Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Boshika Gupta

Choosing the right school for a child with special needs can feel like a daunting task, whether you’re not sure where to start or you’re sifting through numerous options for that perfect fit. Trying to figure out whether your child will feel supported and comfortable, where they’ll acquire challenging skills, and whether they’ll thrive may leave parents feeling overwhelmed.

However, a few simple and effective strategies can go a long way in helping you make the right choice for your student. Break your school search down into the six steps listed in this article, and you’ll be well on your way to taking the stress out of your decision.

Start with a School Wish List

When looking at schools for your child, start with a basic list of needs and wants for their educational environment. Write down your child’s preferences and brainstorm what they’ll need to be comfortable in school. Maybe your kid prefers a flexible learning approach and doesn’t enjoy following a structured style. Or perhaps your child likes to pick up new habits through observation and needs individual attention to finish a task. Identifying your child’s likes and dislikes will help you understand which options may work best. 

This is also a good moment to think about what you and your child hope they’ll get out of their school experience. School is a place to learn and develop academic skills, but it’s also the hub for kids’ social and extracurricular lives. Research shows that kids with special needs often struggle to participate in school activities from clubs and sports to group projects and building meaningful friendships. Determining your priorities among the many elements of school experience is invaluable in weighing the options.

List the Choices (Public, Private, & Specialized Schools)

It’s important to understand that all U.S. states are required by law to provide free public education to students with special needs from 3 to 21 years old, and to assist them with “early intervention, special education, and related services.” What’s more, all public schools must work with families, teachers, and other staff to create customized learning plans for kids with special needs — aka Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). These should address the child’s specific needs and ensure close monitoring of their progress.

Talking to a school’s staff members about your child’s individual needs (or existing IEP) will give you more clarity and help you understand their approach to learning. You need to know whether a school can provide a well-structured plan that takes into account your child’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Meanwhile, charter schools and private schools can offer alternative programs, smaller or more personalized environments, and more. There are also a plethora of specialized schools and programs tailored to specific needs and approaches. Keep in mind that the support for kids with special needs can look different at public vs private schools, and private schools may charge extra for certain types of support services. Be sure to ask plenty of questions to get clear about what’s on offer. 

Search and ask around to discover all of the possibilities for your student, then make a full list of the options.

Evaluate the Options

While preparing a list of schools (public or private) that you’d like to consider for your child, take your time reading up about each program. 

Factors to take into consideration include the specific techniques used by the staff members to help kids excel in the classroom, staff-to-student ratios, and the availability of assistive technology devices. Do they have a specific program that would work well for your child’s needs? Do they have staff members with diverse backgrounds who are equipped to handle challenging situations? 

If the options seem overwhelming, one tip can help you cut to the chase: The only thing that really matters about your school choice is how well it fits your child’s needs at this point in time. 

“Students with disabilities by definition have completely individualized and unique needs,” says Allison Gandhi, Vice President at the American Institutes for Research. “In special education, the most important kind of evidence is the data you have on your own students’ progress.” Gandhi argues that teachers should monitor the kids’ progress carefully and modify their teaching strategies based on their observations, so flexibility may be a factor.

Schedule a Visit 

Once you’ve got a list of schools you’re interested in, it’s crucial to actually go to the schools in person. While this seems obvious, it’s easy to put it off, and many parents waste time considering schools that they could have crossed off their lists quickly after one site visit. Best is to go with your child — this will help you gauge their reaction to the school (and how people at the school react to them). You’ll get to observe them first-hand as you explore the facilities together and interact with staff members. 

There’s no better way to find out what a school is really like. Walk its corridors, talk to the teachers, look inside its classrooms, observe its personnel and students, learn about the school’s approach to inclusion, and get a taste of everything in person. 

Things to watch for during school visits: 

  • Pay attention to the details of the environment—comfort, amenities, even lighting.
  • What are the classrooms like? Would the setting and interactions be a fit for your student?
  • Note the students’ demeanor. Do they seem enthusiastic and relaxed? Engaged? Bored or unhappy?
  • Note the teachers’ and staff members’ demeanor, as well.
  • Is student work displayed? What does it tell you about the projects they’re working on?

Ask Questions

It’s normal to juggle doubts as you attempt to figure out whether a school will be able to cater to your child’s needs, ensuring they feel safe, supported, inspired, and whatever else you wish for them. You should feel free to ask as many questions as you like — experienced staff members and teachers will likely be happy to address your queries at length. 

Take time to write out your questions before your visit, and don’t hesitate to follow up if you think of more questions later. 

Some things to ask about:

  • The school’s primary and support staff, including counselors
  • Specifics of the curriculum and programs
  • The total number of students in each class
  • How they’ll work with you to come up with an individualized plan for your child
  • Student outcomes 
  • How they resolve conflicts or difficult situations

Ask Around

In all your research, don’t forget to seek out other parents of children with special needs and find out what they think about a particular school. Word of mouth is a powerful tool: If many parents praise a school’s approach to tackling special needs education, their experiences will be more informative than generic rankings or lists.

Don’t isolate yourself by only talking to a school’s administrators and staff members, or you won’t get the full picture. Instead, make it a priority to find out what real families have experienced at your target schools. Dive into detailed reviews if available, but remember there are many other ways to get parent feedback. Post questions in online forums, ask in neighborhood groups and on social media, comb your network for contacts, and get creative in connecting with relevant families.

Then ask everyone you find about the accommodations, tutoring styles, and learning tools available at different schools, as well as the overall environment. Ask about their personal experiences, preferences, doubts, and impressions.

Choosing a school for a child with special needs doesn’t have to be stressful, when you have the right tools and reach out for support when you need it. 

Raising a special needs child? Contact Maya to share your tips or let us know what resources would be helpful.