For any parent, a child’s first day of school is exciting, unforgettable, and nerve-wracking, all rolled into one. And if your child has special needs, multiply all those feelings by 10. 

Your journey through the educational system is bound to be different than most other parents. One day earlier this year, I fielded a call from my son’s gym teacher, who told me that his “shoes kept falling off.” I was still scratching my head over that when I got a text from his special education teacher to inform me that he had been flipping everyone the bird. (His dad and I are still unsure where he picked it up. In our child’s mind, it was on par with giving people the thumbs up. He was doing it enthusiastically and with a huge go-get-’em grin.) And that was just in one day.

I was able to keep my cool primarily because I love my son’s teachers and the special education classroom at his school. I know they’re well-equipped to handle these kinds of incidents. 

I wasn’t always this confident, though. 

Finding the Right Special Needs Classroom

He’s finishing the second grade, but I still remember touring elementary school classrooms, wondering how this kid, who never even sat for a bath his whole life, would adjust to sitting at a desk most of the school day. How much recess time would he get? What would his teacher do if he had one of his famous shoe-throwing meltdowns? 

My son is deaf and has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so classroom acoustics were of particular interest to me. How loud would it get with 30 kids packed in here? Would he be allowed to take “listening breaks” as needed? Would his teacher be able to handle replacing the batteries in his cochlear implants if they died?

Your concerns for your child are likely quite different from the ones I had for mine, but special education classrooms are designed to meet a range of needs. 

Every state — every school district, in fact — approaches such classrooms differently, says Caroline Roesel, M. Ed., BCBA, LBA, clinical lead behavior analyst for Elemy in Texas. “I have seen districts where they have an autism unit at one school, and if your child has autism, that’s where they will go,” she says. In other cases, classrooms may be mixed, with kids who have different diagnoses grouped together.  

Ultimately, Roesel says, the school decides where to place the child based on an initial assessment, which some states call a Full and Individual Assessment Test (FIE) and some an Admission Review and Dismissal (ARD). Her universal advice is to start that process as early as possible — at least six months before your child begins school. 

“Know how to advocate for yourself or bring people who can,” she says. Changing a placement later tends to be difficult, so now is the time to ensure your child’s needs in the classroom will be addressed.

Special Needs Classrooms Are Not Created Equal

Few people know that struggle better than Tiffany Hamilton, the Alexandria, Virginia–based CEO of Victor Wear, a clothing line inspired by her 15-year-old son, Isaiah. Isaiah was diagnosed with high-functioning autism around age 7 and went to five different schools before finding one that fit him.

Tiffany moved from Florida to Potomac, Maryland, to enroll her son in kindergarten there. It was a private school she had researched and believed would be perfect for him based on their focus on the Floortime model and sensory integration support. And it was — until a tuition hike priced them out of the school the next year. 

Tiffany tried another private school for her son’s first- and second-grade years, which she describes as “more for general learning disabilities.” But the commute was significant, and Isaiah picked up negative behaviors he hadn’t had before. So for third grade, his mom sent him to public school. They placed him in an Asperger’s program, which she says “was the most horrible fit and terrible for his confidence.” 

It wasn’t until he was transferred to a classroom for high-functioning autism the following year that he finally began to thrive. “He had an incredible teacher; he made friends and had more confidence,” Tiffany says.

What she learned from this experience, she says, is that “just because a classroom is special needs does not mean it’s the right fit for your child.” Never be afraid to keep looking until you find the one that is. 

“It’s hard when your child is young and still developing, but pay attention to how they learn: Are they visual, are they verbal, are they experiential?” Tiffany says. “That will help you find the right curriculum and make sure they are being challenged.”

Asking the Right Questions

Here are five essential questions to ask when you’re considering a classroom or program:

  1. What is the ratio of adults to children in the classroom? 

Most special education classrooms have a much smaller ratio so teachers can better attend to the needs of individual students. My son’s class sizes have only been six or seven students.

  1. Are there opportunities to push in or pull out?

While your child may spend most of their day in a special education classroom, many schools have programs where service providers, such as my son’s teacher of the deaf, come into a general education classroom to work with a student one-on-one. Students can also be pulled out of the special ed classroom for select classes to join their neurotypical peers for part of the day.

  1. How often will my child be with their neurotypically developing peers? 

Special education can be great for addressing a child’s academic needs, but it can also be socially isolating. Find out what opportunities exist to mingle. Recess? Lunch? Specials like art or library?

  1. What are the main focuses of the curricula, and will my child be sufficiently challenged by this?

Will your child primarily focus on core curricula or the prerequisite skills necessary to move to a general education classroom, like washing hands and matching identical objects? Public schools often set the bar low for children with special needs to ensure they don’t regress on goals, says Roesel. You are the best judge of whether your child is being challenged enough — or too much. 

  1. What is the disciplinary policy?

Special education teachers are equipped to deal with a range of behaviors. But if your child is prone to acting out, gauge how they will handle that — and how they will communicate about it.

You’ll also want to ask about seeing a special education classroom firsthand. Many are equipped with accommodations like wobble chairs or weighted vests for kids with sensory issues. And if you’re looking at private schools, look into their accreditation, which can be an indicator of a school’s performance, Roesel says. 

I feel fortunate that my son ended up in the classroom he did with the teacher he did. There have been a few middle-finger-shaped bumps in the road, but I forget them when his special ed teacher texts me a photo of my son and a classmate, both snazzy in three-piece suits on Dress-Up Day, with the caption, “My heart couldn’t take it.” Mine either, Ms. King. Mine either.