A generation ago, parents of children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and learning disabilities (LD) had scant educational choices. They could take part in the special-education program of their local public school, pay a premium for private school, or find a parochial school that matched their religious background. Today, the options are far more extensive and include public, charter, private, magnet, online, and homeschooling programs.
Each type of school has its pros and cons, and finding the ideal fit can take some trial and error. “You have to take a very careful look at your child’s temperament,” says Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson, Ph.D., a child psychologist practicing in Los Angeles, and co-author of Choosing the Right School for Your Child. “Some children thrive in progressive, creative environments and others temperamentally need structure above all else.”
If you’re shopping around for a new school, here’s a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each type, and which accommodations they offer.
Public Schools: Considerations for Students with Special Needs
Your local public school is often the most convenient and cheapest option — with a variety of extracurricular activities like sports and theater provided at no additional charge. In an ADDitude magazine survey of parents who were looking to or had moved their child to a new school, more than 51% said they’d considered a mainstream or traditional public school.
Public schools tend to be more structured and “mainstream” than are other types of schools, but they are also required by law to provide evaluations to kids with suspected learning disabilities. For children who qualify, public schools must offer a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), as well as special-education services.
“A public school will lose its federal funding if it doesn’t honor an IEP or special needs,” says Van Der Kar-Levinson. “If the school is not honoring its mandate, there are lawyers who handle those kinds of situations.”
One downside is that public schools are often only as good as the funding that supports them. Some public schools, especially those in less-advantaged areas with a lower tax base, suffer from large class sizes and less personalized instruction.
To research the public schools in your region, begin by consulting the statistics and rankings published by your state’s department of education. Other helpful resources include:
- American School Directory
- Great Schools
- The National Association for the Education of Young Children
Magnet Schools: Considerations for Students with Special Needs
Magnet schools, which about 10% of parents said they’d investigated, fall within the public-school system. As such, they are required to provide IEP and 504 plans as well. Often these schools specialize in one academic area, such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); career skills; or the performing arts. Some magnet schools exceed state standards, providing children with a private-school-caliber education for a public-school price (free).
Because magnet schools have limited enrollment, students must apply and meet certain academic requirements to be accepted. High standards make magnet schools very competitive; some have long waiting lists of students vying to get in.
The Magnet Schools of America is a non-profit organization that provides additional research and resources.
U.S. News & World Report also publishes an annual ranking of the nation’s top magnet high schools.
Charter Schools: Considerations for Students with Special Needs
More than a quarter of parents surveyed by ADDitude had looked into charter schools, which also fall within the public-school system. These schools are required to provide special educational services — including 504s and IEPs — to children who qualify, yet they are far less regulated than are traditional public schools. Quality and range of services largely depend on which entity is running the school, and that can run the gamut from a community group to a for-profit company.
Charter schools use a lottery admission system. Students are selected randomly, regardless of academic ability. Attendance also isn’t limited to the surrounding neighborhood or district, so parents are free to select any charter school in their area.
The quality of charter schools can vary widely, and some are better equipped than others for students with special educational needs. For example, a school that individualizes its program to the student may be a better fit for a student with ADHD and LD than a school with a one-size-fits-all approach.
If you plan to look into charter schools, ask about the school’s educational philosophy and find out who’s running it. For-profit charter schools can feel a little like the wild west. Between 2001 and 2013, more than 2,200 of these schools closed their doors. Some were shuttered in the middle of the school year, leaving students stranded, according to a report from The Center for Media and Democracy.1
The bi-annual charter school report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes is essential reading for parents.
The Center for Education Reform offers an interactive tool for finding charter schools across the nation.
U.S. News & World Report also publishes an annual ranking of the nation’s top charter high schools.
Private schools for Students with Special Needs
About 22% of parents surveyed said they were interested in private or independent schools. Private schools are generally appealing because they offer smaller class sizes, a more challenging curriculum, and personalized service, yet the reality doesn’t always live up to these promises.
“One of the mistakes parents make, I have found, is assuming that if you go to a private school you’ll have more say and more flexibility,” says Cindy Goldrich, ADHD-CCSC, a board-certified ADHD coach at PTS Coaching, LLC, and author of 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD. “Not only is that not always the case, but the teachers are sometimes less well trained and have fewer resources.”
Private school teachers aren’t required to complete the same special-education training as their counterparts in public school. And the law doesn’t obligate private schools to evaluate children for special-educational services, or to provide those services. You can request an evaluation through your public-school system and, if your child qualifies, get public funding to apply toward the services you need. However, the services your child receives may not be nearly as extensive as those offered in the public-school setting.
Private schools can create their own version of an IEP or 504 Plan, which is sometimes called a “service plan.” Yet it may not be as structured or comprehensive as the public equivalent, and every school handles it differently. “A private nonreligious school is supposed to develop an accommodation plan, but there are no rules for how that’s done,” says Matt Cohen, JD, founder of Matt Cohen & Associates, LLC, a special education, disability rights, and human services law firm in Chicago. Which accommodations the school will provide — like offering extra time for tests — is also up to them.
Then there is the issue of cost. Because private schools don’t receive funding from the state, parents pay more than $10,000 a year, on average, for tuition.2 Some states provide vouchers to defray some of the cost, but rarely cover the entire tuition.3
The National Association of Independent Schools is a good starting place for families researching private schools.
The National Center for Education Statistics maintains a searchable database of private schools.
The best private schools in the nation are ranked annually by Niche.
Specialized Schools for Students with Special Needs
A small subset of independent or private schools is designed specifically for children with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. These specialized schools charge tuition, and they offer programs tailored to the needs of children with learning disabilities, taught by educators who are well-trained in the most effective teaching methods for these kids. More than a third of parents surveyed said they were interested in one of these specialized programs.
For children who’ve felt like a round peg in a square hole at a classic school, being surrounded by people who understand and are willing to accommodate them can come as a huge relief. “My daughter’s anxiety and unhappiness at school were unbearable. I helped her with so much of her school work — homework and reports — and she stopped caring about learning,” one parent wrote in the survey. “When we found the school for dyslexia, it was scary to move her there because it was a huge adjustment and a financial burden. But after the second day of school, she was happier than she had ever been.”
Communities across the country are dotted with small, specialized day schools that tailor their curriculum for students with specific learning disabilities, with autism spectrum disorder, and/or with ADHD. For example, The Windward School in White Plains, New York, is “dedicated to providing a proven instructional program for children with language-based learning disabilities” through use of a multisensory curriculum. The Odyssey School in Austin, Texas, takes a strengths-based approach to educating students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and ADHD. And the New Hope Academy outside of Chicago says that it more generally serves students who have trouble fitting in socially, who struggle with executive functions, and who avoid school for various reasons. Generally speaking, specialized schools of this kind assume that all students learn differently, that IEPs will be used to guide services, and that students must be engaged and excited by their studies in order to succeed. Annual tuition tends to fall in the $30,000-$60,000 range before taking into consideration financial aid and scholarships.
Several of the nation’s best known specialized schools — like the Academy at SOAR and the Eagle Hill School — are boarding schools that attract students from all over the country. Some of these boarding schools offer an ADHD-friendly curriculum designed for kinesthetic learners who need to move, touch, and experiment with their lessons. Like their day-school counterparts, they also offer small class sizes, faculty and staff trained specifically in ADHD behavior and learning, and additional services like on-site tutors and therapists. Specialized boarding schools — with tuition sometimes topping $100,000 per year — are often the most expensive option considered by families, many of whom research scholarships and financial aid as part of the school-selection process.
High annual tuition costs are the primary reason why ADDitude readers said they did not consider a specialty school. However, it is possible to obtain private-school tuition reimbursement from your child’s public school under certain circumstances. Each case is unique and each school uses different criteria, however it is universally accepted that public schools are required, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all students. According to McAndrews Law Offices, that may mean partial or total reimbursement for a private school if your situation meets the following criteria:
- The public school district failed to provide FAPE by offering your child an appropriate IEP in a timely fashion
- The private school you’ve found has the unique resources needed to meet your child’s needs under IDEA
- and a court would consider providing tuition reimbursement equitable and fair.
Many families of students with special needs do pursue reimbursement from their local public school districts to defray costs, and most of those use an education attorney and/or consultant to help guide them through the process.
The ADDitude Directory also contains paid listings for specialized schools designed to serve students with ADHD an LD.
Alternative Schools: Considerations for Students with Special Needs
The definition of “alternative” can be broad, but typically these schools offer an outside-the-box educational experience. Some are career-based. Others are taught in storefronts for a few hours a day. Alternative schools can be a haven for kids who don’t fit the traditional mold.
A note of caution to parents: The quality of alternative schools varies widely, and the teachers aren’t always well-qualified, Goldrich says. “In some alternative schools the teachers aren’t qualified for a job in the public school,” she says. She urges parents to ask questions. “How many years of experience have they had? How long have they stayed at the school? How much turnover is there?”
Virtual Schools: Considerations for Students with Special Needs
Online classes may be ideal for kids who struggle socially, or for self-directed students who are far ahead of their peers at school. One parent in the survey raved about her son’s virtual school experience: “He has been placed in courses that actually challenge him. He now learns new material in every lesson of every course. He spends fewer overall hours on school than before, yet learns vastly more new material.”
Online schools can take many forms. Some are offered for free through the public-school system, while others are run by private institutions and charge tuition. Virtual schools can also supplement the homeschooling curriculum, or provide an option for students who only want to attend classes part-time. When researching a virtual school, parents should check to make sure it’s accredited, and ask what special services it offers for kids with learning disabilities.
Several rankings of the best online high schools exist, including the following:
Homeschooling: Considerations for Students with Special Needs
If your child doesn’t fit into any of these educational models, you can choose to do the teaching yourself and tailor the coursework precisely to your child’s learning style.
About 2.3 million children in the United States are homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.4 The idea of educating their own children appealed to nearly 30% of survey respondents, who said they’d looked into or had pursued homeschooling.
“With homeschooling, you have the freedom and flexibility to try different methods to help your child learn,” says Meghan Tomb, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Medical Center. “But at the same time, you might not have the same access to free school services that you would at a public school. The services that are available to homeschooled students vary by state, and it is important to understand these prior to making a decision to homeschool your child.”
While all states are required to evaluate homeschooled children, some offer a traditional IEP while others provide just a service plan—similar to what you’d get if you were in a private school. Making friends can also be challenging for home-schooled children. As a parent, you’ll have to carve out opportunities for your child to socialize — for example, by joining an organization for homeschooled families that schedules activities and playdates.
The National Home School Association is a robust resource for families considering homeschooling their children.
While it’s true that private schools commonly offer smaller class sizes, holistic learning opportunities, and excellent resources, they are not required by law to provide special-education services to students who might qualify for and benefit from them. As such, many families lean toward magnet or charter public schools that promise a specialized curriculum in addition to IEP or 504 Plan accommodations designed to level the playing field for students with ADHD or LD. Other families find that their student’s specific needs are best met by a specialized school offers a customized curriculum along with expertise and experience working with children who learn differently. Still others with the flexibility to do so favor working more independently in a homeschool or virtual school environment. The only bad choice is one that is not made with your child and his or her learning needs in mind.
1 The Center for Media and Democracy. “CMD Publishes List of Closed Charter Schools (with Interactive Map).” https://www.prwatch.org/node/12936
2 Center for Education Reform. K-12 Facts. https://edreform.com/2012/04/k-12-facts/
3 Understood. “The Average Voucher Doesn’t Cover Full Cost of Private School, NCLD Data Analysis Shows.” https://www.understood.org/en/community-events/blogs/the-inside-track/2017/11/21/the-average-voucher-doesnt-cover-full-cost-of-private-school
4 Brian D. Ray. “Research Facts on Homeschooling.” National Home Education Research Institute. https://www.nheri.org/research-facts-on-homeschooling/