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What is a special needs school?

The main features of special needs schools and programs

Find a list of schools  


Quick summary

  • Special needs schools and programs are for kids who have challenges or disabilities that interfere with learning. They provide support that’s not normally provided in general education programs.
  • These schools and programs tailor learning to address each child’s unique combination of needs. Adaptations are made to allow kids to meet age-appropriate educational goals.
  • They offer a wide range of approaches and services. This may include smaller classes, individualized learning, one-on-one support, self-contained classrooms, resource rooms, and learning aids.
  • In Canada, the US, and Britain, students with special needs are entitled to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP spells out a child’s learning needs, services the school will provide, and how progress will be measured.


Special needs

A special need is a challenge that interferes with one’s learning. It requires support that goes beyond the norm.

There are different types of special needs and challenges. For instance, there are learning, developmental, behavioural, and physical challenges. Moreover, these challenges can differ in their severity, or in how much they impair learning.

Click here to view a list of special needs schools

Special education

Special education is for students who have challenges or disabilities that can interfere with their learning.

Normally, students who meet this criterion have needs that can’t be met in a regular classroom. Learning environments, teaching approaches, and curricula may need to be adapted to support them. This tailored approach isn’t normally offered in general education.

Not every student is entitled to a special education, though. To qualify, your child must have an identifiable disability. And this disability must interfere with their school performance.

In Canada (as well as the US and Britain), students with a disability can receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP spells out a child’s learning needs, services the school will provide, and how progress will be measured. The IEP is a legally binding document: a school must provide everything it promises in the IEP.

Canada has an inclusive approach to special education. Every child with a special need has a right to free public education. Most of the funding for this is allocated at the provincial or local level.

However, not all public schools in Canada have special education programs. Private schools in Canada also vary in their special needs programs and support. Like public schools, though, many provide well-designed programs for kids with different kinds of special needs.

Below, we break down the types of special needs support provided by private schools profiled on OurKids.net.


Special needs schools and programs

Special needs schools are different from regular schools in that they cater to students with education challenges. They are designed, staffed, and have the resources to provide the right support for children with unique needs.

These schools aim to level the playing field. They offer students targeted support to allow them to meet age-appropriate educational goals.

They don’t have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education. Instead, they offer customized programming to meet each student’s unique combination of needs. This includes not just learning, but also social and emotional needs.

Special needs schools and programs offer a wide range of approaches and services to meet this goal. For instance, they may offer

“Special education programs may be a delivered through a range of placements. Students may benefit from assessment and instruction that is personalized, precise, explicit, and intensive, as required. Special education programs and/or services should be made available by the school board to help students … access the Ontario curriculum expectations.” (Ontario Ministry of Education)


Special needs questions (read our in-depth answers)

Support for special needs students

Many schools offer support for students with one or more special needs. This support can take a number of different forms.

First, it can be offered in different environments. For instance, it can be offered in a school exclusively devoted to special needs students. It can also be offered in a school with a dedicated or integrated special needs class, a part-time withdrawal class, or a regular class with direct or indirect special needs support.

Second, there are different forms of support schools offer special needs students. Some offer what are called accommodations. Accommodations, according to Cindy Pérras of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO), help students access grade-level expectations and achieve learning outcomes. Examples include longer test or assignment times, alternative work spaces, note-taking assistance, audio and visual aids, and frequent breaks.

If accommodations don’t work, students may be offered modifications. Modifications, unlike accommodations, involve altering grade-level expectations. Examples of modifications include skipping subjects and shortening or simplifying assignments. A modification can also involve changing (or lowering) the standard for what constitutes an acceptable assignment or test.

“Special education programs and services primarily consist of instruction and assessments that are different from those provided to the general student population. These may take the form of accommodations (such as specific teaching strategies, preferential seating, and assistive technology) and/or an educational program that is modified from the age-appropriate grade-level expectations in a particular course or subject, as outlined in the Ministry of Education’s curriculum policy documents.” (Ontario Ministry of Education)

Some schools offer what are called remediations. According to Ann Wolff, an educational consultant at Wolff Education Services, “Remediation is not an Ontario Ministry of Education term, but it is often what is needed in order for a student to ‘catch up.’ It often involves one-on-one teaching on a specific topic. For example, it might be a certain strand in math or a particular strategy in reading. Remediation implies that the student is not able to demonstrate the expected knowledge.”

Remediations can also sometimes involve therapeutic measures or intensive interventions or treatments. They’re meant to eliminate, reduce, or ameliorate different kinds of challenges.

Answers to the question “What is a special needs school?” from educational experts and school officials

Disability schools
Jack Kamrad, Chief Psychologist, Peel district school board
“Historically, so-called ‘special needs schools’ referred to provincial institutions, mostly residential (schools where students typically live on campus), that dealt mostly with deaf, blind, or developmentally disabled populations. As these schools gradually closed (some still remain), and responsibility for these populations transferred to the local school district, boards created their own systems to support these students.

In our board, for example, ‘special needs’ still refers to hearing impairments, vision impairments, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities (of a moderate to severe range), and autism. Other students with ‘special education needs’ include learning disabilities, behavior disorders, mild intellectual disabilities, and language impairments.” 

Exceptionality schools
Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“The term special needs is a broad term to define. According to the Ontario Education Act, an exceptional pupil is defined as, ‘a pupil whose behavioural, communicational, intellectual, physical, or multiple exceptionalities are such that a committee considers the pupil to need placement in a special education program’ (Bennett, Dworet & Weber, 2008, p. 221).

An important aspect of special needs programs is to tailor educational support to suit a child’s individual needs. Key factors that affect and contribute to this include an ideal learning environment and physical space, teaching staff and qualifications, academic and emotional support, and extracurricular programs.”

Meeting needs
Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolff Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“‘Special needs is a general terms used to describe a myriad of more specific diagnoses. Ontario schools use the Ministry of Education definitions to identify special needs students. Special needs programs aim to meet the needs of individual students. There is no one method, though, that is most effective."

Specialized learning environment
Simon Williams, co-executive director of Foothills Academy, a learning disabilities school in Calgary, Alberta
“A special needs school is designed to meet the specialized needs of certain student populations. Not every child can learn effectively and to their potential in a mainstream classroom, and although many individuals with special educational needs are average to above-average intelligence, they may need a different and more specialized learning environment in order to be successful at school. The main objectives of a special needs school are to ensure that children are safe and cared for, that their social and emotional needs are met and supported, and that they have the required supports necessary for them to reach their true academic potential.

The nature of special needs schools vary greatly, depending upon the special educational needs that the school is serving. Such schools are different from regular schools because of the intense individualized instruction provided to meet each student’s needs. This can be achieved by the small class sizes providing low student-teacher ratios, and the specialized and specific training all teaching and educational staff receive with regards to evidence-based programs and strategies to support students with special needs.”

Tailored programming
Charleen Pryke, principal of The Dublaine School, a special needs school in TorontoOntario, specializing in learning disabilities and Asperger’s syndrome
“Ideally, every school would be a ‘special needs’ school, recognizing that all students have unique sets of abilities, strengths, and needs. Regrettably, this is impractical, and mainstream schools work to serve the needs of as many students as possible by providing instruction suited to broad commonalities in learners. For many students who might otherwise have been successful, however, this approach is insufficient: incompatibilities in learning styles, abilities, and even interests can lead to limited engagement, frustration, and missed opportunities to thrive.  Special needs schools are structured to be more accommodating at the individual level, with the ability to offer tailored programming and support systems, as well as the flexibility to focus on social and emotional growth, in addition to academics.” 

Ian Peterson, business development director of Heritage School, a special needs school in Provo, Utah
“A special needs school is intended to meet the academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of the students, and in so doing, prepare them for a productive transition into adulthood. This is accomplished through a student-centered approach. This includes a pedagogical approach to teaching, using multidisciplinary teams to meet the student’s individual needs, ensuring listed accommodations (as stated in their IEP) are met.

All academic staff are appropriately trained, and teachers who provide instruction in a special needs school are credentialed in special education. Teachers provide specialized academic instruction. Special accommodations are in place in the classroom to improve and support learning, and lessons are differentiated to meet individual needs. Oftentimes other professionals, such as speech and language therapists or occupational therapists, are utilized to support student special needs.”

Individualized programming
Jeff Clayton, communications director at WillowWood School, a school with strong special needs support, in TorontoOntario
“A special needs school—in our opinion—does what all schools could be doing: individualizing programming to meet the students where they are, and help them engage successfully with the curriculum. It should approach teaching strategically to meet diverse needs—and educate each student well.”

Comprehensive treatment
Terry Stevenson, director of Applewood Academy for Progressive Learning, a special needs school in Belleville, Ontario 
“The main objective of a special needs school is creation of a comprehensive prioritized emotional, social, behavioral, and educational treatment plan to advance learning and the overall quality of a student’s life. These schools have a higher level of individualization of treatment planning incorporating the whole person . In addition the entire educational day is created in collaboration with parents, educators, and clinical professionals.”

Unique learning styles
Kelley Caston, principal of Wildwood Academy, a special needs school in Oakville, Ontario 
“No two students are alike; they each present unique personality traits and life experiences, as well as individual learning styles. The goal of a special needs school is to foster a motivation to learn by teaching students so that the information makes sense to them. In doing so, the school is providing an environment where students’ confidence can flourish. It provides students with an environment and resources to succeed both academically and socially.” 

Inclusive environment
Jenna Rowney-Giroux, vice principal of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a special needs school in OttawaOntario, specializing in dyslexia and ADHD
A special needs school is one that provides an inclusive learning environment for students with a wide variety of learning exceptionalities. It attempts to ensure that each child, despite their learning exceptionality, be provided with the opportunities to succeed academically.

Special skills and abilities
Virginia Trott, teacher at Kohai Educational Centre, a special needs school in TorontoOntario, supporting a wide range of special needs, including autismDown syndrometroubled behaviour, and dyspraxia

“Children with special needs have challenges throughout their lives. Special needs schools need to develop individual programming to help them learn and grow throughout the different stages of development and life. They should teach to the child, and consider his or her special skills and abilities.” 

Click here to view a list of special needs schools




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