Choosing a school for a child with a behavioural or emotional issue
Exploring a child with behavioural issue's school fit
Some students have social, emotional, or behavioural issues. If your child belongs in this category, this can greatly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them.
Kids with social, emotional, or behavioural issues may or may not have a disorder. They do, though, have serious challenges which can adversely affect their relationships in school and out, and lead to problems with concentration, emotional regulation, impulse control, and other issues.
Below, we identify key points you should reflect on when considering 10 different school types for a child with social issues. Note: our aim isn’t to tell you whether a school type is right or wrong for you, but to highlight some critical factors you should consider when making your decision.
To learn about how to choose the right school in general, read the Our Kids’ step-by-step advice guide and our expert tips. To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account and read our seven ways to choose a school based on your child's needs (i.e., overall fit, more academic challenge, social struggles, academic struggles, intensive learning interests, university preparation, and special needs.).
Kids with social issues’ fit in several school types
On this page:
Small school (150 students or less)
Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of individualized learning and one-on-one support, giving them the flexibility to accommodate students with a range of social issues. Some also offer learning environments that directly address these kinds of special needs, such as segregated classes, part-time withdrawal classes, and breakout support groups.
“Students with behaviour/emotional/social issues often thrive in smaller school settings,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “These students often feel a sense of comfort and ease in knowing that all of the staff know them and understand their challenges. They can be supported in a trusting environment and have to navigate fewer social relationships, both with their peers and adults.”
However, keep in mind that some small schools only provide support for one or two social or emotional issues, such as clinical anxiety or depression. Ask which issues a school supports, how it supports them, and whether it has teaching staff with specialized training to provide this support. Finally, since small schools tend to have fewer resources, make sure they have whatever your child needs, such as an on-site psychologist to help them with their impulse control, if this is an issue.
Big school (151+ students)
Since kids with social issues require special attention, ensure any prospective school has small- to medium-sized classes with plenty of structure, individualized learning, one-on-one support, and properly trained special education staff. Also, ask exactly what kinds of support a school provides both in class and out. For instance, does it provide intensive one-on-one counselling for kids with anxiety?
“Big schools can be challenging for students who experience anxiety or other emotional and mental health issues,” says Una Malcolm, Director of Bright Light Learners. “Their large student population can contribute to anxiety and worries, and may make it more difficult for teachers to monitor their well-being.”
Some big schools provide learning environments that explicitly support students with social issues. These can include dedicated classes, integrated classes, and regular classes with in-class adaptations and resource support. Many also provide a wide scope of resources to promote your child’s development, such as educational assistants, resource teachers, counsellors, social workers, and support groups.
A coed environment will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since navigating a coed environment can be especially challenging for a child who struggles with social issues, ask about a school’s social dynamic.
Also, ensure a school has the right learning environment, support systems, and out-of-class resources to promote your child’s development. For instance, if your child struggles with an executive function such as organization, they’ll likely need a small class with a lot of one-on-one support. Or, if they suffer from frequent panic attacks, they may require an in-house psychologist.
Of course, in a coed school, kids with social issues will have opportunities to work with and learn from the perspectives of both boys and girls. This can widen their perspectives and enhance their academic and social experiences.
Make sure any girls’ school provides the right learning environment for your daughter, whether this is a dedicated special needs class, an integrated class, or a regular class with adaptations and resource support. Keep in mind, however, that “Most of these schools look for girls who are independent and don’t require intensive support to function in the classroom,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. For instance, a girl struggling with severe clinical anxiety is unlikely to be a good candidate for admission.
Of course, in an all-girls’ school, your daughter won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help her better focus on her work. Also, in an environment often less shaped by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “boys are better than girls at math and science,” your daughter may feel freer to pursue her learning passions and take academic risks.
Make sure a boys’ school provides a learning environment that directly addresses your son’s social issue(s), such as a segregated or integrated class, or a regular class with individualized learning and one-on-one support. Keep in mind, however, that “Generally, these schools look for boys who can function independently in the classroom,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. This means many boys’ schools won’t be able to support students with severe emotional or behavioural disorders such as oppositional defiance disorder (ODD).
Of course, in an all-boys school, your son won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help him focus on his work free from potential distractions. Also, in an environment often less influenced by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “girls are more suited to the arts than boys,” he may feel freer to pursue his learning interests and carve out a unique developmental path.
Many kids with social issues will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing. “The degree of self-direction and individualization in a Montessori school can be ideal for a child experiencing mental health issues,” says Una Malcolm, Director of Bright Light Learners. “Its close-knit, supportive environment is sometimes empowering and reassuring for an anxious child, for example, who may feel more comfortable taking risks.”
That said, not all Montessori schools provide the right environment to meet the needs of kids with social issues or disorders. Some kids may need more supervision and one-on-one support than some Montessori schools are able to provide. “Students with severe behavioral issues, for instance, may not have the independent work skills necessary to thrive in some Montessori environments,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. Of course, since different Montessori schools have different teaching approaches and classroom environments, speak to school directors and staff to gauge whether your child is likely to be a good fit.
Reggio Emilia school
The warm, community feel of the Reggio Emilia classroom—which is set up to promote lots of interaction—can enable kids with social issues to feel at home, connect with classmates, and make close friends. Many kids will also find Reggio’s individualized learning approach and co-constructed curriculum engaging since it enables them to select activities and tasks of interest.
Just make sure Reggio Emilia schools’ emphasis on group learning is the right fit for your child. Also, some kids may require more structure and one-on-one support than some of these schools provide, such as those with severe emotional or behavioural issues like oppositional defiance disorder (ODD).
International Baccalaureate school
Due to their standardized curriculum and their focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support that many kids with social issues need. Also, the highly academic environment of the IB can add extra pressure, which can be difficult for kids with special needs to manage.
Of course, “Since IB schools vary in their teaching and learning approaches,” says Dona Matthews, education consultant and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence, “make sure you talk to their directors and staff to assess whether your child is a good fit.” For instance, if your child is a hard worker who enjoys high-level academics and group learning (and doesn’t have a severe social or behavioural issue), an IB school may work well.
Language immersion school
Some social issues can make it extremely difficult to stay on track in a language immersion program. For example, a child with severe anxiety may struggle to stay focused enough to keep pace with his or her peers in a French immersion program. If the school doesn't offer intervention or support for this disorder, which many immersion schools won’t, this can lead to ongoing academic (e.g., literacy) problems, and potentially compound the emotional issue.
That said, kids with social issues who enjoy and are good at the language arts often enjoy the cognitive challenge of learning in a different language. If they’re hard workers who are strong academically (and they don’t have a severe social or emotional disorder), a language immersion school can be a nice fit.
Some boarding schools provide learning environments that directly address social issues. For instance, some provide dedicated classes (or are dedicated schools) for "troubled teens," who may struggle with alcohol or drug addiction or who may suffer from an anxiety or eating disorder.
“Many parents feel that a boarding school is the best environment for their child with behavioural challenges,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “For one thing, they may believe it’s in the best interest of their child to be away from their community and possibly those who might be a ‘bad influence.’”
Just make sure a school has small enough classes to provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one guidance your child will likely need. Also, since they’ll be living away from home, ensure support systems are in place to keep them on the right track and that your child is willing and prepared to take advantage of them. Your child will often need to advocate for themselves at a boarding school and they’ll need confidence and perseverance to do so.
Kids with social issues’ school fit: key take-homes
- Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of individualized learning and one-on-one support, giving them the flexibility to accommodate students with a range of social issues. Look into a big school’s class sizes and the kinds of special needs support it provides.
- Single-gender schools typically only accept kids who are independent and don’t require intensive support to function in the classroom.
- Some boarding schools provide dedicated support for kids with social or behavioural issues, such as troubled teen or therapeutic schools.
- Many kids with social or emotional issues will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing.
- The warm, community feel of the Reggio Emilia classroom—which is set up to promote lots of interaction—can enable kids with social issues to feel at home, connect with classmates, and make close friends.
- Due to their standardized curriculum and their focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support that many kids with social issues need.
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