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Coping With Placement

This section reviews common emotional reactions to a new placement and offers suggestions for preparing for and coping with Residential Placement (RP).

Having a child in a private day or residential placement can be isolating for families. Parents may feel disconnected from their community when their child does not attend the local school like the other neighborhood children. Some parents report feeling shame or guilt that their child “needs more” than what the public school can provide, and dread when others ask where their child is. Parents lose the opportunity for spontaneous day-to-day contact at drop-off or pickup, for example, with school staff and other parents. Some parents of children with limited verbal abilities miss the daily communication logs that gave them a sense of their child’s day; it can then be difficult adjusting to weekly phone updates instead.

When a child transitions to a day or residential placement, families may have conflicting experiences of loss as well as new opportunities for connection. Leaving one’s home school community is an adjustment that takes time. Although there is the opportunity to form a new sense of community of peers for the child and of parents/siblings for families, this may be more difficult when the new school is located some distance from home.

Emotional Reactions Specific to RP

Once a child’s IEP team has “checked the box” indicating the change to RP, a new journey begins for the entire family. In getting to this point, families have often been through various phases and struggles – externally (with systems of care) and internally (grappling with their own ambivalent, sometimes intense emotions). Some may have struggled to keep their child at home as long as possible, others may have known of the inevitability of residential placement for a long time and been battling the school to approve this, while others may have had the idea of a residential placement suggested by their child’s public school. This latter group of parents may feel blindsided by the school’s recommendation and need time to adjust to this idea. For parents who went through mediation or due process to obtain a residential placement and ‘won,’ it is often a hollow victory that is hardly cause for celebration.

It is a difficult position for a family to advocate for their child to live outside of their home. Parents do not typically ‘want’ this – they often feel they ‘have to’ take this step, knowing that the child’s well-being – and sometimes their survival – depends on it. At the same time, there may be worries that they are tearing their family apart. It is understandably difficult to imagine at this early phase the potential benefits of RP.