finding the right school for your child with special needs

If you know me then you know I’m happy go lucky. Nothing bothers me too much, the sun will always come up on a new day, no problem is too big for me to deal with and when all else fails….eat chocolate. I really just pick myself up and get on with it. Right now I am having to dig deep and stay positive at a time when I’m overwhelmed and a little depressed by the shortage of places for special needs kids when it comes time to start school. You can almost smell the stress levels from parents at open days because everyone wants a spot for their child. And why shouldn’t they but there just aren’t that many options and the best places just don’t have many spots.

Finding a school for your child is a big decision. Thankfully I’ve learnt from my older children that it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it right in the early years because you can always find a new school. But having a child with special needs is a whole new ball game. I’ve almost become a mini expert in the options nearby but that doesn’t guarantee you a spot.

And I’m still left wondering what is the best option – and what are your options? Just in case you’ve got a really little one with special needs or newly diagnosed. Well we have mainstream (so your local public school or perhaps another school in the area with a commitment to getting some funding for teachers aides) but I just don’t think the support is enough for what we need, a support class in a mainstream public school or some catholic schools offer satellite classes for children with autism, a public special school (generally for children with moderate – severe disabilities), independent special schools (not very many of them and can be hard to get into), mix of special school and mainstream school during the week and homeschooling.

Now add a girl to the mix…turns out my number one question looking at a school is what is the boy to girl ratio and it’s not always what I want to hear.

Anyway, I’m passing this one over to you. What did you do when your child with special needs needed to start school? Did you change to a different school setting later on? Is there anything you’d do differently? How did you get through the stress of finding the right school for them?


  1. Georgia Hicks says:

    I could have written this a couple of years ago Corrie. My little girl has just finished two year at St Lucy’s satellite class at Narrabeen. I cannot speak highly enough of the school and the teachers. She is now in a learning support class at the same school for maths and english. Has your daughter had a cognitive assessment done through a psychologist? If not, get one and take any current assessments from speech/ ot for the school so they have a better idea. I think children with moderate disabilities get funding Good luck, it will all fall into place.

    • in a week we have another assessment and our IQ test! Thank you!

      • Georgia Hicks says:

        Oh good luck Corrie, your little one will be fine. Don’t stress during the assessment. My daughter needed lots of breaks…Deep breaths. I think you are leaning towards the catholic system. The lady to contact is Fiona Dignam. I am sorry I can’t remember the contact for the public system, but I am sure Fiona could tell you.

  2. I think you do need to get as much advice from the experts/professionals involved in your child’s life they are a tremendous resource. The child psychologist, speech therapist and early intervention teacher were invaluable for us- they gave us options of which schools would be best. Then you need to work out if your child will fit the criteria. Here in Victoria, enrollment in a special school will be dependant on the child’s IQ. So a starting place will be to get the IQ tested by a child psych. Our child is at a special school for children with a mild intellectual disability (meaning an IQ score of between 50-70). It is absolutely amazing and he loves it there. Good luck Corrie.

  3. I have a kid with mild aspergers who is just like another kid as far as I am concerned but he was not diagnosed until year 7 and his old school said “oh we could have told you that”. Dozens of students slip through the gaps in NZ as they are all mainstreamed (children with downs syndrome etc go to “special” schools). There may not be the funding in the school to “deal” with these children either. Solved for us by attending a private school, not seen as being special needs or any different to any other kid and flew through major exams last year getting very very high marks under the Cambridge system. I guess we are lucky with the mildness. Autistic students at state schools are in mainstream with or without help – NZ schools just do not have the funding to help every student and I think it would be hard to find a parent with a child with special needs including gifted or at the other end of the spectrum who is happy with the support they need. Unless real challenging, few students also have an aide all day. (I’m in education but of course it does vary school by school, but in my opinion, go private and you will get the help you need in NZ but only 4% of students go private here too.)

  4. We initially sent our first 2 kids to school and what a nightmare.
    The school we went to is the reason we chose to homeschool our children. We have one that is dyslexic. One that has apraxia of speech and one with some learning delays. Not huge issues but the school was actually making it worse so we ended up pulling them out, homeschooling and never looking back.

  5. My granddaughter, Chloe, has autism and we have the same boy/girl ratio problem you have mentioned. Our little one was not only non-verbal but totally silent, not toilet trained and was also a little escapologist when it was time for her to start school. Our entire family was focused on getting her into a decent school situation. None of the private schools in our area (Adelaide Hills) could accommodate her (due to her escaping skills) and the Education Department was initially uncooperative, wanting to send her on a 90km round trip in a taxi to a special school in the nearest large town. We were concerned for her safety (how could she tell us if something happened to her in the taxi) and refused this option. It turned out the Department was building a special unit at a primary school in her town which was due to open the year Chloe turned six, but we had to do our own research to find this out. We just wanted her to be able to go to school in her own town, a right that should be available to all children. To achieve this, we had to write heaps of letters, make many phone calls and my daughter (Chloe’s mum) was interviewed in the local press and on ABC radio about the plight of special needs kids. Eventually, Chloe was placed in a local special class, through the kindness of the teacher who agreed to take a few more kids for that year, and moved to the unit when it opened. We also received help from Kelly Vincent MLC the member for the Dignity for Disability party in the SA Parliament. It is a real battle to have our kid’s placed in proper situations, where they are taught, not just babysat and a good teacher is more than half the battle, no matter where you send your little one. Even some special needs teachers can be lacking in knowledge and empathy.
    As a consequence of our family’s battle I have returned to Uni at 58 and am doing a Law degree in the hope of gaining some advocacy skills to help other families, because this is an area of constant stress for so many families.
    It was lovely to see you and your beautiful family on Judith Lucy’s program last week. Good luck with your search for a school for your little one.

    • Oh Vanessa you are such a beautiful person. I’m sitting here crying, what a special thing to do to study and become an advocate. You do need to do your research. She sounds like a very special little girl:) Just beautiful:)

    • Sarah Driscoll says:

      Can i ask the name of the school please? We are currently looking. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

      Regards, Sarah.

  6. I happen to have a little guy (7) in a special needs class in a mainstream school. I just wanted to point out that yes his class has mostly boys and this can be an issue but if you look at the other side of it they will have to deal with people and not great situations all their life and it’s better to let them deal with it and learn from it. When he first started there were a couple of boys who would have outbursts sometimes a little violent. He didn’t start behaving in this way he knew it was wrong and he went about being him. He has made lovely little friendships with some of the girls in his class and he has learnt more than I ever imagined he would and more than I could have possibly taught him. He does have a fabulous teacher who is super positive and super encouraging. It’s tough! I know! The other thing is that when we were excepted into this placement we were told that many people turn down offers into special needs classes because they want their kid to go mainstream but I think it places too much pressure on teachers and makes life difficult for other children in the class- just something to consider. Hope you find something that works for you!

    • He sounds happy where he is:) Mainstream isn’t for us because we need more support and honestly so long as she has 1 or 2 girls in the grade I’m happy! Some places it’s been only 1 girl in the whole grade and I’d hate for her to be the only girl. Thank you so much for sharing about your little boy. I am really loving hearing where everyone has put their kids so I can see what everyone else does. Thank youxxxxxx

  7. Hi
    I am going through the exact same problem with my son who is autistic and verbal this year in Prep. We chose the same Catholic school as my other child who had a great experience there. Although they told me they could cope, they now phone me to pick him up every time he has a meltdown or ‘misbehaves’. This can be be 2 or 3 times a week. He doesn’t do full days at school. He spent more time at kinder than school. There is funding for 10 hours a week for an aide shared with another child. I’m not sure if I have made the right decision and I am starting to worry that they will change their mind and say he cant attend anymore. Ironically we moved from a regional area, thinking we would get better support in a capital city but that has not been the case at all. I am tired of worrying all the time when he is at school and just waiting for the phone to ring. I wish there was more advice and assistance for starting school for special needs children. All the best x

    • Hi exactly the same for us. We found a small department of education school, took him out of the small catholic school and he is amazing. Loves school, full days and oosh and excelled in a small calm, understanding environment. No behaviour issues . This is the second year now of the change and totally worth while.

  8. I’m afraid I have no great advice here. I have only dealt with mainstream schools. The children I have cared for have had various issues, mainly behavioural, but some speech problems & mild delays requiring physio/OT. The thing I found most helpful were diagnostic reports from specialists so we were all on the same page with what the child’s needs were when we talked to the school. It looks like you are doing lots of research & I hope you get a place somewhere that helps your gorgeous girl be all that she can be ☺

  9. Hi Corrie,
    Hope you find what is right for your gorgeous little girl. I a secondary school teacher and it may be a little different, but my advice from my experience and observations are that most kids that are full mainstream take longer to understand what is happening in the class, to fit in and get lost in the system. (I know there will be people that disagree and will say they experience has been perfect) Just telling you what I have seen and have had happen in my classes. The last school I was at had a special unit within the school. The kids spent the majority or all their time in the unit, and some of the kids would come and join some mainstream classes and get support from the support unit teachers. These where the kids that coped the best. Also the unit kids had some specialty classes within the rest of the school, so the whole support class had lessons with the mainstream teacher. I’m a technology teacher and each year took a support class and totally loved it. These kids got a lot more support and attention than (hate to admit it) than the special needs kid in my mainstream class. They still got the help that they needed but not as good as my support class that came to me from the unit with all the teachers aids etc. You teach differently and explain things differently. And it would be fair on the other 29 kids in the mainstream class if I taught the same as the support class. It’s just reality. If my child had special needs I would want them in a support unit right for them.

  10. I ‘live’ this issue every day, we live on a cattle station 60kms from our nearest school, my eldest two children mainstreamed for the first 2 years but in year 1 we realised my eldest had server Dyslexia. It turns out Education QLD did not recognize Dyslexia as a learning support problem, so here was a child that could not read or write and was not eligible for any learning support. After battling the school and the department for 9 long heartbreaking months I was asked by the principal ‘How much do you want us to ‘dumb’ it down for her?’ Needless to say I saw RED and immediately pulled her out and started the long journey of ‘Home Schooling’ through distance Education or School of the air ! I also spent many sleepless nights researching and was able to formulate a learning plan to suit her ….. Meanwhile my No.2 child was presenting with the same learning issues and my No.4 child was diadnosed with Autism (poor No.3 child brought himself up

  11. we decided on waldorf/steiner education for our child, she was diagnosed with ASD and it’s worked out beautifully she is accepted and loved and is doing fantastically eduactionally as well

  12. kindy lover says:

    Even though Elodie is of Kindy age now, you could apply for a delayed exit and do kindergarten again via eKindy at the Brisbane School of Distance Education
    You don’t have to live in Queensland to access this program as Kindergarten is federally funded (but you do have to satisfy one of the categories of enrolment; distance, itinerant worker/traveller or medical). Elodie could probably qualify and enrol under a “medical” category. A lot of families are turning to Distance Education in Queensland when mainstream schools can’t accommodate them due to varying special needs.

  13. Our son has high functioning Autism, but high functioning just means he is very smart, not that he actually functions well in social situations, and especially school. Our DECD coordinator has told us he is the most complex child on her books! He is mainstream schooled and had a year at an autism intervention program – a special class at another mainstream school. However we found that while we could feel more comfortable that we wouldn’t get called every five minutes to come and collect him (so it seems in a full mainstream setting) and he wasn’t suspended all the time as there was more understanding so they were able to defuse a situation before it got too bad, and did not actually cause meltdowns by pushing him into a box in which he doesn’t fit, he did regress. Being around only 4 other students increased his sensitivity to large groups so we had trouble outside of school in group settings. He also learned a lot of additional behaviours from other autistic kids that were not ideal and hard to break from. I personally believe kids like my son need a mainstream setting so that they can model appropriate behaviour as long as they are carefully watched and supported for bullying. I just wish there was more teacher and staff understanding in the mainstream setting.

  14. When we were looking at schools for our eldest (now in year 10) we were not looking at what they could offer her, but more our second child. We knew he would be needing a smaller school, with committed and friendly staff. We also knew when he was small he would be needing a school that went from prep to year 12. As we knew from that young age he would not handle the change into high school. (He is now year 7). With a lot of pray we were able to find a school in the most least likely place and from a person I had only encounted once in my workplace. Prayer and placing you trust in God. He will provide for your little girl the best place possible. Our son has thrived in a school I never knew existed 10 years ago.

  15. Oh Corrie I have so much to say! We went through a Special School. There is probably pressure around to go mainstream with funding (could be good for the school but maybe not the child). I have been a teacher’s aide both in a special school and in mainstream school with a special child. some teachers were happy for the child to colour n/draw/cut out etc. these teachers just do not simply have the time to,put into special needs from my experience. I had spoken with a number of teachers in our time (6 and they were friends and told me the truth) and they would rather not have special needs in a mainstream class. And yes boys outnumber girls! Good Luck wih it all xo

  16. Being on he level and truly honest our school journey was nothing short of a nightmare which lead to a very traumatised child. If I had my time over we would unchoose lots of our choices. Our biggest issue was that he was highly functioning and didn’t fit in mainstream and we initially tried that, then did satellite support classes but that didn’t work for him either as he was too high functioning, public support classes were also not suited to high functioning and he did not have servere enough impairment to suit a special school. Eventually when all our avenues were exhausted we began education at home. This so far has been our best choice yet however from a parent perspective and being 24/7 mum and teacher of a special child and wife and mother to others is not my first choice. However this choice has been by far the most advantageous and has shown the best results. I personally think private is the best option, first and foremost as you get what you pay for and I have seen good things happening for special needs kids in Catholic schools in recent years. They appear to be at the forefront in terms of embracing new ways to support and nurture special needs kids. It’s a very hard choice to make and made more difficult because what you may want may not eventuate. If you felt that another option was a better choice but didn’t have a placement straight away I would stay on their list and take the next best option. Every parent has their own story to tell but sadly from experience funding and support is a bit of a crock and you really need to be aware of that. Small class to teacher, aides win hands down every time, especially if speech really needs development. Hope this helps x

    • When I say private is the best choice I mean if you have to choose a school institution. First choice overall has been home education but it’s not for everyone and takes a lot of commitment. I would advocate though that school is trialed as each child and needs are so unique.

  17. Hi Corrie, coming late to this post but I can totally relate. The year before my eldest son (dx ASD) started school was the most emotionally taxing of my life. I desperately wanted schools to be warm and loving and accepting of my beloved boy… but so many were not. If you get the feeling that arms are folded when you meet school staff, run a mile. You and Elodie deserve arms open wide in a loving embrace. Terrible year! We did end up at a lovely tiny, tiny primary school though where our own therapists could help transition him in and it worked out well. But the emotions!

    Bear in mind that this all happened in 2002 and I can remember every pang! Same son just turned 18 and is in Year 12! Unreal.

    Our boy has been in mainstream, but small and rather protected environments. It’s been a real mixed bag and most of the work in class has been far beyond him. If I were redoing it, I might choose a support class instead, I often think. If you’d ever like to natter on the phone, do send an email, I’m always keen to chat to other additional needs mums, we’re a very special gang.

  18. I have 3 of 4 children with Special needs. My 10 year old has ASD and is in an autism specific class within a mainstream school and my 7 year old twins both have ASD and one has cerebral palsy (they all also have a genetic disorder). The twins are both in main stream with aides and funding and doing really well. I prefer them being in mainstream as it gives them more exposure to so called ‘neurotypical’ children.

  19. Trust your gut instinct! If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. You know your child the best. Also if they say “I have worked with lots of children with ……” Maybe true but no two children are the same. They all have different strengths, interests, fears and respond differently to behaviour strategies. The more information you can give the school the better. If they don’t want this information I would reconsider placing my child with them. Be organised with all the specialist reports you can. Just in case. You are your child’s best advocate.
    I work in the kinder setting supporting children with additional needs and was asked if I would go to school with one of the children I supported. The school the child attended offered lots for this child; play based learning, large spacious classrooms and low numbers. The principal and vice principal were great they allowed visiting specialists to come to the school and work with the child. Unfortunately the classroom teacher and the art craft and sport teacher were not so welcoming or supportive. We didn’t last the year.
    And most importantly …. look after yourself. Decisions aren’t set in concrete.
    Good luck.

  20. Ava's Grandma says:

    Hi Corrie, we have done the rounds with my special needs granddaughter. She is in Year 4 at a mainstream school with support from the Special Ed department. We love the school and the Special Ed teachers. She has been in classes where all the children learnt signing for her to communicate. The other parents loved it and, in fact, she’s a bit of a star there! We had her in a “special needs” school for pre-prep and prep but found that she was largely ignored by her teachers as most of the children were very needy and even agressive while Ava sat there quietly and well behaved. I used to drop her off and cry in the car park! She will have to go back there as her needs will become too much for mainstream schooling and we have to get our heads around that. I think now that it doesn’t really matter about which school as long as you have teachers and support staff who make you feel that your child is special and not just in the special needs area. You will just know if it feels right. My daughter has great instincts and the pragmatism to deal with it all. She trusts her gut and I’m sure you will too. The one thing I know is that with you on her side..she will be fine. I’m not just saying that as a platitude or cliche, it’s the truth. Good luck!

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