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Top 10 questions to ask when choosing a school for your child with learning differences

By Deborah Gutman

Trying to choose the right school for your child is hard work, particularly if your child has learning differences. For starters it is very time-consuming. To really get a good sense if the school is right might require multiple visits. Girl in ClassroomIt’s also important to spend enough time and ask enough questions to determine if the school “fits” your child’s needs and “fits” your approach to your child’s learning differences. I highly recommend contacting the school and trying to visit on a non-tour day because it is sometimes difficult or uncomfortable to get the answers you need in a large crowd, and it is more time-efficient to get one-on-one attention. I’ve quickly learned that I am going to spend a lot of time talking to and working with my child’s school and that the fit between the school and my personal approach to my child’s learning differences is as important as the resources they offer and the curriculum they use. Having recently visited more schools than I’d like to admit, I’ve developed a (relatively) short list of questions and observations that I have found to be high yield for helping me compare schools with my child’s specific needs in mind. They are not ranked in any particular order. My perspective is one of a parent with a child who has ADHD, anxiety and sensory issues; however, I think many of these questions would apply to other learning differences and giftedness as well. Please feel free to comment and add your thoughts/suggestions.

1.  What is the class size? Many students with learning differences will be better served in smaller class sizes, where they are able to receive more individualized attention. There is a wide range of class sizes–from 2 to 26 students. However, you need to keep in mind that size isn’t everything. The teacher/student ratio also plays a significant role in your child being able to receive individualized attention or instruction. Many class settings may have a single main teacher but will also have a resource teacher or teaching assistant in the room or already have a student that requires an aide. Many times that extra adult in the room serves as a resource to the whole class. It is also important to take into consideration how many students are in each grade level and the overall school. It may make a difference in a child’s overall stimulation level if there are three classes of 12 students with a total of 36 kids in a grade vs. one class of 20 students in the grade.

2. Does each of the grades interact, and if so, how and when? If your child is easily overstimulated, you may not want him/her in a large cafeteria that servies first through twelth graders. If the school is a K-12 campus, you may want to have a sense of how contained the child will feel at school. A large campus with many transitions may feel overwhelming to some kids. On the other hand, if your child excels or falls below the level of his/her peer group, it may be a positive experience if they are allowed to flex between grade levels for certain academic projects or social experiences such as a “buddy” program. Again, the answer you are looking for will be particular to your child’s needs but does vary significantly between schools.

3.  Do any of the teachers have a particular special education background or strength in a particular curriculum you have determined your child would benefit from (e.g., Orton-Gillingham for reading/language)? Do the classroom teachers receive faculty development opportunities with regards to special needs children or learning differences? Is there an expert or experts on staff that can participate in classrooms and give teacher’s feedback on working with specific students? What are their qualifications? Many parents by default end up becoming experts in their child’s disability but it is nice to know there are experts to defer to at the school and that you won’t spend all your free time getting a degree in special education if that is not what you want to do.

4.  How many transitions are there in the course of a day? What is the daily, weekly, monthly schedule like? How much time does the child have to transition between activities and places? Do the transitions require that they leave the classroom or do they mostly stay in the same room and have resources come to them? Many classrooms will post a class schedule somewhere in the room. This is the first place I look when I enter the class because it is a wealth of information about what your child’s day/week will “feel” like. Are they expected to sit still for two-hour blocks? Are the transitions so frequent that it would be distracting?

5.  How much movement or multisensory experiences are built into the curriculum? I’ve discovered there is a wide variation between schools about how much movement is built into the students’ day. I’ve seen a range from two hours of recess to none. Keep in mind that movement may be built into how the teacher conducts a lesson/curriculum and that physical education or gym is not the only way a child may get to move around or engage in free play, so do not automatically assume that the amount of gym or recess time is equal to the amount of movement time.

6. How much homework is there? I like this question not because I think there is a right/wrong amount of homework but because it is often very reflective of the school’s educational philosophy and approach. The answer often reflects what is expected of both students and parents, as well as what the student-teacher-parent relationship might look like. If you are the parent of a child with learning differences, the parent-teacher-school relationship is HUGE.  You will likely spend a lot of time interacting with and building a relationship with your child’s teacher and school.

7.  Are there particular student characteristics you feel wouldn’t do well or might struggle or excel in this learning environment? As a parent whose child is on his second school transition, this is the one question I really want the answer to.  I don’t want the hard sell on the school’s strengths.   I want to know, “Will my child struggle or succeed?” I want to know, “Is this school the right ‘fit’?”

8. What types of classroom accommodations does the school have or is it able to make for students with learning differences? This question is really about how much the school can deviate from its traditional structure to accommodate students. The answer is usually very visible during a classroom visit. Are students allowed to work standing up or do they have to sit at their desks? Are there core disks (colored bumpy cushions) or T-stools at the desks? Is there a beanbag chair in the room? Are there fidgets on the desks? Is there a computer in the room that students can use instead of handwriting?  Of course, if you know what accommodations your child might need, you would look for those specific accommodations. The answer will also clarify how much the teacher understands about particular learning differences.

9.  What additional resources does the school have for children with learning differences? Do they offer occupational therapy, physical therapy, tutoring, executive function skills training? If the school does offer resources: Do you have to pay out of pocket? Does the child get pulled from other activities to participate (i.e., misses foreign language)? Is it before or after school or integrated into regular classroom activities and curricula?

10.  Do you honor or use IEPs (Individualized education plans)? If your child already has an IEP (a plan that outlines behavioral and academic goals, as well as, the necessary accommodations for your child), you want to know if you can carry it over to your new school. All public schools are required to honor an IEP; however, independent schools are variable. Some will develop an informal plan with you and others will use the IEP you’ve developed with your local public school district or work with you on a formal accommodation plan in writing. This is a complicated subject that I have no expertise in; however, there are resources at both weblinks below as well as on most district webpages regarding IEPs. If you choose an independent school, some public school districts will provide funding to that school to provide the accommodations for your child. Not all independent schools will accept public school funding or resources, so it is important to ask this question at some point. You may also want to clarify if your child’s needs will mean that he/she needs to be in a separate inclusion/special education classroom or they will be in the “mainstream” classroom.

The most valuable experience is to watch school in session. If you have a limited amount of time, I suggest you watch BOTH the grade your child is in and the grade he/she will be entering. This way you watch the teaching style of his/her future teacher and observe the peer group of kids he/she would be joining.

Additional thoughts for school and classroom observations:

1. How loud, hot/cold, bright, crowded is the school? Is there a lot of material up in the classroom? For some children this might be inspiring, while for others it’s distracting. Do the classrooms have windows? Is there an outdoor play area? If you have a child who is very sensitive or responsive to his/her environment, it is important to notice how the school feels — try to imagine it from your child’s perspective.

2. What is the desk arrangement? How flexible is it? If there are desks in groups, is there an alternative sitting area for a child who would not be able to function at group seating or who may need a less stimulating work area? Is it possible for a student to sit near the teacher? Where is the teacher’s desk in the classroom?  Is he/she able to see the entire classroom from her desk?

3. Are the materials that are out in the room at a variety of learning levels? How wide a range do the materials encompass? Do they have something at your child’s level?

4.  Are there clear accommodations already integrated into the classroom?

5.  What is the social dynamic in your child’s present grade? Is it a loud class, a busy class, etc.? How does the teacher handle it?

6. Do the teachers have variable teaching styles? Are the teachers different races, ages, and genders? Having a son who responds well to male authority figures, I keep a look-out for schools that purposefully integrate male teachers into the elementary school level. Some schools have students stay with the same teacher all the way from first through eighth grades (Waldorf). It’s important to get a sense of how variability affects your child.

7.  Is there somewhere for your child to go if he/she needs a break? Most of the time this is going to be a school nurse’s office or the principal’s office. Is that area set up so that kids can have some downtime? At my son’s first school, the principal’s office was cozy and had blocks to play with — my kid actually liked being sent to the principal. This was a clear recognition that some children just need to take breaks and it isn’t always approached punitively.

It’s most important to realize that no school is going to be the “perfect fit” and you may have to investigate what community resources are out there to supplement your child’s needs. You also need to give thought to how hands-on or hands-off you want to be as a parent and how much you want the school to provide vs. supplementing on your own.

For more information:

LD Online: http://www.ldonline.org/index.php

CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder) http://www.chadd.org/

Deborah Gutman, the mother of a very spirited, active, funny, and persuasive 8-year-old, is currently spending much of her time learning to navigate the school system while practicing and teaching emergency medicine on the side.

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  • I like how you said that asking about the homework required by schools is a good way to learn about their philosophy and approach to education. My sister needs to find a private elementary school for her daughter that’s located close enough to her new home. She asked for my help talking with potential schools, so the tips you shared here are much appreciated!

  • I’ve been meaning to look for an elementary school where my nephew could study next year. Thank you for this; I’ll keep in mind to ask if how many transitions will they have in one day. I hope I’ll be able to find a great elementary school for my nephew wherein he’ll be taught how to be more sociable and skillful.

  • I like that you suggested watching a school session in action to see if they would fit in your criteria. I will share this tip with my sister to help her find a school for her children. They just transferred to a different state due to her work, and they will be there for years which is why she also needed them to transfer schools.

  • I have been thinking about home schooling my kid or picking a public school for them. I don’t know really what to look for in a public school though. That is a good idea to check how big the classroom sizes are before I pick. I wouldn’t want my child to be in a too big of a class and they don’t get the attention that they need. Thanks for the tips!

  • We’re informed by the school district to look for an “Out of school district” and we’re struggling to understand what we exactly look for our special needs kid. With your article, It showed as an way. I’m able to develop more points related to my kids with the points mentioned above. Kudos to you 🙂