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6 Key Questions When Choosing Schools for Children With LDs

The school environment should maximize our students’ overall success.

Key points

  • When evaluating a potential school, the academic environment should maximize the overall success of students with learning disabilities.
  • Questions to ask include: How stable is the teaching staff, is there supervision for unstructured time, and how are transitions handled?
  • Check whether the classroom setup matches the child's needs with LD-inclusive teaching practices and flexible assessment.

As discussed in the preceding blog, both public and private schools can be successful options for children with learning disabilities (LDs). Finding a school that will maximize our students' overall success is important. Preferably, a school that is open-minded, flexible, and willing to consider the specific unique needs of the whole child, not just their disability and remediation needs, recognizing, supporting, and enhancing their strengths as well as their challenges.

Crucial questions to consider include:

The school's emotional climate is paramount (Shaywitz, S. & Shaywitz, J., 2020). Ask yourself the following:

1. How stable is the teaching staff?

Continuity and routine offer the best chance for success. Teacher substitutions should be infrequent, and shared teaching should be avoided as much as possible. The student's schedule needs to be as predictable as possible, and consistent teaching is a core element of this. Students should be prepared in advance for changes in routine, such as assemblies and field trips.

2. How is unstructured time handled?

School personnel should recognize that many students with LD need help interpreting social cues during unstructured periods, such as circle time, lunch, or recess. Children should not be left unsupervised as they are often the targets of teasing and bullying (Tanguay, 2002). On the other hand, supervised social opportunities can be successful if there is appropriate support; for example, one school set up a drop-in lunch table for students who wanted help socializing.

3. How are transitions handled?

Transitions for the student should be reduced, such as fewer trips to the locker, fewer classroom changes, and help to open their lockers and change quickly for gym class. This minimizes challenges with organizing time and physical items. Similarly, books and supplies should be arranged to make them as easy to access at the right time as possible. Second copies of materials should be at home to minimize the difficulties of transporting them back and forth.

Additional time is useful during any transitions, and ample warnings prior to requiring a shift in attention are helpful. A school map can also be useful, including annotations about where to find help and an advanced orientation visit. The school should construct pickup and drop-off arrangements in order to avoid anxiety and confusion.

4. Is the classroom or school environment thoughtfully set up?

Many children with LDs have environmental sensitives that need to be considered (see previous blog on sensory issues). A key consideration is how bright, hot, loud, or stimulating the school environment can be. Things to look for include: Are there quiet spaces to study without background noises? Are there mandatory school clothing requirements or options for modifying clothing?

What are the environmental challenges involved in getting to or from school? Consider the amount and complexity of transit time and the flexibility of arrival and departure times (Broitman et al., 2020). Ways to mitigate environmental challenges can include allowing students to sit near and face the teacher, not seating them close to behaviorally challenged children or children who are noisy or fidgety, and incorporating quiet breaks.

5. Are they using the best teaching practices for students with learning issues?

Students with LDs can be concrete and literal, and they will be helped by having very specific directions and using clearly stated rubrics (scoring criteria). Teachers ideally should explain expectations upfront (rather than waiting for students to fail or misstep), remind students of context, and review their prior knowledge before progressing. Multi-step tasks will frequently need to be broken into component parts (Tanguay, 2002), and teachers should ensure that instruction starts at the concrete level and moves slowly to the more abstract. Formal cooperative learning can be successful, but only if care is taken in arranging the makeup of the groups, and it is best done with only one consistent teacher (Molenaar-Klumper, 2002).

Outlines and, for some, graphic organizers can help organize written work because students with LDs often need models and templates delivered by teachers knowledgeable of direct instructional practices. Multitasking (including listening and writing simultaneously) can prove an additional stressor and should not be required. Classroom notes should be emailed home in advance, when possible, especially providing notes ahead of sessions in the upper grades.

Things to look for: Will teachers provide handouts, notes, and outlines for the student instead of requiring copying from the board? When the blackboard is used, write homework assignments in the same area of the board each day so it's easy to find. If a child has difficulty with visual tracking, teachers should be open to reducing information on a page and use a flip chart to separate concepts when needed.

6. How do they assess students?

Does the school's system of assessment fit your student? Will they be flexible? For example, when assessing the student, will they stress content and accuracy in presentations rather than its visual appearance? Will they allow the students opportunities to present information through oral presentations?

Because students may lose their place during a test, can they write the answers directly on the test sheet rather than requiring them to use a separate answer sheet? Will teachers create simplified test answer sheet layouts, allow the use of graph paper to keep columns aligned in written math assignments, allow credit for a correct answer placed in the wrong column or space, allow the use of a calculator for math-related activities, and use pre-described rubrics (scoring criteria)?

A model school

Martin (2007) suggests that an ideal school is in a small building with a simple, logical layout andclear and logical numbering systemss for classrooms. There would be a limited number of places to find one's things (lockers, cubbies, desks, closets) near to each other. It would have a low-stimulation environment with few distractions.

There would be a limited number of teachers trained in understanding the needs of children with LD, preferably for long periods of time. It would have small, structured classes with a consistent schedule, pre-teach the locations of any room changes, and use a block schedule. The school would allow extra time for class changes.

The ideal school has a safe, tolerant, consistent environment that minimizes competition and has no tolerance for bullying. There are supervised, structured social experiences, and the teachers are willing and able to provide help deciphering rules. There is a wide availability of speech therapy for semantic language and multiple opportunities for children to participate in electives that match their skills and passions.

Additionally, school personnel would post assignments, projects, dates of exams, etc., online or through email, allowing access to all team members. There should be no surprises with regard to schoolwork requirements. When necessary, assignments should be shortened or adapted. Homework assignments should be able to be emailed back to the school. Textbooks should be kept both at home and school rather than moved back and forth.

Bottom line

Each learning environment will offer some but rarely all of the above characteristics. When weighing the options, the flexibility and cooperation of the school will be critical. Your student will need to feel safe and seen in order to flourish. Finding a placement in an appropriate school setting should be carefully considered.


Broitman, J., & Davis, J. M. (2013). Treating NVLD in children: Professional collaborations for positive outcomes. New York: Springer.

Martin, M. (2007). Helping children with nonverbal learning disabilities to flourish. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Molenaar-Klumper, M. (2002). Non- verbal learning disabilities: Characteristics, diagnosis and treating within an educational setting. London: Jessica Kingsley, Publishers.

Shaywitz, S. & Shaywitz, J. (2020) Overcoming dyslexia (2nd edition). Vintage Publishing.

Tanguay, P. B. (2002). Nonverbal learning disabilities at school. London: Jessica Kingsley,

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