Any student who has changed schools (or wishes she could) will tell you: A good fit is critical. Because your child spends the bulk of her week at school, you want to make absolutely sure that she’s understood, academically suited, and — most important — happy there.
Navigating school options can be dizzying — especially if you live in an area with several choices. “Often it’s an overwhelming process and narrowing down your options can seem really difficult,” says Meghan Tomb, Ph.D., assistant professor of medical psychology (in psychiatry) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Use this step-by-step process to focus your school choices, ask the right questions, and identify any potential red flags during your search.
Step 1: Build a School List
Every school search begins with a list of possibilities. The easiest way to find schools in your area is with an online search, which is how more than 42% of parents in a recent ADDitude survey said they’d identified school alternatives.
When Penny Williams began evaluating new schools for her son, who has ADHD and high-functioning autism, “I just Googled and started looking at websites and figuring out what they offered and what their educational approach was,” she says.
You’ll find public schools — including charter schools — through your local board of education. Greatschools.org also offers a searchable directory of public schools that includes test scores, student progress, and information about the school environment. The National Center for Education Statistics runs a directory of private schools, which you can search by location, grade, and program type.
Step 2: Ask for Recommendations
Get advice from people who are familiar with the local schools to help you build or pare down your list. Often the best sources are the parents of children who’ve attended the school, which is where 45% of survey respondents turned for guidance.
“We talked with other parents who had made a similar school change for similar reasons and had seen beneficial results,” one parent wrote in the survey.
Just remember that each family’s experience with a particular school is unique to their situation. “You have to talk to a variety of people. Some people can have a wonderful or a terrible experience. That doesn’t speak for the entire school,” says Cindy Goldrich, ADHD-CCSC, a board-certified ADHD coach at PTS Coaching, LLC, and author of 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD.
Teachers or administrators at your current school, as well as your child’s doctors, are other good sources of information. Nearly a quarter of parents surveyed sought recommendations from school professionals, while 17% asked their medical professional for advice.
Sometimes it helps to get guidance from a variety of people — including an educational consultant, if you can afford one. “Determining the right school placement is often informed by a combination of resources and providers and teachers working with the child,” Tomb says.
Step 3: Do Your Research
To get a feel for the school, start by searching its website for information on the curriculum, after school activities, class size, and philosophy. Try to imagine how your child might fit in there.
Any school you consider should accommodate your child’s special educational needs — and also be a good fit for his personality. “We looked for a school that would view our son as a whole person with all of his needs, not just his ADHD,” one parent wrote.
Also keep practical considerations in mind, such as tuition, distance from home, and transportation availability. High cost and inconvenience can be two big negative marks against a school.
Step 4: Schedule a Visit
The only way to truly get a sense for a school’s philosophy and environment is to walk its halls. “Oftentimes what you read on a website is not what you feel in person,” Tomb says. Ask if you can take a tour or attend an open house or parent-information session.
Nearly 37% of parents surveyed toured their prospective school alone, while 42% brought their child along. Goldrich recommends making the first visit on your own, especially if your child is young. “Parents should not bring their child until they feel that this [school] absolutely could be a possibility, because the child may become anxious,” she says. “You’re going to want to include them in the process, but don’t do it too early.”
As you walk through the school, assess the environment. Do the kids look engaged, or are they yawning? Do the teachers seem enthusiastic in their interactions with students? Are students moving around, or are they stuck in their seats? Are the classrooms crowded? Are they noisy? Are the children friendly with one another, or are some kids sitting alone?
“It’s crucial that throughout a tour, you keep your child in mind,” 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. “Ask yourself, ‘Can I see my child in this room? Can I see my child having a good experience here?’”
A school tour is the perfect opportunity to ask lots of questions. Have a list ready before you go. “It can be helpful to review these questions in advance with your child’s treatment team, including their therapist or learning specialist,” Tomb suggests.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What is the school’s educational philosophy (child-centered, collaborative, project-based, etc.)?
- How does the school support children with learning, emotional, or social issues?
- Has the school taught students with your child’s special needs? What did educators and administrators do to meet those needs?
- Do they have specialists like a psychologist, speech therapist, and occupational therapist on staff?
- What kind of special-education training do the teachers receive?
- What after school activities (sports, band, drama, art) are available to students?
- How does the school communicate with parents?
- How do teachers and administrators deal with disciplinary issues?
- Does the school have an anti-bullying policy?
Step 5: Meet the Principal
Another way to get to know the schools you’re considering is to meet the principal or headmaster, which nearly half of surveyed parents did. “They set the tone,” says Van Der Kar-Levinson. “It all moves down from the director.”
If you sense that the principal is engaged and invested in the students, there’s a good chance the teachers will be, too. “You can get a good feel for how the staff are going to be toward your child by how accommodating, compassionate, and supportive a principal is at the onset,” one parent wrote.
Conversely, you’ll be able to tell from the director if the school isn’t attuned to the needs of kids with LD. “You will instantly pick up if there’s a frown and a hesitation. Then you go, ‘Thank you for your time,’ you grab your purse and get out of there,” Van Der Kar-Levinson says.
Step 6: Meet with Other Staff Members
Also get to know the people who will interact with your child on a day-to-day basis. “Talk to the teacher your child would have,” suggests Williams, who is also a parenting ADHD coach and trainer, and creator of the Parenting ADHD and Autism Academy. “If there’s special education staff, I would meet with them, too.”
More than 37% of parents surveyed said they’d talked to teachers at the school they were evaluating. Just over a third spoke with special-education or therapeutic professionals.
“We met with the school’s IEP team and addressed our concerns up front and questioned exactly what their perspective and methods of dealing with ADHD and ODD were,” one parent wrote. “We also made clear our expectations of them as our child’s educators. Their immediate positive response and acknowledgment of themselves as partners with us in his educational experience influenced our decision to move forward.
Step 7: Sit in on a Class
One visit isn’t enough for you or your child to get the full picture of day-to-day life at a school. Arrange for your child to come back and spend some time in the classroom, as nearly a quarter of parents surveyed said their children had done. Better yet, ask if your child can shadow a current student for a day.
Once you complete all seven steps, you should have a good idea of whether a school is a good match for your child. Too many concerns or red flags is a sign that your search needs to continue.