"A school might fit for a few years and then it doesn't fit any longer. It depends how your child is evolving. You absolutely have to know your kid," says Simms, who sent Alexander to Royal St. George's College, an all-boys school in Toronto, Ontario—from Grade 3 to 9.
For high school, Simms thought Alexander would benefit from being in a boarding school environment where he could focus on his studies with few distractions.
"By the time high school comes along, your child had better play a part in choosing a school. They have to feel good when they go there. They have to feel a connection," she says. Alexander was accepted at two boarding schools. One he rejected because he couldn't picture himself there. The other felt like home as soon as he stepped onto the campus. "I felt like I was in the right place and my mom recognized this," he says.
Alexander, who has now completed Grade 12, says he thinks choosing a school is in part a leap of faith. "I don't think anyone knows what is a good fit until you actually try it," he says.
However, educators and school specialists argue that choosing successfully is greatly enhanced when students are an integral part of the search process and when parents are focused on meeting the unique needs of their children.
"You have to be able to articulate and acknowledge your child's learning style," says Dianne Johnson, principal of the Junior Academy in Toronto. "Does the school supply the support or enrichment to meet your child's needs? This is the question a parent must answer," Johnson says.
Educational consultant Judy Winberg notes the key isn't about choosing a school by reputation or because someone else's child has done well there. "I don't think you can choose a school because it's good for another child," she says. Winberg explains that it can be difficult for parents to be objective about their own children. "But the more honest you can be about your child's strengths and challenges, the better you can assess whether a particular school will be a good match."
"Older children are capable of telling you their wants and preferences. A kid going into Grade 7 needs to be consulted on the choice of schools," she says.
Depending on their age, if a child isn't particularly athletic, then perhaps it's less than ideal to send them to a very sport-focused school. If a student struggles to maintain a B average, then an extremely challenging academic school is an unrealistic choice. "You don't want to put your child in a situation where they are not going to be successful. This is not being fair to your child," Winberg says.
"You need to have a sense that your child and your family would be a comfortable part of the school culture. Can you picture your child attending the school?"
Ursulene Mora, president of College Prep International in Montreal, Quebec, says it is also important to consider how your values and priorities mesh with the school you are choosing for your child. "You need to consider your attitude towards areas like discipline, homework and uniforms. You need to be in support of the school's philosophy in these areas," Mora says. Practical considerations like the proximity of the school also need to be seriously taken into account. "Could distance be a problem? Could it mean that your child will be overly tired by the time she arrives and not be able to function well?"
Experts agree that the best way to get a sense of whether a school would be a good fit for your child is to spend time there. They suggest spending time visiting the school; not just attending open houses and planned tours. Call the school to arrange opportunities to visit. Bring your child along when you go, and ask plenty of questions. Many schools give potential students the chance to spend the day or a portion of the day getting a feel for the school. You might request that your child be paired up during their visit with another student with similar interests such as music or drama.
It's important to start the school search early. Starting research a year in advance is advisable. Children, even preschool children, can become involved at the earliest stages by exploring websites, brochures, attending expos and discussing some of the family's reasons for considering a private school.
You also want to become informed well in advance about the admissions process for those schools you are interested in, including when they begin to accept applications, whether there are set intake years and how many new students are accepted in any given year. Applying to several schools is wise. If you're only applying to one school, you're setting yourself up for disappointment," Winberg says.
Once you reach the stage of applying to a school it is important to be direct and upfront about your child's needs. "You do a disservice to your child if you don't share an independent assessment that has been done," Winberg said. "A school is looking to qualify your child, not to disqualify your child."
It is important to keep a balanced perspective about the application process, Johnson said. "Look at it as a process of you accepting the school. Not just about your child getting in." While it is key to give your child input in choosing a school, experts agree that the decision should always rest with the parent. It's too much responsibility to lay on a child's shoulder, Winberg noted.
Alexander said parents have to weigh their kids' opinions based on maturity level, what they know of their child and the thoughtfulness that was put into arriving at the preference. "If your kid is saying my friends are going there and that's the only reason they want to attend, then that's not much to go on," he said. "But if they can sit and thoughtfully talk to you about the reason they want to go there then that is something you should take seriously."
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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