Private School for Your Child with ADHD?

 ADHD Weekly, February 21, 2019

Your child struggles in school, coping with ADHD symptoms that cause him to get out of his seat too often, lose his homework, and not pay attention in class. You think a smaller class size and a different approach from the public school program might make a difference, so you start looking at private schools. But what if your child continues to struggle in a private school?

Parents often consider private schools as an option when a child has ADHD. There is a group of private schools designed specifically for students who have ADHD, with or without learning disabilities. These schools do a good job of providing educational interventions to help students succeed and have a well-known record of student success. Several of them are boarding schools or part of college preparatory schools.

The majority of local private schools, however, are either unprepared to assist students with an ADHD diagnosis or have limited resources to do so. And they don’t have the same requirements under federal law to provide academic services for struggling students, nor do students have the same rights as their peers at the public school.

Academic accommodations in private schools

Private schools strive to provide a quality education to their students. Students do not have the same special education rights under federal law that students in public schools have, however. Private school students do not have the same claim to a Free Appropriate Public Education as public school students have. If a student is in need of special education services, the private school and the student’s home school district are supposed to collaborate to provide services under IDEA. For students with ADHD, though, this may be difficult to receive because accommodations are often classroom-based, rather than service-based.

“What typically happens is that private schools provide students with supports according to their resources,” says Christine Clark at Commonwealth Learning Center. “Private schools are not regulated by state government and can set their own standards with regard to curriculum and special education service delivery.”

Federal education law does require public school districts to use a portion of the federal funding they receive to assist students in private schools. This is often based on the percent of students in the district who attend private schools—for example, if 1.4 percent of students attend private school, then the public school must set aside 1.4 percent of its federal funding to assist those students. In practice, this is frequently a small amount of funding, and it may be shared among several private schools.

“The set-aside is unlikely to cover a full slate of services for every eligible private school student,” Christina A. Samuels writes for Education Week. “So the federal law states that districts are to develop an equitable plan to serve private school students, in consultation with private schools. For example, a district might pay for speech and language pathologists, or for teachers to provide support to struggling readers. Or, it could pay for training private school teachers, and not offer direct services to children at all.”

Under Section 504, private schools that receive any form of federal funding do need to make some reasonable accommodations to assist their students who have ADHD. These accommodations, though, are often linked to the school’s available resources and may not be equal to what is available through the local school district.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools must provide “auxiliary aides and services” to students who qualify for admission as long as it does not present a significant expense.

Does this mean students will have an academic plan that meets their educational needs? For many students, these provisions can help to create a plan that will work for them. However, a good number of students could attend schools that lack the needed resources to provide for educational needs that address ADHD symptoms.

What about behavioral issues related to ADHD?

Impulsivity, hyperactivity, and short-term memory deficits frequently cause students to trip up and have behavioral problems. Under federal education law, students in public schools can have those symptoms and behaviors addressed in either academic or behavioral plans.

The same is not necessarily true for private school students. Student conduct is governed under contract law, rather than education law. This allows a private school to remove a student for behavioral issues related to ADHD rather than attempt to help the student improve his behavior.

“This is important to understand especially when it comes to infractions of the discipline rules or code of conduct,” writes attorney Clifford A. Cohen. “Students at private schools have only those rights promised in the student handbook and those are contract law promises only, under your school’s state contract law.”

If a student is removed from private school for behavioral reasons, parents may want to determine with an attorney if the removal falls under what the school can legally do, and whether it is worth pursuing a case in order for the student to return to that school.

Where to turn for help

If your student is struggling at his private school, your first step is to talk with the school’s guidance counselor or dean of students to set up academic accommodations. Ask what services are available and about any cooperative programs with the local public schools. If your child qualifies for support services outside of school, you may be required to provide transportation during the school day.

Private schools are interested in the success of their students and will work with you to the best of their abilities. In situations when the school will not work with you, contact your local parent training and information center to learn more about what your state requires from private schools. The center may be able to refer you to an advocate or attorney who can help address the situation at the private school.

Other resources that may be able to assist:

Deciding on a school

The decision to enroll your child in a private school will be based on many factors, including your child’s academic needs and your family’s financial abilities. Before picking a school, visit the campus, talk with teachers and administrators, and get a feel for what student and academic life would be like for your child. Discuss academic accommodations and how they would be provided. If possible, talk with parents of students with ADHD who attend schools you are considering; if there is a CHADD affiliate in your area, you may be able to find parents in the group who have had experiences at the school you are considering.

After talking with schools and your child, make your decision using everything you have learned. Evaluate your decision each semester, and know that you can always change course depending on what your child needs at that time.

Looking for more?

Join the discussion: What has been your child’s experience at a private school?