activities. A good starting point for a parent may be to ask themselves whether they would enjoy spending time in that environment.

Questions parents might consider include:

  • Does the school feel welcoming and approachable?
  • Is my child comfortable in this environment?
  • Are there any examples of students’ work or activities on display or available for me to see?
  • Is the school a good social fit for my child?
  • Does the school provide appropriate accommodations for my child’s academic and physical needs?

A school’s learning approach is also an important factor for parents to consider. Parents may ask questions such as:

  • What are the classroom sizes?
  • Does the school use research-based programs?
  • Is there one-to-one time offered?
  • What is the school’s process for developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?
  • If appropriate resources are not available, can parents arrange additional teaching support during school time?
  • Are there assistive technologies and extracurricular programs? What other forms of support does the school offer?

Finally, consideration of social aspects should not be overlooked, because it is vital in determining whether a school is a good fit for your child. Questions parents might ask include:

  • Is there a gym or playground available?
  • How often do students have gym class?
  • Does the school offer extracurricular activities of interest to my child?” 

Jenna Rowney-Giroux, vice principal of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a special needs school in OttawaOntario, specializing in dyslexia and ADHD
“When visiting a special needs school parents should see that the classrooms are dynamic, well-paced, and student-centered. The following are questions they should consider:

  • How will my child be prepared for transition and what is the process?
  • How will social and emotional development occur?
  • How is therapeutic, academic, and home alignment accomplished?
  • How will a family relationship be built?
  • Are your teachers credentialed special educators or do they have a special education endorsement?
  • Explain your experience with and involvement in the IEP process.
  • Are you able to hold and/or participate in IEP and/or ISP (Intensive Support Program) meetings?
  • What transitional, vocational, and/or post-secondary opportunities are you able to provide   for my child?
  • Is your school accredited and will credit earned transfer to other schools?”

Kelley Caston, principal of Wildwood Academy, a special needs school in Oakville, Ontario
“What parents should look for in a school:

One of the largest indicators of a school’s quality is the attitude of the students. If the students you see at the school are happy, then they are in a place that is helping facilitate their success.

Parents should ask about class sizes and how students are grouped and assessed.

Students should visit a school for at least one full day before enrollment to ensure that they are a good fit for it. Parents should ask if their child can participate in a trial day at the school to get a sense of whether or not their needs will be met.” 


Simon Williams, co-executive director of Foothills Academy, a learning disabilities school in Calgary, Alberta
“When visiting a special educational needs school, parents need to ask specific questions relating to their child’s needs and how exactly the school will plan and program for their child. They should find out what additional supports their child will have access to. It is important for the child to see the school and understand the benefits of the school, so that they are more likely to engage when attending the school. Parents should also inquire about the specialized skills, knowledge, and training which the staff have or receive. It’s important for parents to know that their children are in the very best, most capable hands, to allow them to be successful and reach their true potential.”


Terry Stevenson, director of Applewood Academy for Progressive Learning, a special needs school in Belleville, Ontario
“Here are some questions that parents should ask schools:

  • Do you have a plan for developing activities of daily living?
  • Do you have a plan for community integration and activities?
  • Do you have a family support plan?
  • Do you have a medical support plan?
  • Do you have prioritized clinical targets?
  • Do you have an academic plan based on strengths and interests?”

Extracurricular activities 

Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
Extracurricular activities enable children to enhance their personal growth, and follow their dreams. This is true for all students. Provided that there is not overwhelming pressure, and that children do not experience excessive demands, there is much to be gained from relevant, suitable, and pleasurable activities. The following who, what, and why points about the benefits of extracurricular activities are published in the creativity post.

Who and what: Extracurricular activities provide opportunities for children and teens to engage in the arts, recreation, athletics, scholarly pursuits, and more, based on their interests and preferences. These activities can supplement the learning experiences typically incorporated within a school curriculum, from preschool through college.

Why: Sometimes a school program does not have the capacity to meet a child’s particular needs or exceptionalities, and so that individual may want additional challenges or opportunities. Other times, kids may seek outlets that will give them a chance to extend their creativity, or to find social or emotional connections and support through meaningful interaction with others who have similar interests. Extracurricular activities can provide enjoyable, relevant, and mind-stretching ways to forge relationships, and broaden conventional educational offerings.

Here are four more factors that speak to the value of extracurricular activities:

  • Extracurricular activities provide creative, exploratory, and social opportunities, so children can extend themselves in areas that are informal, unusual, and fun, or perhaps more disciplined or traditional. It’s up to them! Content can vary, and programs or challenges are limited only by desire and imagination.
  • Benefits of extracurricular activities include keeping children happily engaged in whatever matters to them by honouring their choices in what they want to know more about; helping children find joy in doing something new, creative, or challenging; and facilitating connectivity among those who share enthusiasms. These benefits have the added potential of enriching other areas of children’s lives by developing or improving their feelings—about learning, productivity and achievement; about themselves and their capabilities; about others and relationship-building; and about life itself, and all the experiences and excitement they can tap, consistently or from time to time.
  • For many children, extracurricular involvement provides springboards to build and cement friendships, and that social component becomes paramount.
  • Extracurricular activities present an endless array of real-world opportunities for children and teens to learn, create, and do—and also to experience the joy of learning, creating, and doing. These activities take kids beyond the school curriculum, and represent the difference between days that are full, and days that are fully extended and shared in meaningful ways.”

Una Malcom, director of Appletree Learning, a personalized educational support program in Toronto, Ontario
“Extracurricular activities and sports are essential. Many students with learning disabilities will have clear strengths. A child may excel in sports, or he or she may be an extremely talented debater, or perhaps a gifted artist. Schools will ideally have plenty of opportunities for students to participate in the activities in which they excel; this helps to preserve a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence.” 


Jenna Rowney-Giroux, vice principal of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a special needs school in OttawaOntario, specializing in dyslexia and ADHD
“Any experiential opportunities provide valuable support. This might include team sports, equine therapy, theatre, community integration, hiking, biking, rappelling, skiing, etc. Anything outdoors in nature is valuable.” 
 

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