Special needs programs and schools: a primer

How to make sense of what's available and make the best choice for your child.

By Valle Dwight

In a small, quiet classroom, a young boy sits on an exercise ball as he struggles to decipher a complicated math problem. A teacher sits beside him, offering a steady stream of encouragement.

This calm classroom — notable for its bare walls, lack of distractions, and unusual teaching tools — isn’t what you’d normally find in a public school. But in specialized programs created solely for children with special needs, it's one common approach.

Still it would be a mistake to call it the norm, either. Just as no two children are just alike, programs and classrooms serving children with special needs vary radically depending on the philosophy of the educators, the program budget, and the mix of children served. And because of this complexity, it sometimes takes a special kind of persistence for parents to uncover what is offered in their area.

Options, options everywhere and yet…

Most children with common learning disabilities such as dyslexia attend their local public school. There they get additional services like special instruction, either in the classroom or in a separate room. Or they might get special accommodations, such as extra time on tests.

But for some parents, the discovery of their children's learning issue triggers a much broader journey. In addition to advocating for the best possible services from the school their child attends, they may carry out an exhaustive school search, switch between schools within a district, commute to another district, or even move to a different state. In some cases, parents hire education consultants or advocates to help them find the best solutions for their child. In the most extreme cases, they hire lawyers to sue districts or states to help them pay tuition for specialized private schools.

Knowing how much energy, time, and resources you can or want to invest in this process is a very personal decision, but it's helpful at the outset to understand the range of educational options that many regions have. Special education funding varies by state and children living in isolated rural areas usually have fewer options than those living near large populations.

Ordinary schools, special education programs

There are varying levels of support for children with disabilities — ranging from minimal to very comprehensive.

At one level, beyond staying in an ordinary classroom and getting extra support as defined by a 504 or Individualized Education Plan (the IEP is a legal documents that ensure children diagnosed with special needs get the services they need), some children are placed in separate classrooms with specialized teachers in an otherwise conventional public school.

Depending on the philosophy of the school, these students' contact with the rest of the school varies widely. They may have almost no interaction with non-disabled students or other staff, or they may spend part of the day with their non-disabled peers, either in the classroom or on the playground.

Kids in separate classrooms may have serious learning or behavioral issues and might remain for the duration of their school years at least part time in a separate classroom. Or their issues may be relatively mild and, after gaining academic or social skills, the child will join the ordinary classroom with extra support.

There are also schools that embrace a philosophy known as inclusion, which places kids with disabilities into an ordinary classroom with typical developing kids and give kids with special needs dedicated support from specialists inside and outside the classroom. Inclusion has gained many proponents in recent years, arguing it's not only best for children with special needs, but it teaches valuable lessons about tolerance of a wide range of kids. (Learn more about the mutual benefits of inclusion classrooms.)

The dedicated special needs school

But in some cases, an ordinary public school may not be able provide the level of services a child needs. This may be because a child's needs are particularly complex (both highly gifted and highly disabled) or severe, or because the school lacks any staff trained to support even the child with a relatively common disability. If this is the case for your child, it might be time to consider a school that specializes in your child’s particular learning profile.

Children with learning differences and other disabilities have an education team set up by federal law. This team (which includes the child’s parents, teachers, and other specialists) decides the kind of special instruction the child needs and any other accommodations the school needs to make to help the child learn. The teams’ decisions are documented in the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The law states that children must be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” which is assumed to be in the regular classroom. If the school is unable to provide this, and has tried other interventions to no avail, the team may consider what's known as an out-of-district placement to a specialized school (‘out of district’ only means that the school is not a part of your district's public school system; the school itself might actually be in your town).

If the district agrees to it, they will pay for all or part of the tuition and the transportation to the school. This could be a public specialized school or a private school; it depends on what the child’s team has decided.

Often the child’s team will suggest a particular school, although parents have the right to say yes or no. Other times the parents will request a school, but the school district (often referred to in the law as the Local Education Agency or LEA) also has the right to refuse that choice.

If parents and the district can’t come to terms, which may involve a battle in court, parents have the right to send their child to a private special needs school with their own money.

What is a special needs school?

Special needs schools specialize in teaching students with learning, behavior, mental health, medical, or intellectual disabilities. In most cases, one school will specialize in one type of disability; it is rare to find schools that are a catch-all for every disability. The programs (which can be day schools or residential) are designed to handle the needs of the particular population they are serving. The staff has additional training in supporting the students in and out of the classroom. Usually only students with disabilities go to these schools, so if you want your child to go to school with typical students, this is not the choice for you.

A school for children with dyslexia, for instance, may have an entire teaching staff trained in a research-based reading intervention such as Orton Gillingham, and that kind of teaching will carry over into every aspect of the curriculum (i.e., will not just be taught for one-half hour a day during reading as might happen in public school).

A school for children with autism may include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), sensory integration therapy, social skills training, and a host of other interventions.

Special education schools run the gamut — they come in all shapes and sizes and have a variety of approaches to teaching. Some may be housed in the basement of a public school, others may have a pristine campus of their own.

What supporters of special needs schools say

Special needs schools often have smaller class sizes, a low student-to-teacher ratio, and a more structured and consistent learning environment. All the staff is trained to understand the particular learning issues. With the right school and staff many children who had been written off can learn and even thrive.

What critics of special needs schools say

Special needs schools are by their very nature segregated, serving only children with some kind of learning difference. Some studies have found that including children with disabilities in the regular classrooms has better outcomes for both students with and without disabilities.

How to choose a special needs school

One advantage parents have when looking at special needs schools is that by now they probably have a sense of what will work for their child — or at least know what doesn’t work (whatever the public school was doing). Use that knowledge when looking at the programs you are considering.

Some questions to ask when choosing a special needs school:

  • Is the school accredited or licensed by the state? What are the training requirements for the teachers? Check your state’s education department website to find accreditation information.
  • Does the school have an active professional development program for staff? The world of special education changes quickly and the best schools will be up-to-date on research-based methods. Meet with the school’s director and ask about the staff’s ongoing training.
  • What is a typical day in the classroom like — how is the day structured? What's the learning environment in the classroom? How are behavioral issues dealt with? Is the noise and/or activity level something that your child can handle?
  • Is the teaching staff using technology in the classroom? Do they use other adaptive tools to help students?
  • What are the outcomes? Ask for data on how the students fare — what percentage goes to college or is able to transition back to a public school.

Final words of advice

Visit any school you are considering. Look at how the classroom is set up. Is it the right kind of environment for your child? How many children are in the classroom? How does the teacher handle disruptions? Do the students seem engaged?

Seek out parents whose children go to a school you're considering. Talk to them about their experience. Ask them if they think the school is a good fit for a student with your child’s particular needs. Involved parents can be your best and most honest source of information.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.