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Choosing a School for Children With Learning Disorders

Tips on finding a learning environment that plays to the child’s strengths.

Key points

  • Either a public or private school might work for a child with a learning disability.
  • The learning environment must play to the child’s strengths.
  • Minimizing the student's experience of shame, confusion, and sensory overstimulation is critical.

Choosing a school can be a difficult decision for all families. Factors to consider include public or private, convenience, location, finances, and the theory or pedagogy of the school. Its even more complicated when you are trying to place a child with a learning disorder. The particular type of learning issue, the childs strengths and weaknesses, and environmental sensitivities must also be taken into consideration, along with the types of support the school offers. Additionally, these decisions are often made prior to fully understanding your childs needs. At times, after receiving more information, it can be best to shift to an alternative school.

Find a learning environment that will play to the childs strengths.

It is critical that we maximize school success for the child with LD by finding a school whose climate or environment reduces their experience of shame, confusion, and sensory overstimulation and plays to their strengths. The availability of support services, including social skills training and alternative learning opportunities, is important as well. Does the school have dedicated professionals to support LD students? Collaboration is also key; given the many types of interventions which students with LD require, a school must be comfortable with a team approach.

It is crucial to set up a learning environment that matches the childs needs. For example, it may be necessary for professionals to pay attention to how the child will get to school, the length of time required, and whether it’s walking, taking a bus, or being driven, either alone or as part of a carpool. Consider the impact of the schools physical layout, lights and sounds, crowds, schedules and predictability, classroom size, and the number of teachers and aides when choosing a school. It is imperative to learn if the school currently has qualified mental health and special education experts on staff to help with programming and teaching. Both public and private schools can be options for the child with LD, depending on the level of cooperation and what accommodations or modifications are allowed.

Public schools

Public schools require teachers to be certified and generally utilize a standardized curriculum and mandated testing. They usually have a larger class size with more socio-economic diversity. Public schools are required by law to provide services to eligible learning-disabled children. If the child meets eligibility requirements, the public school system will have to use the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and create an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to establish and monitor the students educational goals. Alternatively, they might receive a 504 plan (generated through the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) that assures they receive accommodations that will support their academic success and equitable access to the learning environment, but it does not provide for modifications to the curriculum.

Additionally, after the passage (in 2016) of the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia Act (READ), 38 states have passed laws that require schools to monitor students’ progress in reading between kindergarten and third grade. For a list of participating states, see state dyslexia laws. If students meet the eligibility criteria for a specific learning disability, they are entitled to specific instruction with an evidence-based approach. The public school system may then meet a child with LD’s needs with additional support services; special education in school can be delivered via full inclusion, resource services, or special day classes, depending on the individual needs of the child. Services can include speech and language intervention, occupational therapy, etc. (Additional information can be found in a previous blog.)

This can make a public school a more appealing option, particularly if you are dealing with a phonologically impaired dyslexic child. However, the law doesn’t mandate which program is utilized, and few are empirically researched. It will be important to inquire about what program a potential school uses for instruction and determine if it matches your childs needs. In some areas, there may be a choice of public school options via a lottery or appeal for special talents or needs. A public charter school might also be an option as they often have a simpler physical layout, smaller classes, less disruptive populations, and a higher continuity of students and staff.

Private schools

Private schools may also work, especially those focusing on teaching children with learning differences. Frequently, they offer smaller classes and a higher teacher-student ratio (although they don’t always require teachers to be certified). However, they will not be an option for all children with LD due to financial constraints. While not legally required to offer LD services, many will and often do have a learning specialist on staff.

If an otherwise desirable private school doesnt provide sufficient services and accommodations, there might be an option to take specific problematic subjects (frequently math and the sciences) outside of the school environment through an accredited, free-standing, specialized program that allows individualized attention. In my practice, we have found significant success utilizing this combination approach for the most challenging subjects. These programs offer WASC-accredited, college preparatory school for grades 6–12 with approved courses one-on-one and in small groups. With a completely personalized education experience, schedules can be customized, based on availability, for the time of day or year that works best for your student and family. They usually use mastery learning, teaching students to 80 percent (B) or higher level of mastery before moving forward. This allows them to individualize the pace and teaching method to address children with LDs' specific range of learning needs, working with students to maximize both their learning and self-confidence.

In this environment, teachers are able to mentor students in their most challenging subjects to help them reach their social, emotional, and academic goals while still having a mainstream school experience. It is, of course, critical to be sure that the particular teachers assigned to the children have been trained in how to best teach children with LD. Virtual online classes are also available and might work for your child with LD.


Lastly, some families decide to home-school their child with LD. This can be done one on one or in a small group cooperative. This provides a family with the most flexibility to create a curriculum based on the family’s values and the child’s needs. However, social interactions can be limited and will need to be arranged independently to match the child’s interests.

In summary, it's important to find a school environment that will maximize a student’s overall success. The best school 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. Their day should include extracurricular activities that will bring them joy.


Broitman & Davis, (2013). Treating NVLD in Children: Professional Collaborations for Positive Outcomes, Springer

Broitman, J., Melcher, M., Margolis, A., & Davis, J. M. (2020). NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children. Clinical guide to assessment and treatment. Springer

Margolis and Broitman, (2023) Learning Disorders Across the Lifespan: A Mental Health Framework, Springer

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