When your child has intensive learning interests
What to look for when choosing a school
By Glen Hoffmann
Almost all students enjoy certain subjects. Some, though, have a passion for them. These kids have what we might call “intensive learning interests”—interests that are specific, deep, and ongoing.
If your child is like this, you’ll want to find a school that can meet their subject-specific appetite for learning. Luckily, we’re here to help.
1. Types of learning interests
Learning interests, as you might expect, vary widely among kids. While some have a passion for math, science, or STEM, others prefer the language arts, or perhaps history, geography, or music.
Regardless of where your child’s interests lie, make sure to take them seriously. Some kids who aren’t able to pursue their passions in school become bored. In addition to academic underachievement, this can lead to a host of emotional problems, such as low self-esteem and confidence, depression, anxiety, and general unhappiness or malaise.
2. Intensive learning interests: what to look for in a school
Sometimes your child’s current school may be able to address your child’s specialized learning interests. Other times a change of scenery will be needed.
In either case, finding the right educational environment for a child with intensive learning interests is no easy task. It will depend on several factors.
Always fully acquaint yourself with a school’s curriculum: the material it covers and how it covers it. First, consider to what extent, if at all, a school’s curriculum includes your child’s areas of interest. If your child loves math, look into what subjects are offered and at what levels. For instance, if they’re a high school student, does it offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses in calculus and physics?
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 problem-solving? Of course, it’s possible the approach varies among subjects.
Finally, consider the suitability of a school’s overall curricular approach for your child. Many kids with intensive learning interests do well at a school with an alternative curriculum that prioritizes student-centred and individualized learning. This will give them more freedom to seek out unique learning opportunities and explore their passions in depth. Some, however, may find their need to pursue specialized studies 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).
You might consider a specialty school for your child with intensive learning interests.
If they have a passion for the visual arts, for instance, you might enrol them 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, you might choose a science- or STEM-focused school, where they can study biology, chemistry, engineering, and technology with like-minded peers.
Of course, having a passion for the arts or sciences doesn’t mean your child should attend an art or science school. You may find a traditional school with a robust art or science program through which they can pursue in-depth studies and acquire relevant skills and knowledge.
A school with a broad scope of specialist subjects can also sometimes meet your child’s specific learning needs. Many big schools, such as those with boarding programs, offer this variety. They also tend to have plenty of extracurricular programs to supplement your child’s learning and cultivate their curiosity, such as after-school art history, literature, and robotics classes.
Learning and teaching environment
Keep in mind that schools with smaller classes tend to provide more differentiated instruction. This can give your child the freedom to focus more on what interests them.
But what other features of a learning environment are likely to stimulate your child and meet their need to explore their passions in depth? 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.
Differentiated instruction is especially critical for students with intensive academic interests. A teacher who tailors instruction to individual children’s learning needs can help ensure each child will have plenty of opportunities to pursue their learning interests.
For instance, they might offer independent studies, project-based learning, cyberlearning, career exploration, and mentorship and leadership opportunities. In addition to helping your child acquire invaluable and specialized knowledge and skills, this can help boost their confidence.
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.
Infrastructure and resources
Make sure 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 may 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 at a school.
Many kids with intensive learning interests will want to continue their learning after school. For example, if your child is crazy about robotics, they may be thrilled to hear the school offers an after-school, evening, or even weekend class in this area.
Although students’ intensive learning interests are often best met in school, it can be helpful to look elsewhere. A child’s learning can be augmented through extracurricular opportunities outside of school.
For instance, an eager math student can benefit enormously from a math enrichment program or camp. There are also plenty of enrichment programs for science students. In Toronto alone, 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 constructive.
“Play, extracurricular experiences, visits to theatres and sporting events, family gatherings, community-based involvement, and leadership roles can supplement what happens at school,” say Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster in Beyond Intelligence. “ … [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.”
Private schools, it should be noted, often have smaller classes with lower student-to-teacher ratios, which can make it easier for teachers to differentiate instruction and give your child plenty of time for independent learning.
Expansive resources, another common feature of private schools, can also help your child explore their passions in class and out. 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 your child’s specific learning interests and how they want to pursue them (not to mention their age, abilities, maturity level, and other traits), there are several types of school worth considering. To help you find the right one, here’s a closer look at some of the main options.
Specialty schools have a specific focus, such as arts, science, STEM, or graphic design. They’re a great fit for students who want to explore their passions in-depth with peers with similar academic interests.
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 plenty of extracurricular programs to supplement your child’s learning and cultivate their curiosity, such as after-school art history, literature, and robotics classes.
Montessori schools give kids lots of flexibility to pursue their academic interests and work on tasks of their choosing (with teacher guidance). They can be a nice fit for kids who enjoy independent and concrete learning.
Waldorf schools give kids the 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 have a co-constructed curriculum that enables kids to explore their passions, either by themselves or with their peers (and sometimes teachers). Mostly for kids in preschool or primary school, they promote lots of interaction, collaboration, and experiential learning. They often work well for young kids who enjoy hands-on and collaborative learning in a lively environment.
International Baccalaureate schools offer social justice and community service as a critical part of their curricula. If your child is interested in these areas, especially if they’re intensively academically-focused and enjoy collaborative learning, an IB school can be a nice fit.
Big schools tend to have a broad scope of specialist subjects to meet your child’s specific learning needs. They also tend to have plenty of extracurricular programs to supplement your child’s learning and cultivate their curiosity, such as after-school art history, literature, and robotics classes.
Small schools tend to have smaller classes with plenty of individualized learning and independent and small group work. This can enable your unconventional learner to pursue their interests in an engaging and sometimes collaborative environment. It’s also often easier for smaller schools to set up classes of special interest for certain students—such as art history or microbiology—allowing them to pursue unique learning paths.
3. Choosing the right school for your child
When looking for a school for your child, consider the big picture. In addition to your child’s learning interests, reflect on their other relevant traits, such as their mental and academic focus, 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 location, cost, size, culture, and community.
Based on your child’s and family’s needs, create a shortlist of around two to eight schools. Research these schools extensively and visit them, ideally in person but virtually if necessary. Ask school officials 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 may want to make them a vital part of the decision-making process.
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 subject-specific love of learning:
- Check out the resources: Make sure the school has whatever resources are required to stimulate and challenge your child in their areas of interest. These may include a computer lab, an art studio, an expansive library, a physics club, or a robotics class.
- Observe a class in action: Ask if you can sit in on a class. If your child is old enough, ask if they can as well and whether they can have a shadow day (where they go through a full day at the school). Here are some things to look for: How do teachers interact with students? Do they offer whole-class instruction, and if so, how much? Do they differentiate instruction, tailoring it to each student’s unique learning needs? Is independent learning encouraged? Is there much interaction and collaboration between students? Is there a lively and dynamic “vibe” in class?
- Talk to students: Ask them what classes are like and if they find them engaging. Do they have ample opportunity to pursue their learning interests in class and out? 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 a school is the right fit for your child. Ask them plenty of questions to gauge whether it’s likely to meet your child’s need for specialized studies. Here are some key 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?
- Differentiated instruction: Do you offer differentiated instruction? To what extent do you prioritize independent learning?
- In-class adaptations: Do you offer custom in-class adaptations, and if so, which ones? For instance, do you offer differentiated instruction, independent studies, subject streaming, cyberlearning, or career exploration?
- Enrichment and acceleration: Do you offer opportunities for acceleration and enrichment? If so, what kinds of opportunities and in what subjects?
- 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 motivate and challenge them?
- Academic focus: Do you have a particular academic focus, such as science, STEM, or the arts?
- Extracurriculars: Do you have after-school classes 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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