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Choosing schools: children with disability

3-5 years

Decisions about the best primary school for children with disability can seem daunting. Visiting schools you’re interested in and talking with the principal about how the school can meet your child’s needs will help you find the right school for your child.

Primary school choices for children with disability

Decisions about where your child goes to school are very personal, and can be difficult in some cases. It’s common and normal to feel anxious about getting this decision right.

All families have a lot to think about when they’re choosing schools, including distance, finances and availability of before and after school care. When your child has disability, you’re likely to have extra considerations – for example, accessibility or learning support.

It’s a good idea to start thinking about school options two years (or more) before your child is due to start school.

First steps to choosing a primary school

The first step is to find out what primary school options there are near you.

You could talk to your child’s preschool teacher, professionals at your child’s early childhood intervention service, friends, and a disability advocacy service to get information and ideas.

If you already have another child at a primary school, that school could be a good place to start as you’ll have already explored its benefits and have a relationship with the school.

Once you’ve made a list of schools you’re interested in, you can explore them in more detail.

School open days and tours will give you a general feel for a school. It can be helpful to take a friend or a disability advocate so you can both gather information and discuss it afterwards.

You’ll get some sense of whether the school is right for your child from the:

  • welcome you and your child get
  • principal’s approach to supporting children with special needs
  • principal’s responses to your questions
  • school’s approach to education, diversity and inclusion
  • experiences of other families
  • extent to which inclusion is a focus in school policy documents.
Our school selection checklist has some things to consider and questions to ask to help you find the right school. You might need to find out about the rules for enrolling at special schools, as well as how to apply for education support.

Things to consider when choosing a school

When you’re researching a school or when you go to an open day or on a tour, it can help to think about the school’s physical environment, transport options, attitude to diversity and difference, approach to additional needs and policies.

Physical environment
Visiting the school will give you some idea of its facilities. Take note of the things you want to talk about more if these are concerns for your child – for example, accessibility or safety.

Diversity and difference
Visiting the school will also give you some idea of the school community. Are the children, families and teachers from different countries and cultures? Are there children with disability already attending the school?

Approach
If the principal and staff have a positive approach, you’re more likely to feel confident that school staff will keep your child safe and meet his educational and social needs.

Staff with a positive approach tend to:

  • focus on abilities
  • talk directly with your child, not just through you
  • support learning at an individual level and pace
  • make time to meet with you and any other relevant professionals
  • think about creative ways to adapt the environment, curriculum or activities to ensure your child is included.

If the school currently has or has had students with disability, this can give you a sense of how the school might go about including your child. But regardless of experience, a school that welcomes your child and family, is enthusiastic and has a positive approach has a lot going for it.

Policies
All schools have a range of policies to ensure the wellbeing of students and staff and to keep the school running smoothly.

These include policies on emergency procedures, management of medical conditions, bullying, attendance, student engagement and many other things. You can ask for copies of these documents.

Things to look for include inclusion of particular disabilities in policies such as student welfare or learning – for example, a specific mention of dyslexia in the language policy. Or policies that emphasise valuing difference – for example, a school with an inclusive environment policy might encourage visiting speakers who have such differences.

Questions to ask

The questions you ask will depend on your child’s needs and any particular concerns you have. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Physical access
You could ask the principal to tour the school with you to talk about accessibility, if this is a concern for your child. For example:

  • How would you adjust things so all areas of the school are accessible for my child?
  • How long will the adjustments take?
  • How will any changes be funded?

Safety
If your child tends to wander or has particular safety issues, you could ask some questions like these:

  • What kind of school security do you have during school hours?
  • How do staff keep track of children?
  • How often is the roll taken?
  • What happens if a student is missing?
  • What happens if there are strangers at or near the school?

Learning
Your child might need adjustments to tasks and activities in some or all areas of the curriculum. For example, if your child has an intellectual disability, she might need the curriculum to be modified for literacy and numeracy, but might be fine to go to art classes without any adjustments. Or if she has dyslexia, she might need access to text-to-speech technology.

You could ask about changes relevant to your child’s needs. For example:

  • How will my child in a wheelchair be included in outdoor physical games?
  • How will my child with limited hand movement be included in table activities?
  • How will my child using a communication device be included in the literacy program?
  • How will my child be included in school camps and excursions?
  • How will my child have the opportunity to publicly demonstrate his strengths?
  • Will my child have a targeted resilience program to support her emotional health and wellbeing?

The school might not have all the answers, but you should feel reassured that the staff will explore ways to include your child in all activities. 

Communication
You might ask about communication within the school. For example:

  • Who will get the information about my child’s needs and strategies to support him?
  • How will information about how best to teach my child be passed on to teachers and other relevant staff from one year to the next?
  • How will the school ensure that the strategies in my child’s behaviour (or other) support plan are put into practice by all staff who work with my child?

And you can also ask how school staff will communicate with you. For example:

  • How will you let me know about everyday things?
  • How often will we have a student support group meeting?
  • Who should I talk to if I have concerns?

Complex care needs
If your child has complex medical or personal care needs, you might want to ask questions such as the following:

  • How can the school meet my child’s needs so she is cared for safely and with dignity, privacy and respect?
  • Does the school have a school nurse?
  • Who will be managing my child’s medical and/or personal care needs?
  • How many staff will be trained in managing my child’s needs? Will there always be someone available to cover staff absences?

Social interaction
Here are some examples of questions to ask about social interaction for your child:

  • How does the school encourage and support social interaction generally?
  • Is help available in the playground to encourage, supervise and support social interaction?
  • Is there a supervised room available at lunchtime for students to play board games and other activities?
  • Where can my child go if he needs some quiet time?
  • How does the school manage the interactions between older and younger students? (This question is especially important if you’re considering a school that goes from prep or kindergarten to Year 12.)

Transport
It’s worth checking out practical things such as transport. For example:

  • Does the school have a bus (or other transport) service for students?
  • What areas does the bus service go to?
  • Do we have to pay for this?
  • How will it accommodate my child who uses a wheelchair?

Outside school hours care
If you need out of school hours care, here are some questions to ask:

  • Does the school provide an out of school hours (OOSH) program, or is there an arrangement with a school nearby that provides one?
  • How will the program look after my child’s needs?

Making a final choice about primary schools

To make your final choice, you’ll need to look again at all the information you have from each of the schools you’re interested in. It might be worth talking through it all with the professionals who work with your child, as well as with friends and family, and disability advocates.

If you have any further questions, speak to the principals again. You should be welcome to visit a school as many times as you want to.

The right school is one where your child and family feel accepted and supported.

State and territory education departments

For more information, you could contact your state or territory education department:

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Last updated or reviewed
15-10-2013

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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