When you're just looking for the best overall fit
What to look for when choosing a school
You may not know exactly what you’re looking for in a school. Like many parents, maybe you’re just seeking the best overall fit for your child.
The question is, what does this mean to you? What are your priorities—the most important things you covet in a school—that will enable your child to thrive academically, emotionally, and physically? You’ll need to give these questions some serious thought.
Below we discuss potential school objectives for your child. Each represents a goal you may prioritize, and offers a vital starting point, in your school search. Since these goals aren’t mutually exclusive, you may find it helpful to explore several or even all of them.
If your child craves academic challenge, you’ll want to find a school to satisfy this need. Here are some important factors to think about in looking for their best-fit school.
Consider whether a school’s curriculum—the material it covers and how it covers it—will deliver the kind of challenge your child needs. Are they better off at a school with a mainstream curriculum, in which they cover the same material as their peers (at roughly the same pace)? Or is their need for challenge best met at a school with a less traditional curriculum, such as a student-centred one that will give them ample flexibility to pursue independent learning opportunities and explore their passions?
Many kids who need challenge thrive at schools with high academic standards and demanding programs such as gifted, International Baccalaureate, and Advanced Placement schools. But consider whether and to what degree this is true for your child, and what standards are right for them. What kinds of academic expectations are required to engage and motivate them to work hard and get the most out of school?
Learning and teaching environment
Schools with smaller classes and lower student-to-teacher ratios lend themselves to plenty of individualized instruction, group work, independent learning, and interaction. Many students, like some who seek academic challenge, find this engaging.
But what other features of a learning environment are likely to stimulate your child and meet their need for 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.)
Good teachers 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.
Don’t underestimate the influence of your child’s classmates on their learning experience. Often, being in a class with motivated and academically-focused peers can help stimulate your child and open up new learning pathways. Peers with common interests can be similarly inspiring.
If your child struggles socially, a school’s social fit may be at the top of your list. If so, here are some key factors to guide your school search.
“It’s important to look at the social makeup of the school,” says Ruth Rumack of Ruth Rumack's Learning Space. "Is there enough variety that your child will have a group that they feel connected with? Because you want to have friends that are like-minded and you want to be in a social situation where you feel honoured and respected. Variety can also be found in extracurriculars, leadership programs, and sports activities, which tend to have kids with a wide range of personalities.”
A school’s social environment in many ways stems from the values and ideals it extols. Look for a school that prioritizes the values you think should shape its environment and culture. Do you want a tight-knit community of kind, respectful, and socially-informed students and staff for your child? If you do, look for a school that cultivates these values.
Consider exactly what your child needs. If they’re frequently involved in serious conflicts, have major behavioural or emotional issues, or are being targeted or bullied, a robust counselling department is a must. For students who struggle socially, onsite psychologists, guidance counsellors, and social workers may also be needed to provide targeted and ongoing support.
Inquire into the source of your child’s social challenges. Are they related to serious problems with depression or anxiety? Might your child have a social or emotional disorder? If so, their issues might be best addressed outside of school (at least partially), say, through regular visits to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
It’s also possible your child’s emotional issues might be situational. They might be depressed or anxious, for instance, because they’re not getting enough challenge in school. Academic understimulation can breed boredom which can lead to disengagement—a frequent cause of social and emotional issues. In this case, a school that provides your child with enough academic challenge can help curb their social problems.
If your child struggles academically, a school’s academic fit may be your number one priority. You might, then, consider these factors in your school search.
Learning and teaching environment
Schools with smaller classes and lower student-to-teacher ratios often work well for kids who struggle academically. This makes it easier for teachers to provide more one-on-one attention and differentiated instruction.
Differentiated instruction is especially important for students with academic struggles. A teacher who tailors instruction to individual children’s learning needs can help ensure each child gets exactly what they require—that they learn the right material, at the right pace, in the right format. This can help ensure they acquire the knowledge, skills, and confidence needed to stay on track (and sometimes thrive).
Many kids with academic struggles are well-suited to a school with an alternative curriculum that allows for more individualized learning. This will give them more flexibility in what material they cover and the pace they cover it at.
Schools with mainstream curricula (especially ones with high academic standards), in which all students cover the same material as their peers (at roughly the same pace), may not offer enough flexibility and targeted support for some kids with academic challenges. That said, some mainstream schools provide the kind of structure many of these kids need.
Make sure a school has what’s required to address your child’s specific challenges. If they’re struggling with math, for instance, they may need an after-school math tutor. Or, if they’re having a difficult time learning to read, they may need an onsite reading intervention specialist.
However, if your child struggles across the curriculum, they’ll likely require more substantive support. For instance, they may need an in-class educational assistant. They may also benefit from in-class accommodations, such as extra time for assignments or tests, note-taking assistance, quiet workspaces, assistive devices, and duplicate notes.
Inquire into the causes of your child’s academic struggles. Are they related to serious problems with depression or anxiety? Might your child have a social or emotional disorder? In this instance, their issues might be best addressed outside of school (at least partially), say, through regular visits to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
On the other hand, though it may seem counterintuitive, your child might struggle academically (and/or with depression or anxiety) because they’re not getting enough challenge in school. Academic understimulation can breed boredom, which can lead to disengagement (a frequent cause of social and emotional issues). A school that provides your child with enough academic challenge can, in this case, help alleviate their academic struggles, and, sometimes, their attendant social problems.
Some kids have “intensive learning interests”—interests that are specific, deep, and ongoing. If your child is like this, here are some factors to consider in your school search.
Look into what subjects are offered and at what levels. If your child is a high school student interested in, say, math, are Advanced Placement (AP) courses in calculus and physics offered?
Also, probe a school’s pedagogical approach. Is math ( science, English, etc.) taught traditionally, by imparting knowledge through whole-class lessons and text-based instruction? Or, is the school more inquiry-based, offering mostly hands-on, experiential learning? Think about which approach is best for your child, bearing in mind this can vary among subjects.
You might consider a specialty school for your child with intensive learning interests. If they have a passion for the visual arts, they may thrive in an art-focused school where they’ll take subjects like painting, drawing, and sculpting, receive expert art instruction, and learn with artsy kids. Or, if science and technology are your child’s things, a science- or STEM-focused school might fit the bill, where they can study biology, chemistry, engineering, and technology with like-minded peers.
Ensure a school has what’s required to address your child’s specific needs. If they have a passion for STEM, for instance, 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 will be helpful for them. 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 pursue specialized learning isn’t restricted to what takes place in class during regular school hours. You should also look into what extracurricular opportunities are available. For example, if your child is nuts about robotics, they may be thrilled to hear a school offers an after-school, evening, or even weekend class in this subject.
Kids with lofty university ambitions often seek high schools that improve their chances of getting into a good university and thriving when they get there. If your child is like this, here are some points to consider in your school search.
What will it take for your child to get an A+ or become an honours student, and how hard will this be compared to other schools? Many universities are impressed by schools with high academic standards such as IB and AP. And, certainly, students who excel at these schools will improve their chances of getting into many universities and be better prepared to succeed there.
That said, think about whether your university-focused child is a fit for this kind of school, as they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. “Some students, even academically-focused ones, may prefer more scope for independent learning than many highly academic schools allow,” says Dona Matthews, education consultant and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence.
If your child has a specific area of interest they want to pursue in university, you might consider a specialty high school. If they have a passion for the visual arts, for instance, they might thrive at an art-focused school in which they’ll take subjects like painting, drawing, and sculpting, receive expert art instruction, and learn with artsy kids. In addition to impressing university admissions departments, this can help prepare them for more intensive and focused work in their area of interest.
Overall school quality
Like it or not, perceived school quality is a factor in university admissions. Some high schools are thought of more highly by some universities than others. This is certainly true with specific areas of study like science, math, and the arts, but likely also with schools as a whole. Though it’s always best to consider a school’s overall fit for your child rather than its reputation or perceived quality, the latter can’t be entirely dismissed when thinking about university admissions.
Of course, it’s virtually impossible to know with certainty how universities rank high schools, even in terms of specific programs, subjects, or areas of study. You can, though, look at schools’ university placement records over time, which are featured on OurKids.net school profiles. You can also research which schools have the most highly-regarded academic programs, especially in your child’s intended areas of study.
If you have a child with a learning, behavioural, developmental, or physical disability, a school with ample support is a must. Here are some factors to think about in your search.
Make sure a school has exactly what’s required to address your child’s challenges. If they’re struggling with reading, say, due to dyslexia, they may require an onsite reading intervention specialist to help them with decoding. Or, if they have an attention deficit disorder, they may need a small class with plenty of one-on-one support and guidance.
And, regardless of your child’s specific challenges, they’re likely to benefit from certain out-of-class resources and onsite support staff. This may include robust guidance and counselling departments, learning resource centres, psychologists, academic advisors, guidance counsellors, and tutors.
Many students with special needs are well suited to a school with a student-centred curriculum which allows for more individualized learning. This will give them more freedom in what material they cover and the pace they cover it at.
On the other hand, some, though not all, students with special needs will struggle at a school with a more traditional curriculum, in which they cover the same material as their peers (at roughly the same pace), often delivered through whole-class lessons. Some of these schools won’t provide enough flexibility and personalized support for kids with special needs.
Learning and teaching environment
Schools with smaller classrooms make it easier for teachers to provide lots of one-on-one support and individualized instruction.
But what other features of a learning environment are likely to be helpful for your child?
One universally acknowledged benchmark 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.)
Differentiated instruction is especially integral for kids with special needs. A teacher who tailors instruction to individual children’s needs can help ensure they get exactly what they require—that they learn the right material, at the right pace, in the right ways. This can help your child acquire the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to stay on track (and sometimes thrive).
When choosing a school for your child, you’ll need to look at the big picture. Consider all of your child’s relevant traits, such as their mental and academic focus, learning 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 diligently and visit them, ideally in person but virtually if necessary. Ask school reps lots of questions. You should also speak with school parents, students, and alumni not officially representing the school. And depending on the age and maturity of your child, you might want to make them an integral part of the decision-making process.
You should visit each school on your shortlist. Ideally, tour them with a school official or student. Below, we offer advice for your visit, which you can print out, to help you decide whether a school is right for your child.
- Check out its resources: Make sure the school has the resources and facilities your child needs to thrive. For instance, your child may require a computer lab, an art studio, an expansive library, a physics club, or an after-school robotics class. And, all students can benefit from robust counselling departments, learning resource centres, and onsite support staff like academic advisors, guidance counsellors, tutors, and social workers.
- Observe a class in action: Ask if you can observe a class. If your child is old enough, ask if they can sit in on a class or even have a shadow day (where they experience a full day at the school)? Here are some things to look for: How do teachers interact with students? How do they stimulate, engage, and challenge them? Do they differentiate instruction, tailoring it to each student’s unique learning needs? Do they provide much one-on-one support? Do they offer subject-specific enrichment or acceleration? Do they offer any other customized in-class adaptations or accommodations? Is there a lively and dynamic “vibe” in class?
- Observe the school environment up close: Where do people gather? Are teachers interacting with students outside the classroom? Is there happy banter in the hallways or do students walk with their eyes down, focused only on their destination? How do students interact with each other? Are there lots of hugs and high-fives? Are students respectful of each other? Is there any graffiti in the washroom, and if so, what does it say?
- 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 and 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 stimulating and challenging. What do they like and not like about their teachers? Also, try to learn about the academic culture at the school: For instance, are most students more competitive or collaborative? Finally, inquire about the social culture at the school: Is it close and tight-knit? Is it easy to make friends? Is it cliquey? How are conflicts usually resolved?
It’s important to speak with school officials to get a sense of whether the school is a good fit for your child. Ask them plenty of questions, including these critical ones, which you can print out to bring along 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? How much, if any, independent and collaborative learning do you offer?
- Teaching approach: What is your teaching philosophy? How do your teachers engage students? How do they motivate and challenge them?
- Class sizes: What are your class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios?
- Academic standards: What are your academic standards? How do they compare with those of your province's curriculum? How do they compare with those of IB, AP, and other highly academic programs?
- In-class adaptations: Do you offer custom in-class adaptations, and if so, which ones? For instance, do you offer differentiated instruction, subject-specific enrichment or acceleration, independent studies, subject-streaming, cyberlearning, or career exploration?
- Academic focus: Do you have a particular academic focus like science or the arts?
- Extracurriculars: Which after-school classes, programs, and clubs do you have? Do you offer volunteer or community service opportunities? How about travel and exchange programs?
- Out-of-class resources: Do you have academic counselling, learning resource, psychology, or health and wellness centres or departments?
- Out-of-class staff: Do you have academic advisors, guidance counsellors, social workers, or psychologists? How about tutors or subject-specific support staff (like reading or math specialists)?
- Special education: Do you have full- or part-time dedicated special education classes?
- Gifted learning: Do you have full- or part-time dedicated gifted classes?
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.