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Finding the Best International School for Your Child with Special Needs

By April Remfrey

Moving internationally can be both exciting and scary, providing families with a wealth of opportunity and stress. Once the transition process begins, the “to-do” list can be extensive and sometimes overwhelming. Not only are you planning a big move, but also simultaneously trying to find appropriate housing, setting up bank accounts, signing contracts, AND trying to find the best new school placement for your child(ren).

Add to the mix a child with learning needs that fall outside the general education bubble and you’re faced with yet another layer of complication. Making a smooth transition and finding the best academic environment, among the numerous options around the world, feels even more important. A successful transition for your child is often the foundation for a successful move internationally and can provide you with the space to enjoy the wonderful aspects of your move.

Related articles at World Family Education:

What If a School Doesn’t Have a Program for a Child with Special Needs?
International Schools
The World Family Education International School Directory
Children with Special Needs

One essential component to choosing the right school is having and assessing all the relevant information necessary to make a good decision. It is up to parents to provide prospective schools with insightful information and ask pointed questions when speaking with staff.

Create a Learner Profile

Example of a Learner Profile

When a child with special needs requires school placement, it is prudent for schools to make informed and timely decisions about their ability to meet the student’s needs. Providing a document which profiles your child as a learner is an ideal way to begin conversations with a school. After receiving a learner profile, schools are able to make preliminary decisions regarding support and therefore recommend families begin the application process or communicate that their school will not be able to meet the child’s needs.

Although hearing “no” can be difficult, it is best that a school honestly speak about its limitations prior to a placement rather than create a problem later when your child is not receiving the support he/she needs to be successful and happy.

When putting together your child’s learner profile, consider including the following information:

  • Language(s) of previous instruction and child’s proficiency
  • Schooling history
  • Strengths (typically noted in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or education evaluation — a summary of this information is helpful)
  • Weaknesses (typically noted in an IEP or education evaluation)
  • How much extra help your child receives per week in minutes (typically noted in an IEP)
  • Placement at previous schools (i.e., general education full time, pull-out lessons for math/reading, etc., or one-on-one assistant during academic coursework)
  • What your child needs to be successful — strategies (should be collected from parents, classroom teachers, special education teachers, aids, etc. — often noted in comprehensive IEPs)

Ask Pointed Questions

After narrowing the schooling search to those that understand your child’s learner profile, it is time for a more in-depth conversation either over the phone or in person. Be prepared with questions which will generate information from the school to help you make the final decision. Although questions should be personalized to your child’s needs, the following will provide a starting point:

  • Who will provide the services? A teacher or a teaching assistant (TA)?

    It is important to understand who will provide services for your child inside and/or outside of the classroom setting. One can expect very different outcomes if a teaching assistant will teach extra math lessons rather than a certified teacher. 
  • What level of education do your teachers and TAs have?

    Most schools have highly trained teachers and teaching assistants. In order to better understand the staff that will possibly work with your child, it is a good idea to ask about their education level. I have worked in a school where some of my teaching assistants were fully qualified teachers and one even had a Ph.D. in dyslexia training. However, I have also worked with people in special needs teaching roles who did not have any formal training. Asking about on-going training and access to professional development is also a good topic of conversation.
  • Does the school have access to occupational therapists, speech therapists, etc.?

    Many students with special needs also need access to additional support services. Some schools around the world have these therapists on staff. However, some parents will need to find therapists outside of the school setting. If this is necessary, it is good to learn from the school if there are therapists they work with on a regular basis. If parents must find and pay for outside therapy, the best scenario is if those therapists provide services during the school day and communicate with school staff to share updates and strategies.
  • Does the school have appropriate physical features?

    Think about physical features of a school building that are vital to your child’s school success. Does your child need an elevator, accessible toilets, and/or a disability friendly playground? Does your child need a calming or sensory room? Is there a specific location on campus where support service therapies can take place?
  • Does the school have a transition program?

    Most schools are prepared to accept students throughout the school year. Good schools even have integration programs that strive to create an environment where students are securely attached right away. A great organization called Safe Passage Across Networks is formulating a certification program for international schools to ensure they are appropriately addressing student transitions.

If you are visiting a school for the first time and struggle to communicate because of a language barrier, be sure to request a translator well in advance of your visit. This is quite typical, so don’t feel that you are causing any extra burden to the school. 

Schools tend to give very general tours to families. By asking in-depth questions specific to your child, the school can personalize the tour. When you fully understand the aspects of the school’s offerings for your child, you will be better prepared to make a good decision.

April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. April helps globally mobile families as they search for the best school for their child with special needs.