Choosing a school: first, understand how your child learns

Spend equal time assessing your own child as investigating schools

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When Ekin's family moved from Kleinberg to Brampton, Ontario prior to her starting Grade 6, she and her parents underwent an extensive school search. They researched public and private schools, hoping to find an environment that would not only accommodate Ekin as a learner, but also make her feel happy and welcome. They asked neighbours for recommendations, researched schools online and then visited each one in person. "My parents took me to all the schools with them so that I could see how the classes were run and try to picture myself there," recalls Ekin who is currently in Grade 8.

Parents can uncover a lot about the type of students their children are by watching how they play and interact with others at home

"I wanted a school that had nice teachers that wouldn't yell at you if you got something wrong, and instead would explain what you could have done to get it right," she says. "I like knowing where my marks go." Ekin was coming from a Montessori school in Kleinberg, Ontario, and was looking for a similar learning environment. As a self-proclaimed visual learner, she says: "I wanted a mix of textbook and hands-on learning; I like to see pictures and have things laid out for me."

When she visited Rowntree Montessori School in Brampton she was impressed with what she saw. "When I came here I thought: 'Oh, they have lockers and everything,'" she recalls. "The teachers seemed really nice and I liked that they had so many clubs and sports teams if you stayed late after school or arrived early."

According to experts, when parents include their child in the school search—as Ekin's did—they are more likely to find a school that "feels" right; however, equipped with an understanding of the child's learning needs and social behaviours, they will be more likely to find the perfect fit.

Observe your child at home

Dr. Kathryn Ages is a Toronto-based psychoeducational consultant who assesses students with learning difficulties by identifying their strengths, challenges and needs to accommodate their learning. She says that parents can uncover a lot about the type of students their children are by watching how they play and interact with others at home.

Some kids need to have their hands in the dirt

"Verbal learners tend to do well with language-based education, they can listen to a teacher, soak in the information and verbally share their ideas," she explains. These kids are often more talkative, have a wide vocabulary and can express their ideas easily. They tend to feel more comfortable reading and sharing their thoughts. "Non-verbal learners," she continues, "are more visual, they understand information through graphs, maps and charts." These learners often benefit from hands-on work, and prefer real-life learning. "These are kids that need to have their hands in the dirt," she says.

Meeting the learning needs of children

Many students can be identified as having a variety of learning styles and thus will benefit from teachers who can teach to the whole child. "Parents should look for teachers who are engaged in a variety of teaching modalities while in the classroom and then address these same modalities when they ask children to do seat-work, homework, major projects and tests," explains Dr. Alan Edmunds, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London. He says that the best schools tend to understand and look toward Universal Instructional Design (UID), which involves considering the potential needs of all children when designing and delivering instruction. "Teachers should ask themselves, what do I need to do in order to give all of these kids a chance to succeed?" he says.

At Glenburnie School in Oakville, Ontario, this is the premise upon which the curriculum is developed. "Our teachers are required to include auditory, tactile and visual components in all of their lessons," explains Linda Sweet, director and founder of the school. "We also emphasize that all concepts taught in our classrooms have real life applications, in order to anchor this knowledge to the everyday world."

Sweet's belief is that learning should not be about producing right or wrong answers, but rather about evaluating and synthesizing information while taking risks and learning from your mistakes. "We want our students to be engaged and motivated while taking ownership of their own learning," she says.

Finding the right fit

While this notion appeals to many families, for those parents looking for a more traditional approach to education, Glenburnie might not be the right fit. That's why Sweet recommends parents visit schools equipped with a list of objectives that they would like a school to meet. These can range from education and discipline philosophy, to testing and homework requirements, to communication practices. As the theory goes: if you know what you're looking for, you have a much better chance of finding it.

If the practices and beliefs of the school are not similar to those at home, it may become confusing and frustrating for a child

Once you have decided on a school, Sweet advises that parents maintain regular communication with teachers and administrators. If the practices and beliefs of the school are not similar to those at home, it may become confusing and frustrating for a child. "In our parent orientation session," Sweet says, "we encourage parents to keep an open mind and remember that this is a new era and school should not be the same as it was 20 years ago."

The best time to change schools

Also important to remember is that children are constantly changing, so "what you see in the early years is not necessarily what your child will be like as he or she moves into the junior years and on to high school," says Sweet. This means that parents should continuously reevaluate their child's scholastic progress and not be afraid to make a change if necessary.

Ages advises her clients that in order to make a more seamless transition, the ideal years to start at a new school are Grade 6 and Grade 9. But, she says, if a school is unable to accommodate a child's personality and needs, it can have a detrimental impact on the student's self-esteem and behaviour, and thus a change should be initiated immediately.

For Ekin, the opportunity to transition to a new school will come this year, when she begins Grade 9 at a public high school. "I'm leaving this year to go to Mayfield Secondary School because of their excellent regional arts program," she says. "Our school [Rowntree] does go until Grade 10, but I wanted to make the transition at the beginning of high school."

Happiness at school

Choosing a school with a focus on arts and drama means that Ekin will be surrounded by other students who share her passions and interests; which, according to Edmonds, is invaluable. "When choosing a school, look for a place where your child will fit in," he advises. The opportunity to work with like-minded peers and be part of a culture that "jives" with your personality can be paramount to a child's happiness. "And happiness," he says "has been shown to be a major determinant of success."  

But, how can you really know, before classes begin, if a school will be a good fit? According to Chuck McDonald, principal of TEAM school, a special needs school in Mississauga, Ontario, the interview process reveals a lot about the compatibility of the school and the child.

"After reviewing a student's assessments and school reports we then hold a meeting with the parents where we begin to evaluate the child's needs," he says. "At our school, the academic curriculum is determined based on the child's level of performance and individual needs, and so we must ask: will this child fit within our school and will we be able to program for this specific child?"

Visit the classroom

Once the interview process is complete, McDonald encourages students to visit a classroom of their current grade level. "This allows them to really feel what it's like to be a student here for a day," he says.

For Claire Prendergast, school visits were significant in helping her decide where to send her son Noah, now in Grade 5, to senior kindergarten. "Because Noah was a quiet and sensitive kid, in most of the classrooms we walked into he hung back, not sure what to do," she recalls. "When we walked into the kindergarten class at Glenburnie he went right over to a table, sat down and started playing with the activities they had put out for the kids – it just felt right."

The importance of class size

Often class sizes are a factor when it comes to student success. "Ask yourself whether your child is a more autonomous learner or a less autonomous learner," says Edmonds. "Some kids need a lot of structure and attention in order to succeed, while others thrive when they can move along at their own pace."

Finally, distance from home is another factor to be considered when deciding on a school. While an extensive commute might weigh upon a child's energy levels, Sweet encourages parents to look beyond the boundaries of their community. "Once you're in the car another 5 to 10 minutes is really not an issue," she says. If it's a boarding school you're looking into, consider how long it will take your child to come home on holidays and how far-removed they will feel from home when at school. Distance really depends on the individual child and what feels right.

With so many schools to choose from, there is likely a perfect school for every child. Internet research, school expos and visits will all help you to make the right decision. "One thing we know for sure is parental attitudes toward the benefit of school is a landmark criteria in the achievement of students," says Edmonds. "So, if you send your child to school with a good attitude and a willingness to participate, he or she will be equipped to take advantage of any school."

—Hailey Eisen
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