Education & Schools

School Services

Education plays a critical role in your child’s and family’s life, and having a child with special needs can make decisions about education and schools more complex. The choices you must make can be difficult and confusing, and you may not be aware of the options and resources available. Our goal is to provide reliable information to assist you in making decisions about where and which type of school your child will attend, and in finding appropriate education services.

Public Schools

Public Schools are one of the first options most parents have available to them, and they are an excellent option for many families. A child with special needs will likely require more assistance than other children, but Federal law mandates that every child receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible. Children with special needs are often entitled to receive additional services or accommodations through the public schools. To support your child and her ability to learn in school, there are three Federal laws that apply specifically to children with special needs.
As a parent, you can request a free evaluation of your child to determine his or her needs for special education and/or related services. Contact your child’s school district or your local Head Start program to arrange an evaluation that may include psychological and educational testing, speech and language evaluation, occupational therapy assessment, and a behavioral analysis. The results of the evaluation determine your child's eligibility for a range of services under the applicable law. Following the evaluation, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be developed for your child. Examples of the types of services detailed in IEPs include Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Speech and Language Therapy, and/or the provision of a classroom aide.
Children with special needs are entitled to special education services in school under federal and state laws, but parents do not determine whether their child is eligible for these services. Parents are, however, entitled (and encouraged) to participate in the development of the IEP. For further information about IEPs see Wrightslaw. Additionally, the findings of a school's evaluation team are not final. You have the right to appeal their conclusions and determination. The school is required to provide you with information about how to make an appeal. As a parent, advocating for your child includes being proactive and taking necessary steps to make sure your child receives appropriate services. Our Advocacy/Finding Your Voice section has more information to help you work within the system.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools: they operate on public funds and are open to all students, including those with special needs. What differentiates a charter school from a standard public school is its independent focus: each charter school is run by a parent board, and sets its own goals and focus, which means they vary widely across the United States. The overall goal of a charter school is to provide additional options for students and parents without additional cost.
Charter schools are often known for their small class sizes and high parent involvement. They are based on voluntary enrollment, making them more accountable to parents and student outcomes. As a result, they are given some level of autonomy: they may hire their own staff, develop their own curriculum, and develop their own programs, although charter schools in many states (including Utah), are evaluated according to student performance on standardized tests, and funds are allocated to each school depending upon the number of students enrolled. The adaptability and unique setting of a charter school may be a wonderful fit for your child with special needs, and there are even some that are aimed toward specific disabilities. As your child’s advocate, your role is to find what will work best for your child by researching and asking questions about the schools and programs in your area.

Private Schools

There are many private school options for children with special needs. Some are disability specific. For example, there are schools that offer specific therapeutic interventions for autism, and schools for children with visual or hearing impairment. There may be a school that offers teaching and activities geared specifically for your child. Private schools tend to have smaller classes and are likely to have more one-on-one learning. Some children thrive in a school that has a specific focus on their particular challenges. Many special needs schools will have specialists on staff to support your child and your family through your journey. For some families, the cost of private school tuition may be a difficult or impossible choice, but there may be special needs grants and scholarships to help cover the cost of private schools. Contact your Parent Training and Information Center at Center for Parent Information & Resources Locator for information on any grants or scholarships available in your area.

Alternative School Options

Alternative education opportunities are available to families seeking less traditional educational settings. There are a number of approaches to teaching and learning that may be more satisfactory to meet the individual needs of your child. Home-based educational alternatives vary widely, but all emphasize the value of an individualized education versus a standardized approach to teaching, learning, and testing.
Home Schooling
The goal of any education is to get the most out of the learning experience, and some parents decide that home schooling offers the best educational opportunity for their child. If you make this decision, your child may benefit from an education based on his strengths and personality, and he can receive additional attention to help him overcome his challenges. Another advantage is that your child will not get lost in the shuffle of a large classroom size, limited supplies and books, and the negative aspects of peer pressure. But there are some disadvantages to home schooling, too. For example, a home-schooled child may miss out on extracurricular activities, pertinent social skill building and problem solving challenges, as well as the rewards of developing friendships with peers. Many parents who choose to home school their child make an effort to enroll their child in community sports or recreational activities, or they team up with other parents and home-schooled children. This team approach can help children to develop social skills and ease the task load for all of the parents involved.
Online Education and Schools
If you’ve chosen to home school your child, you face the challenge of developing lessons and curriculum. There are many useful resources online. Virtual textbooks, online lesson plans, or even online schools, virtual classrooms, and technology-based “e-learning” may meet your child’s needs. An obvious advantage of online classes is that they can take place anywhere, as long as you have a reliable internet connection.
Online education can take many shapes. Online classes offer advanced instructional tools, plenty of hands-on learning opportunities, and curriculum that is based on trusted print and online resources. They also provide elective courses specific to your child’s interests. Some teachers are able to partner with parents to design the curriculum that meets their child’s unique needs. Online education comes with a variety of learning options that can be adapted or selected so your child can be successful and encouraged to continue learning. Some charter schools offer online classes, and in this case no fees are required (charter schools are public schools).
Online classes vary in their approach, including synchronous and asynchronous options. Asynchronous options allow students more flexibility about when they complete their lessons, while synchronous options provide more interaction with teachers and other online students. Teachers who work in online schools support their students by using online messaging, telephone calls, online web meetings, and sometimes face-to-face sessions, depending on the school and the teacher. Parents play a role in keeping their child on track by helping them complete their lessons.
A great way to discover online resources and to decide if e-learning or a virtual classroom is the best fit for your child is to talk with other families who have children in these virtual learning environments, and then consider the pros and cons. All children and families are unique, and finding the best educational opportunities for each is challenging, but you can accomplish it if you do your homework!
Homeschooling it is! Now, where do we begin?
If you decide to home school your child, you’ll want to start by checking into your state’s legal requirements, and considering what, if any, adaptations you may need to make for your child’s disability or special needs. There are many support groups and on-line forums for families who have chosen to home school their child. Make sure the online resources you choose are reputable sources of information by doing your own research. A great starting point is: K12 Academics.
If you’re exploring online education for your child, you’ll want to consider the following questions:
  • What is the correct process to withdraw your child from public school so there is no question of truancy?
  • Is there legal paperwork to file with the state in order to homeschool?
  • What is your state’s compulsory attendance law? (Children in in a certain age range are required to spend a specific amount of time being educated.)
  • What curriculum materials does your state require?
  • What are your state’s requirements regarding testing and assessment?
  • Does your state officially recognize graduation for homeschoolers? If so, what are the graduation requirements?
A key point to remember is that all education environments offer specific and helpful opportunities for children to learn. But as a parent, only you can determine which environment is most helpful and suitable for your child.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

National Charter School Directory
In this site you can search for Charter Schools by location.

Uniquely Gifted: Resources for Gifted Children with Special Needs
Resources for "twice exceptional" children, intellectually gifted children with special needs such as ADHD, learning disabilities, Asperger Syndrome.

Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR)
Maintains a large resource library with information related to children with disabilities. Parent Information Centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about local conferences, support groups, and finding schools and other local services. Department of Education, Office of Special Education.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial Publication: July 2013; Last Update: February 2015
Current Authors and Reviewers (click on name for bio):
Author: Gina Pola-Money
Reviewers: Shena McAuliffe, MFA
Tina Persels