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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.)

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.

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