Choosing the Right School for a Special Needs Child


As parents, we all want our child to have a quality education that provides more than simple memorization of rote facts or strategies for passing state-mandated tests. Ideally, school encourages critical thinking skills, teaches the ability to interact and get along with others, and fosters a life-long love of learning. We want this to occur in a safe, nurturing, environment where the child’s strengths and weaknesses are considered. However, the “right” learning environment is not the same for every child. This is particularly true for children who have special needs. Thankfully, we now have many options available for meeting the specific needs of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, or who has learning difficulties. In this blog, I plan to discuss the pros and cons of these various options.

I'm not going to make any recommendation to state that one is better than the other; there is no perfect solution when looking at any educational option. However, my intention is to state honestly and clearly what is good about each option, and what are the drawbacks and allow you, the parent or caregiver, to make an informed decision as to which option is best for you, your child, and your family.

Public Schools (General Education)

For most “normal” children and many high-functioning individuals with disabilities, public school can provide the skills necessary to be successful in life.

WORD OF CAUTION: For children with moderate-severe ADHD or ASD, classes need to be highly structured; for this reason, Montessori schools are not recommended.

Benefits:

  • A “real world” environment. Of all the schooling methods, public school most closely approximates the “real world” work environment in which individuals will be required to work with others from many different cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds and who have different ability levels. Skills such as cooperation and collaboration with others, as well as how to work independently, are naturally embedded within the public school setting.

  • Regular exposure to “normal peers.” Research has shown that exposure to non-disabled peers is one of the most effective ways to improve social and communication skills in children with both ASD and ADHD, especially when started at a young age. Children learn social skills by observing their peers. Plus, it’s very difficult for parents and therapists to keep up with the latest fashions, special lingo, and popular trends within a classroom environment.

  • Teachers must meet specific criteria. In the state of Texas, teachers must possess a four-year college degree and pass a certification exam in order to teach in public schools. This means that teachers have been highly trained on their subject matters, and on how to teach those subjects to others.

Drawbacks:

  • Increased risk for bullying. Because of their differences, many children with disabilities are at increased risk for teasing and bullying. While most schools now have “zero tolerance” policies that treat bullying as a serious offense, children with ASD are bullied three times more than their peers. Children with ADHD are at increased risk for both being the bully, and being bullied.

  • No specialized instruction. Unless a child is identified as qualifying for special education, he/she must be instructed on grade level. That means if your 5th grader is reading at a 1st grade level, he/she is still required to do 5th grade work.

  • Larger teacher to student ratio. Children with ASD and ADHD both benefit from small group and individual instruction, which is less likely to occur when there is one teacher for 30 students. In Texas, classrooms are not supposed to exceed 22 students for every one teacher. However, I have met many parents who state their child is in a classroom containing many more students.

  • Increased risk of distractions and disturbing sensory information. Let’s face it: classrooms are full of distractions, noises, and other sensory information that may make it difficult for a child with ADHD to concentrate or result in a “meltdown’ in someone with ASD.

Special Education

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every child is entitled to a “free and appropriate education.” This means that if a child is unable to keep up with the classroom curriculum due to diagnosed learning problems, emotional factors, cognitive impairments, or emotional problems, the school must find a way to instruct the child at no additional cost to the parent. For many children, this means receiving special education services.

Benefits:

  • Access to specially trained teachers. Special education teachers must complete additional coursework and training over and above regular stream teachers.

  • Specialized/individualized instruction. Children can receive instruction based on their present abilities, not their chronological age. This is particularly important for children with co-occurring learning disabilities, who need some way of bridging the gap between where they are and where they need to be.

  • Access to both general and special education services. Many parents fear that if they agree to special education, their child is going to put in a classroom with only other disabled children. For the most part, this is not true. Both federal and state law require that a child be in the “least restrictive environment.” This means they have to offer the child an opportunity to interact with non-disabled peers and use special education services only when needed. If your child has social difficulties, then he/she might receive counseling or attend a social skills group, but will not be put in a special education classroom for reading or math.

Drawbacks:

  • Negative self-image. Special education highlights how a child is different, which can lead low self-esteem and a negative self-image. Children may interpret the fact that they require special assistance as meaning that they are stupid or inferior. Especially in the teen years, children may feel that they don’t “belong” or that no one understands them.

  • The frequency and intensity of services your child receives may seem inadequate. Due to the fact that school’s primary focus is academics, ancillary services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, or counseling will likely occur on a more infrequent basis than they would with a private therapist or private school that specializes in ADHD or ASD. For example, the child may receive speech therapy for 30 minutes twice a month in school, but would receive 60 minute sessions weekly with a private clinician.

  • You do not get to choose what particular services your child receives. Let’s say you want your 4 year-old son to specifically receive Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy for behavioral issues and meltdowns. While your school might offer behavioral interventions, they are not obligated to have an ABA or other specific type of therapist available.

Private School (non-specialized)

Many parents who have had to fight for services for their child in public schools or who have become frustrated because they feel as though their child is being taught to take standardized tests instead of learning actual material, turn to private schools. One of the main reasons parents decide to place their child in private school is because of dissatisfaction with public schools and safety concerns.

Benefits:

  • Smaller teacher: student ratio. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that the average teacher to student ratio is almost half that of public schools, with one teacher for every 12 students.

  • More stimulating academic atmosphere. Because private schools tend to be more selective in who they accept as students, the instructional level tends to be higher. In public school, you have students with a greater range of abilities, requiring the teacher to provide instruction that meets the need of most of the students. For students who are above average or have a particular interest, public school classrooms can be boring and lack challenge.

Drawbacks:

  • Schools are not obligated to accept all students. Private schools are not obligated to provide services to children who do not meet their criteria. Although you may want your child to attend a particular school and be willing to pay, there is no guarantee that he/she will be accepted.

  • Limited or no special education services. Because private schools do not receive federal funds, they are not required to provide special education services and rarely do. Notice I said rarely, not never. If your child attended public school and the district agreed to placement of your child in private school, the district would then have to provide special education services.

  • No set criteria regarding teacher’s credentials. The qualifications necessary for teaching in a private school are determined by the school’s board of directors. This means that teachers may not be certified. This doesn’t necessarily mean that public school teachers are better, as some subjects in a private school could be taught by an expert in a field or someone who has worked in the industry. For example, I know of one school that has a former music recording artist who teaches music in the school.

  • Reduced diversity. One of my daughter’s friends, who has attended private school for the past 10 years and will be switching to public school next year, recently captured a concern about diversity in private schools, “I'm so excited to be going to public high school next year! All I’ve ever known is upper middle-class, white, Christian kids.” According to the Southern Education Foundation, in 2012 43% of private schools were “all white” (school where over 90% of students were white) versus 27% in public schools. This difference is even more pronounced in the south, where more students attend private schools. Learning to interact with people who do not look, sound, or worship as you do is critical for students who will enter a workforce that will contain persons of all races, cultures, languages and faiths.

Specialized Private School

Some private schools cater to students who have specific disabilities, such as ASD, learning disorders, or significant developmental delays.

Benefits:

  • Teachers are usually very experienced in working with special needs children. Although special education teachers in public school have more training than just regular teachers, few have specialized training in ASD or ADHD, which often requires a graduate degree. In comparison, teachers in specialized private school generally have more training in dealing with a specific disability.

  • Specialized private schools provide a sense of belonging and acceptance. Instead of being socially isolated because of having a disability, the disability becomes the norm. Because these schools

  • are specifically designed with the disability in mind, the environment and services may be tailored to the child’s needs. For example, a school for children with ASD might have small classrooms with natural lighting, soft textures, and a sensory room where children can swing, use a “squeeze machine,” wear a weighted or pressurized vest, or have access to other sensory items. They might also have an on-site occupational therapist and/or ABA therapist.

Drawbacks:

  • Lack of interaction with non-disabled peers leads to difficulty relating to others. Children who attend specialized private schools do not have as much exposure to non-disabled peers. This could limit the child’s ability to interact with people who have different attitudes, beliefs, and abilities. While it is perfectly acceptable for two individuals with ASD to talk obsessively about trains, in reality there are few situations in which this is appropriate. The more opportunities a child has for practicing normal behavior, the more natural it becomes.

  • Cost. In looking at the schools in the Houston area who serve special needs populations (see Excel spreadsheet), tuition ranges from $9,000 a year to $47,500. In comparison, in public school, the state of Texas spends between $8,000 and $9,999 per student per year.

Homeschooling

The number of home-schooled children has dramatically increased over the past 10 years, particularly among parents of disabled children. Reasons for homeschooling can include dissatisfaction with educational placement, negative interactions with school personnel, social-emotional well-being of child, and safety of child. Current estimates suggest that approximately 4% of school-age children are homeschooled.

Benefits:

  • Higher scores on standardized tests of achievement.

  • Better control over environment. At home, distractions and unpleasant sensory stimulation can be minimized.

  • Flexibility in schedule. For most children with ASD or ADHD, structure is essential. However, if a child is having a bad day or a meltdown, trying to force them to do classwork will likely make the problem worse. Sometimes there are opportunities for teaching that you want to capitalize on in that particular moment.

  • Individualized instruction.

Drawbacks:

  • Added stress to already over-worked parents. For many parents, school offers a respite from the meltdowns, need for constant supervision, and the long “to do” list. It also provides time, to reconnect with spouses or other children in the home, run errands, or even take a much-needed break. Parents who homeschool may be at risk of sacrificing their identity or developing psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, or anger.

  • Significantly reduced opportunities for social interaction. In homeschool decision-making and evidence-based practice for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the author found that the average time children from home-school environments spent on social activities was 2.54 hours per week. Furthermore, homeschooling can further isolate a child who already has problems with social interaction.

  • Problems transitioning from school to work. Going from being in an environment where a child receives one-on-one instruction at home, to college where the individual may be in a class of 300, can be very difficult (even for non-disabled people). If a child has only ever had to deal with getting along with parents or siblings, many of the social skills necessary for working with others and dealing with adversity develop at a much slower rate.

Private School Listing

We've collected a list of some Houston-area private schools which specialize in teaching children with special needs. This list is not exhaustive and is gleaned only from sources freely available on the internet. We offer this simply as a starting point for parents and guardians, and make no recommendations as to which school is best for your situation.

Click Here for Link to Private School List

In Closing...

As with all things related to raising our children, we must weigh the pros and cons. We hope this article provides some insight for parents who are lost and don't even know where to begin in determining what is best for their child.

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