Special Education Options

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Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, including children with Cerebral Palsy. Children with disabilities may require aids and services to reach their highest potential. Today, parents are urged to research and meet with educators in the public and private sectors to decide the most appropriate education path to meet their child’s needs.

Special Education Options:
What are my choices?

While progress is being made to provide the appropriate public education for children with disabilities, it may not be the best option for your child. Learning ability, physical challenges, transportation issues and personal finances along with the quality of available programs both publicly and privately can impact your child’s education and future.

It is important to note that all children with disabilities are entitled to a free and public education, or FAPE, as a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004. That means they can receive instruction based on their specific needs, for example, those who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and those with physical and/or neurological challenges such as Cerebral Palsy.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 13.1 percent of children in the United States received special education services during the 2009-2010 school year. During the past decade, there has been a decrease in those numbers, but reasons are unclear.

The goal of special education is to give children with special needs access to mainstream learning as well as life skills that will assist them in developing a sense of accomplishment, as well as self-sufficiency.

Generally, a parent’s special education options fall into five categories:

  • Public schooling
  • Private tuition-based schooling
  • Homeschooling
  • Private tutoring

These are detailed below.

Public schooling

In the United States, the most common educational solution for children is publicly-funded schools. Governed by a strict set of laws and oversight, public schools are the largest providers of general and special education services.

The breadth of special education services at public schools was set forth by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 2004, which entitles students with a disability – generally between the ages of 3 and 21 or until they graduate from high school – with a disability to a free and appropriate education that is carried out in a way commensurate with his or her needs.

It ensures access to the general curriculum that public school students study. It also serves to identify each student’s special needs and provide support to optimize each person’s ability to learn and receive a proper education.

Special education services begin with early interventions, typically during the toddler stage. The initial focus is to help the child acclimate to the learning environment earlier than their able-bodied peers in order to prepare them for the classroom and devise ways to assist in meeting special needs. Transition services are designed to help children make the jump between educational and social skill levels.

For parents, the largest advantage of public education is that there are no out-of-pocket costs. They also like that their children are among peers in a social setting that helps them prepare for independence within a larger society.

A major disadvantage is the disparity in services available from district to district and program to program. Other barriers may include lack of information about the kind of support available and how to obtain it.
Special needs education in the public realm can take on several forms, which include:

  • Full inclusion or mainstream
  • Dedicated special education or self-contained classroom
  • Reverse mainstream
  • Home-bound education

These are detailed below.

Full inclusion and mainstream

Typically, full inclusion is for students who have minor physical challenges and show potential to learn in a regular school setting. The IDEA requires school districts to place students in the least restrictive learning environment. For some, that means full inclusion, or placement in a general classroom setting.

Generally, it has been accepted that to the largest extent possible, children should be mainstreamed because a disability does not negate a student’s ability to understand the subject at hand.

Before they consider placing a student in special education classes, districts typically create student study teams that include administrators, teachers, and parents who identify strategies to make the most of their child’s mainstream experience. They might also provide interventions targeted to specific needs. Their customized learning plan is evaluated and adapted.

Students in a mainstream setting are with their able-bodied peers for at least part of the day, but still have access to a self-contained classroom.

Among the benefits of full inclusion and mainstreaming are that special needs children learn to socialize, have greater access to the general curriculum, develop friendships, and look to peers as role models for academic, social and behavioral skills.

Opponents of mainstreaming argue that special needs children don’t necessarily get sufficient help in the mainstream setting due to insufficient training of teachers. Also, due to health issues of special needs children that include an inability to control impulses, they can be disruptive.

Dedicated special education or self-contained classroom

Dedicated education or self-contained classrooms, either full or part time, are available to students who meet the criteria of IDEA. Among the criteria is whether a student’s performance is adversely affected due to disability, and listed as an approved disability, which includes the following:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Developmental delay
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

Although Cerebral Palsy is not specifically listed as one of these conditions, a child with Cerebral Palsy can qualify under various categories.

Parents who disagree with a determination can address their concerns with their district’s special education director or, if necessary, their district’s board of education.

Once a child is accepted into a special education program, the comprehensive process of designing an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, begins.

The plan outlines the services that will be provided to a child such as how much time, if any, will be spent in a self-contained classroom verses a mainstreamed environment.

It also defines the type of support the child will receive, technologies needed for optimal training, and how the child will be transported to and from school. It is designed by educators and other professionals, such as psychologists or occupational therapists. Parents play a crucial role in developing the plan at all levels.

If a child requires assistive technologies or services – like braille booklets, speech-generating devices, special transportation arrangements, or computer-assisted technology – the district is required to accommodate those needs.

Often children are assigned a paraprofessional to help meet their daily needs while in the classroom. This scenario provides an optimal level of inclusion and gives children an opportunity to be exposed to a typical school curriculum and interact with their peers.

The advantages of this setting include smaller classes with more individualized attention and instructional modifications to meet individual learning style.

Among the disadvantages is that students in this setting can range in age from 3 to 21. In addition, their physical needs and learning abilities may vary greatly.

Reverse mainstream

This occurs when students in the mainstream program require placement in a self-contained setting, at least part time, to promote more individualized learning in specific areas.

Home-bound education

A child’s public school district can also provide home-bound instruction (not to be confused with home-based schooling, generally for students who have disciplinary problems), which is offered on a short-term basis for children in rehabilitation due to illness or surgery, and long-term for those with severe and chronic challenges.

Home-bound services include access to one or more public school instructors and/or therapists who go to the child’s home, or hospital, to keep his/her education plan on track. Although home-bound services can take place for an extended period of time, it is generally not intended to be a long-term solution that replaces class work.

Parents say that home-bound instruction provides their children continuous educational support during unforeseen circumstances. For children with severe forms of Cerebral Palsy, the benefit specialized, one-on-one instruction for such things as speech and language, math and reading.

Home-bound services vary from state to state; services may be provided every school day or one to two times per week. The breadth of material to be covered may not be exactly the same as it would be in the classroom because of practical concerns.

Additionally, a school district may develop provisions that require medical settings to be within a certain distance from the school. All of these factors should be discussed upfront with district officials, possibly when a child’s IEP is being devised, in anticipation of a medical event.

Private tuition-based schools

The National Association of Private Special Education Centers, or NAPSEC, reports that there are 6.6 million students in the U.S. with disabilities being served through IDEA. Of those, 3.4% are in private specialized day and/or residential programs.

Private schools are a viable alternative to the public school system, especially for parents who want their children to receive religious instruction along with the basics. But private schools also present a number of benefits and drawbacks for a child with special needs.

In practical terms, private schools fall into two categories: Conventional private schools and special education centers.

In conventional private schools, programs for children with special needs will vary dramatically. Because private schools are almost always funded by tuition rather than public funds, they are not required to follow the IDEA provisions. On the other hand, some cater specifically to children with disabilities. These educational settings may offer services that are disability-specific, such as a school for the blind, or deaf. Others have broad services that focus on a child’s physical and intellectual abilities.

Typically, private schools for students with disabilities provide services to smaller groups of students, which can be helpful to a student struggling to perform at grade-level.

Sometimes, a public school district will place a child in a private program at state expense if a child’s needs warrant it, but these circumstances are rare. There may also be scholarships available for at-risk or low-income families.


A concept that has become popular with parents, but one that has been controversial, homeschooling is when a parent chooses to educate a child outside the boundaries of a formal school. It is legal in all 50 states and in many countries.

However, laws do vary regarding attendance, testing and learning materials. The National Home Education Network says researchers estimate that there are 1.5 to 2 million homeschoolers in the United States, representing 3 to 4 percent of the school age population.

In some cases, a tutor may be hired to assist a parent; but in most cases, one or both parents take on all instructional aspects of a child’s education. They receive teaching materials from a variety of sources, including local libraries, web-based programs and local, state and national homeschooling organizations. These groups also offer play date, field trips, specialized classes like music and art, recreational outings and other activities for socialization.

Homeschooling is attractive to parents who feel that conventional schooling is not able to meet the needs of their child.

Proponents say that homeschooling allows the creation of a plan that addresses the child’s individual needs, such as attention span, therapy regimen, sleep patterns and other specialty care. It does require the parent to take complete responsibility for their child’s education which includes teaching them a wide range of subjects and working with them all day, every day.

Private tutoring

Tutoring is typically seen as an augmented tool to help a child master a certain subject or learn more productive study habits. For children with disabilities, tutoring can be valuable to help focus on academic proficiency in a general content area, especially if for students struggling to perform at grade level.

One of the most useful aspects of tutoring is that a student works one-on-one with a tutor. Once a tutor and a child understand the roadblocks, they can work on overcoming them.

Tutors may be hired by a school district, or privately. There may also be scholarships available for at-risk and low income families. Tutors usually earn an hourly rate, and come in on a regular schedule, such as every Monday after dinner. If a tutoring program is school-based, sessions may be held after school.

Generally, people at varied professional levels work as tutors; some are certified teachers, college students, organizational therapists, or school district staff members.

No matter what road a parent ultimately pursues in terms of a child’s education, the most important factor is that it is one that benefits their child. It can be a challenging decision, but one that can be a game-changer for a child to be able to prove they can learn, like any other young person.

Ten questions to help make an informed choice

For children with Cerebral Palsy, education is essential to help them live to their fullest ability.

Fortunately, parents have options that include publicly-funded schools and programs, private tutoring, homeschooling or a combination of any of the above. Before you decide, ask potential education providers these important questions:

  • How will you determine my child’s special education needs? Who pays for the testing?
  • How is eligibility determined; do I have any rights in making the decision?
  • How will your special education program help my child with his or her specific learning and physical needs?
  • Are the teachers trained and certified to teach special education? What is the ratio of teachers per students in self-contained classrooms?
  • Are special education class sizes limited to give students more individualized attention?
  • What role will I play in my child’s educational path? Who else will be involved?
  • How will my child’s progress be measured and how often?
  • If any of the special education classes are offsite, will transportation be provided?
  • Will my child be on track to graduate with his or hers peers?
  • Can my child participate in socialization activities offered to the general population?
Special Education

teacher with group of students doing homework

Special Education

Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Some children require aids and supports. Parents are urged to research and meet with educators in the public and private sectors to decide the appropriate education path to meet their child’s needs.
Special Education