What Parents of Students with Special Needs Should Ask When Shopping for a School

As an Educator, School Administrator and parent of a child with special needs, I have had the unique advantage of seeing school operations and educational programming from many vantage points. For better or worse, my experiences and training in education have afforded me a critical eye when it comes to  making the best choices for my son, who has special needs related to autism. I have experienced many successes and some disappointments in my annual quests to secure a quality, robust educational experience for him. I had to learn, over the course of many years,  what to look for, what to ask and what to expect from schools and teachers who serve students with special needs, and more specifically in my case, students challenged with autism. 

Let’s face it: raising a child with special needs is really tough. 

One of the areas where we desperately need to ensure peace of mind is with our child’s education. Knowing that our children are safe, respected, loved and provided with every opportunity to thrive academically are non-negotiables. The question is, how do you know that you’re getting the best from your child’s school? What are the right questions a parent or caretaker should ask when shopping around?

While I don’t have all the answers, I have compiled a list of things that I ask and look for when it comes time to make this important decision. My son is getting ready to transition from elementary to middle school. To say that I’ve been a nervous wreck is a major understatement. My husband has gotten used to waking up in the middle of the night and finding me sitting at my computer, pouring over books and notes, just trying to piece things together. If my sleepless nights have taught me anything, it’s that asking the right questions, and talking to the right people go a long way in making good school choices. Here are some guidelines I find helpful when connecting with schools and school leaders to determine which institution is the best fit for my son.

Part I: What Should I Ask and Why?

  1. Ask what curriculum the school uses for students with special needs. The responses should specify actual publishers names and examples of textbook titles. A red flag for me, is when the response is a list of education apps that the school is using. This may sometimes mean that limited thought has been given to selecting and implementing an appropriate curriculum, and that teaching and learning may not be following a structured plan. Learning apps are wonderful tools, but they are meant to serve as supplements. There are many strong curriculum publishers who have developed robust materials for teaching students with special needs. The school you choose should be able to describe what they are using with confidence.
  2. Ask who reviews and revises your child’s IEP. The IEP (individualized educational plan) is one of the most important documents in your possession for ensuring that your child is getting an appropriate educational experience. It should be developed with contributions from trained professionals, versed in special education and whatever specific area your child is challenged with, such as autism. IEP development and review is an annual, collaborative process, involving the parent and/or caretaker, the child, the educator and the ESE certified and trained professionals who collectively provide services to your child. This team may include a speech therapist or language pathologist, an occupational therapist, an autism coach, a general education teacher, and medical professionals, based on your child’s needs. In some cases, a social service professional who participates in your child’s education may also be a part of the process. As a parent, you have the primary voice in determining who should be a part of the process. In my experience, the more voices at the table, the better. If the school cannot clearly articulate the trained/certified educational, medical and ESE professionals participating in your child’s IEP development, or clearly explain the process for identifying your child’s educational, social, behavioral and life skills goals, you will struggle in your partnership with them in future.
  3. Ask what therapeutic services the school provides or outsources. Your child may be receiving speech, occupational, physical, behavioral or dietary therapies. The school may inform you that they provide some or all of these on site, or that it facilitates referrals to outside providers. If possible, get the names of the actual therapy service providers. Do your research. Read reviews online and/or look up the providers’ credentials. You may have to work with your insurance company to secure services. Find out what resources the school has to help you communicate goals with providers.
  4. Ask about school enrollment and class sizes. You should know the ratio of student to teachers and aids in the classroom where your child might be learning. If your child is working at or near grade level standards, find out how many other grades will be served in the same classroom as he/she. Many schools boast small class size or 1:1 care, but in practice this is not the case. Know also that many private schools who advertise that they serve students with special needs are not regulated by state standards and often do not sufficiently meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. It is very important to have clear expectations.
  5. Ask about reporting and assessments. What tools or programs are used to gauge student learning and progress? How often are those administered? Who reviews student progress? How do you as the parent measure success for your student? How does the school quantify success? The school should be able to articulate specifically what is used and how. Do the work ahead of time to know what assessment your child should be getting based on his/her needs and abilities. Having special needs doesn’t mean that academic success should not be quantifiable, though modifications may be necessary.
  6. Ask about extracurricular activities. What ways does the school help your child to have well-rounded experiences? Based on your child’s needs and abilities, what will he/she have the opportunity to participate in each day, beyond academics? Obtain a schedule of activities if possible.
  7. Ask about the team that serves at the school. Surprisingly, I have encountered several schools where the staff who serve students with special needs, are not credentialed or trained to do so. This reality can be extremely damaging to your child’s academic journey. As parents of children with special needs, we often seek services from places that we feel will be “small, loving and safe.” These are very admirable attributes, but by themselves, are not enough to meet educational needs of diverse students. Ask about the credentials of the teachers and staff. Are there ESE certified members on the team? Do the teachers have current teaching certificates issued by the Department of Education? How long has the school served students with special needs? What does staff training in special education entail? It is better to find out early than realize six months in that your child is not getting the education he/she needs to thrive.

Side note: a lot of staff turnover in an institution is often a major red flag. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions!

7. Don’t forget the basics: Tuition, meals, school hours, etc., are basic pieces of information that can be game changers or deal breakers for  you and your family as you decide on a school for your child. If you’re considering a private school, find out if they accept McKay scholarships (state funding for students with special needs to offset tuition costs of private schools). Make every effort to secure your McKay funding if you haven’t already! If your child has special dietary needs, find out the school’s plan for meals, or their flexibility with allowing you to provide meals. Ask about before or after care services if you will need these.

Part II: What Should I Look For?

  1. Take a tour if this is permitted. Get a feel for the school environment, the classroom set up and spacing, and the flow of activities. Feeling a sense of order, peace and acceptance is very important when making school choices. 
  2. Observe staff interactions with yourself and your child, with other students and with each other. Do they seem joyful? Do they communicate respectfully? Do they appear stressed or unhappy? Do they seem too busy to engage with you? What feelings do you get when you interact with the school personnel? If you are unable to interact in person, you can learn a lot from a phone call or virtual meeting. Pay attention. I like to say that the little voice inside, or the gut feeling I get, is always right. When you’re in the right place (or the wrong one) you’ll know it.
  3. Comb through the website and social media pages of the school. What do they prioritize? Are the students the center of their story? What do the parent and staff testimonials sound like? What feelings do you get when you read their content or scroll through images? Can you see your child in that environment? Can you see yourself building community there? 

Above all things, give yourself the permission to be human. We get things wrong. It’s okay. Talk to people who have walked the road before you. I am eternally grateful for all the people who have guided me and supported me since the day we got my son’s autism diagnosis. Having a village around you is a big deal, so make sure to build yours. Deep breaths. You got this!

Do you have questions? I’d love to help. Email me at hello@rachelcscott.com.

Best to you in your INFORMED search!


Rachel C. Scott, Mom & Educator