Q: How does a parent know when a school or learning environment is not working?
A: You have kids who are unhappy. For younger students it can be psychosomatic things like “I have a tummy ache today,” “I have a headache,” “I don't feel well.” Getting a lot of calls from the school because your child wants to go home. It can be in sort of quieter things like just not participating as much anymore, or withdrawing from the social scene. Maybe there's a bullying situation, there's a social situation that's happening that's not being addressed and that's causing frustration or upset.
Q: What can be done about this?
A: This doesn't necessarily mean that the school isn't right for them, it just means that they might need support in different aspects of the academic side of things. But when your child is academically struggling, when they are unhappy, when there could be signs of depression or withdrawal, when they are not enthusiastic about going to school, or when there's a lot of physical symptoms, I would say those are some of the red flags. On a daily basis and we're talking about persistent. It's not just for a couple of days, because they've got a big test or an exam or something that's due. It's over a long period of time. This may point to the need to switch schools or at least to get to the bottom of this.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in finding the right school?
A: I think a big challenge is finding the right balance based on your goals. So, you may have a set of goals or criteria, that you want to tick off the boxes to make sure that, "Okay, I'd like the school to have this, this, this, and this." So it's finding the balance between the priorities. Determining what are the priorities that you're looking for. If your one priority is small classrooms, that's number one, then you've already kind of narrowed your field down.
If you have to say, "My priority is a really strong academic support team, my child has particular learning needs, so I need an environment that's going to be accommodating to those needs," then that's your main goal. So I guess one of the challenges is determining what your main priorities are and the other challenge is preparing your child to meet the needs of that school. So, it's having realistic expectations of how your child fits the criteria that the school is looking for and how the school fits the criteria that you're looking for.
Q: What are some of the most important things to focus on in your school search?
A: I think you have to look at who your child is and what they need to be happy, what they need to be motivated, and what they need to be satisfied and productive. Regardless of where you go, if you have a really sporty kid who needs to move, who needs to be active, putting them in a high-level, IB academic program may not be the right place for them, for example. Knowing who your child is and what their needs are, doesn't have to be needs that are diagnosed or identified, but just who they are as a person.
What interests them, are they really socially activist minded? If so, you want to look for a school that has a strong community aspect or a strong political aspect.
I think looking at the level of academics is also important. Some students really thrive in high academic pressure situations, like an IB program, where they're really being pushed to move forward, and they thrive in that environment. Other students need more time to get acclimated, or they have certain strengths, but not strengths all around in the academic field. You want to make sure that the academic level of expectation matches with the abilities and the needs of the student.
I think proximity to your home is also important. Is this a kid who's willing to travel for an hour to get to school or not? Is this a kid who gets tired really easily? So a school that's close by is going to be easier for them to manage? Do you want to be inside your community or outside your community? That's a big deal. When you can walk to school it makes a big difference, because you will have friends in the neighborhood, and it certainly saves time over the day.
And then I would look at the social makeup of the school. Is there enough variety in the school 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 honored and respected too.
Q: To what extent is a good school choice a matter of finding the right fit versus finding a school that by some objective measure has good practices?
A: Well it depends on your kid. But I say overall you want a school that has strong academic practices. That has a very set curriculum in terms of you can see what their goals and objectives are for grade one and how that transitions to grade two, three, four, and all the way through.
A school that is open, that you can have good communication with. That's really, really important. Because whether your child is doing extremely well or not you want to have access to the teachers to some degree to check in and to make sure that things are going well. Some schools are better at that communication than others. If you have a kid that has particular needs, doesn't have to be an academic need, could be a social need, you want to make sure that you have access to somebody who's your point-person there. Whether it's a homeroom teacher or a counselor or the special resource teacher or whomever.
Q: What are some factors affecting school culture?
A: School leadership is a big one. If you don't feel a good connection with the administration then it's probably not a good place for you, because if you ever do have conflicts that you need to be addressed, you want to feel comfortable going to that person.
Q: How should the child be involved in the school-choice process?
A: You can't let your child make all of the decisions, but you certainly need to take into account they may be upset, because they think they're losing their friends or there's a different emotional reason why they may not like a particular place.
You have to have conversations, especially if you're talking about a child who's going into grade eight or grade nine. "What did you like about it? What didn't you like about it? Can you see yourself there next year and the year after? Can you see yourself graduating from there?" Try to get into their head space. Some kids are really, really bad with change. Some people are very bad with change and they don't embrace it wholeheartedly, even if it's going to be good for them, and so you have to kind of peel those pieces away and try to tease things out: is a child blocking something or is a child not embracing something because of fear of the unknown, more so than really not liking something in particular?
So there's a difference between, "Well, what didn't you like about it?" "I don't know." Versus, "I really don't like that they don't have any sports. I don't like that their playground is really small. I don't like that we have to wear uniforms." And then you can weigh whether their reactions are, as I said, out of fear of the unknown, or are they out of something particular that's not jiving with them?
Q: How important is the social aspect in choosing a school?
A: This depends a lot on the child. There are some kids that don't have a best friend, but they hang out with everybody and they can socially adapt and they can be with any group at any time and they're happy. There are other kids who only have one very good friend and they are a team that is inseparable. The other aspect of it is you don't know what social situation you're getting into when you move to a new school, or even if you just go from one grade to the next, because classes change every year.
But there are situations where it's a small private school and you've got 14 kids in the class and 10 of them are boys and 3 of them are girls, and you know that 2 of those girls are leaving next year and it only leaves your daughter and one other girl. That can be an impetus for some parents to say, "Socially, this is not the best place for my kid and although we like the academics, we need her to have a social network that she feels comfortable with."
Q: What are some red flags about schools?
A: I would say that you want to look at the consistency of the academics, this is really important. So, let's take the math curriculum, for example. The math curriculum in Ontario has gone through a lot of change over the last few years. I prefer a math curriculum that's a little more traditional, but also has the exploration or what we call discovery learning. So I would look for a curriculum that has a combination, a balance of both inquiry-based learning and the foundation skills are strong.
You also want to look for a curriculum that builds their learning in a consistent way. So, let's say a writing program, something that I would like to bring to private schools, uses a systematic approach. What can unfortunately happen is your grade six teacher will teach it one way, your grade seven teacher teaches it another way, grade eight teaches it another way, and then by grade nine they just expect that you're doing it in a fifth way.
Q: Are there any common mistakes parents make in the school-choice process?
A: I would say a mistake that is sometimes made is choosing a school solely because that's where you went, because of a legacy. Or your father went there or your husband or whoever, as opposed to choosing a school for the needs of that particular child.
Child-specific advice on school choice
For child-specific insights on choosing a school, read our guide. We explore how school choices crucially depend on kids' unique traits, such as their mental and academic focus, social tendencies, activity level, academic interests (such as art and STEM), and other attributes (such as giftedness, special needs, learning disabilities, and social issues).
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Read our other education expert choosing interviews: Janyce Lastman, Ann and Karen Wolff, Elaine Danson, Una Malcolm, Joanne Foster, Jane Kristoffy, Irina Valentin