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What are the main pros and cons of special needs schools?

Some benefits and concerns with special needs schools

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Quick summary

  • Special needs schools and programs are a great option for many kids. They offer tailored instruction, specialized support, and crucial resources and services. Sometimes, though, they can lead to a lack of integration, problems transitioning to a regular school, and negative stigmas.
  • The type of program plays a big role: dedicated school, dedicated class, integrated class, withdrawal class, regular class with resource support, or regular class with indirect support. Each of these options has its pros and cons.
  • Different students are suitable for different programs and environments. Students who need lots of support are likely best off in a dedicated special needs school or class. Students who need less support and don’t require as many adaptations may be better off in a part-time withdrawal class, an integrated class, or a regular class with resource support or indirect support.

 

Students with special needs require support in the classroom. This can be delivered in a dedicated special needs school or class, an integrated class, a withdrawal class, or a regular class with resource support or indirect support.

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Full-time options

  • Dedicated schools: These schools are exclusively devoted to special needs education. They are self-contained special needs schools, where 100% of the students have one or more special need.
  • Dedicated classes: Some schools have classes exclusively devoted to special needs education, which run parallel to regular classes.

Part-time options

  • Integrated classes: Some schools have classes with both students with and without special needs.
  • Withdrawal classes: Some schools offer withdrawal or “pull-out” classes, where students are periodically taken out of their regular class to receive special needs support.
  • Regular class with resource support: Students are given break-out support from special education staff, either on their own or in small groups.
  • Regular class with indirect support: Teachers and staff adapt their approach and tailor their instruction to meet students’ unique needs.

General benefits of special needs schools and programs

Depending on the type of school or program, a special education can have many potential benefits. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, below are some of the main ones.

Pros

  • Necessary support: Students get the support they need to get the most out of their education. This may include accommodations, modifications, or remediations.
  • Qualified teachers: Teachers have specialized training in special education.
  • Differentiated instruction: Instruction is tailored to individual students to meet their unique learning needs.
  • Special resources and services: Special resources and services may be available. This may include academic and psychological counselling, tutoring programs, speech-language therapy, physical and occupational therapy, and learning aids.
  • Fitting in: Students learn and interact with peers who also have challenges. This may include learning, developmental, behavioural, and physical challenges.

Cons

This is not to say special needs schools and programs are without their detractors. Some have raised criticisms against them. Below, we outline the main sources of concern with some kinds of special needs programs.

  • Lack of integration: Students may only learn and interact with peers with special needs. They thus won’t be exposed to a wide range of influences.
  • Stigma: The label special needs can have a stigma or negative connotation. Being in a special needs program can reinforce this.
  • Social relations: Students in a special needs class may have problems relating to other kids in the class or school. This can impede their social growth.
  • Academics: Special education sometimes involves lowering expectations. This can lead to problems at higher levels of education.
  • Transition to a regular school: Some find the transition from a special needs school or program to a regular school challenging. This can be both an academic and social and emotional adjustment.

 

Special needs questions (read our in-depth answers)

 

Different types of special needs programs: pros and cons

Many kids thrive in the right special needs program. Yet, as we’ve seen, while these programs can be effective, they also have potential drawbacks. Much, of course, will depend on the kind of special needs program.

Below, we list the main pros and cons of each kind of special needs program.

 

Dedicated special needs school

Pros

  • Provides full-time specialized support
  • Low teacher-to-student ratios
  • Often, teachers are trained in special education
  • Kids learn and interact with peers who also have challenges
  • Kids less likely to feel out of place
  • Many special resources and services may be offered

Cons

  • Kids don’t learn or interact with peers without special needs
  • Risk of stigma
  • Transition to a regular school can be challenging
  • Can be very expensive

 

Dedicated special needs class

Pros

  • Provides full-time support
  • Low teacher-to-student ratio
  • Often, teachers are trained in special education
  • Kids learn and interact with peers who also have challenges
  • Opportunity to socialize with kids without special needs outside of class

Cons

  • Kids don’t learn with peers without special needs
  • Risk of stigma
  • Transition to a regular class or school can be challenging
  • Can be quite expensive

 

Integrated special needs class

Pros

  • Provides specialized support
  • Teacher likely trained in special education
  • Kids learn and interact with both peers with and without special needs
  • Transition to a regular school should be easier

Cons

  • Offering two different instruction methods can be challenging
  • Risk of stigma
  • Kids may feel out of place or in “the wrong group”
  • Can be a little expensive

 

Withdrawal special needs class

Pros

  • Kids often learn and interact with peers without special needs
  • Offers specialized support
  • Offers alternative learning environments
  • Teachers likely trained in special education
  • Less risk of stigma
  • Less expensive

Cons

  • Only provides part-time support
  • Incongruence between learning environments
  • May interfere with what’s learned in regular class
  • May be less special services and resources available

 

Regular class with resource support

Pros

  • Kids learn and interact with peers without special needs
  • Offers specialized support
  • Presents lots of social opportunities
  • Less risk of stigma
  • Less expensive

Cons

  • Only provides part-time support
  • Teachers may not be trained in special education
  • Less special services and resources available
  • May not offer a self-contained learning environment

 

Regular class with indirect support

Pros

  • Kids learn and interact with kids without special needs
  • Offers specialized support
  • Presents lots of social opportunities
  • Less risk of stigma
  • Less expensive

Cons

  • Only provides part-time support
  • Teachers less likely to be trained in special education
  • Less special services and resources available
  • Not a self-contained learning environment
  • Tailoring instruction to individual students can be a challenge

 

The truth is, there’s no perfect choice for your child. The right option depends on many factors, including your child’s special needs, learning challenges, personality, strengths and weaknesses, and more.

Below, we outline which children may be suitable for which options. Keep in mind, though, there’s a lot more to this decision than just the points below. Also, note that your child might display signs from several of these columns.

 

Dedicated special needs schools may be suitable for children who:

Dedicated special needs classes may be suitable for children who:

Integrated special needs classes may be suitable for children who:

Withdrawal special needs classes may be suitable for children who:

Regular classes with resource support may be suitable for children who:

Regular classes with indirect support may be suitable for children who:

  • Have a severe special need
  • Need substantial accommodations or modifcations
  • Need full-time support
  • Require special resources and services that may not be offered in a regular school
  • Have a severe special need
  • Need substantial accommodations or modifcations
  • Need full-time support
  • Need opportunities to interact with kids without special needs
  • Don’t need full-time support
  • Need less accommodations or modifications
  • Need to learn and interact with kids without special needs
  • Don’t need full-time support
  • Can benefit from an alternative learning environment
  • Need to learn and interact with a wide range of kids
  • Don’t need full-time support
  • Can mostly learn effectively in a regular classroom
  • Need to learn and interact with a wide range of kids
  • Don’t need full-time support
  • Need few accommodations and modifications
  • Can learn effectively in a regular classroom
  • Need to learn and interact with a wide range of kids

 

Answers to the question “What are the main pros and cons of special needs schools?” from educational experts and school officials

Benefits

Targeted clientele
Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolf Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“The main benefit of special needs schools is that they have a targeted clientele. Their admissions criteria are specific to the students that their particular school is best able to service. They know their students and are best prepared to meet their individual needs. This might mean specifically trained personnel, a specific physical environment, and/or a particular curriculum. For example, is there a gym on-site? Does the space accommodate wheelchairs, walkers, etc.? Is there staff with expertise in assistive technology? Are there facilities for physical therapy?”


Specialized programming
Dona Matthews, educational specialist, and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“Some children have special learning needs that make it difficult to accommodate them without a special program or school. This can be because of the degree of the child’s exceptionality, or the complexity of interacting exceptionalities. A child who is hearing impaired, for example, might be best served in a regular program with accommodations, whereas a child whose hearing loss is more profound, or who has other complicating conditions, might require a special program or school.”


Individualized support
Simon Williams, co-executive director of Foothills Academy, a learning disabilities school in Calgary, Alberta
“Special needs school programs address every child’s need. They focus on the individualized requirements of each student’s learning, and can tailor instruction to match the learning needs of each child. By doing so, each child in the school is afforded the opportunity to engage and learn successfully, thereby realizing their true potential. Where many public schools may try to reach every student, the apparent lack of resources in many schools makes this an impossible task.

The biggest advantage of a special needs school is having a staff with specialized knowledge and training to work with the population of students who attend. And, for the students, it is having a group of peers around them who understand them because they are all dealing with similar issues.”


Small classes
Kelley Caston, principal of Wildwood Academy, a special needs school in Oakville, Ontario
“There are many pros to attending a school that specializes in special education. Small classes and a low teacher-to-student ratio are major benefits. Small classes allow the student to receive the individual attention they need. Teachers have the opportunity to really get to know their students and incorporate their individual strengths, needs, and interests into the lessons. This provides the teacher with a complete picture of the student’s understanding and allows teachers to quickly identify any gaps in student knowledge.”


Personalized approach
Jenna Rowney-Giroux, vice principal of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a special needs school in OttawaOntario, specializing in dyslexia and ADHD
“At a special needs school, you can expect a more personable approach to learning in which your child is given options to aid in their path to success. Special needs schools provide a nurturing environment that often comes with smaller student numbers, and thus differentiation and individual attention is feasible. The school will work more closely with the support team of each individual to ensure consistency and transparency. With smaller numbers, a teacher is able to engage more with each student on a regular basis to check in on their understanding, frustration levels, any social issues, etc. It is much easier for a teacher in a special needs school to build a rapport with their students, so that they can begin to identify and understand each day what a student may require.”


Specialized staff 
Jeff Clayton, communications director at WillowWood School, a school with strong special needs support, in TorontoOntario
“The main benefit of special needs schools and programs is the individualized and personal education. Small class sizes and specialized staff allow for addressing individual needs, strategizing to capitalize on academic and other strengths, and teaching self-advocacy skills.”


Concerns

Social growth
Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolf Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario

“The main disadvantage of special needs schools is exposure to only one type of population. Are there appropriate role models? Do the students have opportunities to interact with peers who are different than they are?

Social development should be an essential component to any school program and every student should have goals specifically created for him or her. This means the staff must have a very clear picture of where each student is functioning socially and set realistic goals based on that. All students should be exposed to appropriate role models and have opportunities to interact with peers. Developing friendships is essential for all, although these relationships might ‘look’ different based on the needs of each student.”


Labels
Dona Matthews, educational specialist, and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“One good reason to avoid labeling a child or enrolling them in a special needs program or school is to avoid pathologizing or highlighting some aspect of the child’s development, or making them feel socially strange. Even children who are labelled as ‘gifted,’ an ostensibly positive label, can worry about being different than others. As much as possible, children’s special learning needs are best accommodated with as little fuss and segregation as possible.”


School transitions
Simon Williams, co-executive director of Foothills Academy, a learning disabilities school in Calgary, Alberta
“Some parents may think that special educational settings can hinder their child’s future progress when wanting to transition schools or transition into post-secondary education. However, schools can ensure that the wide range of supports and strategies provided to individuals with special needs are supports that simply enable them to access the curriculum differently, and fairly, so that they have the opportunity to learn and be successful, just like a ‘typical’ student in the regular system. Students can be explicitly taught skills to help them self-advocate, so they can transition into other schools or to life after school.”


School transitions
Kelley Caston, principal of Wildwood Academy, a special needs school in Oakville, Ontario
“One of the main concerns that parents have is how students will fair transitioning from a special needs school to a ‘regular school.’ In our experience, the majority of students do very well with this change. In order to help with the transition process, the administration and teachers must make themselves available to answer any questions that future schools may have. This often involves a face-to-face meeting with special education resource teachers and families prior to the change. But it may involve ongoing support, if the school requires it.”


Stigmas
Jeff Clayton, communications director at WillowWood School, a school with strong special needs support, in TorontoOntario
“Concerns among parents about special needs schools and programs include social stigmas around learning styles, loss of neighbourhood-school atmosphere, and options for their students’ lives after school ends. The benefits outweigh those concerns for most. The social stigma is socially constructed, the commute and loss of ‘neighbourhood’ are a cost that seems worth the benefits for most families, and a neighbourhood feeling can be built into a school’s programs and atmosphere.”


Missing out
Jenna Rowney-Giroux, vice principal of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a special needs school in OttawaOntario, specializing in dyslexia and ADHD
“Some parents feel bad or worry that their child is missing out on traditional high school or middle school experiences, such as dances (e.g., prom and homecoming), walking with their graduating class, or team sports and/or clubs.”

 

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