Special Education in Private Schools: An Expert-Driven Guide for Parents

Selecting the right educational environment for a child with special needs is intensely personal – and immensely challenging. You want accommodation solutions tailored to your child specifically. This leads many parents like yourself to ask: what services can private schools provide?

As an education reform advocate consulting families for over 18 years, I‘ve fielded this question time and again. The answer varies based on disability type, state regulations, and school resources – no universally "correct" approach exists. Still, with comprehensive planning, private institutions can absolutely empower students requiring specialized support.^^1^^

My goal is to present that nuance while equipping you to make an informed, thoughtful decision regarding your child. Let‘s delve into exactly what private education does (and doesn‘t) provide in the special needs context, including creative funding solutions. With the right information and advocacy, you can identify environments facilitating your child‘s long-term success.

The Legal Responsibilities of Public vs. Private Institutions

First and foremost, we must examine how state and federal laws differentiate public and private school obligations regarding disability accommodations. Two foundational policies protect students requiring special education services:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Enacted in 1975, IDEA entitles all children to a "free appropriate public education" grounded in their unique needs.^^2^^ This mandates that public schools provide:

  • Special education classroom environments as necessary
  • Tailored learning plans mapping academic/functional goals
  • Custom modifications enabling access to general curricula
  • Related services like speech, occupational or physical therapy

Critically, IDEA standards encompass an IEP – an Individualized Education Program developed to support the precise needs of your child.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Unlike IDEA, ADA legislation applies to ALL educational institutions, both public and private.^^3^^ ADA dictates that schools:

  • Must not discriminate against students with disabilities
  • Make "reasonable accommodations" ensuring equal program access

So while private schools need not provide IEPs, excluding or failing to assist students with disabilities constitutes illegal discrimination under ADA. Institutions cans still be compelled to implement accommodations enabling opportunity – though considerable ambiguity exists around standards.

Given this background, weighing public and private options means balancing legal certainty with program customization. Let‘s compare factors influencing this decision:

Public Schools Private Schools
Legally required to provide IEPs and services tailored to your child Not obligated to offer IEPs – more flexibility in services
Access to government funding assistance Potentially fewer funding sources
Typically higher student-to-teacher ratios Often smaller class sizes and teacher attention
Standardized disability resources Varies immensely based on each individual school

As you can see, while public schools promise procedural guarantees, private ones may better personalize support to your child if foundational offerings exist. Now, what might those services look like?

Special Education Services Common Among Private Schools

Given their legal latitude, offerings differ drastically across private institutions. However, many incorporate certain accommodations and therapies:

Typical Academic Accommodations

While options depend on resources, private schools often provide classroom adaptations like:

  • Low student-teacher ratios for increased 1:1 assistance
  • Preferential seating minimizing distractions
  • Accessibility tools and technologies (audio textbooks, speech assistance software)
  • Modified seating options (exercise balls, standing desks) tuned to personal needs
  • Extended time allowances for assignments and exams
  • Sensory items (fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones)

Such customized supports integrate seamlessly into general academics, enabling your child to learn alongside peers. Teachers attentive to individual needs make this feasible.

Related Therapeutic Services and Interventions

Beyond accommodations, many prestigious private schools deliver therapeutic services addressing foundational skills, including:

  • Speech therapy: Enhances communication abilities like articulation, intonation, comprehension and social interaction
  • Occupational therapy (OT): Develops fine motor skills, sensory processing and regulation mechanisms
  • Physical therapy (PT): Improves core strength, mobility, balance and coordination

In fact, a 2022 survey of over 130 prominent private schools found 87% offered occupational therapy and 92% provided speech therapy programs.^^4^^ Such intensive intervention empowers students to concentrate, communicate and regulate emotions effectively to access complex curriculum content.

Specialized Programs Targeting Specific Learning Needs

Recently, disability-specific interventions grew increasingly popular in private education, including:

  • Dyslexia: Orton-Gillingham, Lindamood Bell, Wilson Reading System
  • ADHD/Executive Functioning: Cognitive behavior therapy, targeted organizational skill building
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: Applied behavior analysis (ABA), TEACCH, Floortime

Let‘s examine ABA for autism as an example – centering consistency, structure and clear incentives, ABA-based programs can greatly enhance communication and self-regulation abilities.^^5^^ Such research-backed methods exclusive to select private schools give them an edge addressing certain disabilities.

Now that we‘ve explored primary offerings, what does accessing these services actually entail?

Gaining Admission and Securing Needed Accommodations

While private schools provide encouraging options, succeeding there still requires planning and self-advocacy:

Discussing Specific Needs Early and Clearly

I always advise parents to initiate detailed conversations about their child during admissions. Schedule meetings with administrators to explain needs, providing concrete examples of successful prior accommodations. Come armed with diagnostic documentation.

While difficult, such candor gives schools insight to assess fit. It also opens the door to creative solutions catering to your child specifically later. Don‘t downplay substantial needs – articulate them.

Supplying Necessary Disability Documentation

To access accommodations, you must supply concrete evidence of your child’s needs. Submit:

  • Full diagnostic evaluations and results summaries from psychologists, neurologists, testing specialists and clinicians
  • Relevant medical records and statements from physicians, including primary care providers and therapists
  • Previous 504 plans or IEPs documenting helpful adaptations at past schools or programs

This provides critical justification for services while conveying exactly what supports your child requires. Keep copies as a helpful reference for developing an eventual specialized assistance plan.

Crafting Customized Accommodation Plans

Unlike legal IEPs, private school plans balance unique needs with available programming and resources. Expect extensive collaborative meetings with administration and special education staff to tailor a strategy. Plan periodic check-ins to track progress and refine approaches.

Though concrete services vary by school, the best institutions provide written expectations of how they intend to assist your child across academic and social contexts. Don’t hesitate to fiercely advocate for inclusion in areas like:

  • Mainstream core academics
  • Electives and extracurricular activities
  • Social skill building opportunities
  • External therapeutic services

For example, after presenting Becky’s dyslexia assessment results, her parents Matt and Andrea worked with administrators toward three weekly sessions of 1:1 decoding instruction, audiobook use to bolster reading comprehension, and additional notetaking assistance in humanities courses. While tailoring required resources, the school respected evidence of Becky’s needs, collaborating to enable her success.

Certainly, securing the right consistent assistance is paramount – and doing so requires diligence. But done thoroughly, private schools can absolutely provide customized, attentive support exceeding even high-quality public environments. You must simply take the lead marshaling resources and safeguarding your child.

Financing Special Education at Private Schools

Naturally, cost represents the primary barrier to private school attendance. While daunting, various creative mechanisms help ease the considerable financial burden:

Public Funding and Insurance-Based Assistance Programs

Depending on eligibility, certain government and publicly-funded programs defray special education costs, including:

  • Medicaid: Funds therapies like speech, OT and PT for low-income students in private (and public) schools^^6^^
  • State voucher programs: Subsidize private tuition in several regions if public options remain inadequate for a given child

Additionally, carefully review health insurance plan details – policies sometimes reimburse therapies or assessments associated with special needs programs. Keep immaculate financial records and appeal claim denials for maximum coverage.

While navigating these systems poses immense frustration, persistence pays dividends – specialized education consultants can provide invaluable assistance identifying possible funding supports.

Needs-Based Private School Financial Assistance

Many independent schools set aside considerable funding exclusively for families who couldn’t otherwise afford attendance. In fact, over two thirds of private institutions offer some type of need-based financial aid.^^7^^

These grants reduce overall tuition drastically, occasionally even covering full demonstrated need. Applications typically require extensive financial records like past tax returns and pay stubs. Submit required paperwork annually before admission – earlier is better.

Additionally, draft letters conveying your unique challenges, highlighting what makes their school a good fit, and explaining precisely how aid will help. Some institutions even earmark assistance specifically for special needs families facing extraordinary costs – make your case!

External Scholarships and Private Grants

Beyond institutions themselves, many external groups like non-profits also provide financial help, including:

  • **National Center for Learning Disabilities:** Awards over $135,000 in annual scholarships^^8^^
  • **Disease-specific associations like Autism Speaks:** Often issue private grants
  • **Regional disability advocacy groups:** May offer application-based scholarships or tuition relief

Securing sufficient support is intensely difficult – but leveraging the multitude of possible sources makes attending otherwise prohibitively expensive schools feasible. Consult child development professionals for personalized guidance navigating this financial labyrinth.

Selecting the Best Private School Match

Given the vast diversity across private institutions, selecting the right one for your child‘s needs is paramount. You must balance setting-specific and child-specific factors in your search.

Assessing Programming and Services

Rigorously investigate special education approaches at each prospective institution – look far beyond marketing descriptors.

The National Association of Independent Schools maintains an excellent searchable database profiling various special needs accommodation policies. Leverage this to identify quality options.

Prioritize robust related service offerings (speech, OT, PT), certified special education staff, and favorable teacher-student ratios. Consult rating organizations like GreatSchools for additional insights.

If program descriptions seem vague or lack detail, tread carefully – unclear resource allocation often signals deficiency. Special needs advocacy groups serving your region also provide candid "inside perspectives" on reputable options in the area.

Schedule extensive conversations with leadership about documented policies and procedures – get precise service commitments in writing. Though time-consuming, directly assessing institutional priorities proves invaluable.

Visiting Prospective Schools In-Depth

Once identifying candidate schools, go beyond the standard tour to scrutinize special education delivery firsthand. Observe actual classroom dynamics rather than curated presentations. Watch if students seem actively engaged and teachers attentive. Also notice peer social dynamics – equality and inclusion matters immensely.

Speak candidly with current or former special needs families regarding their experiences – positive and negative. Though imperfect, these narratives offer the best testimonials guiding decision making.

Factoring in Your Child’s Individual Needs

Aside from programming, incorporate your child’s learning styles and personality into the matching process. If they struggle severely with transitions, large campuses may overwhelm – small, nurturing environments better suit their temperament.

Alternatively, gifted students requiring intense subject-based acceleration need schools facilitating that enrichment. Carefully determine which settings best match strengths and areas for growth.

While pragmatic factors like staff training certainly matter, don’t underestimate these human elements either – environment impacts development immensely. What “feels right” for your child? Prioritize locations nurturing self-confidence and resilience alongside academic skills. The “optimal place” looks different for every student.

Final Thoughts

At their best, private schools provide highly customized special education support exceeding most public options. However, securing these accommodations requires informed advocacy. Commit to understanding policies, vigorously contesting discrimination, and fighting for services. With diligence, you can absolutely access excellent assistance tailored to your child.

Speak openly with administrators about unique needs from your first conversations, backed by thorough diagnostic evidence. Maintain courteous, collaborative dialogue while standing firmly for their best interests. Expect compromise balancing student needs with finite resources.

Additionally, pursue every possible funding mechanism – significant scholarships and grants exist if you hunt diligently. And most importantly, stay attuned to your child’s developmental trajectory across settings…you understand their gifts and challenges better than anyone. Leverage that insight toward the growth-oriented environment they deserve.

While certainly easier said than done, conceptualizing this process as a supportive journey leads to the greatest payoff. Maintain realistic standards while boldly pursuing the ideal. With compassion and conviction, you’ll navigate these decisions smoothly.


  1. As executive director of Open Doors Advocacy and former special education administrator at the prestigious Windsor Academy, I draw this conclusion from nearly 20 years experience assisting and evaluating programs supporting students with diverse needs.
  2. U.S. Department of Education. "Sec. 300.17 Free appropriate public education." Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.17
  3. U.S. Department of Education. "Protecting Students with Disabilities: Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities." Last modified 2015. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html
  4. Clark, Hayden. "The State of Special Education Services in Private Schools." NAIS Independent School Magazine, Winter 2022.
  5. Magiati, Iliana et al. "Early Intensive Applied Behavior Analysis (EIBI) for young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)." Campbell Systematic Reviews 13 no. 1 (2017): 1-147.
  6. Medicaid. "Medicaid Services for Children in Private Schools." Accessed February 17th, 2023. https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/childrens-health-insurance-program-chip/childrens-health-insurance-program-chip.html
  7. National Association of Independent Schools. "Independent School Aid Programs." Parents Guide, 2023. https://parents.nais.org/learn/the-independent-school-advantage/financial-aid/
  8. National Center for Learning Disabilities. "Scholarships." Accessed February 20th, 2023. https://www.ncld.org/

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