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When your child needs more academic challenge

What to look for when choosing a school


While every child needs academic challenge, this may be especially important for your child. If so, you’ll want to find a school that satisfies this need. Luckily, we’re here to help.

  1.  What academic understimulation looks like

  2. Academic understimulation: what to look for in a school

  3. Choosing the right school for your child

1. What academic understimulation looks like

With some kids it will be obvious they’re academically understimulated. Depending on their age and maturity, they may even tell you this. For others, it will be less apparent. You’ll need to look for clues in this situation, sometimes subtle ones, that something’s amiss.

“Some of these kids will be unhappy,” says Ruth Rumack of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space. “For younger students, it can be psychosomatic things like ‘I have a tummy ache,’ ‘I have a headache,’ or ‘I don’t feel well today.’ Getting a lot of calls from the school because your child wants to go home is not a good sign. It can also be things like just not participating as much anymore or withdrawing from the social scene.” (Read Ruth’s interview.

In fact, while it may seem counterintuitive, some kids who don’t get enough academic challenge underachieve in school. Boredom can breed disengagement, which often leads to poor results. It can also give rise to social and emotional issues like anxiety, depression, and disruptive behaviour. Academic and social struggles can sometimes be symptoms, then, of a lack of academic engagement.  

2. Academic understimulation: what to look for in a school

Of course, identifying that your child is academically understimulated is only the first step. You’ll then need to decide what to do about this. Sometimes your child’s current school may be able to address the issue, perhaps by offering custom in-class adaptations. Other times a change of scenery will be in order.

In either case, finding the right school or learning environment for a child who needs more academic challenge is no easy task. There are many factors you’ll need to consider.

Curriculum

You should always fully acquaint yourself with a school’s curriculum: what material it covers and how it covers it. This is especially true for your child. Consider whether a school’s curriculum will deliver the kind of challenge your child covets. 

For instance, your child may find this need met at a school with a high-level mainstream curriculum, in which they cover the same material as their peers (at roughly the same pace), which is often delivered through whole-class lessons. 

Some kids, meanwhile, are better suited to a school with a less traditional curriculum and teaching approach

“I wanted to see my child flourish in an academic and social environment where kids were valued for who they are, and are not just seen as students,” says Caitlin O’Leary, who was looking for a school for her daughter Robyn in Grade 4. “I was looking for smaller class sizes and lots of individualized learning. Social belonging was important, too. Luckily, we found the school we needed, one for bright, quirky girls who enjoy being challenged.” (Read Caitlin’s interview.

If your child has intensive academic interests, a specialty school is also an option. For instance, depending on their areas of interest, an art, science, STEM, or music school might work well for them.

Standards

Think about the academic standards at a school. What does a school expect of your child in general and in specific subjects? What benchmarks will they need to meet to make progress and thrive?

Most academically understimulated students require a demanding curriculum with high academic standards. But consider whether and to what extent this is true for your child, and what this might look like. What kinds of academic expectations are required to engage and motivate them to work hard and do their best? 

Some kids will excel at a school with uniformly high standards like an International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) school. Others won’t.

“Some students may prefer more scope for independent learning than highly academic schools allow,” says Dona Matthews, education consultant and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence. “Depending on how they’re run, these schools can sometimes leave less time for exploring one’s interests in class and out.” 

If your child is like this, they may prefer a school with a more flexible curriculum, one that offers more opportunities for independent learning and pursuing their passions.

Learning and teaching environment

Most kids, including those who crave academic challenge, thrive in small classes. These classes can enable teachers to provide more one-on-one attention and individualized instruction, and promote lots of interaction, small group work, and independent learning. This can help your child engage more fully with school, pursue meaningful learning pathways, and seek out challenging work.

But what other features of a learning environment are likely to stimulate your child and meet their need for more academic challenge?

One universally acknowledged touchstone is strong teaching.

“Good teachers know their students well and have a varied curriculum,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “They take the time to understand students’ learning needs and differentiate the curriculum accordingly.” (Read Ann and Karen’s interview.) This helps ensure each student is getting what they need: they’re learning the appropriate material and working through it at a suitable pace.

What else makes for a good teacher? Good teachers deliver material and lessons clearly and engagingly. They’re enthusiastic and passionate and this comes through in their teaching. They also offer plenty of time for reflection, exploration, and interaction, and they push their students to test their abilities and explore the boundaries of what they can achieve.

Peers 

Don’t underestimate the influence of your child’s classmates on their learning experience. Often, being in a class of academically-focused peers can help stimulate your child and motivate them to do their best. Peers with similar interests can be similarly inspiring. 

Other types of peer groups can also help your child more fully engage with their studies. If they’re ambitious and competitive, they may enjoy learning with and measuring themselves against hard-working kids with high academic aspirations. If they’re a more cooperative learner, they’ll likely prefer classmates who enjoy collaboration. Depending on their interests and personality, your child may also thrive in a class with outgoing, physically active, artsy, quirky, or some other group of peers.

Learning abilities

One reason your child may need more challenge in school is that they’re a high-ability learner—one who’s in the 98th percentile or above in learning abilities. If so, they’ll require a high-level and demanding curriculum. They may find this in a school with a dedicated gifted class, one devoted exclusively to gifted learning. 

Your child’s need for challenge may also be met, however, in a regular classroom offering custom in-class adaptations, such as subject-specific enrichment or acceleration, independent studies, subject-streaming, cyberlearning, and career exploration.

Your child may, in this case, be like Ivor.

“I ran into problems with one of my tenth-graders, a bright and articulate boy named Ivor,” says Susan Miller, an experienced teacher (quoted in Beyond Intelligence by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster). “Toward the end of the second semester, he started missing assignments, and his marks really slipped. When I discussed the situation with him, he told me he was bored with school—and had been for many years! I asked Ivor if he would’ve done better in my course if I’d kicked up the assignments for him. He grinned and said, ‘Yes! I would’ve proven to you I could do it.’

I thought about his response, and approached a guidance counsellor to see what could be done for Ivor (and maybe others) during third semester. She spoke with the science and math teachers to see how they could motivate him, and they were willing to investigate a wide range of options. Ivor began enjoying school. He wasn’t bored because he was being challenged to think critically and creatively.”

Infrastructure and resources

Make sure a school has the resources your child needs. 

For instance, if they enjoy STEM learning, they’ll likely benefit from well-equipped science and computer labs. Or, if they’re interested in the fine arts, an art studio and certain art supplies may be helpful. And, of course, regardless of their interests, well-trained expert instructors will be needed to bring out the best in them.

Keep in mind, though, your child’s ability to seek out challenges isn’t restricted to what takes place in class during regular school hours. You should also look into what extracurricular opportunities a school offers. Many kids looking for more challenge will want to continue their learning after school. If your child is interested in art history, for instance, they may be thrilled to hear the school has an after-school, evening, or even weekend class in this subject.

Beyond school

While a student’s need for challenge is often best met in school, it can be helpful to look elsewhere. A child’s learning can be expanded through extracurricular opportunities outside of school.

For instance, an eager math student can benefit enormously from numerous math enrichment programs or camps. There are also plenty of enrichment programs for science students. In Toronto alone, for instance, there are part-time science programs provided by the Ontario Science Centre Science School and the University of Toronto Da Vinci Engineering Enrichment Program (DEEP). 

Less conventional out-of-school learning activities can also be invaluable.

“Play, extracurricular experiences, visits to theatres and sporting events, family gatherings, community-based involvement, and leadership roles can supplement what happens at school,” say Matthews and Foster (in Beyond Intelligence). “Extracurricular activities can stimulate increased engagement in school, and make up for what might otherwise be missing. …  [They] can complement what happens in school, giving children a place to develop their talents, broaden their interests, challenge their minds, and extend their love of learning.”

Overall school quality

Sometimes the quality of a school, by itself, can be a source of inspiration. By attending an academically strong school, for example, your child will not only have many academically-focused peers, they may also, partly because of this, self-identify as studious. This can motivate them to work harder to achieve their best.

Private school

Private education, it’s worth noting, may give your child unique opportunities for challenge they’re less likely to find elsewhere. Many private schools have smaller classes with lower student-to-teacher ratios which lend themselves to plenty of individualized instruction, group work, independent learning, interaction, and engagement. 

Expansive resources, another common feature of private schools, can also help stimulate your child. This can include onsite facilities like science and computer labs, art studios, 3D printers, and dance studios, as well as extracurriculars, like after-school programs and classes, reading groups, field trips, and student clubs.

Types of schools you might consider 

Depending on the type(s) of academic challenge your child is seeking out and why (not to mention their age, abilities, interests, and other traits), there are several kinds of schools worth considering. To help you find the right one, here’s a closer look at some of the main options.

Gifted schools cater exclusively to students with learning abilities in the 98th percentile or above. They offer accelerated and/or enriched learning across the curriculum. While these can be a nice fit for many gifted learners, some will find their needs met in a regular school offering custom in-class adaptations.

International Baccalaureate (IB) schools provide a well-rounded, high-quality advanced course of study, widely recognized as world-class. At the high school level, they help prepare students for and improve their chances of admission into select universities. Since they challenge students to apply their knowledge and skills through collaboration, communication, and discussion, they’re also ideal for curious students who enjoy the challenge of looking at many different sides of an issue. 

Advanced Placement (AP) schools provide a range of university-level courses for high school students (mostly in Grade 12). They prepare students for the challenge and rigour of post-secondary education, and since AP credits are sometimes transferable, they can give your child a head start in their university studies. They often work well for older students who are interested in high-level studies and focused on getting into and excelling at a good university.

Academic schools, such as university prep schools, focus on academic preparation for post-secondary studies. They’re ideal for older students who have their sights set on university.

Specialty schools have a specific focus, such as the arts, science, STEM, or music. They’re a great fit for students who have one or more passions or areas of interest they want to explore in depth.

Boarding schools normally have a broad scope of specialist courses to choose from, enabling students to pursue their interests and develop new ones. They also tend to have a lot of academic diversity in the classroom, giving students plenty of opportunities to challenge themselves with peers with varying interests, many of whom have high academic aspirations. They often work well for students looking for a dynamic and exciting learning environment.   

Montessori schools give kids lots of flexibility to pursue their academic interests and move through the curriculum at their own pace. They’re a nice fit for kids who enjoy independent and concrete learning. 

Waldorf schools are child-focused, giving kids plenty of freedom to pursue their own interests. They place a special emphasis on the arts and creativity, and, at the preschool level, prioritize play-based learning. They can be a good fit for artsy kids who enjoy creative and imaginative activities.

Reggio Emilia schools give kids lots of freedom to explore their passions, by themselves and, especially, with others. Mostly for kids in preschool or primary school, they promote lots of interaction, collaboration, and project-based learning. They often work well for young kids who enjoy hands-on and collaborative learning in a lively environment.

3. Choosing the right school for your child

When choosing a school for your child, you’ll need to look at the big picture. In addition to the kinds of challenges your child is seeking, consider other relevant traits, such as their academic abilities and interests, learning styles and preferences, and social and physical tendencies. And, of course, finding the right school also means looking at factors that may affect your whole family, such as school cost, location, size, community, and culture.

After reflecting on your child’s and family’s needs, create a shortlist of, say, two to eight schools. Make sure you research these schools extensively and visit them, ideally in person but virtually if necessary. Ask school representatives lots of questions. You should also speak with school parents, students, and alumni. And depending on the age and maturity of your child, you may want to make them an integral part of the decision-making process (though the final decision should be yours).

Tips for the school visit

You should visit each school you’re seriously considering. Ideally, tour it with a school official or student. Here’s some advice for your visit, which you can print out, to help decide whether a school meets your child’s need for more academic challenge:

  • Check out the resources: Make sure the school has the resources required to stimulate and challenge your child. These may include a computer lab, an art studio, an expansive library, a physics club, or a robotics class.
  • Look at what’s on the walls: Are there posters for academic clubs or study groups in the hallways? Is plenty of student work posted in classrooms? What does this work look like? Is it indicative of high academic standards or creativity? You can also ask teachers and school reps to look at student work. 
  • Talk to students: Ask them what classes are like and if they find them engaging. Inquire about independent learning and enrichment opportunities. Try to learn about the academic culture at the school: For instance, are most students more competitive or collaborative?

Questions to ask school officials

It’s important to speak with school officials to get a sense of whether the school is the right fit for your child. Ask them plenty of questions to gauge whether a school is likely to meet your child’s unique need for academic challenge. Here are some critical questions, which you can print out to bring with you on your visit:

  • Curriculum: What curriculum do you use? Is it mainstream or alternative? What subjects do you teach and how do you teach them? Do you offer independent and collaborative learning?
  • Academic standards: What are your academic standards and expectation? How do they compare with your province’s curricular standards? How do they compare with those of IB, AP, and other highly academic schools?
  • Class sizes: What are your class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios?
  • Teaching approach: What is your teaching philosophy? How do you engage your students? How do you try to motivate and challenge them?
  • In-class adaptations: Do you offer custom in-class adaptations, and if so, which ones? For instance, do you offer differentiated instruction, subject-specific acceleration and enrichment, independent studies, subject streaming, cyberlearning, or career exploration?
  • Gifted support: Do you offer full-time dedicated gifted classes or part-time withdrawal gifted classes?
  • Academic focus: Do you have a particular academic focus, such as science, STEM, or the arts?
  • Extracurriculars: Do you have after-school classes, programs, or academic clubs? If so, which ones?

To learn more, read our comprehensive choosing a school guide. You can also read our education expert interviews on finding the right school and watch our parent and school head videos on choosing. Finally, watch our school head video on red flags to look out for and our education expert video on how to know when an educational environment isn't working.

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