Choosing the right school for any child is a tough decision. But choosing the right school for a child with special needs or learning difficulties is absolutely critical. Which is why I have written this article to hopefully give you some tips on how to choose the right school.
When you have a child with special needs, the RIGHT school can:
Be a fantastic source of support for you and your child.
Help your child reach their full potential.
Minimise the symptoms of your child’s disorder or difficulty.
Make your child feel comfortable and happy.
Allow your child to make friends and eliminate the chance of bullying.
Improve your child’s chances of a bright future full of opportunities and possibilities.
This all sounds fantastic and is what every parent wants for their child.
However, choosing the WRONG school can:
Give you little or no support.
Hold your child back.
Make their symptoms worse.
Cause your child to feel scared, alone and isolated.
Make it difficult for your child to make friends.
Increase the likelihood of bullying.
Limit the chance of your child having a bright future.
YES, this is how important it is to get the right school when your child has special needs. And unfortunately this is the reality of what could (and often does) happen.
I have had a lot of experience in this area with my own son:
When he was due to start school. I spent hours trawling the internet in search of the best local schools, in the best areas, with the highest league table scores and best reports.
This was a HUGE mistake.
If you have a child who does not have special needs or learning difficulties, then yes, do what I did, and look for those high performing schools in ‘good’ areas.
BUT, if your child has special needs, DO NOT DO THAT. I can’t stress that enough.
High performing schools are often high performing because they have very few children with special needs.
This means that:
a) they won’t have such good facilities and procedures in place for them.
b) they won’t have such good knowledge or experience with special needs or learning difficulties.
Also, high performing schools in ‘good’ areas often lack in diversity. This can make your child more likely to be subject to bullying. Where a school has a higher number of children with special needs and a greater level of diversity, children are more open to differences between them and less likely to pick on a child for being different.
The first school I sent my son to, I made this mistake. I sent him to a very high performing school in a typically rich, white christian area. The school had less than 1% special needs. And 0% cultural diversity.
Within a few months, my son was terrified to go to school. He hardly had any friends. He was being bullied. The teacher constantly came up to me at the end of the day to tell me what he’d done wrong that day or how much he’d struggled. He achieved barely any learning progress. And every time I went into a meeting with his teacher or special needs co ordinator, they would say things like, “we don’t know what to do with him”. And, “We think you should consider sending him to a special school”.
For far too long, I left him at that school, not realising the damage it was doing, or that things could be different.
After nearly 2 years I pulled him out. And not to send him to a special school (like they had suggested). I sent him to a school in a nearby town, which was the exact opposite of the school he had just left.
I sent him to a school with low performance rates. The highest percentage of special needs children in the area (12%) and was located in quite a ‘poor’ area with lots of diversity.
Within a few weeks he started to read simple words, write his name and count to 10. Things he had never been able to do. He enjoyed going to school (most days – we still had the occasional day he couldn’t be bothered, but no screaming fits). He made lots of friends. And all the teachers and staff their loved him.
Instead of having a teacher constantly moaning about him, they spoke about him with fondness and affection. It was fantastic.
After just over 4 glorious years at that school. Sadly he had to leave, because we had to emigrate from England to Australia.
But, when we started the search for a school in Australia, I had already learnt my lesson. So I immediately looked for a school that was:
Small (under 400 students) the less the better.
Had high rates of children with special needs and learning difficulties (minimum or 8%).
Had a very diverse mix of students, with children from lots of different economic, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.
A school that focused a lot of attention on social development and happy children.
We visited school after school after school within about a half an hour drive of our house. And eventually we found a school that met all my criteria. Woodville Primary School in Victoria.
My son has been there now for 6 months and he couldn’t be happier. He has lots of friends and the staff adore him. But most importantly he enjoys going to school. And I feel supported and listened to by his teacher and the other staff.