What's the right type of school for a child with a learning disability?
Exploring how a child with an LD potentially fits in 10 different school types
Students vary widely in their learning strengths and weaknesses. If your child has a learning disability, this can greatly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them.
Kids with learning disabilities have one or more disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding, or use of verbal or non-verbal information.
Below, we identify key points you should reflect on when considering 10 different school types for a child with an LD. Note: our aim isn’t to tell you whether a school type is right or wrong for you, but to highlight some critical factors you should consider when making your decision.
To learn about how to choose the right school in general, read the Our Kids’ step-by-step advice guide and our expert tips. To customize 350+ school profiles with insights unique to your child's traits, create a child profile through your user account.
Kids with LDs’ fit in several school types
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- Small school (150 students or less)
- Big school (151+ students)
- Coed school
- Girls' school
- Boys' school
- Montessori school
- Reggio Emilia school
- International Baccalaureate school
- Language immersion school
- Boarding school
Small school (150 students or less)
Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of personalized learning and one-on-one teaching. This gives them the flexibility to support students with a wide range of learning disabilities (LDs), and to actively monitor their progress and development. Some also provide learning environments that directly support LDs, such as segregated classes, part-time withdrawal classes, and integrated classes.
However, “Keep in mind that some small schools only provide support for one type of learning disability,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “For instance, they may only support dyslexia or language-based learning disabilities." Ask which learning disability (or disabilities) a school supports, how exactly it supports it.” Finally, make sure a smaller school has out-of-class resources to support your child’s development. For instance, if they struggle with decoding language, ensure they have a reading intervention specialist on staff.
Big school (151+ students)
Since kids with learning disabilities (LDs) require special attention, ensure any large school has smaller classes (ideally 15 students or less) with plenty of structure, personalized learning, and individual support. Also, look into exactly what kinds of LD support it provides. “While many big schools provide accommodations, such as extra time for tests or assignments, few provide a modified academic curriculum,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting.
Some big schools provide learning environments that explicitly support students with LDs. These can include dedicated classes, integrated classes, and regular classes with in-class adaptations and breakout groups. Many also offer a range of out-of-class resources to promote your child’s overall development, such as academic and psychological counselling, social workers, tutors, and faculty advisors.
A coed environment will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can sometimes be a distraction for students with learning disabilities (LDs), ask about the social dynamic at a school and how it plays out in the classroom. Also, ensure it has the right learning environment, support systems, and teaching approach for your child. For instance, if your child has a reading-based LD, they’ll likely need plenty of one-on-one help with phonic decoding.
Of course, in a coed school, students with learning disabilities will work with and learn from the experiences of boys and girls, which can widen their perspective and enhance their academic and social development. “Since research shows that boys and girls often approach problems differently, it can be beneficial to bounce ideas off and seek opinions from both genders,” says Stacey Jacobs, Director of Clear Path Educational Consulting.
Make sure any girls’ school provides the right learning environment for your daughter, whether this is a dedicated class, integrated class, or regular class with resource support. Bear in mind, however, that “Normally, these schools look for girls who don’t require modified academic programs and who are capable of working independently,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. Ask about school resources that can support your daughter’s development, such as academic and psychological counselling, faculty advisors, tutoring, and homework support.
Of course, in a girls’ school, your daughter won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help her focus on her work free from potential distractions. Also, in an environment often less influenced by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “boys are better than girls at math and science,” your daughter may feel freer to pursue her passions and carve out a unique developmental path.
Make sure a boys’ school provides a learning environment that directly supports your son’s learning disability (or disabilities), whether this is a segregated class, integrated class, or regular class with special adaptations or accommodations. Keep in mind, however, that “Typically, these schools look for boys who can function independently in the classroom and don’t require modified programs,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. For instance, most boys’ schools would be unwilling to alter or lower the academic standards for a boy with an LD, by, say, giving him different tests than his peers.
Of course, in a boys-only school, your son won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. This can free him up from potential distractions, in class and out, which can help him better focus on his studies. Also, in an environment often less shaped by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “girls are better suited to the arts than boys,” your son may feel freer to pursue his learning interests and take academic risks.
Many kids with learning disabilities (LDs) will find the calm and quiet learning environment of most Montessori classrooms peaceful. They can also benefit from Montessori’s special focus on individualized learning: since students can help choose their tasks, with teacher guidance, their work should be tailored to their abilities and interests.
That said, not all Montessori schools offer the right environment for kids with LDs. “Some don’t provide the explicit, teacher-directed instruction that some research indicates is beneficial for students who learn differently,” says Una Malcolm, Director of Bright Light Learners. “Students with weak executive functioning or other learning exceptionalities, for instance, may not have the independent work skills necessary to thrive in some Montessori environments. Also, progress monitoring and assessment tend to be qualitative and observation-based, which can be challenging for parents who prefer to track their child’s progress through more measurable data.”
Of course, since Montessori schools vary in their approach, speak to school directors and staff to determine whether your child is a good fit.
Reggio Emilia school
Reggio Emilia schools’ emphasis on personalized learning can be a blessing for kids with learning disabilities (LDs). Since they don’t have a standardized curriculum, these schools help guide kids through their studies according to their own abilities and interests. This makes it less likely they’ll lose track, get lost in the shuffle, or become frustrated.
Just make sure Reggio Emilia schools’ focus on experiential and open-ended learning works for your child. Some kids with LDs may require more direct instruction and one-on-one support than some of these schools provide. For instance, if handwriting and spelling are areas of challenge, ensure they’ll have ample time and support to work on these skills.
International Baccalaureate school
The heavy workload of IB schools can be difficult to manage for some students with learning disabilities (LDs). Also, due to their standardized curriculum and their focus on collaborative learning and group projects, not all IB schools will provide enough one-on-one support for kids with LDs.
That said, the IB organization requires authorized schools to have specially trained staff in both IB education and in meeting the needs of different learners. But, “What this looks like and how students are supported varies between schools,” says Stacey Jacobs, Director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “Ask what specific programs and policies they have in place to support your child’s learning.”
Language immersion school
Some learning disabilities (LDs), such as those involving language, can make it extremely challenging to learn all or some of one’s subjects in a second language, as immersion programs require. “For example, a child with dyslexia in a French immersion program would struggle to read in both English and French without adequate intervention,” says Una Malcolm, Director of Bright Light Learners. “It’s thus important for parents to be aware of early signs of phonological decoding issues—or processing or reasoning issues, for that matter—since most language immersion schools do not offer intervention or support in these areas, and unfortunately this can lead to literacy difficulties in both languages.”
That said, students with LDs who are language-oriented often enjoy the stimulation of learning in a different language, as this allows them to exercise their “language muscles.” If they work hard and enjoy academics (and they don’t have a language-based LD), a language immersion school can be a nice fit.
Some boarding schools provide learning environments that explicitly support learning disabilities, including dedicated classes, integrated classes, and part-time pull-out classes. Many also provide a range of resources to promote your child’s academic, social, and emotional development, such as robust guidance departments, counsellors, psychologists, social workers, and faculty advisors
Just make sure any boarding school has small enough classes to provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support your child will likely require. Also, ensure it has the resources and staff to address your child’s specific challenges. For instance, if they struggle with visual processing, ask whether properly trained staff are available to help them with reading, math, maps, charts, symbols, pictures, and the like.
Finally, “Ensure your child has a strong understanding of their learning challenges and what kind of support and accommodations they need,” says Stacey Jacobs, Director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “At a boarding school, kids will need to advocate for themselves, and they’ll need the knowledge and confidence to do this.”
Kids with LDs’ school fit: key take-homes
- Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of personalized learning and one-on-one teaching, and have the flexibility to support students with a wide range of learning disabilities (LDs), and to actively monitor their progress and development. Look into a big school’s class sizes and the kinds of LD support it provides.
- Single-gender schools normally only accept kids who can function independently in the classroom and don’t require modified academic programs.
- Make sure any boarding or big school has small enough classes to provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support your child will likely require.
- Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools individualize learning to children’s strengths and weaknesses. Ensure they provide enough teacher-directed instruction to support your child’s specific learning challenge(s).
- Make sure an IB school offers plenty of individualized learning and one-on-one support to help your child to make their way through the challenging IB curriculum.