Parents are always on a lookout for the perfect school for their children. And when it comes to schools for children with special needs, parents are even more anxious and have many questions! What kind of a school? And what should school consist of if it has to cater to your child’s needs?
Here is a parent checklist that one can look up for children below 8 years of age who are beginning school:
- Teacher- Student Ratio: A good Teacher-Student ratio is very important. Ideally a classroom where 1:4 is maintained is an excellent ratio. It should not exceed 12 ideally looking into practical scenarios of schools around. More than 12 children for a teacher means that the child will need some additional support from an adult apart from the teacher. There may be exceptions to this but its good to ask this question.
- Relaxed Learning environment: Though academic skills are something that a school primarily teaches, it is important to note that the school should give freedom to the child in terms of his pace of learning the curriculum. E.g. A child who is lagging in fine motor skills (decided by the Occupational Therapist) should not be forced to write since it will lead to the child fearing or being aversive to it and not learn the skill even when he is actually ready for it.
- Play based Approach: Children below 5 years of age learn best through play. This play can be unstructured where the child is empowered to explore and learn his way. E.g. using clay, sand, running etc. where in the expectations are minimal. Later it can be structured (only if the child is ready) where there are some rules and the child needs to follow some directions of the teacher.
- Teacher Education/Awareness: The teacher should have knowledge or training in the area of special needs and be aware of the needs of different disorders E.g. children’s learning styles, Visual learners vs. Auditory learners. Sensory processing where the same child might be under sensitive or oversensitive to objects and activities. A child might respond better to sight word vocabulary approach than a phonics approach. An aware teacher can observe the child accurately. Its great if teachers in the school have undergone formal training for children with special needs.
- School Space: The school space should have adequate space for a child to engage in outdoor play. It should have a free play zone or room with sand/paint/water play to give the child necessary sensory breaks and encourage exploration. A classroom, which supplements its verbal instructions with pictures, is the ideal environment. E.g. when the beginning or end of a particular learning time like circle time, lunch, rhymes etc. is marked by a picture or poster which the teacher holds up, it is easier for the child to understand the change in schedule.
- “Functional” Curriculum: If Schools organize field trips that expose a child to regular activities like visit to a supermarket, restaurant, park etc. it can prepare the child for expected behaviors in a social situation. An introduction to household chores like filling water in a bucket, folding clothes, cleaning up or arranging utensils etc. can be very good functional skills included in the curriculum which will equip him/her for independence.
- Buddy System: If it’s an integrated school then it becomes important to sensitize the typically developing children in the school about how they can be a buddy or mentor for the child with special needs in their classroom. They can be the bridge for your child’s emotional growth and building friendships.
- Individualized Educational Plan (IEP): IEP at the beginning of the year needs to be made in consultation with the respective Class teacher, Special educator and parents so that realistic and functional goals can be targeted. Note: This plan will vary from child to child.
- Social skills development in a School Environment: Parents always feel that school is the ideal place for interacting with peers especially due to long working hours, nuclear family systems and limited family time to socialize. But what if the child is by himself and not exactly ready to socialize. As parents it is important to know from the school periodically as to where the child lies in terms of play with his peers. Is he involved in solitary play (playing alone) versus parallel play (playing next to another child without talking but noticing the other child or imitating his actions) vs. cooperative play (where the child is actually sharing toys and playing with a plan)!!! Based on the stage of play the IEP needs to be planned so that the child has adequate opportunities to socialize with other children.
- Additional Services and Shadow teacher: If the school provides additional services, like speech and occupational therapy then you need to ensure that the communication channels are open and that you can get to observe the session monthly once at least and you are given session updates regularly.Some schools allow a shadow teacher with the child who is basically a helper for the child in attending to the various activities in school. If there is a shadow teacher for your child please ensure that she provides adequate support. Taking over the child’s activities and initiations completely, makes him dependent. The policy should be “Less is More” so that the Shadow teacher can start to withdraw gradually for the child’s independence.
Having mentioned the above, it is important to note, if it is difficult to find a school that meets all the above criteria, you should ensure that it meets at least half the criteria. After all, it’s in the best interest of your child. Providing quality education in today’s times is expensive and it is important your child gets the best possible opportunities from his school.
It’s great to see many schools in India offering inclusive education, integrated classrooms and specialized education. However, I say this with a word of caution, We generally don’t do a thorough job in terms of “Quality” though the intent is good. As Parents you need to watch out for such/ any inconsistencies. My intention to write this article was to give you a perspective and as parents, what should you look out for. You may feel that you are alone and unsure in this journey. Its tough to decide what’s the right thing for your child. Don’t worry and keep the faith! We are in this together!!
Happy School Hunting!