For parents, selecting the right school for their child is an important and sometimes difficult decision. Children spend a number of hours during their formative years in a school and it is vital that they have a positive learning experience. The school's academic reputation and range of extracurricular activities may be among the major factors to consider while making a choice.
However, if your child has special needs, what you are looking for, more than anything else, is a supporting and nurturing environment that helps him thrive. Children have special educational needs because of the challenges they face. They may be physical challenges, developmental disorders, learning difficulties, sensory issues or behavioural and emotional problems.
Options for parents
While homeschooling and enrolling in the open school system are options, it's preferable if a child with special needs goes to a school regularly. Not only will she make friends, she will pick up life skills and be better prepared for adult life in a diverse society. There are two main options for parents with children who have special needs - an inclusive mainstream school which offers special education facilities, and a special school.
According to the 2011 Census, about 2 million children in India in the age group of 0-6 years have special needs. They often have trouble with access to education. In fact, despite the promise of universal access to education, through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, around 6 lakh special needs children between 6 and 13 years of age are out of school, according to the 2014 'National Survey of Out of School Children' report.
What parents should look for in a school
Special schools are usually the best option for students with multiple or severe disabilities. However, children with mild disabilities can be integrated into a regular school. Some children may benefit from being in a special school for a few years before joining a regular one.
If you have decided to mainstream your child, pay attention to the following nine points while selecting a school:
Attitude of principal, teachers and staff: They should be approachable and responsive both to parents and children. As a parent of a special needs child, you may need to communicate frequently with the teachers and support staff, both to monitor the progress of your child and discuss any problems that may arise. Also, ensure that the class size is small and there is a healthy student-teacher ratio. Assess whether she is likely to have successful peer interactions.
Availability of support services: Find out whether the school has in-house or visiting support services. If it is the latter, how often do speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists counsellors, psychologists and special educators visit the school? Does the school have the required technology and equipment to deal with special needs children?
Nature of curriculum: This is a vital factor to consider. Is the school open to making accommodations like giving less homework or lenient assessment? For instance, if your child is dyslexic, will the assessment be based more content than spelling? Will there be an IEP (Individualized Education Programme) for your child? In case your child cannot cope with the regular curriculum, is the school flexible enough to offer an alternative curriculum? Also, parents need to know what's the plan after their child leaves the school.
Physical environment: The school should look clean and be well-cared for. It should be safe with adequate security staff. If your child is physically challenged, you should check if the school has ramps and whether the bathrooms are accessible. The physical environment should be appropriate for a child with sensory impairments where noise, physical movement and lighting could be important issues.
Distance of school from home: This is an important factor to consider. You may not want your child to commute too long each day. Also, you may have to visit the school frequently. For both these reasons, a school that is closer to home is preferable. In this context, you should explore the transport facility provided by the school. Is it safe and reliable?
Cost of education: How much the school charges is an important factor. Raising a special needs child can be expensive. Apart from doctors' visits, medication, and special items like wheelchairs and hearing aids, there is the need to make provisions for the child's adulthood. Parents have to factor in educational costs keeping these factors in mind.
Policy on behaviour issues: It is important to know what strategies the school uses to reinforce positive behaviour and manage challenging behaviour. Also, special kids are more vulnerable to bullying. So, select a school which has a firm policy against bullying.
Food and medical facilities: Does the school provide food? Is it nutritious and are there provisions for special dietary needs? Another point to check is whether there is a school nurse available full-time to handle medications, sick children and food allergies.
Extracurricular activities: Parents should know which are the extracurricular activities offered that are suitable for their child. If their child loves music, the arts or sports, they should ensure that the school can help develop these strengths.
The bottom line is parents know their children best. So, make your decision is based on your child's difficulty, unique needs, strengths and personality. Once the choice is made, it is important that you work with the teachers and support staff of the school to make sure his needs are met.