7 Types of Schools for Disabled Children

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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.

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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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 schools are 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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Homeschool

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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

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/appi.ps.201400505

  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

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