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How To Choose A School For Kids With Disabilities, Because There's A Lot To Consider

There are few things more overwhelming to a parent than trying to decide where to send their kids to school. A lot of families try to choose their homes based on school districts, and many others prefer private programs. But, when your child needs alternate consideration, the decision can become tremendously more complicated. For many children with special needs, the right school program can be an absolute game-changer. So, which type of school is best for kids with disabilities? The answer can be quite complicated.

There's typically a few options when it comes to schooling for your child with special needs. As Scholastic mentioned, you'll likely have to pick from a special education classroom (referred to as a self-contained placement, found either in your local public school, or in a separate special education school), a special education classroom that also includes children without disabilities (referred to as an inclusive placement, and found in both public and private settings), or a general education placement with support services, like an aide or therapist (typically, within your neighborhood public school, though some private schools are open to this sort of arrangement).

Unfortunately, when it comes to children and schools, there's no one-size-fits-all solution, and this is even more true when it comes to children with special needs. Even identical diagnoses present differently in different children, so it could turn out that what works for your neighbor's kid with special needs might not work for yours. School districts and available resources tend to vary by region as well, so you may not have the same accessibility as someone in a larger metropolitan area.

According to GreatSchools, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their children, most children with common learning disabilities (like dyslexia) can attend their local public school and have access to support services (either in the classroom or in a separate room) and simple accommodations (like more time on tests).

Separate special education classrooms and inclusive classrooms are sometimes available for children who may have slightly more serious learning or behavioral needs, GreatSchools noted. The placement, self-contained or inclusive, would depend greatly on the child's learning behaviors and social skills. These children's needs may range from mild to mid-level; after gaining academic or social skills, the child could possibly join a general education classroom with extra support.

Self-contained schools are usually reserved for children with more serious learning, behavior, or medical disabilities. These schools are more able to provide the services, adaptations, and therapies that children with low-functioning disabilities typically benefit from. Many special needs schools specialize in one type of disability, so the access to education that your child will get will be highly specific.

As Jeb Bush noted in TIME magazine, "the school choice is not about public versus private; it's about choice." It's about knowing what works best for your child.

For parents, choosing a school for a special needs kid is often a harrowing decision. As Scholastic mentioned, being diligent is key. Visit your school options, ask about their curriculum, and find out how your child's goals will be addressed. Consider class size and student/teacher ratio, find out if parents are included as a part of the child's team, and advocate for your child. This may mean ultimately switching schools, classrooms, or therapists, until you find what works best for your family and child.

As an early childhood special education teacher, one thing I always told parents is that they know their child better than anyone. Finding a team to support what you already know of your child, and support the growth potential of your child, might seem like searching for a unicorn, but hold on to the idea that there are good people out there willing to do great work for your sweet kid. There are, and it's worth the search.