Choosing a school: Know the options for your child

ByThe Understood Team

At a glance

  • In addition to your neighborhood school, there may be other public school options for your child.

  • All public schools — including magnets and charters — are free and must provide special education services.

  • Some private schools are specifically for kids with learning and thinking differences.

Your local public school is close by and probably where most of the kids in your neighborhood go. But it isn’t the only option. There are many different types of schools out there, public and private. There are even schools that specialize in helping kids with learning and thinking differences.

Learn more about options for your child when choosing a school.

Neighborhood public schools

The local public school is close to home. It’s free and lots of neighborhood kids go there. It also has some important benefits for kids with learning and thinking differences. These include:

  • Free school evaluations for students suspected of having learning or thinking differences
  • and with and services for kids who qualify
  • A wide variety of and related services
  • Specialists like counselors, social workers, and often speech-language therapists
  • More than one teacher per grade level or subject (this may give you the option of changing teachers if one isn’t a good fit for your child)
  • Many sports and often extracurricular activities where your child can excel outside of academics

Keep in mind, though, that your neighborhood public school may have large class sizes. The instruction may also be less personalized instruction than in other schools, like private schools.

Here’s what to look for when visiting public schools:

Researching schools in your local area? Use the GreatSchools ratings tool to learn about and find a local school that best serves your child’s needs.

Magnet schools

Magnet schools are specialized public schools within your local school district. Because they’re part of the public schools, they’re free to attend. And your child can still get an IEP or a 504 plan if eligible. Other possible advantages of a magnet school include:

  • Focus on a specific area your child may be passionate about or strong in, like math and science or the arts
  • Access to special education services and specialists in the school district

Keep in mind, however:

  • Applications are often required, and it can get competitive.
  • Waiting lists may be long because of high demand and limited enrollment.
  • Your child may need to travel if the magnet school is far from your home.
  • Magnets have fewer neighborhood kids, which may make it harder to make friends.

Learn about vocational high school programs, a common type of magnet that teaches kids career and technical skills.

Charter schools

Charter schools are independent public schools run by nonprofit groups, private companies, or community organizations. They are free to attend. And they exist in most states, although there may not be one near where you live.

Charters don’t have to follow all the rules that traditional public schools follow. However, charters are required to follow special education law and provide IEPs and 504 plans to kids who qualify.

You can also get expert advice on whether your child would be better off at a charter school. It may be helpful to read about charter school experiences from families around the country:

Private schools

These schools are run by private organizations, outside of the public schools. A private school can give you a lot of choice over the kind of school environment your child is in. But you have to pay for tuition, and it can be expensive.

Some states may give parents vouchers to pay for private school. However, it’s important to know that school vouchers generally don’t cover the full cost of tuition. Here’s a list of questions to ask when deciding on a private school.

Independent schools for students with learning and thinking differences

Some private schools specialize in teaching students with learning and thinking differences. They typically offer your child more comprehensive and individualized support, but tuition can be high. However, sometimes a state or public school district will pay the cost of private school if a child can’t get an appropriate education in the public schools.


One last school option is homeschooling, which is to teach your child at home. Every state allows homeschooling.

For an inside look, read a personal story from a woman with dyslexia who was homeschooled. And watch an interview of a mom and son about homeschooling.

Choosing a school is a personal decision for your family. As you decide, it’s important you consider the level of support your child needs. Even within a public or private school, there may be other options, like inclusion classrooms or online learning.

Need more help? Discuss school options with other parents of kids with learning and thinking differences in our online community groups. You may also want to read about common pitfalls when picking a school.

Key takeaways

  • Public magnet and charter schools may have a specific focus or mission that can appeal to your child.

  • Private schools are not required by law to provide special education.

  • When choosing a school, it’s important to consider the level of support your child needs.

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About the author

About the author

The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Kristy Baxter, MA taught at the Churchill School, an independent school in New York City for children with learning disabilities.