Selecting a school for your kid is not an easy process. There are several factors that parents need to consider, including quality of instruction, student-teacher ratio, quality of curriculum, etc. For parents of students with learning disabilities, this process becomes even more difficult. Several additional factors come into play that needs to be taken into account before a decision is made.
According to national estimates, 6 to 10 percent of the school going population in the United States has some sort of learning disability. These children may exhibit a wide range of symptoms including difficulties with reading, comprehension, and mathematics, written and spoken languages and reasoning abilities. Besides these, several other behaviors such as inattention, hyperactivity and perceptual coordination may be associated with learning disabilities, but are not learning disabilities themselves.
To select a good school for your child with a learning disability, you need to start early and do all the necessary research. Knowing what to look for in an educational institute and being able to ask the right questions will help you a lot. Have a look at the following list of items to get ahead of this process.
Understanding Your Child’s LD
Before you can enroll your child in a particular school, you need to be aware of their learning disabilities and what behaviors they can affect. Learning disabilities can affect five general areas in a child:
- Spoken Language: Delays and deviations in the ability to listen and speak
- Written Language: Difficulties in reading, writing and spelling
- Reasoning: Difficulty in organizing various thoughts and putting together solutions
- Arithmetic Difficulty: Difficulties in solving arithmetic problems and understanding basic math concepts
- Memory: Difficulties in memorizing and remembering information
Closely observe your child’s behaviors and responses to determine which of these five areas seems to be an issue for them. Take a few minutes to actually write down the abilities of your child as a student. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your child learn better by listening or by touching
- Does your child shy away from participating in social activities or likes to volunteer for such activities
- Does your child prefer to study alone or likes a group setting
These questions will help you make a list of your child’s specific needs. You will be able to figure out:
- Whether your child needs a classroom where they can sit away from the windows
- Whether they need a teacher who can break down instructions into easy-to-follow steps
- Whether they need a school that does not give a lot of homework
Keep in mind that you need to consider your child’s strengths both academically and socially. You don’t want to put your academically strong kid in an environment that is too socially challenging, since the stress levels can get the best of them. Make sure you focus on your child’s needs before you consider any other factor.
Interviewing the Concerned Personnel
After you have determined the exact needs of your child, you need to start looking for a school that is the best fit. For this, you will need to conduct a comprehensive analysis of various aspects of the school. You can go through tons of literature on the subject, watch loads of promotional videos and listen to what the administrators are saying about their schools, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. To actually determine what the school really is all about, you should do a bit of your own research as well – customized to your child’s needs.
Start by meeting the principal, teachers, teachers’ assistants, speech therapists and other special needs’ caretakers at the school. In addition, you might want to talk to the parents of the kids already enrolled at the school. They will be your best source to get accurate information. Ask the moms and dads about the teachers, homework, and generally how their experience has been dealing with the school. If you can’t figure out what to ask, here are a few questions you could start off with:
How big is the school?
This would be the first step in determining the physical environment of the school. You will want to know the size of the school, the layout of the buildings, the number of grade levels and students enrolled in each grade level. This is important specifically if your child faces spatial and memory challenges, in which case you’ll need to be sure that your child will be able to find their way around.
How big are the classes?
If you want your child to get teacher’s complete attention, public schools, in most cases, won’t make the cut. A class size of 15 students is probably your best-case scenario, which might be a little tough to find in public schools. But all is not lost – Some public schools provide ‘shadow teachers’ who give your child extra attention.
How well-trained are the teachers?
This is a very important aspect to consider. Teachers with regular teaching credentials might not be able to cope with your child’s learning disabilities. Make sure that the school has a certain number of faculty members and other staff who are trained to provide special assistance to children with learning disabilities.
How flexible is the school?
Some schools have a very rigid system that every child is expected to uniformly follow. This might not fare well for your child. Look for a school that will be able to adapt to your child’s learning style and accommodate them. For instance, consider whether the school will let your child use a tape recorder instead of taking notes or give them extra time in tests? Ask them for specific examples where the school adjusted its method of instruction for students with learning disabilities.
How well does the school involve parents?
As parents of a child with learning disabilities, you will ideally want a school that involves you in the learning process as well. Look for a school that values parent participation and understands the need for it in a child’s learning and development process.
Visiting the School
Once you have narrowed down your choices, you should take a ‘see-for-yourself’ tour of the school. On average, you should visit five schools before making any decision. Keep in mind that schools with learning disabilities student-friendly curriculum will let you observe the classes in progress. Visit the school on a regular day, preferably not an open house day (when everyone is on their best behavior). Roam around the school, observe the classrooms, talk to a few teachers or students who appear to be free at the time, etc. Keep an eye out for the following:
- Bulletin Boards: These provide a good insight into the standard work of particular age groups. Read what is on the boards and analyze the kind of work that students of that particular age level are doing. If it seems to be at par with the sort of work your child can do, you might want to give serious thought to the school.
- Classroom Structure: Kids with learning disabilities are most likely to perform better in structured environments, since they typically struggle with memory and focus. A controlled environment might not always be a rigid one. For instance, teachers who assign homework verbally and also write it on the board, use direct and clear instructions, utilize multimedia and expressive gestures to aid the learning process, might help your child tremendously.
- Special Needs Classes vs. Regular Classes: You can’t possibly determine which setting would be better for your child, until your child has tried out both. You might lean towards regular classes to avoid stigma, only to later realize that your child is not really coping well. On the other hand, if you opt for a special-needs class structure, you child might end up not feeling as confident about their abilities.
For this, you need to know how both systems work. Will your child be given special help in a public school? If your child is in a special needs classroom, will they get the same quality of education as their age-mates in regular schools? What kind of students will your child be grouped up? Observe all of these factors when you visit the premises.
- Don’t Judge on One Visit: This is important since one look can’t tell you the entire story. The teacher you talked to might have been having a bad day or the classroom you looked into might be extra rowdy on the particular day. Before you finalize a school, make sure you visit it at least twice or thrice.
Observing the Students
In addition to analyzing the premises, the teachers and instruction methods, you should also observe the students’ behavior. These are the kids your child will be hanging out with. Therefore, make a note of the following:
- Class change: How are the kids in between classes? Do they get along well in the absence of a teacher? Do they interact with each other in a friendly manner? If the students start running around and wreaking havoc as soon as the teacher walks out of the room, your child might be overwhelmed.
- Engagement level of children: It is integral to any learning process to keep the children engaged in educational activities, within and beyond the classrooms. You don’t want your child in a school where too many kids are hanging around, picking on other kids or just lost in their own thoughts.
- Tolerance: This is a quality that you will want your child’s teachers and class fellows to possess. Your child will need extra encouragement, and might not be as comfortable at first as the other kids. This extra amount of effort requires a lot of tolerance from all the concerned parties.
A few additional pointers:
- Make sure you factor in location: While it is true that a great school is worth a long commute, you should consider this aspect objectively. If the far-off school is only slightly better than the one in your neighborhood, consider other factors too. Long rides to and from the school might actually limit the amount of time your child has for homework and after-school activities. Living far away will also make it difficult for your child to form interactive friendships with play dates and after-school meet-ups.
- Focusing too much on academics: Even though academics are an integral part of your child’s education, you should also give thought to the social and emotional aspects as well. This is specifically important for students with learning disabilities since they face greater social pressures. Therefore, don’t select a school solely on its academic prowess – focus more on the richness of the experience it provides to your child.
- Don’t judge by appearance: Don’t look for a school that seems to be the perfect, clean and attractive option, with all the latest technologies and multimedia. While these help your child, you should keep in mind that looks are not everything. Some schools might not have the best technology or the fanciest classrooms, but they have engaged and well-trained teachers who have the ability to bring out the best in their students – including those with learning disabilities.
Selecting a school for your child with a learning disability is a long and comprehensive process. But once you have selected the best school for your child, you can relax; have a peace of mind, knowing that you have selected the best for your child.