What's the right type of school for a student with special needs?
Exploring how a child with special needs potentially fits in 10 different school types
Some students have special needs. Your child’s special learning needs are an extremely important factor in school choice: they greatly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them.
Kids with special needs have intellectual, communicational, behavioural, physical, or multiple exceptionalities.
Below, we identify key points you should reflect on when considering 10 different school types for a child with special needs. 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.
How students with special needs fit in 10 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 individualized teaching and learning and one-on-one support, giving them the flexibility to accommodate students with a wide range of special needs. Some also provide learning environments that directly address special learning needs, such as segregated classes, part-time withdrawal classes, and integrated classes.
However, “Keep in mind that some small schools only provide support for one special need,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “Ask which special need(s) a school supports, how it supports it, and whether it has teaching staff with the right training and expertise to provide this support.”
Finally, since small schools tend to have fewer resources, ensure they have whatever’s needed to foster your child’s academic, social, and emotional development, such as guidance departments, academic and social counsellors, educational assistants, and assistive technologies.
Big school (151+ students)
Since kids with special needs require special attention, ensure any prospective school has small- to medium-sized classes with plenty of structure, individualized learning, one-on-one support, and properly trained special education staff. Also, ask exactly what kinds of special needs support a school provides. For instance, while it's unlikely to provide modifications to the curriculum, does it offer accommodations, and if so, for which special needs?
Some big schools provide learning environments that explicitly support students with special needs. These can include dedicated special needs classes, integrated classes, and regular classes with in-class adaptations and breakout groups. Many also provide a range of out-of-class resources to promote your child’s academic and social development, such as robust guidance departments, academic and psychological counselling, social work, tutors, and faculty advisors. And some have designated resource/learning centres for students with special needs, as well as various in-house support staff, like speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and reading specialists.
A coed environment will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can sometimes be a distraction, ask about the social dynamic at a coed school. Also, ensure it has the right learning environment, support systems, and out-of-class resources to meet your child's academic and social needs.
Of course, in a coed school, kids with special needs will have opportunities to work with and learn from the experiences of both boys and girls. This can widen their perspective and enhance their academic and social development.
Make sure any girls’ school provides the right learning environment for your daughter, whether this is a dedicated special needs class, an integrated class, or a regular class with adaptations and resource support. Keep in mind, however, that “Generally, these schools look for girls who don’t require modified academic programs, and who can function independently in the classroom,” 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 shaped 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 learning interests and gain the confidence needed to shine in uncharted waters.
Make sure a boys’ school provides a learning environment that directly addresses your son’s special needs, whether this is a dedicated class, an integrated class, or a regular class with individualized learning and one-on-one support. Keep in mind, however, that “Generally, 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 unable or unwilling to lower the academic standards for a child with a learning or developmental disability.
Of course, in a boys-only school, your son won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help them focus on their work free from potential distractions. Also, in an environment often less influenced by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “girls are more suited to the arts than boys,” he may feel freer to pursue his learning interests and carve out a unique developmental path.
Students with special needs can benefit from Montessori schools’ unique emphasis on individualized learning. Since students are given the freedom to determine the focus and pace of their studies, with teacher guidance, the curriculum will be tailored to their abilities, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. This can allow a child to work on a specific area of need, such as organization or impulse control.
That said, not all Montessori schools provide the right environment to meet the learning needs of kids with exceptionalities. “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.”
Of course, since different Montessori schools have different approaches, speak to school directors and staff to gauge whether your child is likely to be a good fit.
Reggio Emilia school
Reggio Emilia schools’ special focus on personalized learning and support can be a blessing for kids with special needs. Instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, these schools help guide kids through the curriculum according to their own abilities, tailoring it to their strengths, weaknesses, and interests. This makes it less likely your child will fall behind or get lost in the shuffle.
Just make sure Reggio Emilia schools’ emphasis on group and experiential learning is the right fit for your child. Some kids may require more direct instruction and one-on-one support than some of these schools provide.
International Baccalaureate school
The heavy workload of IB schools can be difficult to manage for some students with special needs. Also, due to their unified curriculum and focus on collaborative learning and group projects, not all IB schools can provide the kind of structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support many of these kids need.
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 special needs, such as learning disabilities involving language, can make it extremely difficult to learn all or some of one’s subjects in a second language, which can impede the acquisition of literacy skills. “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. Unfortunately, few language immersion schools have on-site specialists to support kids with language-based and other kinds of learning disabilities that can interfere with the literacy skills needed to thrive in this program.
That said, students with special needs who enjoy and are good at the language arts often welcome the cognitive challenge and stimulation of learning in a different language, as this allows them to exercise their “language muscles.” If they’re hard workers who enjoy academics (and they don’t have a language-based learning disability), a language immersion school can be a nice fit.
Some boarding schools provide learning environments that directly address special needs, including dedicated classes, integrated classes, and part-time withdrawal classes. Many also provide a range of resources to cultivate your child’s overall development, such as academic and psychological counselling, social workers, faculty advisors, and tutors.
Just make sure any prospective school has small enough classes to provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support your child will likely require. Also, since they’ll be living away from home, inquire what support systems are in place to keep them on the right track—academically and socially. For instance, if your child has an auditory processing disorder, ensure the school has an on-site specialist to provide them with the help they need.
Students with special needs’ school fit: key take-homes
- Since kids with special needs require special attention, ensure any big school has small- to medium-sized classes with plenty of structure, individualized learning, one-on-one support, and properly trained special education staff. Smaller schools with small classes often have more flexibility to make in-class accommodations for students with a range of special needs.
- A coed environment requires kids to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can sometimes be a distraction for a child with special needs.
- Students with special needs can benefit from Montessori schools’ unique emphasis on individualized learning. This can allow a child to work on a specific area of need, such as phonic decoding.
- Kids with special needs normally require plenty of structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support. Due to their unified curriculum and their focus on collaborative learning and group projects, not all IB schools can provide this.
- Some special needs, such as learning disabilities involving language, can make it extremely difficult to learn all or some of one’s subjects in a second language (as language immersion schools require), which can impede the acquisition of literacy skills.