How to choose the right school for your special needs child
Updated: March 14, 2023 · 15 Minute Read
- Every child has the right to a free public education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public school districts to provide students with special needs a free appropriate education (FAPE).
- Public schools can offer many free resources and benefits for children with special needs, but parents may find the public school system rigid since they are required to follow specific academic standards.
- Private schools can take many different forms and there are some even created specifically for children with special education needs. These schools can be very expensive to attend but can provide a more specialized education. Public schools can help pay for a private education if your child has a disability.
- Both magnet schools and charter schools are considered part of public school districts, making them free to attend. These sorts of schools offer a more unique learning experience for your child, but they do have limited enrollment capacity.
- Many parents may opt for homeschooling or online school for their child because it offers much more flexibility, customization, and control over their education.
- Once you’ve narrowed down your top choices, you’ll want to attend a school’s open house or arrange a time to visit the school in person. No amount of research can compare to stepping foot on the campus, and meeting the teachers and other faculty members for yourself.
Finding the right school for a neurodivergent child can be a challenging task. Many parents may start looking into school options for their children a year or more in advance. And many neurodiverse families may find that they need to change schools or even move to another district midway through the year to access a better education.
When do I need to register my child for school?
Most public school districts across the country begin accepting student registration in early spring, usually in March or April. Some school districts may even start as early as January or February. The exact start date will vary depending on where you live and the type of school you decide to enroll your child in.
For any families moving or worried about missing a deadline, it’s important to remember you can enroll your child in a public school in the school district you reside in at any time during the school year.
Which type of school is best for special needs children?
It depends on your child’s specific needs, the types of school options near you, and your family’s budget and values. As your child grows and matures, their educational needs may change over time which may require you to re-evaluate their school placement. Some neurodiverse families move across the country to get better access to higher quality education. Here are the most common options to consider:
If you want free support in the most traditional school setting, consider a public school. Traditional public schools are funded by the local, state, and federal governments. Some might consider the public school systems rigid since they are required to follow certain academic standards and rules. Public schools are free of cost and students attend schools based on their residence. Under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), public school districts are required to provide children with a free appropriate education (FAPE). However, if a public school is not able to provide the necessary support required under IDEA, they will sometimes work with a nearby district for help or refer students to a private or non-public school.
If you are looking for a more specialized education, such as one with a religious foundation or designed specifically for kids with special needs, consider a private or non-public school. A private school can take many different forms from boarding schools to faith-based schools, Montessori schools, and more. There are private schools that exist specifically for kids with special education needs, also known as non-public schools (NPS) in California. While required to teach certain subjects, private schools are not required to follow the national or state curriculum and can have a more flexible curriculum. Private schools are not funded by the government and can therefore charge tuition for students to attend. In 2022, the national average private elementary school tuition was over $11k a year.4 Some parents of disabled children spend up to $100k or more a year on their children’s education. Public schools can help pay for a private education if your child has a disability.
If you are looking for unique learning opportunities or innovative teaching methods that are free, consider a charter school. Charter schools are part of the public school system and are free like a traditional public school. However, any company, organization, or individual can apply for a charter to open a charter school. Space at a charter school is limited and parents must submit an application to enroll. Every charter school is unique and will have its own specific mission and approach to education. Depending on the school’s priorities, a charter school may offer things like outdoor science lessons, volunteer opportunities, or tech-forward programs. If considering a charter school, parents should take into consideration the age of the school. A newer charter school may not have all of its programs, such as special education, well established.
If your child wants to focus on their special interests like art, science, or technology, consider a magnet school. Magnet schools are free public schools operated by school districts that specialize in specific subject areas such as STEM or the arts. These schools strive to maintain a diverse student population and often have waitlists to enroll. Many magnet schools are highly competitive and admit students based on achievement, while others may use a lottery system.
If you want to take charge of your child’s education, consider homeschooling. A home school education is led by a parent, or group of parents, instead of a public or private school educator. Homeschooling is a very popular option for students with special needs. In fact, 16% of all students homeschooled have special needs. Although homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, each state does have its own specific laws regarding homeschooling. If you do decide to go this route, be sure to make sure you fully understand your state's laws. Homeschool.com has some great information for parents considering homeschooling their child.
If you prefer to keep your child at home, or your child may not be able to attend classes in person, consider a hybrid or fully online school. Online schools may be private or public and can start as early as kindergarten. The benefits? Teachers are required to meet the same teaching requirements as if it were an in-person school. Online schools provide students with much more safety, flexibility, and independence than traditional in-person schools. Virtual teachers can customize education plans for each student's specific needs and learning style. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have introduced virtual classes and have adopted a hybrid model of learning. The disadvantages? By choosing an online program for your child, they may miss out on a chance to interact with other kids. Interacting directly with teachers and their peers provides children with an opportunity to learn and practice important social skills.
What to consider when choosing a school for special education
Every child and family is unique. Before deciding on a school you want to have a clear idea of what your child and family’s specific needs and priorities are. Think about your child’s abilities, strengths, and needs physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Cost: In 2022, the national average private elementary school tuition was over $11k a year!4 Parents of children with special needs have even reported spending $100k or more per year on their child’s private school tuition. Without assistance and financial planning, many parents may struggle to cover their child’s tuition. Look for services and scholarships that are available to help cover tuition costs. Parents can check out Candid Learning for some great resources on where to start their search for K-12 private school scholarships and other tuition assistance options.
Commute and Location: Some children might experience nausea or even meltdowns if they are in a car or bus for too long. Depending on the school’s location, how long will it take to get your child to school every day? What’s the traffic like in the morning and in the afternoon? How much time will you need to spend commuting every day and how easy is it to get to school if your child has an emergency? You may also want to consider any other activities or appointments your child may have regularly. For example, if your child has therapy on one side of town and school on the other, will you be able to get your child to their appointments on time, and will your child mind the extra time in the car?
Class Size: You want to make sure to choose a school with a classroom size and student-to-teacher ratio that will work for your child. In the US, the average size of a typical classroom is between 20 and 30 students.5 Find out how large or small the school's classes are and what the student-to-teacher ratio is. You want to make sure your child can get the attention they need and won’t be too overwhelmed or distracted by large class sizes. You may also want to ask about the availability of 1:1 aides.
Appearance and Cleanliness: A typical elementary school student will battle 8-10 cold and flu cases per year.6 As schools reopen following the COVID pandemic, clean classrooms, and clean air are more important than ever. How often are common areas and classrooms cleaned? What sort of sanitation and cleaning protocols does the school follow? Is the school doing anything to manage air quality?
Sensory Issues: Many neurodiverse children have sensory sensitivities to consider. You might need to mention that your child cannot wear a mask or have anything touching their head. What can the school do for children with specific sensory issues? Are lights in the classroom too bright? Is the lunch area small and loud? What happens if your child becomes overwhelmed or has a meltdown?
Bathrooms and Potty Training: It’s easier for special needs children if the bathroom is in the classroom. Some kids can’t ask for help or that they need to go to the bathroom. What’s the process for them? Is there support for potty training? Are other older kids in school using diapers? How does the school manage accidents?
Safety: Kids need to hear from parents, teachers, and other adults about any safety concerns. Ask the school about their security protocol and discuss a plan if your child is in danger. A potentially uncomfortable, but important topic that may need to be addressed is school shootings. Our friends at Little Otter pulled together tips on how to talk to kids about recent school shootings. You’ll also want to find out things like, how accessible is the school to parents and the public. Does the school have a fence that limits access to the campus and keeps neurodivergent kids from eloping (running away)? If a parent wants to visit the school is there a check-in process?
Communication: Find out how teachers like to communicate with parents. Do teachers communicate via email, text, or phone typically? If teachers don’t respond in a timely manner, who else can you contact? Your school team might include a case manager, a director of special education, and a lower or upper school principal.
Accreditation: A public school or school district is fully accredited when they meet a state's specific minimum standards of quality.7 An individual school or an entire school district can receive accreditation. A school can be evaluated by and receive accreditation through a state’s department of education, or one of six regional accreditation organizations. Not all states require accreditation, and what assessors look for can vary from state to state.
Nutrition: Learn if the school offers special diet options and how they manage picky eaters. Are there food options for kids with restricted diets? Some kids are sensitive to gluten and have other food allergies. How do schools handle kids with different diets?
Social Emotional Learning (SEL): SEL helps children learn how to better understand their emotions, feel their emotions, and demonstrate empathy for others. Does the school have an SEL program? There are many different ways educators can integrate SEL into their lessons and studies have shown that students who participate in SEL programs have better grades and better attendance.8 In the long run, skills taught through SEL can help students make better decisions, find effective ways to reach their goals, and build positive relationships with others. Currently, SEL programs are commonly found in preschool programs across the country, but only three states have fully developed SEL programs for K-12.8
Social Skill Development: Think about your child’s special interests and level of social skills. How does the school support inclusion? Many special needs parents want their children to spend time with their neurotypical peers. After-school activities or clubs might be a great way to develop social skills outside of the classroom. Does the school have any sort of clubs or sports teams your child may be able to join? Science, outdoor, or book clubs are great places for your child to meet other children with similar interests. Studies have even shown that friendships are a vital component of a child’s success in school.9
How can I find good schools near me?
Now that you know what to look for, where do you begin your search? To help you figure out what your options are and what schools may be a good match for your child, you can look at:
School districts: Go straight to the source. Consult with your local school district to find out all about the special education programs available in your district. Remember, some schools may not offer special education, but instead, follow a full inclusion school structure.
Online: Online searches and databases can help you search for schools in a specific area. You may be able to find out what programs different schools offer as well as read parent reviews. Great Schools or Beaming Health is a great place to start! You can look up local schools and read parents' reviews. They even have an “equity” section that specifically focuses on the experience of children with disabilities. You can also check out online reviews on websites like Facebook, Yelp, and Google.
Parent support groups: Parent support groups, both online and locally, can put you in contact with parents who have gone through or are going through the process of enrolling their child in school. They can be a great resource for tips and guidance throughout the process. They may also be able to give you recommendations and share their real-life experiences with the schools in your area. Popular sites include private Facebook groups.
Local disability organizations: Local disability organizations can provide you with information about the special education programs available in your area. They can also help you figure out which schools have the services that may best fit your child’s needs.
Doctors and specialists: Your child’s doctor or any specialist they’ve worked with may also be able to point you in the right direction. They understand your child’s specific needs and may be able to recommend schools well equipped to suit those needs.
Advocates and lawyers: Legal professionals can be especially helpful in understanding your child’s educational rights, what a school can and can’t do, and what they are legally obligated to provide. If you are thinking about enrolling your child in a private school and seeking tuition reimbursement from the public school district, obtaining legal counsel first to help you navigate the process can be very helpful.
Last step: check open house events to visit the school in person
No amount of research can compare to stepping onto campus and experiencing the school for yourself. Once you have narrowed down your choices, contact each school to learn about open house events or arrange a time to visit and tour the campus.
At many private schools, your child might spend time in classrooms before starting school so that both parties can determine if the school is a right fit.
When visiting a school take your time and be observant. Take more than just a few minutes to take it all in. When observing classrooms, watch how the teacher and the children interact. Observe all the things on the wall. Pay attention to the children, their behavior, demeanor, and how they speak. Do they look happy and engaged or sad and bored?
Here is our school visit checklist to make things easier.
Finding the right school isn’t easy. It might take some trial and error and changes throughout the year. We hope this guide was helpful. Good luck!
We’d like to recognize and give gratitude to the educators, advocates, autism parents, and community members who contributed hours reviewing this article. Special thanks to Daniella Mini, special education teacher & autism mom; Jeryn Cambrah, autism mom & writer; Andrew Troy Faulkner, special education teacher & resource specialist of 10+ years; Andrea Friedenson, autism mom; Leigh Monichon & Sarah Wickens, autism education advocates & autism moms.
- Your Right to Equality in Education. ACLU. Accessed August 17, 2022. https://www.aclu.org/other/your-right-equality-education
- JD Lee, A. M.I. What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Understood. Accessed September 9, 2022. https://www.understood.org/en/articles/individuals-with-disabilities-education-act-idea-what-you-need-to-know
- Redford J., Battle D. Homeschooling in the United States: 2012. American Institutes for Research. November 1, 2019. Accessed August 11, 2022. https://www.air.org/resource/report/homeschooling-united-states-2012
- Average Private School Tuition Cost. Private School Review. Accessed August 11, 2022. https://www.privateschoolreview.com/tuition-stats/private-school-cost-by-state
- Dalien S. How to Choose The Best School For Your Child With Special Needs. Special Ed Resource.com. Accessed August 3, 2022. https://specialedresource.com/best-school-for-your-child-with-special-needs
- Cleaning Beyond COVID-19. Ecolab. October 25, 2021. Accessed August 11, 2022. https://www.ecolab.com/articles/2021/10/cleaning-beyond-covid-19
- Wieder B. School Accreditation Explained: Does a Seal of Approval Matter? PEW. October 13, 2011. Accessed August 3, 2022. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2011/10/13/school-accreditation-explained-does-a-seal-of-approval-matter
- What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL): Why It Matters. National University. August 17, 2022. Accessed September 9, 2022. https://www.nu.edu/blog/social-emotional-learning-sel-why-it-matters-for-educators/
- Cornwall G. What the Research Says About the Academic Power of Friendship. KQED. November 18, 2020. Accessed August 11, 2022. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/56979/what-the-research-says-about-the-academic-power-of-friendship