Finding the right school to meet the unique challenges of our special needs child has been like trying to locate a needle in a haystack. I spent the better part of three years researching our options and kept them all on the table: private, public, montessori, inclusion, special ed exclusive, etc. I scoured school websites, engaged in forums, actively sought recommendations from therapists and various professionals, arranged a slew of school tours, and enrolled our daughter in a wide variety of educational settings throughout pre-school.
While each place we tried had its strengths and weaknesses, none seemed like the best fit for our daughter’s needs. Some schools loved her well but didn’t have enough experience or expertise to appropriately challenge and develop the specific use of her AAC (Alternative Augmentative Communication) device. Other schools seemed far too sterile and lacked the warm and encouraging environment I knew she would respond to best. I often felt like I was on an impossible mission. I fumbled my way through the search but remained determined to press on for she is worth more than the status quo.
With her school years just beginning, we felt it of utmost importance to introduce her to a classroom setting successfully. It required a lot of time, but we truly believed that being intentional in the early years to find the very best environment for her could very well change the quality and trajectory of her life. I can now say all the hard work paid off and our daughter is currently enrolled in a program that seems created just for her. Little compares to the confidence we have now when dropping her off at school. We can drive away knowing she is being well taken care of, challenged, and thoughtfully engaged.
Though each family searching for the right school for their special needs child will have to make that decision based on their own unique circumstances and needs, here are some common considerations I propose to help in your search. Your homework is to do the best you can to grow in knowledge of what your child’s educational options are and be diligent in advocating for the best fit. Don’t be overwhelmed; just take it one step at a time.
Consider these 7 suggestions when it comes to finding the right school for your child with special needs:
1. Think at least six months in advance, ideally a year or more.
Applications are often received in the private sector between January-March of each year for fall enrollment and can even involve a lottery or waitlist. In public school you may have more time, but you should be inquiring early as well. This will give you a head start and allow plenty of time to have the meetings necessary to set things in motion for the fall. You will also feel better about the process if you are not rushed.
2. Make a list of potential schools in your area and begin your research of each.
Hit their websites and make note of factors such as location, schedule, transportation, cost, curriculum, activities, therapeutic supports, etc. All of these logistics play a key role in choosing not only what is best for your child but the whole family. What are your non-negotiables? Consider how far you are willing to drive and how much you can invest in parent involvement as well as finances. Our family decided making a longer commute was worth the inconvenience and expense because one school’s program eliminated other stresses we encountered in schools closer to home.
3. Call each school.
Explain your child’s needs thoroughly yet concisely and get an initial understanding of the school’s accommodations. Be upfront about your child’s challenges as well as what you’re looking for in a school. Communicating this clearly, in the beginning, will help you avoid wasting time on programs that are ill-suited.
4. Make an appointment to tour each school.
Phone calls are not enough. Seeing the physical classroom space and talking with the director and teachers in person will allow you to envision how your child can potentially fit into the environment. Inquire about the curriculum, strategies for meeting IEP (Individual Education Plan) goals, class sizes, number of teachers, stance on inclusion, preparation for medical emergencies and how therapies are supported within the program or allowed from the outside. If private, inquire about costs, payment plans, and the possibility of financial aid. Then, trust your instincts (that invaluable parental gut feeling) and use all the information you gathered to refine your list of preferred schools. I found the closer in time these school tours were made to each other, the easier it was for me to remember important details for comparison. So, I did my best to arrange all the tours within a 2-3 week time span.
5. Ask to subscribe to school newsletters.
This will give you a better idea of how the school operates in the day to day, how communication with parents is handled, and the school’s relationship to the greater community through activities they support. I would recommend only subscribing to the last few schools remaining on your list so that you do not get inundated with too much information.
6. Advocate for your child if you are not satisfied with the program recommended.
This is particularly important when pursuing the public school route. Trust me, it is much easier to negotiate before accepting what the school district offers than trying to change things after. Do what you must to clarify your expectations and support the claims made on your child’s behalf. If need be, gather supportive letters or evaluations written by professionals that vouch for your child’s needs. Request meetings with the special education committee to discuss matters thoroughly and be willing to accept a compromise.
7. If possible, bring your child along on a second visit to a school if you are still unsure of the best choice.
This will allow you to see how he/she initially responds to the school environment and the teachers.
Remember, no school is perfect or able to immediately meet all the needs of your child. Give it time. Expectations written on paper will have to be gradually worked out in the day-to-day. If a school doesn’t end up working the way you had hoped, don’t panic. Nothing is written in stone. In the end, you have the power to make a change if necessary; but, be cognizant of not shuffling your child around so much in search of the perfect setting as to be detrimental. Different schools might be beneficial over the course of your child’s development, so evaluate often.
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5 Ways You Can Help Special Needs Families
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