Special-education school vs public

Dear Sharon,

We are trying to make a choice between a special-education school for our mildly delayed 6 year old or put him into an inclusion program in a regular school. If we go the public school route, it would obviously be less costly. However, we’re concerned that he will still somehow be comparing himself to the other kids. I was thinking he would benefit from being in an atmosphere with children not on the spectrum.

Dear parents,

When making a decision about schools, I often suggest that parents begin by talking to teachers and support people who know their child and can help them think through a good placement.

It can also help to visit the school choices that are available and picture your son in each.

When looking at a public school setting, consider what it would be like for your child to handle the typically large environment. Also, find out what specific support services the public school could offer, and if you would need to look for supplemental services for your son after school. Ask if the staff has experience with similar students and how they have managed the inevitable comparisons children can make.

When you visit the special-education school, get a sense of your child’s potential peer group. Ask the school about the general growth and development of its students and how things can look for children over time without the benefits of a more typical classroom atmosphere. You could even ask to visit the classrooms of the older children to take a look into your son’s future.

One of the best ways to get a clear picture of schools is to talk to other parents. Speaking to at least one parent with a special-needs child in a public school inclusion class and another in a special-education school you are considering can offer a world of specific information. Think of questions you might like to ask these moms and dads, including ones about peer relationships in each setting. If you don’t know anyone to talk to, approaching some people in the school playground could be a good place to begin. Parents are invariably happy to support each other when asked.

The stress associated with a school decision is also a factor to consider. Location is one potential cause for concern, as long commutes can take a toll on everyone. Increased financial pressures can also breed tension at home; a strained family is not good for any child.

Some parents I know have opted to try their child in one school with the idea that they could transfer their child if needed. One family I know chose to begin in public school after weighing the economic benefits and getting reassurances from the special-education school that there would be an opening available the following year if the family were interested.

Unfortunately, it is rare — if not impossible — to find a perfect school for any child. Every institution has strengths and weaknesses that parents and children ultimately have to sort through. Sometimes it means supplementing what a school offers with outside resources, while other times, it involves a long commute or sorting out how to expand a child’s social network beyond school.

Ultimately, parents have to prioritize all of the factors and settle on the best decision they can. In the end, moms and dads figure out how to make different kinds of environments work for their children. If the negatives in a school ultimately outweigh the positives, then with hard work and persistence, parents are usually able to find a better fit.