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Choosing a school based on special needs

Exploring children with special needs' school fit


When choosing a school for your child, it’s important to consider your child’s special needs, if they have any. Here, we’ll discuss kids with special needs in general, learning disabilities, behavioural/emotional issues, anxiety, ADHD, autism, and dyslexia. We explore what kinds of schools might be most suitable for these kids. 

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 get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account


Special needs and school fit

Don’t underestimate the importance of special needs on school choice. If your child has one or more special needs, it can profoundly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them. Below, we discuss how kids with special needs (in general), learning disabilities, behavioural/emotional issues, anxiety, ADHD, autism, and dyslexia fit in several school types.

Kids with special needs (general)

Kids with special needs have intellectual, communicational, behavioural, physical, or multiple exceptionalities.

Students with special needs school (general) 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.

To access far more detailed information about kids with special needs’ school fit, read our in-depth guide.

Kids with learning disabilities

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.

Students 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.

To access far more detailed information about LD kids’ school fit, read our in-depth guide.

Kids with behavioural/emotional issues

Kids with social, emotional, or behavioural issues may or may not have a disorder. They do, though, have serious challenges which can adversely affect their relationships in school and out, and lead to problems with concentration, emotional regulation, impulse control, and other issues.

Students with behavioural issues’ school fit: key take-homes

  • Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of individualized learning and one-on-one support, giving them the flexibility to accommodate students with a range of social issues. Look into a big school’s class sizes and the kinds of special needs support it provides.
  • Single-gender schools typically only accept kids who are independent and don’t require intensive support to function in the classroom.
  • Some boarding schools provide dedicated support for kids with social or behavioural issues, such as troubled teen or therapeutic schools. 
  • Many kids with social or emotional issues will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing. 
  • The warm, community feel of the Reggio Emilia classroom—which is set up to promote lots of interaction—can enable kids with social issues to feel at home, connect with classmates, and make close friends.
  • Due to their standardized curriculum and their focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support that many kids with social l issues need.

To access far more detailed information about kids with behavioural/emotional issues’ school fit, read our in-depth guide.

Kids with anxiety

Anxious kids have a significant degree of daily anxiety. They may or may not have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, such as a social anxiety disorder or panic disorder.

Students with anxiety’s school fit: key take-homes

  • Many small schools have smaller classes with lots of one-on-one support and close supervision to support kids with anxiety (and other emotional issues). Big schools can be challenging for students with anxiety: due their larger student populations, it can be harder to monitor student’s progress.
  • Boys’ and girls’ tend to have a strong understanding of the triggers and causes of anxiety. This gives them a special insight into dealing with this issue.
  • Many kids with anxiety will find the calm and quiet learning space of the typical Montessori classroom soothing.
  • The warm, community feel of the Reggio Emilia classroom—which is set up to promote lots of interaction—can enable kids with anxiety to feel at home.
  • Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support many anxious kids need. Also, the highly academic environment of the IB can be a source of intense pressure for kids with anxiety, especially those with severe anxiety.
  • Anxiety can make it challenging to stay on track in a language immersion program. For instance, a child with severe generalized anxiety may lack the emotional resources and focus to keep pace with their peers in an immersion program.

To access far more detailed information about anxious kids’ school fit, read our in-depth guide.

Kids with ADHD

Kids with ADHD have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This is a condition with symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Students with ADHD’s school fit: key take-homes

  • Since kids with ADHD require special care, ensure any prospective school, big or small, has smaller classes (ideally 15 students or less) with plenty of structure and one-on-one support to help your child stay focused on their studies. 
  • A coed school will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can be especially challenging for kids with ADHD, ask about a school’s social dynamic. 
  • Some boys’ and girls’ schools look for kids who can function independently in the classroom. Speak to school directors and staff to gauge whether your child is likely to be a good fit.
  • Many kids with ADHD will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing.
  • “Being an active participant, rather than a passive recipient, in learning, as emphasized by Reggio Emilia programs, tends to benefit kids with ADHD,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting.
  • Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the individualized learning and one-on-one support many kids with ADHD need.
  • Students with ADHD sometimes find it challenging to stay on track in a language immersion program. For example, students with severe inattention issues may struggle to learn all or most of their subjects in a second language.

To access far more detailed information about kids with ADHD’s school fit, read our in-depth guide.

Kids with autism

Kids with autism or autism spectrum disorder have challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech, and non-verbal communication. These symptoms can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations.

Students with autism’s school fit: key take-homes

  • Since kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) require special attention, ensure any prospective school, big or small, has smaller classes with plenty of structure and one-on-one support, run by qualified special education staff.
  • A coed environment will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can be especially challenging for kids with autism, ask about a school’s social dynamic.
  • Most boys’ and girls’ schools look for kids who can function independently in the classroom. Talk to school reps to determine whether your child is likely to be a good fit.
  • Many kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing. 
  • Some kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), especially those on the higher end of the spectrum, may require more structure and one-on-one support than some Reggio Emilia schools provide.
  • Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the individualized learning and one-on-one support many kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need. Also, the highly academic nature of the IB Programme can be daunting for some kids with ASD, especially those with poor executive functioning skills.
  • Autism can sometimes make it difficult to learn all or most of one’s subjects in a second language, as language immersion programs require. For instance, an autistic child with poor executive functioning skills may struggle to keep up with their peers in this setting.

To access far more detailed information about autistic kids’ school fit, read our in-depth guide.

Kids with dyslexia

Kids with dyslexia have a reading disorder. This disorder affects areas of the brain that involve processing language.

Students with dyslexia’s school fit: key take-homes

  • Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of personalized learning and one-on-one support for kids with dyslexia. Ensure this is also offered in any bigger school you’re considering.
  • Make sure a boys’ or girls’ school provides a learning environment that directly supports your child’s dyslexia, whether this is a segregated class or a regular class with special adaptations and resource support.
  • Kids with dyslexia can benefit from Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools’ special focus on individualized learning: since kids often choose their tasks, with teacher guidance, their work can be tailored to their abilities and interests. 
  •  The heavy workload of IB schools can be difficult to manage for some students with dyslexia. 
  • Dyslexia can make it extremely challenging to learn all or most of one’s subjects in a second language, as language immersion programs require. For instance, “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.

To access far more detailed information about dyslexic kids’ school fit, read our in-depth guide.

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