“We Finally Found the Right School for Our Kids”
Changing schools isn’t always easy, but it may be the best way to ensure your child’s happiness and success — particularly when that child has ADHD. Here’s how to figure out if a new school is the right choice for your family, and what factors you should consider to help you pick wisely.
Things weren’t going well at Matt and Sarah Wilson’s house. Nick, their third grader with ADHD, was miserable in school and having trouble making friends. The school wasn’t too pleased with Nick, either, and was talking about putting him in a self-contained classroom with other children who had behavior challenges. Things weren’t much better for their daughter, Beth, a seventh grader who had dyslexia. She had an IEP, but the terrific middle school reading specialist had left last year, and a string of temporary replacements weren’t giving Beth the level of instruction she required. It was clear that she was falling behind her classmates. The Wilsons were starting to think it was time for both of their children to change schools.
Have you wondered whether a new school would be better for your child with ADHD or LD? Is he making academic progress, or is he falling further behind his classmates? Is she socially engaged with other children, or is she isolated and unhappy? Has the school reached out to you when he is having difficulty controlling his behavior? Is he in danger of being retained in his current grade?
Not all of these difficulties mean it is time to change schools. Addressing academic and social/behavioral issues can be done effectively by implementing or modifying an IEP or 504 Plan. But sometimes, for some children, a different school is the key to building their academic skills, addressing their attention, behavior, or learning issues, and helping them thrive. Knowing which kind of school will work best for your child — and finding that school — takes detective work.
Start with Your Child
What works best for your child? Is his ADHD fairly well controlled, or does it make it hard for him to function in a classroom? What about her academic needs? Are they centered in one area, such as reading, or do they extend across the curriculum and require intervention in most subjects? Does he or she have special interests or affinities — music, sports, drama — that could be part of a successful school experience?
If you have recent evaluations from an IEP or 504 Plan, review them, or consider obtaining an independent educational evaluation to understand how your child learns and functions and what will help him succeed. Think about the supports and services your child is getting, and see what is working and what is not. You should emerge from this process at a starting point to know the kind of school setting that you want for your child.
Determine the Level of Support Needed
Determining your child’s needs will help you answer the next question: Does he or she need a specialized school? This may be a school that focuses on specific learning issues, like dyslexia, or, more broadly, on learning disabilities. It might be a school for children who struggle with language or with social cognition or emotional or behavioral regulation.
Most children don’t need a specialized school. Many good public and private schools provide academic support and deal effectively with ADHD. Since the universe of special education schools is small, and since they are not present in many areas, you will have many more school choices if your child can manage in a regular school setting.
But the level of support is something to consider, even in a mainstream setting. Class size is an important factor for students with ADHD or learning disabilities. Having fewer students in a class generally means a quieter classroom, less distraction, and more individualized attention for each child.
Don’t forget about enrichment. Children with ADHD or a learning disability may also benefit from gifted programs or accelerated instruction in some areas. You want to make sure that your child’s school addresses his challenges without ignoring his strengths.
Decision Time: Public or Private?
Depending upon where you live, there may be many public school options — including magnet schools and charter schools — or only one elementary and one secondary school for the entire town. Likewise, some areas have lots of private school options, both mainstream and special education, while others may have only a religiously affiliated school or two and no special education options. You will need to research the possibilities.
An online search can yield data on the quality of schools, especially public schools: How many students meet state standards? What is the graduation rate from the local high school? What about class size? Diversity? Advanced placement classes or international baccalaureate programs? Visit the websites of schools, where you can learn about activities and class offerings. If your child has an IEP or a 504 Plan, consider the kinds of special education programs available. Does the school offer co-taught classes, where students with special needs are in the same classroom as typical learners, usually with both a regular and a special education teacher?
Families should know that 504 Plans apply only to schools that accept federal funds. Most private schools do not offer 504 Plans, although they may offer accommodations and supports informally. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies to both public and private schools, although private school services are funded through a special section of the IDEA, and are often less extensive than those offered to students in public schools.
Visit the School
Once you have gotten a sense of the options in your area, it’s time to put “boots on the ground” and visit schools you might be considering. There are some important things to keep in mind when visiting a school, and your visit should be made when classes are in session.
- If possible, visit two classrooms: that of your child’s current grade (you will see some of her classmates for the upcoming year) and that of the grade she will be in when she enrolls (you will likely see the teacher and room she will have when she begins the new school).
- Bring your child with you on your visit. This is especially important for older students.
- If your child needs special services — speech therapy, reading support, occupational therapy — see if you can meet with the professionals who provide those services in the school. They won’t be able to provide specific instruction information, since that differs for each student, but they can give you a general sense of how they work, and you can form an opinion of them.
- Consider the “vibe” you get from the school. Is it quiet? Hectic? Light and open, or dark and cramped? Do the bulletin boards show that students are engaged in interesting projects? Such factors give parents the best sense of whether a school is right for their child.
Factor in Funding
Children who have IEPs under IDEA are entitled to a free, appropriate, public education, or FAPE. This means that if a public school is not providing a child with the education he needs to make academic progress, the school district may be required to place the child in a private, special education school or to reimburse parents who place their child in such a school. The rules are complicated, and the definitions of what is an “appropriate” education or “progress” keep evolving. But parents who believe their child needs a special education setting should be aware that this is an option for their family.
And what about the Wilsons? They decided to move Nick to a small private school, where social and emotional education is part of the school culture and teachers use positive behavioral supports. Classes are small, and the teachers and administrators understand and accept a child’s differences. Nick is thriving and making friends.
The Wilsons kept Beth in her current school, which she preferred, but they revisited her IEP to add more reading support, and pressured the school to bring in a reading instructor with certification in working with students with dyslexia. The school complied. Beth is doing better, but the Wilsons are open to making changes if necessary.