Having a child with special needs can be overwhelming on its own, never mind when it's time to choose a school. Here's a roundup of resources, tips and red flags from experts and veteran parents.
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My 3-year-old son Charlie has Down syndrome and attends a self-contained preschool class three days a week. The thought of making a poor decision about Charlie's education petrifies me. I've felt my skin form goose bumps as I read or heard about a child with special needs who was abused, forgotten or dismissed by his or her own school.

Truthfully, I am driven by fear to write this article, to pull tips, red flags and anecdotes from those who have gone before me. Did they make mistakes? Sure. Will learning about their mistakes prevent you and me from making our own? Of course not.

But we've got to start somewhere.

There is no road map

Wouldn't it be great if you could plug your child's personality, strengths and challenges into a database and the perfect school, curriculum and team members would spurt out?

"Unfortunately, there is no official ranking as to which states (or counties or districts or individual schools) serve students with disabilities best," shares Vanessa Quick, director of education programming for the National Down Syndrome Society.

Both Quick and Sue Joe, communication director for the National Down Syndrome Congress, say the number one parent call, email or question they receive is about where to send their child for school. There's just no perfect answer.

After all, "sometimes families find one school in a particular district to be more inclusive and supportive than another, and the happiness of the family with the educational or therapeutic situation can even vary by teacher and therapist," Quick points out.

It's also important to remember "a school with a great reputation for inclusive programs today can change in the blink of an eye if the administration changes," Joe says.

Do your homework

  • Talk to parents in local support groups (e.g., Down syndrome associations). "Your greatest assets are those who have tread this path before you," says blogger Jo Ashline, whose 12-year-old son is nonverbal and has autism, global development delay and epilepsy.
  • Build relationships at every level of the school system.
  • Recognize every child is different — as are parents and their ideas of what works best.
  • Learn about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. "The more a parent knows about 'the law' — without using it as a threat — the better," Joe says.
  • Research local conferences and coffee talks featuring special education attorneys. "If you think learning the law from a specialized attorney or spending time digging through online resources is a bit presumptuous, I leave you with this: The district knows their rights. Shouldn't you know yours?" Ashline asks.
  • Get to know a school's leadership. "People often don’t realize the 'power of the principal,'" NDSC's Joe says. "A principal with a great attitude about educating children with disabilities can make all the difference in a child's success."

Carry a checklist of questions

  • How do teachers feel about inclusion and collaboration with special educators?
  • Does the school use restraint or seclusion rooms?
  • How are behaviors addressed in a classroom setting?
  • What is the ratio of students to teachers?
  • Are the special education students segregated? If so, why?
  • What are the staff's credentials? "If your child has autism for instance, does the teacher have any formal training to address behaviors and needs that are specific to individuals on the spectrum?" Ashline asks.

Pay attention to details

  • How welcoming is the environment?
  • Do the children look happy? Safe?
  • If the children are on the playground, are they walking around aimlessly?
  • Is staff busy texting on their phones or chatting with one another?
  • Is the facility clean? Gated? Safe and secure? Inviting?

Skip the backwards approach

Jess Wilson blogs at Diary of a Mom about her family, including two daughters, one of whom has autism. "I find that most parents start the process by evaluating existing schools / programs and then deciding which is most appropriate for their child.

"It's taken me a long time to realize that this process is backward. Start with the child. Make a list of his or her strengths and challenges. … Then add learning style. How best does your child learn? Visually? Through hands-on instruction? In small groups? Individually? Through peer modeling?"

"Once you've got both lists together, use them to create the perfect program for your child. Dream big. Don't hold back. Write it up. Describe it in detail. Now, dream setting in hand, start looking at schools to see which can come closest to providing it."

Watch for red flags

Even while you're asking questions and scouring every corner of the school, veteran parents suggest keeping watch for specific red flags.

For Wilson, a huge red flag is "symbolic or geographical inclusion. Very often I find that the 'most inclusive' environments are actually the ones that are most restrictive for our kids." Wilson describes a middle school program proposed for her daughter with autism. While the program was billed as inclusive, to catch up to the class level curriculum, her daughter would have been isolated in a resource room with one adult.

"Hard to see that as non-restrictive or inclusive," Wilson says wryly.

Wilson's other red flags

  • Anyone who won't put what they said in writing
  • Aides on cell phones or otherwise unengaged
  • Evasive answers to questions
  • Opposition to observing the program

Resources^

More about education and special needs

Help your child with special needs adjust to school
Emotions of sending a child with disabilities to school
We survived our first IEP meeting

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