School is a habitat designed to help our children learn, grow, and thrive, right? For students with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and learning disabilities (LD), that is not always the case. Certain school environments may be a bad fit, and could even disrupt or undermine the educational experience.
If your child is struggling academically, socially, or behaviorally in his current school, it might be time to consider moving somewhere that can better accommodate his learning needs. In a recent ADDitude survey of 934 caregivers, about 85% of parents said they had considered changing their child’s school, and 52% had actually made the move to a new school. The question most commonly arises in 3rd grade, the switch most often happens in 5th grade, and the most common reasons for changing schools include:
- Inflexible curriculum that doesn’t fit the child’s learning style (45%)
- Anxiety on the part of the child (41%)
- Behavior challenges (41%)
- Social challenges/a “fresh start” (38%)
- Teachers who won’t work with parents (38%)
- Class size (31%)
- Poor implementation of 504 Plan or IEP (29%)
- Interested in services or resources the current school can’t provide (29%)
- Refusal to consider/recommend special accommodations (25%)
Penny Williams’ son has a high IQ, but he also has ADHD combined with dysgraphia, and he’s on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. That “mixed bag” makes him hard to fit into a traditional learning model. “The intelligence piece really throws educators off. So many of them assume that if you’re smart, that dictates your capability. That’s been a big struggle for most years and most teachers,” says Williams, who is also a parenting ADHD coach and trainer, and creator of the Parenting ADHD and Autism Academy. She’s had to change schools twice to find a good match for his educational style, which ultimately turned out to be a combination of public school and online learning.
For parents like Williams, and others who are dissatisfied with their child’s education, here are six good reasons to consider changing your child’s school, and a few strategies you can try before making the leap.
1. The school won’t implement an IEP/504 plan, or it won’t consider accommodations
Having an IEP or 504 Plan in place can help ensure that your child gets the specialized educational services he or she needs to succeed. Yet there are requirements children must meet before qualifying for accommodations, and not all schools are motivated to help their students navigate that process and establish a formal 504 Plan or IEP.
Williams had her son evaluated for an IEP and special-education services in early elementary school, but his public school initially denied the services she requested. “By the time he got to third grade, his teacher said, ‘His writing is so far behind his peers; I think you can get the IEP.’ We did ultimately get it, but we spent that entire third grade year fighting for the accommodations and services he really needed,” she says.
Just under 30% of parents surveyed said they wanted to move because their school hadn’t implemented an IEP or 504 Plan. About 25% said their school refused to consider or recommend any special accommodations.
“We struggled with what were simple requests — more communication with teachers, consideration of special seating, requests for 504, etc. — even when we spent our own money to have our child independently evaluated and diagnosed… The battle just wasn’t worth it anymore and we felt our child was suffering [in] that environment,” wrote one survey participant.
Before you switch schools, know your child’s educational rights. “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a good place to start when they’re considering changing a school or accessing services,” says Meghan Tomb, PhD, assistant professor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Next, learn what extra help your child needs. You can ask your school district to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEEE), or pay for one yourself. Once you have documentation and an expert’s recommendations, meet with teachers and school administrators to see what they’re willing to do to improve the situation. “If it’s things like, ‘He needs extended time on tests or he needs reduced assignments,’ that’s probably not enough to jump right away,” Williams says.
If the school is resistant to implementing changes, you may need to bring in outside help. “When they’ve reached the point where they feel they’re not able to work it out with the school on their own, then it’s pretty clear that they need an attorney or an advocate to help them,” says Matt Cohen, founder of Matt Cohen & Associates, LLC, a special education, disability rights, and human services law firm in Chicago. An attorney can use mediation and other techniques to resolve the dispute, he says.
In some cases, the school simply won’t be able to offer the services you need. Some schools — including private or parochial schools — may be under no legal obligation to provide accommodations. Nearly 29% of ADDitude’s survey respondents said they were considering leaving because they needed services and resources that were unavailable in their current school.
2. Your child has been branded the “bad kid”
The hallmark symptoms of ADHD — difficulty sitting still, interrupting others, or talking back to the teacher — can be misinterpreted as bad behavior in the classroom setting. Some schools are less equipped or willing than others to deal with disruptive behaviors. Instead of trying to work with these children, teachers may punish them — or, worse, brand them as troublemakers.
“The private school my child was in could not accept children that were outside of the narrow band they considered appropriate. They looked at my child as ‘bad’ and punished him rather than understanding the root of the behavior and adjusting their approach with him,” one parent wrote in the survey. More than 40% of parents reported that “behavior challenges” were driving them out of their current school.
Having a learning plan in place might help in these situations, but if the school pushes back, “That’s where I strongly urge parents to get out,” says Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson, Ph.D., a child psychologist practicing in Los Angeles and co-author of Choosing the Right School for Your Child. A child left in that environment could absorb or adopt others’ negative images, leaving a permanent mark on their self-esteem. “If you’ve got a teacher who is just making your child feel as if they’re evil, no good, or stupid, you need to leave,” she adds.
3. Your child is falling far behind — or is way ahead of her peers
Struggling to keep up — whether because of a lack of attention or difficulty understanding the work — can also affect a child’s self-esteem. Bringing in an educational consultant can help, says Van Der Kar-Levinson. “An educational therapist can work with your child, giving them strategies to survive in the classroom.” The consultant can also serve as a liaison with the school, explaining ways to help your child.
Yet even with extra help, some children will continue to fall behind. “When the child has not made academic progress despite accommodations, he or she can develop other challenges — such as low self-esteem, depressed mood, and school avoidance behavior — that negatively affect their functioning at home and at school,” says Tomb.
If the learning disability or attention issues are so severe the school can’t accommodate them, it’s time to move, Van Der Kar-Levinson says.
Conversely, if your child is so far ahead of her classmates that she’s bored, a more accelerated program might be a better fit. About 13% of parents surveyed said that they wanted to move because their child was bored or not sufficiently challenged.
4. The curriculum doesn’t fit your child’s learning style
Some kids thrive in a traditional school environment. Others learn more effectively with a creative, hands-on approach. Trying to fit an unstructured child into a highly structured environment, or vice versa, can lead to problems. More than 45% of parents who wanted to switch schools said they were concerned about an inflexible curriculum that didn’t fit their child’s learning style.
Before you make a move, find out whether your current school is willing to make any adjustments. “You want to exhaust all your options at the school,” says Cindy Goldrich, ADHD-CCSC board-certified ADHD coach at PTS Coaching, LLC, and author of 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD. The fix may be as simple as giving your child extra breaks during the day, adding a tutor, or designating a place your child can go when he needs space, she adds.
5. Your child is having social problems
Children with disabilities — including learning disabilities — are two to three times more likely to be bullied than are their peers.1 Bullying can take many forms, from name calling, to physical aggression such as hitting, or to belittling messages posted on social media.
Every state has anti-bullying laws in place, and some include specific language for children with disabilities.2 If you’ve worked with teachers and school administrators, and the situation hasn’t improved, for the sake of your child’s safety and happiness a move may be necessary.
Sometimes it’s not bullying, but isolation that children with ADHD and LD face. If your child sits alone at the lunch table and on the playground, school can be a very lonely place. Just over 38% of parents said they were looking to move schools in search of a “fresh start,” or to escape from social challenges.
6. Your child is miserable
Changing schools “should be a last resort,” says Goldrich. Yet you can reach a point where your child is so unhappy or stressed out that he needs to move on. More than 41% of parents surveyed said their child’s anxiety was driving their decision to switch.
Although the ideal time to move is at the beginning of a new school year, you might have to move during the school year if things are going especially poorly. “If they’re really anxious and there’s school avoidance or self-harm, that’s an urgent situation,” says Williams.
Keep in mind that, although the grass may be different at another school, it won’t necessarily be greener. “It was a big deal for my child and it took over a year for him to settle in. In retrospect it may have been better to stay at the original school. I underestimated the difficulty of the change for my child,” one parent wrote.
“Most children, unless they’re miserable where they are, prefer to stay where it’s familiar.
That’s what makes changing schools such a difficult decision,” Van Der Kar-Levinson says.
1 PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. “Top 10 facts the parents, educators, and students should know.” https://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/students-with-disabilities/
2 Understood.org. “Bullying laws: Your child’s rights at school.” https://www.understood.org/en/friends-feelings/common-challenges/bullying/bullying-laws