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What Type Of School Is Best For My Special Needs Child?

So many from which to choose
There are many school options for parents; brick-and-mortar public schools, public cyber schools, private schools, specialized alternative placements, and homeschooling to name a few. Parents are often left wondering which is the best option for their child, especially parents of children with special needs.

The Public Option
Public school has many advantages given that, by law, the public school system must provide a “free and appropriate education”, and implement special education services if the child meets special education criteria. Public schools are largely compelled to educate no matter the condition (as opposed to expel your child), and ultimately meet your child’s needs or transition to a facility that can, and pay for it.

The Cyber Option
There are situations where parents believe the public school system is failing their child, and the alternative specialized placements are not seen as appealing. Parents may then decide to cyber-school, which can be an excellent option if it’s important for your child to have an individualized environment, a more flexible daily schedule, and be able to work at their own pace. However, parents need to recognize that  the “individual attention” is likely going to be provided by them (the parent); and that you may find yourself in the challenging situation of being your child’s ‘teacher’; i.e. sitting with them and providing the prompting, praising, guiding, and cajoling to get your child through their school assignments. If you have the time and gumption, then this can work, but it can be quite an undertaking.

The Home Schooling Option
Whatever is indicated as challenging above under “The Cyber Option,” multiply that x2 for Home Schooling. Not only is the parent compelled to provide individualized attention, the parent also must investigate, obtain, and implement the proper curriculum. Sometimes this works just fine but, again, similar with cyber-schooling, a parent serving as both ‘Mom’ (or Dad) and ‘Teacher’ can be tough for both Mom and the child.

A Private School?
A Private School can be a wonderful option. Private schools typically offer smaller classrooms, sometimes are more flexible than public schools in modifying structure, and teachers are often very accommodating. Moreover, parents often appreciate the spiritual elements inherent in such a setting. However, private schools are not legally compelled to educate your child and can expel if proving to be too difficult, and they are not required to provide ‘special education’ services. Also, at times such schools have the attitude of ‘our way or the highway’, which may not work so well for special needs children.

What about specialized or typical preschools?
Children with developmental issues often thrive in specialized preschools such as through DART/IU programs. However, parents often appreciate their child being in a regular preschool setting so as to model after neuro-typical kiddo’s language and play skills, but have concern that their child may not do well with 15-20 other kids in that typical preschool class. Deciding between the two school options can be quite a dilemma, which is often resolved by doing both. In that regard, enrolling part-time in a specialized preschool, and part-time in a typical preschool but with individualized attention such as from Therapeutic Staff Support. In this way, the child gets the best of both worlds.

So which is best?
Of course, there is no singular answer to this question; it depends on your child, the situation, and the time-frame. In terms of time-frame, I often see parents of a child with an anxiety disorder, for example, ultimately choosing to home or cyber-school their child due to ongoing anxiety and school-refusal. These children often subsequently perform well in the home setting, but the problem is that their anxiety disorder is often not addressed given that the standard mode of treatment for anxiety is having the child confront their fear (go to school). Nevertheless, the cyber or home-schooling experience can be advantageous for a few semesters as the child receives therapy and bolsters their coping mechanisms. However, a return to a more traditional school setting, at some point, would be optimal. In the same sense, many children with special needs flourish in smaller private school settings and home/cyber-school situations and parents relish the opportunity to assist in meeting their child’s educational needs, and have no reservations about the time and energy if it’s seen as beneficial.  In those situations, everyone wins. It’s important, however, that parents know ‘what they are getting themselves into’ prior to undertaking the endeavor to avoid any regrets. It’s also vital to thoroughly interview school officials to be sure exactly and precisely what is expected, and what will be provided to meet your child’s needs. It’s also helpful to observe classrooms when possible.  These decisions are often complex and multi-faceted; I invite parents to contact me at DoctorC@AutismCenterofPittsburgh.com to discuss their child and help them with such decision-making. God bless you in your efforts to meet your child’s needs.

Dr. John Carosso, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist