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How to Find the Right Therapeutic School for Your Child

Raising a child with a psychological disorder is an arduous journey that stresses the family system as a whole. Parents of children with a disorder, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental Disorders, Intellectual Disorders, Anxiety, Depression and Bipolar Disorder, experience higher rates of emotional difficulties than parents with nondisabled children. 

One of the most difficult challenges these parents face is the decision to have their child educated in a therapeutic school. As a school psychologist, I have worked with countless parents who have grappled with the magnitude of such a decision. While the process of determining the best educational placement for children with psychological disorders is challenging, there are vast resources available to make an informed decision to support their child’s academic, social and emotional needs.

It is important to elucidate that not all therapeutic schools are the same. They vary in size, therapeutic orientation, academic vigor, and resources to support the child’s individual needs. Therapeutic schools can be essentially categorized as follows:

Public day schools: These schools are managed, funded and monitored by the state for students with disabilities who could not be educated in their home school. Out-of-state students may be accepted, usually with a higher tuition.

Private day schools: Schools falling into this a category are managed by a private educational entity, in some instances for profit. They are typically excluded from full state monitoring and curriculum requirements. However, they must demonstrate a certain minimum standard acceptable to the state. Tuitions for private therapeutic day schools are typically higher than public therapeutic schools and typically provide transportation for a supplemental fee. 

Residential schools: These schools are either state-run or private schools that provide education, psychological services and room and board. Residential schools are reserved for students who exhibit severe psychological needs that necessitate placement of the child outside their home. Students placed in residential schools often display concerns regarding substance use, have dual diagnoses, exhibit significant self-harm risk or are placed by the state due to child welfare concerns. 

Hospital programs: Such programs are considered short-term placements providing acute psychiatric care with “bedside instruction.” Such hospital programs for children are not considered long-term academic placement, rather they serve to stabilize the child and provide recommendations for long-term educational placements, either day or residential schools.

These types of therapeutic schools can be subdivided by the type of child they are able to effectively educate:

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Schools for behaviorally challenged children: These schools typically implement a strong behavioral modification program in their curriculum. Teachers and staff have an expertise in educating children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD.

Schools for children with emotional difficulties: Schools in this category infused individual and group therapeutic services throughout the school day. In addition to counselors, psychologists and social workers on staff, they often have a consulting psychiatrist to provide ongoing coordination services and to medication management. 

Schools for children with learning disabilities and intellectual disorders. Children who exhibit severe learning disabilities and cognitive impairments sometimes cannot be educated appropriately in their home school. These schools provide a low student to teacher ratio, enabling the differentiation of instruction to meet individual student needs. This type of school also infuses in their curriculum functional day living skills, social skills, and functional academics to ensure that children with cognitive disabilities have maximized their ability to become as functionable independent adulthood as possible.

In identifying the most appropriate school to meet your child’s needs, it is important to have a full understanding of the type of disorder your child presents with and the type of services, school environment, and services he/she needs to be successful.

Parents are strongly encouraged to gain a full understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to understand their parental rights regarding education decisions making for their children. If a child has not yet been evaluated by the Child Study Team in their school, parents should immediately submit a written request for a full Child Study team evaluation to determine eligibility and qualifications for special education. 

Once a child is deemed eligible for special education by the school district, the school is legally required to develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The adoption of an IEP with parental consent (on an initial IEP) will determine the provision of special education services and educational placement. By law, districts are required to consider the “least restrictive environment” that provides an appropriate education for a child receiving special education. If it is determined that education in the home school is not appropriate in meeting the child’s needs, then consideration is put forth towards educational placement in a state or private day school, moving further along the continuum to hospital and residential schools in severe cases as guided by the “Least restrictive environment” policy. School districts are typically responsible for financing at a minimum the educational costs of such educational placements. 

In a perfect world, school personnel and parents agree on educational placement. Unfortunately, a consensus is not always met in the determination of the most appropriate educational program. In these instances, parents need to be strong advocates for their child. This process begins with understanding your rights as a parent of a child with a disability. It may also involve consultation with a professional child advocate or special education attorney. It is critical to understand that special education law protects parental rights to be an integral part in such educational placement decisions. 


Finding the right therapeutic school for a child with a psychological disorder may seem like an arduous task. Fortunately, parents can make informed decisions guided by a full understanding of their child’s unique needs and utilizing the special education processes protected by law and outside resources when needed, to find the right therapeutic school for their child. A careful selection of the right therapeutic school for their child will enable parents to obtain the most effective educational program and psychological support for their child.

How to Find the Right Therapeutic School for Your Child

Joseph Graybill, Ph.D.

Joseph Graybill, Ph.D is licensed American psychologist in the state of New York. He is the psychologist at the Anglo-American School in Moscow and maintains an online clinical practice. He can be contacted at:

APA Reference
Graybill, J. (2020). How to Find the Right Therapeutic School for Your Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 16 Apr 2020 (Originally: 17 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 16 Apr 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.