What to look for when choosing a school for a child with special needs, in NZ

One of the most challenging, and most important, decisions we make as parents of young children with special needs, is where to send them to school.

I have two children with various special needs. One of my children has been to four schools, the other to three, between them they’ve been to five different schools, including private and public, special and mainstream, and high, mid, and low decile. Across the years I’ve had some wonderful and some horrible school experiences, and have been on a school board, I’ve also been in regular contact with many other families of children with special needs. I’ve learned a lot across that time and through those experiences about what to look for in a school when you’re trying to find one for a child with special needs, I’ve also learned that a lot of parents struggle to know what to look for – thus this post! I hope you find it useful, and I’d love to get your own ideas on what you look for and have experienced too.school

Finding schools

Begin by identifying what your school options are. This Ministry of Education search page will help you identify the schools near you.You can attend your local public school if you are in zone – the site will show you the zones, as should the school’s own web page. You can also attend any public school that doesn’t have a zone, and you can attend any private school if you can afford their fees and meet their specific entry requirements. If you receive ORS funding – or have otherwise been given government and school permission to do so – you may also be able to send your child to their local special school, these schools typically have large catchment areas and have zones too.

ERO Reports

Next, look at a school’s latest ERO report – these are reports done by an official government body, the Education Review Office, looking for strengths and weaknesses within the school. Those reports can be found by entering the school’s name in the search bar on this page. Particularly look for any mention of how the school values and caters to children with special needs. These reports will give you other useful information when trying to find the right school for your child, such as the number of children attending the school (more on that below).

Be mindful of the review cycle that the school is under. If the government is comfortable with how the school is being run, it will be on a three year review cycle. If the school is being reviewed more often than that, then there are likely to be some real issues going on at the school, often at a high level, which can mean the school is going through a lot of changes or needs to go through a lot of changes – either way, that state of flux is not conducive to the settling in and support of a child with high needs; if a school is struggling, it’s unlikely to have the time and resources at hand that your child needs. Conversely, if a school is on a four-to-five year review cycle, it shows the government is very happy with how the school is being run and that can in-turn boost your own confidence that they’re likely to be well-placed for the challenges your child may bring.

The school’s own website

Your next stop should be the school’s own website – do a web search for the name of the school, and look for the link that has .school.nz on the end. By looking through their website you should be able to find evidence of how they value and support children with special needs. Their page should help you identify any extra services they offer, whether they have a SENCo on staff (more on that below too), and whether they have fixed teacher aides on staff. Look for the school’s stated values and priorities – if high grades and sports turn up everywhere, but there’s no mention of having a safe and caring and accepting environment, that may be a red flag. Keep an eye out for any mention of their view towards bullying as well – a “zero-tolerance” approach tends to mean the school in mindful and concerned about the well-being of all students.

Student and class numbers

Generally speaking, you’re best off with a school that has more than one classroom for each grade, this will make it more likely that they can find a teacher to suit your child’s needs and temperament since there is a choice available, and means if something goes horribly wrong with one of the teacher or classmates relationships then there is another teacher and class option within the school for your child. I actually recommend trying to find the larger schools, this may seem counter-intuitive because a smaller school would presumably get to know your child better and have more individual time for them, so I’ll explain this point further:

Large schools are more likely to have a special needs structure permanently in place, with permanent and experienced and trained staff, because of the frequency with which they are likely to encounter children with a wide range of special needs. They are more likely to have long-term teacher aides on staff, which is a huge advantage – short-term and brief placement teacher aides wont have a good working understanding of the school and its grounds, they wont have established relationships with key school staff. The longer a teacher aide has been around, the more likely that have the experience, training, and proven record that will benefit your child. Large schools are also often better at pooling their resources and money and organizing what they have available to them because of the flexibility that comes with having more of it (due to per-child allocations), and they’re more likely to have particular equipment available to them because of prior or widespread need within the school population.

There are going to be some small schools that do a great job of these things too, of course, and some large schools that don’t have such good systems and structures in place, but generally speaking the larger schools seem to cope better in this area.

SENCo

If a school has a SENCo – a Special Education Needs Coordinator – it’s generally a good sign, since this role is not compulsory in our schools and can be very useful. Generally speaking, a SENCo has a good working understanding of what the child may be entitled to from the government and how to go about getting it, and should have a positive working relationship with the local government-funded service providers. However, many schools don’t properly value this role, and may be giving the position to someone who is already working a full load within the school as a class teacher, or be farming out the role to whoever wants to take it on without much care as to whether that person is experienced or knowledgeable about the area and people they will be working with. A classic example of how a school can get this very wrong, is the year my children’s school changed it’s SENCo three times, causing immense disruption to my children’s supports and not identifying or completing important applications for supports. So the presence of a SENCo is a good thing, but until you’ve met with the SENCo it can be hard to get a sense of how good a thing it actually is, which brings us to the next suggestion:

The school visit

Any school you are wanting to send your child to, should be very willing and able to meet with you well in advance of when your child would begin class. This first meeting should be with the SENCo if there is one, otherwise with someone high up in the school (such as a Deputy or Assistant Principal) who has the power to influence what class your child will be placed in and who has a good understanding of what the school has available to support your child. This meeting will be perhaps your best guide to the attitude of the school towards children with special needs – are the people you are meeting with happy to see you, eager to please, relaxed and confident they can care for your child, or are these people nervous, unsure, reluctant or dismissive, do they say anything that makes you feel your child will be unwanted or a burden, if so, get ready to look elsewhere; you don’t want a fight on your hands and you don’t want to be pulling your child out of that school part way through the year (been there, done that).

Take a support person with you to the meeting, see what they thought of the school and staff too. Take some questions along, ask about what supports and services are in place at the school already, ask whether they’re experienced with dealing with children who have similar challenges to your own child – share a lot about your own child, be honest and up-front. Watch for their reactions to the information you share – you want the knowing smiles and the reassurance, not the furtive sideways glances and the sharp in-takes of breath.

Try to get a staff member from that meeting to take you on a walking tour of the school during school time, this will give you a good feel of how settled and happy the kids are, what safety risks might be on site, and whether the classroom set-up will pose any issues for your child. Being round during playtime is good too, the way children interact with each other during free-time is a great indicator of school attitudes and expectations.

If you decide you’re serious about sending your child to that chosen school, then the school should also assign a teacher well before your child begins in that class, and you should be able to meet with that teacher and visit the future classroom – with your child – as many times as you need to before they start school there. This is a great opportunity to help the teacher prepare for the challenges ahead, and to help your child feel settled and comfortable with the schooling ahead. It is important that you feel comfortable with your child’s teacher too, because they’ll be spending the most time with your child when at school, and you’ll be dealing with them more than anyone else at the school. If it feels wrong – if this isn’t the right person for your child – think through why you feel that way and whether it can be fixed or whether you may need to request a different teacher (and be willing to clearly explain why you’re making that request, chances are the school can help reassure you or address the concern).

If the school is unwilling to even meet with you, or wants to put off any such meeting until very close to the start date for your child, those are solid signs that they’re not taking your needs seriously and don’t appreciate what supports they’re going to have to have in place ready-to-go for your child’s first day there.

Decile

New Zealand schools are ranked by decile, where 10 is the highest and represents a high socioeconomic school population-pool whereby the school relies more on parent donations and receives less government funding – with the reverse being true for decile 1 (low parent financial input, high government financial input). Decile ranking has nothing to do with the quality of the staff or the teaching, it’s simply an (often unhelpful) reflection of the wealth, education, and employment levels of the school community.

People have all sorts of preconceptions about the relevance of decile ranking when it comes to helping out kids with special needs. Some think low decile is better because they have more government funding and are more used to dealing with challenging children, others think high decile is better because they have more money overall to draw from despite the lesser government contributions and they have more ability to focus on the needs of those with disabilities since they aren’t bogged down in dealing with other everyday social issues of children turning up with (for example) no shoes and no lunch. Some say lower decile schools have a more relaxed and accepting attitude towards special kids and that high deciles tend to be more elite and overly focused on strict rules and grades, others say low decile have more “troubled” children attending so a higher likelihood of their child being bullied or hurt while at school. I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered having had my kids in a whole range of deciles:

Deciles don’t matter. Visit the school, read the ERO report, do all those other things, do not think of decile ranking as a shortcut to figuring out how well the school will cope with your child. Because it really isn’t. It is definitely relevant to whether you may even be able to afford to send your child to that school (think uniforms and fees and donations-that-aren’t-donations), but it doesn’t give you much insight at all on how well set up the school will be to actually resource and support your child. That last sentence goes for choosing a private versus a public school too – how well off a school is, is not decisive, you’ll need to take all those other things I’ve mentioned into consideration as more essential than a school’s income sources.

Other parents’ opinions

I’ve left the most important, and hardest to access, for last: Talk to other parents of children with special needs, who have sent or do send their child to that school. They’ve seen the school in action, they know the staff, they’ve heard the rumours and know if they’re true. Ask those parents how the school has dealt with issues when they arise – there will be issues with our children, the question is how well a school deals with them. Ask the parents what communication is like within the school, how well and how often the teachers interact with them. Of course parents opinions can be highly subjective, and some will love what others hate, but the more parents you talk to from a school, the better sense you will get of what it’s really like to send your child to that school. You want to find that one brutally honest parent who hit a hard time and who the school either worked with to sort it out to everyone’s advantage, or who the school drove away or gave up on.

It’s hard to access other parents from a school you don’t attend yet, harder still to find the ones who have children with special needs, and harder yet to find the brutally honest ones! But give it a go – use online forums or friends-of-friends – because it’s worth the effort.

There you have it. Hopefully that list was helpful, do let me know if I’ve left something major out and what your own experiences have been like. And good luck in your search for the right school for your individual child.

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2 Responses to What to look for when choosing a school for a child with special needs, in NZ

  1. Judith Waterhouse says:

    I work in a school that this year introduced Innovative Learning Environments. While this flexibility allows students to have opportunities to self mange their learning, it is wrecking havoc with our ASD students who are struggling with the reduced structure in their day and the degree of noise when two and three classes are now combined in much bigger spaces.
    Previously there was little need to withdraw from a class due to sensory overload but now things are drastically different and the stress levels for those on the spectrum are exceptionally high.

    This is another thing to be mindful of, when looking at schools, especially larger schools that can combine classes within the same year groupings.

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