The Wide Range of School Options for Children With Special Needs (2023)

Your child is disabled and requires special education, which means (in most cases) that a typical classroom in a typical public school is unlikely to be an ideal setting. But what are the other options? Fortunately, depending on your child's particular strengths and needs, there are quite a few possibilities. Read about the pros and cons of each.

What Families Can Expect This Fall

Public Schools

Public schools may be a good match for your child if:

  • Your child is comfortable in their public school and is not struggling with problems such as bullying or marginalization.
  • Your child's particular needs fit nicely into the school's strengths: most schools can provide for students with some disabilities, but may be unequipped to support children with other disabilities.
  • Your schools are well-funded so that teacher training, aides, therapists, specialists and support programs are available.


  • Public school is free!
  • Public schools are required by law to teach your child, provide appropriate supports, and pay for many services and therapies.
  • Public schools are right in your own backyard, which means your child will know people locally and you will be able to get involved with their education.
  • Your child will have the chance to be included in a wide range of in-school and after-school activities.


  • Public schools are consistently underfunded and are easily overwhelmed by the needs of disabled students.
  • Public schools can be large and complex places where bullying, marginalization, and other issues can be hard to manage.
  • Public schools may not have the expertise or flexibility to help your child if they have abilities or needs that don't fit into existing programs (yes, they are supposed to create a program around your child, but it isn't always possible).

Charter and Magnet Schools

Charter and magnet schoolsare also publicly funded, which means they are also free and are also required by law to serve your child's needs. In some cases, they are smaller than typical public schools, and they may also be a better fit for your child. Some charter and magnet schools offer a more hands-on, service-learning educational model which can be supportive of neurodiversity.


  • Charter and magnet schools may play to your child's strengths and learning style in a way that typical public schools don't.
  • Charter and magnet schools offer the same free and appropriate education as your local public school.
  • Smaller schools are often a better fit for disabled students.


  • Charter and magnet schools are often quite a distance from your home.
  • They may have a less flexible program and fewer resources than your local public school.
  • You may find it harder to work with the school to be sure your child gets the support they need.

Waldorf and Montessori

Waldorf and Montessori developed teaching techniques that are quite different from those used in typical public schools, but which work well for many students. Instead of using words as the primary teaching tool, they use specific types of experiences that allow students to learn visually and kinesthetically. For quite a few students with disabilities, these types of schools can be a godsend.

There are, however, a few caveats. First, Waldorf and Montessori schools are intended for children who can be classified as average or gifted, and who are capable of managing in a small but socially intense setting. Second, such schools are not required to provide any kind of support or therapy for your child.


  • If your child does thrive, chances are good that they will find friends and a solid social group.
  • If your child's needs and abilities make them a good match for a Waldorf or Montessori school, chances are you'll find one or the other within a reasonable driving distance.
  • Your child will receive a quality education in a small setting while also being included with neurotypical and non-disabled peers.


  • It is very unlikely that you will be able to find funding for a private school intended for the general population, though you may qualify for a scholarship.
  • If your child really does need more support than is available at the school, there is a good chance the school will ask them to leave.
  • You may find that your child's disability make it very difficult to keep up with the curriculum.


Homeschooling is increasingly popular, especially among families of kids with disabilities. Homeschool gives you ultimate control and flexibility, making it easier to create an ideal educational program and setting for your child.

Sometimes, your district will help you out financially, provide computer-based learning tools, or send tutors. You may also be able to tap into public after school programs, homeschool community programs, and a slew of other local resources.


  • You control your child's educational experience and environment and can design it to be a perfect fit.
  • It is possible to completely avoid problems with educational roadblocks, bullying, test anxiety, and other school issues.
  • You have a tremendous opportunity to help your child build skills by focusing on areas of need and building areas of strength.


  • If you work full time, it may be impossible to homeschool.
  • Homeschooling can be isolating, and finding the right homeschool groups can be difficult (particularly in rural areas).
  • Many parents and guardians find homeschooling to be overwhelming and difficult, especially if their child has emotional, intellectual, or cognitive needs that the adults are unequipped to provide.

General Schools for Disabled Children

As diagnostic criteria and disability acceptance have developed to support children who need them, so too have private schools that cater to disabled children. Often, these schools are very expensive, but if you can show that your public school district cannot provide a free and appropriate education (FAPE) the district may be obliged to pay the cost of a private setting.

This is only the case, though, if the special needs school is accredited (which means tiny start-up schools will not be an option). General schools for children with disabilities often list diagnoses they are suited to accommodate on their websites (dyslexia, autism, and sensory challenges, for example).

But because the schools are private, they have the option of selecting the students they feel they can serve. Thus, even if your child seems to fit the criteria, the school may turn you down because your child is different from or requires more care than their "ideal" student.


  • All staff are ready, willing, and able to work with disabled children.
  • Because all the students are disabled, there is a better chance that your child will be socially accepted.
  • These schools are designed to provide programs such as social skills training, remedial reading, etc., so there is no need to ask that such programs be created for your child.


  • Because they are outside your local community and families may live quite a distance away, it can be hard to get to know the community or your child's friends, teachers, and therapists.
  • If you are paying for a private school for disabled children, you will be paying a lot.
  • The law does not require private schools to follow all of the same laws and procedures required of public schools.

Disability-Specific Schools

Whether your child has dysgraphia, ADHD, OCD, "language-based learning challenges," anxiety, cognitive disabilities, or mental health conditions, there is almost certainly a school out there that specializes in their diagnosis. That means that somewhere in the United States (and possibly in your metropolitan area) there is a "perfect" learning environment for your child.

The word "perfect" is in quotations marks, though, because every child is unique and so is every school. If your child is autistic and verbal, for example, a school for nonverbal autistic children won't be a good fit.

There is diversity in disability, even within the same diagnosis. You may need to look closely to be sure a school specific to your child's disability is equipped to support your child's specific needs.


  • As in a general disability-focused school, teachers and therapists are highly trained, but in a condition-specific school, they may also have a large "toolbox" of teaching options to use with your child.
  • You, as a guardian, will have much less of a challenge in explaining your child's particular needs or getting teachers and staff to say "yes" to well-regarded therapies or teaching strategies.
  • Your child is likely to meet peers with similar interests, strengths, and challenges, which may be a great way for them to find like-minded friends.


  • Condition-specific schools are relatively rare; as a result, your child may have to travel a long distance or even become a boarding student in another state.
  • You may be quite disconnected from your child if they are not living nearby.
  • Your child will be exposed ONLY to children with their particular diagnosis, which means they will be quite isolated from the general population (this is true to some degree even if the school is eager to take your child on "outings" into the community).

Therapy-Specific Schools

Digging even further into specialized schools, it is possible to find private schools that are built around individual therapeutic philosophies. In the world of autism, for example, you can find SCERTS schools, Floortime schools, RDI schools, and so forth.

If you are an advocate of a particular therapeutic or philosophical approach to teaching disabled children, this kind of school may be a good fit for you and your child.


  • Because you already understand and love the school's approach, there is a good chance you'll feel comfortable with the teachers and staff.
  • If you already know that your child does best with a particular therapeutic or philosophical approach, you have found the ideal school setting.
  • Virtually all therapy-specific schools are tiny, which means your child will get very personalized support.


  • It is almost impossible to get funding for a therapy-specific school, so you'll be paying out of pocket.
  • It is quite unlikely that a therapy-specific school will be around the corner from your home OR able to have to your child board. As a result, you may need to actually move your residence or do a great deal of driving.
  • Very small schools have very small staffs and are unlikely to provide a range of programs such as art, gym, music, or sports.

Music Learning and the Mozart Effect

A Word From Verywell

Before deciding that your child needs a non-public school, be sure you've explored all the nooks and crannies of your local district. While you may not have been offered all the services you feel you need, there's a chance that those services are available.

In general, public school officials will give you what you ask for, but will not go out of their way to mention other options. Here's why a public school should really be your first choice:

  • Money:Public school is free.
  • Inclusion:This is a biggie. The more exclusive the school, the lower the chance that your child will know or be known by neighbors, local friends, librarians, rec directors, or any of the other people and groups that make up the world they live in.
  • Resources: Public schools are required by law to provide the teachers, resources, and therapies your child needs to move forward in their education and growth. Private schools are not. And, because they're so much smaller, private schools are rarely able to justify the cost of, say, a chorus director or sensory integration therapist.

8 Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

  2. Kang-Yi CD, Locke J, Marcus SC, Hadley TR, Mandell DS. School-Based Behavioral Health Service Use and Expenditures for Children With Autism and Children With Other Disorders. Psychiatr Serv. 2016;(67)1:101-106.doi:10.1176/

  3. Darling-Hammond L, Flook L, Cook-Harvey C, Barron B, Osher D. Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science. 2019;24(2):97-140. doi:10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791

  4. U.S. Department of Education. Homeschooling in the United States: 2012. 2017.

  5. National Commission for the Accreditation of Special Education Services. Why seek NCASES accreditation?

  6. National Conference of State Legislators. Accountability in Private School Choice Programs. 2015.

  7. Rodríguez IR, Saldaña D, Moreno FJ. Support, Inclusion, and Special Education Teachers' Attitudes toward the Education of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism Res Treat. 2012;2012:259468. doi:10.1155/2012/259468

  8. Foxx RM. The Complete Guide to Autism Treatments: A Parent's Handbook: Make Sure Your Child Gets What Works! Behav Anal. 2010;(33)1:133-138.doi:10.1007/bf03392209

The Wide Range of School Options for Children With Special Needs (1)

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.

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Do schools must educate all children with disabilities regardless of nature or severity of the disability? ›

The Section 504 regulation requires a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified person with a disability who is in the school district's jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person's disability.

What are schools that specifically cater to students with disabilities known as? ›

A special school is a school catering for students who have special educational needs due to learning difficulties, physical disabilities, or behavioral problems. Special schools may be specifically designed, staffed and resourced to provide appropriate special education for children with additional needs.

What proportion of children with special educational needs and disabilities today are schooled in special schools in England? ›

Most children with special educational needs (SEN) go to mainstream schools, with less than 10% attending special schools in the UK: In England in 2019/20, 9.3% of pupils with SEN attended special schools (, 2020). In Northern Ireland in 2021/21, that figure was 9.8% (DENI, 2021).

What is education of a child with special education needs in the regular classroom called? ›

Mainstreaming involves placing a student with a disability in a general education classroom with a special education teacher as a co-teacher or with an assistant who knows the child and can ensure that s/he is accessing all of the same instructional materials.

Do high school students with disabilities achieve better outcomes in inclusive academic settings? ›

Students with disabilities who spent 80% or more time in the general education classroom scored an average of 24.3 points higher in English/language arts and 18.4 points higher in math than their peers in low-inclusion settings.

Why is it important that students with disabilities have access to the general curriculum? ›

The general education curriculum follows specific content standards and subject matter, and students with disabilities have the right to access the same standards. Through accessing this curriculum, students with disabilities move towards learning the same critical information and abilities taught to all students.

What is a special education inclusion classroom? ›

In an inclusive classroom, general education teachers and special education teachers work together to meet the needs of students. This gives special education students the support they need while they stay in a general education classroom. All students can benefit from inclusive classrooms.

What is the integration of disabled students into the education programs as a whole called? ›

Full inclusion refers to the total integration of a student with disabilities into the regular education program with special support.

What special education is and inclusion? ›

The term inclusion captures, in one word, an all-embracing societal ideology. Regarding individuals with disabilities and special education, inclusion secures opportunities for students with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers in general education classrooms.

What proportion of children with special education needs and disabilities today are schooled in mainstream schools in Scotland? ›

In Scotland, over 90% of children with Additional Support Needs (ASN) are educated in mainstream schools (Scottish Government, 2018), although a proportion of these are schooled in special units on the main site.

What is the largest group of students with special needs? ›

2.3 million public school students have IEPs for LD. This is by far the largest disability category covered under special education law.

What percentage of students with disabilities are educated in regular classrooms? ›

Ninety-five percent of school-age students served under IDEA in fall 2020 were enrolled in regular schools.

What are the benefits of inclusion for students with disabilities? ›

Some of the benefits of inclusion for children with (or without) disabilities are friendship skills, peer models, problem solving skills, positive self-image, and respect for others. This can trickle down to their families as well, teaching parents and families to be more accepting of differences.

What are the challenges of inclusion for students with disabilities? ›

Challenges To The Inclusion Of Students With Disabilities
  • Inadequate Teacher Training. ...
  • Societal Norms And Attitudes. ...
  • Lack Of Inclusive Teaching Methods. ...
  • Lack Of Accessible Technology. ...
  • Curriculum. ...
  • Socio-Economic Factors. ...
  • Develop Inclusive Classrooms. ...
  • Adopt Inclusive Teaching Methods and Materials.

What is the term used to describe educating children with special needs in the general classroom with their peers for all or part of the days? ›

Full inclusion is defined as placement in the general education classroom for all students with disabilities.

Why inclusive classrooms are important for students with disabilities? ›

Inclusive learning environments provide students with and without disabilities many opportunities to establish relationships with their peers. These relationships form the beginnings of friendships that are a source of fun and enjoyment, and an essential source of emotional support during challenging times.

How many learning disabilities can adversely affect a student's academic success in the classroom? ›

To qualify, a student must have one of the identified disabilities (there are 13 total) that may adversely affect their educational performance.

What is the purpose of education for students with disabilities? ›

The goal is to provide the child an opportunity to learn in the the least restrictive environment so they can ultimately thrive to the best of their ability when transitioned into adulthood.

Why should disability be taught in schools? ›

Educating children about disability and inclusion can protect vulnerable students from bullying and encourage empathy and kindness among the student body.

Why is it important to support individuals with learning disabilities? ›

A learning disability affects a person's ability to understand or remember the information they need to create and maintain their own personal structure. So people requiring support will have at least as great a need for structure as everybody else but without all (or many) of the skills to manage it for themselves.

Should all students with disabilities be educated in the general education classroom? ›

In part, that's because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law says that students who get special education services should learn in the least restrictive environment (LRE). That means they should spend as much time as possible with students who don't get special education services.

Should all students with learning disabilities be educated in the regular classroom? ›

Several studies have suggested that overall, including disabled children in mainstream classrooms improves academic achievement, self-esteem and social skills.

Should disability awareness be taught in schools? ›

Educating students about different types of disabilities, some of which their peers may have or will have in the future, is extremely beneficial not only to the individual student but also to those with disabilities.

Can public schools choose not to provide education for some children with disabilities? ›

All public schools are required by IDEA to provide a free appropriate public education to children with disabilities. Magnet schools and charter schools are public schools, and therefore they must provide special education through Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). IDEA regulations are clear about this.

What are the benefits of inclusive education for students without disabilities? ›

Some of the benefits of inclusion for children with (or without) disabilities are friendship skills, peer models, problem solving skills, positive self-image, and respect for others. This can trickle down to their families as well, teaching parents and families to be more accepting of differences.

Why aren t students with severe disabilities being placed in general education classrooms? ›

Placement decisions for students with severe disabilities have often been based less on the students' unique learning needs but more on beliefs and presumptions about student learning, entrenched school district policies that restrict program delivery options, and other variables unrelated to student needs.

Is it true that all people with a learning disability have the same support requirements? ›

A learning disability is different for everyone. Lots of people who have a learning disability can work, have relationships, live alone and get qualifications. Other people might need more support throughout their life.

What are the pros and cons of special education? ›

Pros Students get individualized attention. Cons Special education students are sometimes separated from the rest of the class, which can be isolating. Pros Students receive a specialized approach to their education. Cons There's a potential for students to experience stigma.

Do all students with disabilities require goals in all areas? ›

The IEP needs to address only areas of the general curriculum affected by the student's disability. If your child's disability affects reading and writing, but not math skills, no general education math goals are required.

Why is it important for teachers to understand students with special needs? ›

By more accurately understanding the relationship between the needs of students and the deficiencies in resources, you can search and advocate for new solutions to meet their needs.

How do you educate students with disabilities? ›

Successful Strategies for Teaching and Supporting Students with Disabilities
  1. Lean on others. ...
  2. Stay organized. ...
  3. Don't reinvent the wheel. ...
  4. Know that each student is unique. ...
  5. Keep instructions simple. ...
  6. Embrace advocacy. ...
  7. Create opportunities for success. ...
  8. Don't feel pressure to be perfect.

What barriers are preventing children with disabilities from attending school? ›

Physical Inaccessibility: Students with disabilities continue to encounter physical barriers to educational services, such as a lack of ramps and/or elevators in multi-level school buildings, heavy doors, inaccessible washrooms, and/or inaccessible transportation to and from school.

Who is primarily responsible for providing special education services for a student with a disability? ›

School Districts Offer Students With Disabilities Specialized Instruction and Services. Specialized academic instruction is the most common special education service school districts provide.

What vast majority of children with learning disabilities develop? ›

The vast majority of children with learning disabilities develop social-emotional problems.


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