Given the number of school options available today, what’s the best type of school for your child with learning differences and behavioral challenges? Not surprisingly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Kathy Kuhl, a former teacher specializing in coaching families with ADHD and learning challenges, explains that there are pros and cons for each type of school.
Legally, children with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment. The responsibility for implementing this federal law rests with your public school district. Public school options include neighborhood public schools; magnet schools, some with twice exceptional (2e) programs; and public charter schools (brick-and-mortar or online schools).
Neighborhood schools are free to those living in the district; they provide transportation; and they must honor your child’s IEP or Section 504 Plan to meet their FAPE obligations, including providing related services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy.
Neighborhood schools may have the largest class size and offer the least amount of individualized attention in general education classes. Although your child may be entitled to receive accommodations, modifications, remediation, and specialized services, tight budgets may limit the availability of some services at the local school. Services that can’t be provided at your child’s neighborhood school may be outsourced to other schools.
Upshot: If your child goes to their local school you are likely to find yourself advocating for the supports and services your child needs based on their IEP or 504 Plan. This requires knowledge of special education law and advocacy skills. The more complicated your child’s needs, the more time and energy it will take to obtain an appropriate educational program.
Charter schools are publicly funded and therefore fall under the public school umbrella. Like neighborhood schools, they are tuition-free, however they choose their own curriculum, standards, and discipline policies. While open to all students, your child must apply to the charter school you choose. Many have a limited number of seats, which are filled through lotteries.
Some states have charter schools focused on particular disabilities, such as dyslexia or autism. Except for schools that are disability-specific, charter schools cannot ask if your child has special needs on their application.
Magnet schools: Like charter schools, magnet schools are publicly funded, but focus on a single area of study such as STEM, performing arts, sports, or elite academics. Because they are specialized, they attract students throughout a district or state. Admission requirements are generally rigorous and may require your child to demonstrate their abilities in the school’s focus area.
Upshot: Charter and magnet schools have different requirements for teachers than neighborhood public schools. Ask about teacher training regarding ADHD, LD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc. (number of training hours, type of training, etc.); the kinds of supports provided and by whom; what the IEP process entails; and what the behavioral expectations are for the school. Charter schools that are not focused on a particular disability may offer fewer services (eg., fewer or no full-time therapists), so be sure to inquire about staffing for your child’s particular needs.
Private & Parochial Schools
Private and Parochial schools are obligated to implement your child’s IEP under the following circumstances:
- Your child’s public school district places them in a private school because the local public school can’t provide FAPE or needed services and the private school can.
- A hearing officer determines that your child requires an out-of-district placement and the particular private school can meet your child’s needs.
In both cases, the public school district pays for tuition and transportation, and the school must provide the mandated services. If, on the other hand, you unilaterally place your child in a private or parochial school, the new school does not have to implement their IEP.
Private schools for kids with special needs may be flexible as far as accepting students with particular academic and social needs or may only accept kids with specific needs. When looking for schools, Kuhl suggests you and your child decide what’s most important to your family and develop a set of questions and optimal answers to guide you through your interviews. If your child has reading challenges, for example, ask if the reading specialist uses an Orton-Gillingham-based approach.
Upshot: Private schools are often expensive and outside your child’s neighborhood district. Unless your child’s public school determines your child needs a particular private school to receive FAPE, you must pay for the cost of tuition and transportation, and the supports and services your child receives will be up to you and the school to negotiate.
Homeschooling is parent-directed education that allows you to customize your child’s program and learning environment to suit their abilities, interests, and talents. With homeschooling parents set goals, choose classes and curricula, and arrange flexible daily and weekly schedules, both in and outside of the home (eg., to work around therapy sessions, outside classes/activities, and family schedules or travel). Grade level may vary by subject, and students are able to learn at their own pace through numerous packaged curricula and various teaching styles. While some parents follow their child’s IEP/504 Plan, others create their own Student Education Plan (SEP).
Contrary to what many think, getting into good colleges is not harder for homeschoolers.
Particular classes are often outsourced through online classes, coops, group classes, university model classes meeting 1-2 times/week, or community college dual enrollment. You can easily incorporate hands-on learning and immersive field trips and customize the environment to limit distractions, add movement and tactile activities (eg., practice math facts while jumping on a trampoline), and schedule mid-day therapies.
Parents homeschool for various reasons such as providing their child with
- Academic choices they deem appropriate
- A safe environment if the child is struggling socially or being bullied at school
- Suitable supports and services
- Close monitoring of medical conditions
Upshot: Homeschooling offers the most flexibility for students and their families, curriculum- and time-wise, but entails the most work for parents to establish and implement an appropriate program. While it may be considerably less expensive than private school, parents lose much of their ability to work outside the home.
This article is based on an ADDitude webinar, A Parent’s Guide to the Best School Options for Students with ADHD and LD, by Kathy Kuhl, a former teacher specializing in coaching families with ADHD and learning challenges. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, www.spednet.org, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.