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How do I decide between a special education school setting and a mainstream setting for my child?

Choosing the right school for your child is never easy. When your child has special needs, it becomes a lot more challenging.


Answered by

Hannah Hoch PHD, BCBA-D Encore ABA Supervisor on EncoreSupport.org

At first thought, parents might prefer to send their child with special needs to a mainstream school where the child can maintain his social network (including friends and relatives), and enjoy all the advantages of a large school. For many parents, the thought of sending their child to a school where everyone has something “wrong” with them is hard to accept. “My son’s problems are not that bad, why should he be in a school with children whose disabilities are more severe?” a parent may think.  On the other hand, in a special education setting your child is more likely to get highly specialized instruction that is tailored to his/her needs. The smaller class sizes and teaching strategies designed to accommodate your child would help him succeed academically and even socially.

To begin, you must stand back and take a long, hard look at your child’s current skills and deficits, as calmly and objectively as possible. As your child’s best advocate, you need to be fully informed of his needs and strengths, in order to determine what setting and supports will best meet his needs.

In general, the process of mainstreaming should begin when the following 2 conditions are met: (1) Your child has developed the skills necessary to be able to learn and function successfully in a mainstream classroom, and (2) Behavior that is disruptive to the environment, competes with learning, or is socially stigmatizing is under control. Mainstreaming is not likely to be a positive, successful experience unless these conditions are met. Any child can be placed in a mainstream classroom; you want to be sure the experience will be productive, meaningful, and successful. It is not enough for your child to be able to sit appropriately in a classroom; you must ensure he can learn and make progress in all areas, to be successful now and in the future.

Here are some questions to consider before choosing a mainstream placement:

  • What is your child’s current level of self-esteem and self-confidence? Would your child be comfortable if he were towards the bottom of the class in a mainstream setting, or would he benefit from being on equal footing with his peers in a special education setting? In mainstream schools, children feel stigmatized when pulled out of class for extra help. They may feel discouraged and lose self-confidence when they trail behind their classmates. Spending time in a special education setting where they are more likely to experience success may outweigh the social benefits of being in a mainstream setting.
  • Is the level of support and supervision available in the mainstream environment adequate for your child’s needs? If not, are there outside resources you can tap into to help support your child?
  • Does your child engage in inappropriate behaviors that will be socially stigmatizing to him/her? Children with special needs are already at higher risk of being teased and bullied, and if your child does not behave and interact appropriately with other children this can be extremely detrimental to his social emotional development.
  • Can your child understand and respond well to group contingencies (e.g., when students earn privileges based on group behavior)? If he needs a more individualized motivational system, can it be easily and consistently implemented in the mainstream classroom?
  • What are the school’s academic, social and behavioral expectations of students your child’s age? Is your child at or near the expected level in each of those areas? If not, are the supports needed to help your child in his specific area of need in place?


Prerequisite skills:

The following are basic prerequisite skills a child needs in order to succeed in a mainstream class. They don’t all need to be mastered skills that your child displays with 100% accuracy; but they do need to be present at some appropriate level, with supports that can be implemented consistently.

  • Follows classroom routines
  • Learns new targets during group instruction
  • Takes turns during activities
  • Waits quietly
  • Completes assignments independently
  • Maintains near-zero levels of inappropriate behavior across environments
  • Keeps his possessions organized
  • Is at or near grade level in academic skills

Next week we’ll explore some tips should you decide that mainstream is the appropriate route for your child.


Johnson, S., Meyer, L.S., & Taylor, B.A. (1996). Supported inclusion. In C. Maurice, G. Green, & S. Luce (Eds.), Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Newman, B., Reinecke, D. R., & Hammond, T. (2005). BehaviorAsk: Straight answers to your ABA programming questions. Dove and Orca Publishers.

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