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When your child has special needs

What to look for when choosing a school


If your child has special needs, they’ll require a school that provides them with the right learning environment and plenty of support. While it’s not always easy to find this, we’re here to help. 

  1. Types of special needs

  2. What to do about special needs

  3. Kids with special needs: what to look for in a school

  4. Choosing the right school for your child

1. Types of special needs

There are four main types of special needs: learning, social/emotional/behavioural, developmental, and physical. Here are some examples of each you may be familiar with: 

  • Learning: dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and auditory processing disorder
  • Social, emotional, and behavioural: oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), troubled teen behaviour, depression, and anxiety
  • Developmental: autism, Down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities 
  • Physical: multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and visual and hearing impairment

Special needs also vary in terms of their severity and impact: they affect kids to differing degrees and in different ways. This means the amount and types of support kids require in school will vary widely.  

2. What to do about special needs

Depending on your child’s specific challenges, it’s possible their special needs can be adequately supported in their current school environment. 

Suppose, for instance, your child has a mild learning disability. 

“They may be struggling academically in one or two subjects and they don’t know what to do,” says Ruth Rumack of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space. “This calls for a kind of surgical solution: offering targeted academic support.” (Read Ruth’s interview.)

Sometimes, however, this won’t be enough. 

If your child is struggling across the curriculum, has intense and persistent social issues, is clinically depressed, or has other formidable challenges, this is more serious. No matter how accommodating and well-intentioned their current school is, it may not have the infrastructure to support them. (Watch our video of education experts discussing how to know when a school is or isn’t working.)

In this instance, a change of scenery will be in order. The question is, what should you be on the lookout for as you embark on your quest for a new school?

3. Kids with special needs: what to look for in a school

Finding the right school and learning environment for a child with special needs is a tall order. There are many factors you’ll need to consider.

Infrastructure and resources

Kids with special needs need plenty of support. Make sure a school has exactly what’s required to address your child’s challenges. 

If they’re struggling with reading (perhaps due to dyslexia), for instance, they may require an onsite reading intervention specialist to help them with decoding. Or, if they have an attention deficit disorder that makes it difficult for them to focus in school, they’ll likely need a small class with an educational assistant and a lot of one-on-one support and guidance.

And, regardless of your child’s specific challenges, they’re likely to benefit from certain out-of-class resources and onsite support staff. This may include robust guidance and counselling departments, learning resource centres, psychologists, academic advisors, guidance counsellors, and tutors.

Learning environment and teaching

Make no mistake, the right kind of learning environment is vital for students with special needs. Schools with smaller classrooms make it easier for teachers to provide lots of one-on-one support and individualized instruction. 

But what other features of a learning environment are likely to be helpful for your child? One universally acknowledged benchmark is strong teaching.

“Good teachers know their students well and have a varied curriculum,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “They take the time to understand students’ learning needs and differentiate the curriculum accordingly.” (Read Ann and Karen’s interview.

Differentiated instruction is especially integral for kids with special needs. A teacher who tailors instruction to individual children’s needs can help ensure they get exactly what they require—that they learn the right material, at the right pace, in the right ways. This can help your child acquire the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to stay on track (and sometimes to thrive).

Just ask this teacher (quoted in Beyond Intelligence by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster):

“I teach one of three Grade 4 classes in my school. During the reading period, I teach all those who are reading at grade level, while one of my colleagues takes the children who are having difficulty, and the other teacher works with the advanced readers. Every child is challenged at his own level, and no teacher is trying to cover the whole spectrum or short-changing any of the learners.”

Curriculum

You should always fully acquaint yourself with a school’s curriculum: what material it covers and how it covers it. Consider whether a school’s curriculum will support your child’s specific challenges. 

Many students with special needs are well suited to a school with an alternative curriculum that allows for more individualized learning. This will give them more freedom in what material they cover and the pace they cover it at.

On the other hand, some, though not all, students with special needs will struggle at a school with a mainstream curriculum, in which they cover the same material as their peers (at roughly the same pace), often delivered through whole-class lessons. Some of these schools won’t provide enough flexibility and personalized support for kids who struggle with learning, social, developmental, or physical disabilities. 

If you do choose a mainstream school, ensure it offers the in-class resources, accommodations, support, and environment your child needs. Ideally, it will have small classes with plenty of one-on-one support and differentiated instruction, and it will offer the in-class accommodations your child requires (e.g., extra time for assignments or quiet spaces to write tests).

Dedicated special needs environment vs. regular environment

Bear in mind, though: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. While many students with special needs require a dedicated special education environment, others don’t. Some will have challenges that can be properly supported in a regular school with the right learning environment and resources. 

In either case, you’ll need to ensure your child gets whatever they need. In addition to a small classroom with a lot of one-on-one support, they may require one or more in-class accommodations, such as extra time for assignments or tests, note-taking assistance, quiet workspaces, assistive devices, or duplicate notes.

Private school

Private schools, it’s worth noting, can sometimes provide your child with support it can otherwise be difficult to access. 

Many private schools have the resources to support students with various kinds of special needs. This may include special education staff, educational assistants, resource support, teachers trained in differentiated instruction, and assistive devices. Some also have useful out-of-class support systems like robust guidance and counselling departments and learning resource centres.

Smaller classes, another common feature of private schools, often benefit kids with special needs as well. They can enable teachers to provide the one-on-one support, special attention, and individualized instruction your child will likely need. 

Types of schools you might consider

Depending on the type and severity of your child’s special needs (not to mention their age, abilities, interests, personality, and other traits), there are several school types you might consider. To help you find the right one, here’s a closer look at some of your main options.

Special needs schools are exclusively devoted to students with diagnosed special needs. They’re sometimes a good fit for kids with more severe learning, behavioural, developmental, or physical disabilities.

Learning disability schools provide targeted support for kids with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and language processing disorder. They often work well for kids with learning disabilities who can’t be properly supported in a regular classroom.

Behavioural and emotional disorder schools support students with one or more social, behavioural, or emotional issues, such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, or troubled teen behaviour. They have the infrastructure, resources, and pedagogical expertise to support kids who struggle with these kinds of problems.

Developmental disability schools provide dedicated support for kids with one or more developmental disabilities such as Down Syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, or intellectual disabilities.

Physical disability schools are exclusively devoted to supporting kids with physical disabilities such as hearing and visual impairment, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy.

Troubled teen schools, also known as “therapeutic schools,” specialize in supporting teens who have intense and persistent challenges in their relationships in school and at home. Many offer family and individual counselling, psychotherapy (including cognitive-behavioural therapy), rehabilitation, remediation, and other forms of treatment. They can be a good fit for troubled teens whose issues can’t be properly addressed in a regular school.

Small schools with smaller classrooms, lower student-to-teacher ratios, and plenty of one-on-one support can be a good fit for kids with various special needs. They can enable your child to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to stay on track and, sometimes, to excel.

Big schools often have a wealth of out-of-class resources to support kids with special needs, such as academic advisors, tutors, psychologists, and reading intervention specialists. They sometimes work well for kids who require intensive support outside the classroom.

Boarding schools often have plenty of resources to support kids with special needs. This sometimes includes on-site support staff, such as psychologists, counsellors, social workers, and occupational therapists, who specialize in working with kids with learning, behavioural, developmental, and physical disabilities. 

4. Choosing the right school for your child

When choosing a school, take a close look at your child. In addition to the type(s) and severity of their special needs, consider their other traits, such as their mental and academic focus, social and physical tendencies, learning preferences, and learning interests (such as the arts and STEM). And of course, make sure you look at factors affecting your whole family, such as school location, size, cost, and community.

Based on your child’s (and family’s) needs, create a shortlist of around two to eight schools. Research these schools diligently and visit them, either in person or virtually (if necessary). 

Ask school reps lots of questions

It’s also helpful to speak with current students and parents at the school. And depending on your child’s age and maturity level, it can be a good idea to involve them in the school-choice process.

Tips for the school visit

You should visit each school on your shortlist. Ideally, tour them with a school official or student. Below, we offer advice for your visit, which you can print out, to help you decide whether a school will likely be able to support your child’s special needs.

  • Learn about a school’s resources: Make sure the school has the resources and staff your child requires. Important resources for them may include an academic counselling, a learning resource, or a health and wellness centre. Visit these places, ask their staff questions, and find out what support they offer. Your child may also benefit from onsite support staff such as academic advisors, guidance counsellors, tutors, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and reading intervention specialists. Speak to the staff members whose support your child will need the most.
  • Observe a class in action: Ask if you can observe a class. If your child is old enough, ask if they can sit in on a class or even have a shadow day (where they go through a full day at the school)? Here are some things to look for: What is the student-to-staff ratio? Are there any additional in-class support staff like educational assistants or resource teachers? Do teachers differentiate instruction, tailoring it to each student’s unique learning needs? How much and what kinds of one-on-one support do they provide? 
  • Talk to students at the school: It’s important to find out what other students’ think of the school, especially those with special needs. Here are some questions you might pose: What kinds of struggles have you had? How has the school supported you and have you felt adequately supported? If this isn’t your first school, how does your experience here compare with other schools? Are you doing better academically and socially? Do you have any significant concerns with or anything you’re unhappy about at the school?

Questions to ask school officials

It’s important to speak with school officials to get a sense of whether a school is the right fit for your child. Ask them plenty of questions to gauge whether a school will likely be able to support your child’s specific challenges. Here are some crucial questions, which you can print out to bring along on your visit.

  • In-class staff: In addition to regular teachers, do you have educational assistants or resource teachers? What about special education staff? 
  • Special education: Do you have full- or part-time dedicated special education classes?
  • In-class adaptations: Do you offer extra time for assignments, note-taking assistance, ability-grouping, assistive devices, or duplicate notes? How about quiet workspaces, preferential seating, flexible seating, and private rooms for tests?
  • Out-of-class resources: Do you have academic counselling, learning resource, psychology, or health and wellness centres or departments? 
  • Out-of-class staff: Do you have academic advisors, guidance counsellors, social workers, or psychologists? How about tutors or subject-specific support staff (such as reading or math specialists)?
  • Class sizes: What are your class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios?
  • Curriculum: What curriculum do you use? Is it mainstream or alternative? What subjects do you teach and how do you teach them?
  • Differentiated instruction: Do you differentiate instruction according to each student’s unique learning needs? 
  • Learning skills: How do you help students with their learning skills like organization, planning, following instructions, and independent and collaborative learning?
  • Social skills: How do you help students with their social skills like cooperation, sharing, listening, respecting personal space, communication, reading body language, and empathy?

To learn more, read our expansive choosing a school guide. You can also read our expert interviews on finding the right school and watch our video of parents discussing how they chose schools for their kids.

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