How to Select the Best School to Meet Your Child’s Special Educational Needs

Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Special Education Teacher; M.S. SpEd

helpA child in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) has as much potential as any other student. To maximize that potential, however, it’s important to choose the right school for him or her to attend. This educational environment should be supportive and nurturing, a place where he or she will not only learn but thrive.

In order to find that right school, you’ll first need to determine what sort of classes you want for your child. A school might offer classes comprised entirely of special-education students. On the other hand, students with special needs might take classes with all other classmates. Such heterogeneous classes typically provide extra help to students who need it, such as personalized instruction from a teaching aide. Or special-needs students might be allowed one-on-one time with educators at some point during every school day.

When deciding between those options, it’s important to consider your child’s social and emotional strengths. Will your child feel more comfortable being with other students with special needs all day — would he or she make friends more easily that way? Or do you believe that being around students without disabilities will help your son or daughter learn how to adapt in various social situations?

In addition, your child’s academics will likely improve if teachers employ a variety of teaching styles. That is, teachers ought to combine lectures with individual and small-group assignments, interactive lessons, and visual presentations. That way, if your child tends to lose focus when taking notes, he or she will still be able to grasp the material by virtue of those other teaching methods.

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Once you know precisely what you’re looking for, you can begin the process of choosing the right school. The first step is to compile a list of every school near your home. You can check with a services coordinator or with a nonprofit organization that specializes in a certain disability to ensure that you have a full list. Further, you should look at private as well as public options. Obviously, private school tuition can be a financial strain for many families. But if a certain private school in your area offers exceptional services, you might consider those tuition payments to be worthy investments in your child’s future. Moreover, a disabilities organization could help you find out if you’re eligible for government tuition assistance under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which Congress passed in 1975.

Visits are key to determining which school represents the best option. On a visit, you can meet with teachers and administrators to discuss how the school would meet your child’s needs. When you visit a school, you also get a sense of the teaching styles, the class sizes — roughly speaking, the smaller the class size the better — the nutritional value of the lunches, and all sorts of other particulars. Further, meeting with teachers and principals is a way to initiate relationships with those professionals. Whenever you have a concern about your child’s progress, it’s easier and often more productive to contact an educator you know personally. Finally, if you visit a school and discover that staff members are brusque or unwilling to discuss your questions, you should definitely think twice about sending your child there.

Once you have found a great school, you can start working with its staff on formulating your child’s IEP. This IEP will list the specific academic goals that your child should meet by the end of the school year as well as the services your child will receive. Bear in mind that you have the right to disagree with what the school wants to include in the IEP. It can be difficult for parents to contradict experts, but always remember that you know your child best. Therefore, if you believe that he or she requires more personalized attention than the IEP allows for or if you feel the plan’s academic benchmarks are too challenging or not challenging enough, politely refuse those parameters. At the same time, carefully mull over the IEP team’s arguments. Perhaps they’ll raise an issue that you hadn’t considered before.

When disagreements arise, IEP meetings continue; you and the school’s team will negotiate until acceptable compromises are reached. If you find that you’re at an impasse, you can reject in writing the entire IEP. At that point, you may request a due process hearing, at which a hearing officer will listen to both points of view and arbitrate. Note that it’s helpful to employ an attorney for such a hearing.

Of course, if you find a school that accommodates the educational vision you have for your son or daughter, such IEP conflicts shouldn’t come up in the first place. That’s just one more reason why finding the ideal school is so vital.