Decisions about primary schools for children with disability
All families have a lot to think about when they’re choosing schools, including distance, finances and availability of before-school and after-school care.
When your child has a disability, you’re likely to have extra considerations – for example, accessibility, learning support, inclusion and so on.
By planning ahead and researching your options, you can make sure you choose a school that supports your child’s strengths and needs and also suits your family’s circumstances.
It’s a good idea to start thinking about school options at least two years before your child with disability is due to start school.
First steps to choosing a primary school for children with disability
The first step is to find out about the primary school options near you.
You could talk to your child’s preschool teacher, professionals at your child’s early childhood intervention service, friends, and a disability advocacy service to get information and ideas.
If you have another child at primary school, that school could be a good place to start. You’ll have a relationship with that school already and know about its benefits.
Visiting primary schools
Once you’ve made a list of schools you’re interested in, you can explore them in more detail.
School open days and tours will give you a general feel for schools. It can help to take a friend or a disability advocate with you, so you can both gather information and discuss it afterwards.
You’ll get some sense of whether a school is right for your child from the:
- welcome you and your child get
- principal’s approach to supporting children with disability
- principal’s responses to your questions
- school’s approach to education, diversity and inclusion
- experiences of other families.
When you visit schools, you can ask for copies of school policy documents, including emergency procedures, management of medical conditions, bullying, attendance and student engagement. Check whether policies cover the needs of children with disability and ensure children’s inclusion in all aspects of school life. Also see whether policies allow for external professionals like therapists to advise staff and participate in school programs.
Our school selection checklist has things to consider and questions to ask to help you find the right school. You might need to find out about the rules for enrolling at specialist schools, as well as how to apply for education support.
Questions to ask primary schools
The questions you ask will depend on your child’s needs and any particular concerns you have. Here are some ideas to get you started.
You might ask about communication within the school. For example:
- How will you ensure that all relevant staff get information about my child’s needs?
- How will information about helping my child learn be passed on to teachers and other relevant staff from one year to the next?
- How will the school ensure that the strategies in my child’s individual learning plan or behaviour support plan are put into practice by all staff who work with my child?
And you can also ask how school staff will communicate with you. For example:
- How will you let me know how my child is going from day to day?
- How often will we have a student support group meeting?
- Who should I talk to if I have concerns?
Complex care needs
If your child has complex medical or personal care needs, you might want to ask questions like the following:
- How will the school ensure that my child is cared for safely and with dignity, privacy and respect?
- Does the school have a school nurse?
- Who will be managing my child’s medical and/or personal care needs?
- How many staff will be trained in managing my child’s needs? Will there always be someone available to cover staff absences?
- Are there children with disability already at the school?
- Are there children, families and teachers from different countries and cultures at the school?
Your child might need adjustments to tasks and activities in some or all areas of the curriculum. For example, if your child has an intellectual disability, they might need the curriculum to be modified for literacy and numeracy, but might be fine to go to art classes without any adjustments. Or if your child has dyslexia, they might need access to text-to-speech technology.
You could ask about changes relevant to your child’s needs. For example:
- How will my child who uses a wheelchair be included in outdoor physical games?
- How will my child with limited hand movement be included in table activities?
- How will my child using a communication device be included in the literacy program?
- How will my child be included in school camps and excursions?
- How will my child have the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths?
- How will you support my child’s emotional health and wellbeing?
The school might not have all the answers, but you should feel reassured that the staff will explore ways to include your child in all activities.
Out of school hours care
If you need out of school hours (OOSH) care, here are some questions to ask:
- Does the school provide an OOSH program, or is there an arrangement with a school nearby that provides one?
- How will the program look after my child’s needs?
You could ask the principal to tour the school with you to talk about accessibility, if this is a concern for your child. For example:
- How would you adjust things so all school areas are accessible for my child?
- How long will the adjustments take?
- How will any changes be funded?
If your child tends to wander or has particular safety issues, you could ask some questions like these:
- What kind of school security do you have during school hours?
- How do staff keep track of children?
- How often is the roll taken?
- What happens if a student is missing?
- What happens if there are strangers at or near the school?
Here are some examples of questions to ask about social interaction for your child:
- How does the school encourage and support social interaction generally?
- Do teachers and other staff in the playground encourage, supervise and support social interaction?
- Where can my child go if they need some quiet time?
- Is there a supervised room available at lunch time for students to play board games and other activities?
- How does the school manage interactions between older and younger students?
It’s worth checking out practical things like transport. For example:
- Does the school have a bus (or other transport) service for students?
- What areas does the bus service go to?
- Do we have to pay for this?
- How will the bus service accommodate my child who uses a wheelchair?
If the principal and staff answer your questions openly, enthusiastically and positively, you’re more likely to feel confident that school staff will keep your child safe and meet their educational and social needs.
Making a final decision about primary schools for children with disability
To make a final decision, you’ll need to look again at all the information you have from each of the schools you’re interested in. It might be worth talking through it all with the professionals who work with your child, as well as with friends and family, disability advocates and early intervention services.
If you have any further questions, speak to the principals again. You should be welcome to visit a school as many times as you want to.
In the end, the right school is one where your child and family feel accepted and supported.
For more information and advice about choosing schools for your child with disability, you could contact your state or territory education department or Catholic or independent school association.