Mainstream or special needs school? How do you choose? 

With my own child the decision as to whether he went to a mainstream or special needs school was eventually taken out of my hands. After some disastrous experiences in two schools, one a mainstream, the other a mainstream school with an ASD unit, it was absolutely clear that he couldn’t cope in a mainstream school. He needs extremely focussed one to one teaching in a small environment. He is now in a special needs school where he’s in a class of four children with 3 teachers, in a small unit – one of a few units. 

Now he is absolutely thriving, his education is coming on in leaps and bounds, and socially he’s flourishing, he’s still volatile and becomes disregulated often and quite easily but his behaviour is incredibly well managed and he’s allowed to be completely himself. Whereas in his previous school they tried, I kid you not- to normalise him. 

Originally I was firmly against the idea of a special school. I worried that he wouldn’t be well socialised, and that he might be mollycoddled. I envisioned him leaving school utterly incapable of coping with the world at large. Fortunately my fears seem to be completely unfounded. The school is, as well as giving him a good education, teaching him valuable life skills, and he socialises more than he probably would at a mainstream school with regular trips to offsite activities and regular shopping trips. These off site activities also teach him life skills and help  equip him to cope with these things. 

I’m aware that schools such as this are far and few between and we’ve been extremely lucky. 

Some children with special needs  can and do thrive in a mainstream environment whether it’s a mainstream school, or a mainstream school with an ASD unit attached. It really depends entirely on what each particular child can manage. 

But knowing your child is safe in whichever school you choose is obviously the most important thing. 

So how do you go about making the choice, if of course the decision is not one that’s made for you? 
This is what I’ve learnt along the way. 

I think that the most important thing is to understand that neither option is a cop out. I had originally been afraid that I was somehow letting my child down by not giving him the opportunity to attend a mainstream school. And I think it would be easy to feel the reverse in choosing a special needs school 

We, as parents know our children best, we know their needs, what they can cope with, as well as their individual personalities. 

If you are trying to make the decision I would say that the best thing is to visit as many schools as possible, have a whole bunch of questions ready. Write your questions down because if you’re anything like me you’ll forget them, and then as soon as you leave they’ll pop back into your head. 

It’s important to think about whether your child will cope in the school building itself, Some children cannot cope with the size of a mainstream school, the large class numbers, the lights, smells, and the brightly coloured wall displays.

Aside from finding out what the special needs policies are ask them about how different scenarios would be dealt with. What would they do if this happened and how would they deal with that? 

How much actual knowledge and experience do the staff have of autism, and are they trained to restrain safely? 

Not often, but sometimes my son needs to be restrained, as much for his own safety as anything else. The staff are all trained to do this safely, and it’s only ever done for a couple of minutes at the most, but because I know they are properly trained I’m not at all worried that any harm will come to him. Also because my son has never been hurt while being restrained he’s not left with bad memories of it. 

Is your child a runner ?

Mine used to be, and in one of his previous schools he could actually get out. Is the school secure if they run? 

Is there a quiet place your child can go to if they are feeling stressed? 

Does the school have a safe place for your child in the event of a meltdown? 

In my sons school they have rooms with plastic windows, the floor and walls are padded and there’s no furniture, the teacher sits either with the child or outside of the room with the door open, so my son can’t hurt himself or anyone else. 

The classroom doors are locked so my son can get out of a room (he cannot actually escape from the building) but not  in so if he’s in a meltdown he can’t get into another classroom to disrupt anyone. That might all sound drastic but it means everyone is safe at all times. 

What repercussions do certain behaviours have?

  In his mainstream school after a meltdown my son was expected to go to a meeting to apologise for his behaviour, which was awful for him because not only were the meetings highly stressful in themselves, he was expected to apologise for behaviour that was beyond his control, and then asked to promise it wouldn’t happen again (even in the ASD unit) when he simply couldn’t promise this. His “bad” behaviour was never wilful it was a result of him being triggered. In his current school time outs are given if their behaviour has been difficult, allowing the child to think about their behaviour but they aren’t made to go into meetings to make promises they just aren’t able to make. 

In the ASD unit it was against their policy to allow him to wear his hat, which is actually hugely important to him, and is in fact in his EHCP as a need. They would try to take his hat away every day, which of course triggered meltdowns, which he would then be made to apologise for. 

What life skills will the school teach your child? 

Do they focus on helping your child work towards independent living (as far as possible) which may be taken for granted with a neurotypical child. 

What sort of parent-teacher communication does the school have?

My sons teacher texts me at the end of the day to tell me all about his day. Which I find incredibly valuable as he isn’t always able to tell me, and if he’s had a difficult day he’s not always forthcoming with details. The texts mean I’m fully able to help him cope with anything that’s happened. 

Will your child be well supervised at break times? 

At my sons school the classroom staff are outside with them at break times, and as it’s a small unit there aren’t too many children for him to cope with. 

At lunchtime my son eats his lunch in the classroom with his classmates and teachers, he is well supported throughout every part of his day. 

Another important consideration is the journey, will your child cope? Will they manage if they need to use public transport? When my son was in the ASD unit we needed to take a bus, it was a reasonably short journey but was often so stressful that by the time we arrived at school he was already so disregulated that he couldn’t cope with the school day. 

Sometimes children are eligible for transport provided by the local authority, my son is now taken to school and back in a taxi with an escort. It’s worth finding out this before applying for a school. 

You need to question absolutely every thing, (and a good school won’t mind you doing so) right down to the nitty gritty. 

Once you are in possession of as much information as possible it’s much easier to feel able to make the best decision. 

Once you’ve made that decision, if things aren’t going well, although upheaval is not ideal, it’s ok to hold your hands up and say it’s not working. It’s not failure! Sometimes you just can’t know unless you try. 

I’ve made a bullet point list of the useful questions . Feel free to print the list. 

How did you go about deciding between a mainstream or special needs school? What advice would you give to anyone making this decision? 
Let us know in the comments. 


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