Choosing the Best School

Tuesday, October 26 2021

Claire Birrell, an Early Childhood Clinical Consultant with the Learning for Life Autism Centre, presented at the 2021 ABA Today conference, on the topic ‘Choosing the Best School’. In this article, Claire shares a summary of her presentation in this informative article for parents and guardians. 

Choosing a school for one’s child is a decision that all parents must make. For parents of children with autism, the choice can be enormously difficult, time-consuming and confusing. When the Autism Behaviour Intervention Association (ABIA) announced that the theme of this year’s ABA Today virtual conference would be ‘voices and choices’, it seemed the perfect opportunity to provide some clarification on the various aspects of school selection and associated processes so that parents, and the ABA professionals supporting them, could make informed school decisions with confidence. By empowering the people who know the children best to make these decisions, we aimed to ensure that the children experience the most successful school transition possible.

My presentation at ABA Today covered a range of topics including tips for parents to successfully engage with schools, answers to frequently asked questions, school types, funding processes and a recommended timeline for parents. A summary of the latter three topics is provided below.

2021 ABA Presentation by Claire - Choosing the Best School

School Types

All schools can be categorised in one of two ways – government versus private (how it’s funded), and mainstream versus special (who the curriculum is designed for). Every school will be a combination of these two subtypes, e.g. mainstream government school (i.e. your local primary school), mainstream private school (including Catholic schools), special government school or special private school. Each of these options have advantages and disadvantages for autistic students. For example, a mainstream school will likely have more opportunities to build social skills than a special school, however the educators may have difficulty supporting the needs of an autistic student, particularly in areas outside of the academic curriculum. Whereas a specialist school will have less emphasis on the academic curriculum and may be better equipped to support the sensory and safety needs of the student. An advantage of government schools is that they must accept all children within their zone, regardless of any additional needs that the child has or the level of funding they’ve received. A private school can be selective with which children they accept, but will generally have more student support services available.

Recommended Timeline for Parents

Ideally, parents will begin the process of selecting a school early in the year prior to their child starting. Term one is all about gathering information about school options – going on school tours, talking to friends and neighbours etc.  Term two is for discussing the gathered information with service providers and working through pros and cons. By term three, a school will ideally have been selected and transition planning and funding applications will be the focus. Term four is for transition and school readiness, e.g. school visits, learning academic and daily living skills, playdates with future school peers etc.

Funding

In Victoria, funding for students at government schools is allocated through the Department of Education and Training’s (DET) Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD). There are seven eligibility categories. Children at L4Life will mostly receive funding through the ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD) category. A smaller proportion will receive funding through the ‘Intellectual disability’ or ‘Severe behaviour disorder’ categories. Each category has very specific requirements for proof of eligibility, including multi-disciplinary reports and assessments. A Student Support Group (SSG) will be formed consisting of the child’s parents/guardians and their advocate/s (if requested), the school principal (or nominee) and the child (if appropriate). The SSG will liaise throughout the year to put together documentation for the funding application and then to determine how the funding will be used, what goals should be set etc. They will continue to meet each term throughout the student’s time at school to assess and update goals and strategies as required.

Private schools have their own funding processes. Funding is typically provided to the year level, not the individual child. Criteria for funding is usually more straight forward than in the PSD and does not require assessments and reports.

Summary

At the ABA Today conference, a virtual chat group was running throughout the presentation which allowed attendees to discuss the content and ask questions. These questions were answered in a live Q&A at the end of the main presentation which was moderated by Dr. Russell Fox (Monash University). Just before we were about to go live, Dr. Fox asked me what the main take away point I wanted to leave viewers with.  The answer that I gave to him, the attendees in the Q&A and now to you, is that after all the advice that they will inevitably get from various stakeholders, I encourage parents to trust their instincts. They know their child best. They know what is best for their family, and at the end of the day the decision is not set in stone. If the school choice does not end up being the right choice, there is no harm in switching over to another school even as soon as one term into the year. That’s when all that investigation will come in handy. Parents will already know what the options are and will be able to quickly switch to plan B.

Useful Resources

Association for Children with a Disability (ACD) – Choosing a school

Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD) – operational guidelines for schools 2020

Raising Children Network – Choosing primary school for children with ASD

Raising Children Network – Choosing secondary school for children with ASD