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Picky Parent Guide

Choosing a School: Considering Your Child's Needs

Deciding what your child needs and what matters most are key steps in choosing a school with the best fit for your child.

Sorting Out Your Child's Unique Needs

Children vary in so many ways! Your child is like no other, yet possesses so many qualities in common with others. Like a star that twinkles a little differently with each view, your child may seem to be many different people combined into one. Through the still unknown recipe of genes and upbringing, your child is a unique concoction of capabilities, wants, needs and motives.

Indeed, children's bodies, minds, emotions and spirits combine to make unique individuals. This mix affects the kind of environment in which each child learns best. As a parent, you probably have some sense of this. But many of us feel at a loss to understand and respond to our own children's capabilities, needs and personalities, even in our daily parenting, much less for school.

Finding a Great Fit

The burning question for you now is this: which qualities, in their unique combination within your child, really matter for choosing a school? Which of your child's features will help her learn and feel better in some schools - with certain teachers, peers, materials, and expected ways of learning - and worse in others? Which of your child's strengths and weaknesses can be addressed at school, and which can be developed at home? When your child's and family's needs fit well with what your child's school offers, we call it a "Great Fit."

Focus on the Four Fit Factors

Fortunately, we can focus on a limited number of characteristics that affect how well children fare in different kinds of school environments. We developed this targeted list by scanning the research about child development and by talking with parents of many different kinds of children about their children's needs. From all of that information, we organized the many characteristics of children into four easy-to-grasp categories: the four Fit Factors. These Fit Factors are simply a way of sorting out your child's (and later, your family's) many features in a way useful for identifying your school needs. The four Fit Factors for children include:

  • What Your Child Learns: These are aspects of your child that affect what subjects and at what level of difficulty your child should be taught at school. These include your child's Basic Learning Capability, other capabilities, and interests.
  • How Your Child Learns: These are aspects of your child that affect how a school should teach and interact with your child both in and outside of the classroom. These include your child's learning styles, motivation, physical and mental health challenges, behavior challenges, learning disabilities and disorders, and self-understanding.
  • Social Issues: This includes the need for social contact with particular friends from the child's perspective.
  • Practical Matters: This includes essential extracurricular activities that may be compelling choice factors for some children.

Prioritizing Your Child's Needs

The four Fit Factors help you by taking the jumble of characteristics that define your child and funneling them down into a manageable set. Not every Fit Factor characteristic is important for matching every child to the right school. You'll need to decide which ones are really important for your child. Most children will have only a small number of characteristics that are top priorities for selecting a school. Identify these, and you can focus on finding a truly Great Fit school for your child's top needs. Add to this key questions about your family's top needs and school academic quality, and you will be ready to pick a great school that fits.

Signs of a Great and Not-So-Great Fit Between Child and School

If your child is in school, even preschool or day care, you may have gotten an intuitive feeling already that the situation is a Great Fit for your child - or not. If your child has not participated in any group learning yet, you may have no idea. But if yours has - as most young children in the U.S. have - you may recognize some signs of a great or poor fit.

Signs that a school or other group setting fits your child include these:

  • Your child is eager to go to school (or preschool or day care).
  • Your child acts energized and happy at the end of the school day.
  • The pace of learning in core subjects is, overall, about right for your child: challenging but achievable.
  • You see tremendous progress in your child's overall development - academic, physical, social and emotional - throughout each school year.
  • Your child feels that her abilities and interests are appreciated at school.
  • Your child is achieving and performing academically ("cognitively" in younger years) at the level of which he is capable.
  • Your child has friends and acquaintances who like and accept him at school.
  • School work and friends are important, but not all-consuming, parts of your child's life.

If school or another group setting is a poor fit for your child, you might see some of these signs:

  • Well into the school year, your child is hesitant, or even adamantly opposed to going to school (and other stressful events in your child's life, like a new baby, can't explain these feelings).
  • Your child is not just tired, but worn down and unhappy at the end of most school days.
  • Your child has made little progress in the past year, either academically, socially, emotionally or physically.
  • Your child often says "school is boring."
  • Your child is not performing as well academically as you think he can.
  • Your child expresses little interest in what she's learning at school.
  • Your child often says that teachers or other kids do not understand her or do not like her.
  • Your child doesn't seem to have any close friends or friendly acquaintances at school.
  • Your child shows symptoms of stress only when school's in session (e.g. sleeplessness, fatigue, excessive clinginess and whining, new nervous habits, regressing to younger behaviors).

Putting the Fit Factors to the Test

To see how the Fit Factors affect your child and your choice of schools, download and fill out our worksheet:

Some of the links below are PDF files, which require Adobe Acrobat Reader. You can download it for free if you click here.

Child Quick Think: What Strengths, Challenges and Other
Characteristics Stand Out About Your Child?

To learn more about Picky Parent Guide, click here.

©2004-2005 by Armchair Press. All rights reserved. Excerpted by with permission from the book, Picky Parent Guide.

Comments from readers

"Actually, what it really comes down to is whether there are places in the school that your child fits, and if it's a good fit, the chances are there won't be. "
"My son is 10 yrs old. Same school 1st to 5th grade. He is non violent r aggressive. Considered quite Attractive and a bit smaller n stAture. Not feminine. Bullyd last 3 yeArs and miserable. Cries at th thought of school. Poor performance and lack of self esteem. Evn teacher seems annoyd at his position and lack of interest. Just changed schools. He is excited, no dread to go, positive attitude wth homework and works hArd to achieve. A new boy wth Obvious relief n body and soul. He was lost and miserable. A change can salvage eSteem and drive. "
"My child is 16 years old and in the 11th grade. This year she is showing all the signs of being stressed out because she hates her school with a passion. My husband and i have been trying to trasfere her to another school which to be is a better school for her but cannot seem to get the board of edication to allow it. My daughter goes back to school tomorrow after their christmas break and she literaly came to me crying so hard that she dont want to go back to this school that she is in. There is another school that she is interested in but like i said they wont allow it. Her grades are fallen ,she cry"s all the time! I know this is not a put up front kind of thing! We have been to the board twice and tried to explain what is going on but its not doing any good. Can u please tell me something else i can do to get her to the school she wants to go to. Thanks! "
"I'm moving to Tucson Az, in few months, my son is PDD (autistim) I would like to know best public school distric with special need(speech-behavior coach and OT program. "
"i'm looking for kindergarten. i have one son.he has pdd-nos. i want private school. please~help~ thank you."
"Hi, we are moving from Mexico to Dallas, close to Irving TX. Our son has been in special needs program (in an inclusion school) for almost four years, here in Mexico. He has a diagnosis of dysphasia (is a communication problem, so he has problems to communicate with others and has poor concentration, very like ADD). He will turn seven in April, so his next step would be first grade of elementary school, although he is doing great (he already reads, and writes in Spanish) because his school has been extremely committed with him, he receives a lot of attention, and even has therapy at school. I am concern about language, his communication issues, and specially his self esteem. Do you know if there is any small school with experience in similar cases?"
"Hi,this site was informative for me,by the way my husband got a transition in his job and so we are shifting fromcarmel,Indiana to Stpetersburg,FL.from your site i came to know the great schools but they are not having vacancies...But I have a daughter going to Carmel elementary school in first grade got selection to second grade math programme and also she got young artist award and so on..So we are little bit worried about her future after we move to stpeters burg but we are ready to relocate any where nearby for her education.As we contacted the different schools only Mabry elementary school showed a positive response but we are unable to find an accomodation/appartment for rent near by...could you please help over the matter as we don't know the places which comes under the school transportation schedule...Expecting a positive response from you as early as possible, Regards, Bindu"
"I'm raising my grandson how has Asperger's syndrome. He has regressed backe to wearing pull-ups again> I asked the principle to make a small room avalible for him to change. He said ' no '. I told him, that is against the ADA law. His reply was ' that is not going to happen '. They ( the school admin. ) has had me change the time I give him his medication 15 time since Sept. They cut him back to half days in school until he got more medication in the mid morning. They still wanted to keep him at a half day. I had to force the school to make sure he got a full days education. Now the school is calling for me to come get him because he is tired. I'm feed up with this. I've decided to home school. Anyone else having these problems in public school ? "
"my 5yr old is developmental delayed and in kindergarden. He was in headstsart for 2years and loved going to school. After he started kindergarden he was alright for awhile then the week after the time change, his attitude toward school changed for the bad. He crys in the mornings when it's time to go to school. He won't eat breakfast anymore. I feel so guilty leaving him there. but i'm in school and i have to get my other kids to school, plus I don't want him to think he can get out of school everytime he crys.I tried talking to his teacher,but she says it's my son that wants to do whatever he wants and not participate in class. I don't want my son to suffer in school, what do i do? I want to put him in a class or school that fits his needs."
"Your advice didnt help me any. I want to find out what kind of learner my child is and I cant do that just by reading about different kinds of learning."
"my son has low vision the district schools in washington d.c. has been unable to accommadate his educational needs .I was told in the state of Maryland there were either public schools or private schools that would be able to help him/me with this .Is this true and will you please email me with that important information! thank you very much."
"What do you do when your child is entering the senior year of high school, and is still frustrated?"
"My husband is looking at changing jobs so we might need to move to Las Vegas Nevada. Our 9yr old son is severly ADHD and ODD. We need to find a school that would be able to handle him and that he would not fall behind in. Right now his class has 5 children, a teacher and the teachers aide, Perfect for our son to get the one on one that he needs. Will we be able to get that at another school in Las Vegas? Keeping our son on track and out of trouble is very important to us. Please help us find a school!"
" As a preschool director for the past 15 years I do agree teachers need to be taught behavioral skills in dealing with young children. I to have expelled several children from my centers because of agressive behavior towards teachers and other children. The state holds the center directly responible for the saftey of all children at the center. When a teacher is responsiblee for ten children and one child runs out of the class room , what should she do? Leave all the other children alone and chase after the lobne runner and forceable pick them up and carry them back to class or does she take the time to gather the 9 others children and all run after the one child ? Does she just station herself by the door all day so she can stop them before running from the class room. It she at fault because the child is sleeply doesn't want to sit in his chair and listen. What does she do when he lays on the floor screamimg he's hungry and throws the chair at her or worst another ch! ild. the center is responsible for the welfare of all children. The teacher is to teach academic and social learning skills in a span of 4 hrs maybe 3 times a week. What happens the rest of the week when the child is at home being watched or placed in front of the tv and allowed to eat all day and there are no boundaries set for the rest of his week. Mean while all the other children are watching how the teacher is going to handle thi young child who mamy or may not have social, emotional and nelect problems. "
" When my child john was in Pre-K he was hyper active. His teacher called us and told that she can't controll him in the class. During the story time he run all over the classroom and don't obey her and he makes fun to make other laugh. As she told we set him for a evaluation by education deportment. After evaluation they told his IQ is above normal. Now is another school and completed K with high accademic records. His teacher also has complient about him. He don't care discipline or much about rules, for everything he has his own way. He is the best reader amoung 40 Kintergarten students in the school. Also he is every good in Math. Still we worry about him . Have we to sent him to special school or any other kind of schools ?"
"I have a special education child who will be entering the third grade and a child who is entering kindergarten. I am planning to move to San Antonio, TX from Sunnyvale, Ca. As you know Cupertino School District is one of the best in the nation. I would very much like to find a similar school district in San Antonio. Thank you for your help. Shelby"
"I am seeking information on the best area for schools in the Minneapolis metro - Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Burnsville area. I am thinking of relocating from Charlotte NC to be near family. Will have a 2nd grader and a kindergartener -no disabilities. Just want a good school for the girls. Any feedback will help."
"My grandson is very bright and loved to be challenged at school. What do you you do when you are in a small semi-rural school where certain families and school administrators dominate with a closed minded superiority? They have assumed degrees in psychology, sociology, pharmacology and medicine which came attached to their education diploma. They are afraid of their students and lump them into groups. If one is guilty, they are all guilty of the same crime and prosecuted to the maximum without the ability to present evidence which would exonerate them in a court of law. Parents are told to not discuss what happened in fear of further retribution of their child whose only crime was to be ten years old and on a school bus seated next to a group of frustrated students discussing what the principal called a criminal plot. Income limits do not allow for private school. Job markets are very tight and they can not afford to loose what equity they have in their home. Suspensio! n from public school bus transportation for the remainder of last school year and lack of public and alternative transportation made it necessary for him to be home schooled. He is being denied his right to a public education. He has been taught that the truth means nothing and has lost respect for the integrity of the education system. I told my children that educators are placed in schools to present information. Only they can take that information, learn it and use it to learn more on their own. Where does the fit factor in here? "
"What I find amazing is that all of the comments from parents are pleas for help for children with disabilities. I have a 13 yr old son with Tourette Syndrome and ADD and we have struggled with the public school system since 2nd grade. No one seems knowledgable about different syndromes such as TS, Aspergers, Autism, ADD etc including school psychologist and learning specialist. No one knows what to do to help these children nor do they have the time and resources. Not everyone can afford the best special school-we can't! I am so frustrated and there doesn't seem to be any good options, not public, not charters, no private (unless you have a lot of money and even they have their problems)! We are failing our kids w/these types of disabilities that mimic behavior problems, but are really neurologically based. "
"My son is in the first grade and is experiencing some difficulty in school. He is presently in a Catholic school in PA and we are planning on moving back to NY. I had him tested and he is behind where he should be for his age. It is recommended that I find a private school with small class sizes that cater to his language based learning issues. Any feedback on this that would be great."
"My daughter is 13 years old and will have to attend high school next year. She is educable mentally handicapped and slightly autistic.She has a hard time with loud crowds and her socialization skills are weak. I would like to know if there are any private schools in the Jacksonville, Florida area that she would thrive in. "
"I have aquestion. Iwould like to find a list of good private schools that are affordable in nyc from pre-k."
"I am 12 years old and am getting straight As. Im not a nerd or anything but people gossip and...i dont want to go to school another day! What do i do? My parents wont le me stay home so i have to face everyone while they gossip :("
"I live in NH, and would like to find some good schools either in Mass or NH that offer good IEPs. My son (6) has some signs of Asperger's and ADD. He is very bright and exceptional at some areas - its the social part that needs work. "
"I need help I am from NY but I want to move to georgia, I don't know anything about it. My son is 6 in first grade, he takes everyday in school speech therapy, in which I don't pay for it. I would like to know which school in Georgia provides this service and also I would like a good school. My daughter is studying to be an accountant, and we also need a college, she is bright, no issues with her. Could you help me I hear Sowanee is a good area but don't know either"
"What to do with a severe OCD in the way of education when otherwise above average, that is schoolwise? "
"my son is add and in special ed at a rockford public school. he is now in the 7th grade. the public schools have shown no help in his education and he is failing every subject. we have in private counsling. we tried medication but he just can't adjust to the public school enviroment. please help me find a private school to help him. we live outside rockford illinois. "
"Hi, we're moving Orlando Fl to Raleigh NC due to a employment transfer by the end of March 2008, my 11 year old son has ADHD he is not a troublesome or hyper active, he has a problem focusing and get easily distracted. I know this is his last year in elemantary and I rather stay until gradution but, he insist in leaving because he misses his Dad. My question is, Can I find a good public or charter school this late in the year for him to attend? If so how can I go about it? Can you please send me information on these schools? Our zip code area will be 27612. PLease help we really don't have alot of time. Your web site is very informative. Thank you"
"My son is 7 years old and is Autistic/PPD. He is curretnly redoing the 1st grade as his grades were not good last year. Hwe is now having anger problems and has been prescribed a medication to help treat bipolar disorder. I have not given him the medication because he has never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Is there a school in the Laveen or Phoenix area that has small class sizes and would be best suited for him?"
"Hi, I have three questions: 1. Where can my daughter take the 8th grade test in April in zip code 94901 or 94960? 2. If she is happy with her score, can it be used to submit to high schools? 3. Can she take it again and pick one of the two scores to use, or do the schools to which she applies see all the scores. My daughter is in 7th grade and we'd like to get this out of the way this year rather than waiting until September, but I want to make sure that she can take the 8th grade test this spring. Thank you for your help. Sharon Libresco"
"I have one child and he is having trouble in school also. I moved him from public school last year because he was having trouble with anger. He has also been dx with Autism. He does not have any learning disablites. Extremely bright. The county I live in does not offer any help for him other than to put him in an exceptional children's class. He does not belong in that type of class. He currently attends a private school when his behavior allows him and he is home schooled some. I am moving in the fall and was wondering if there is anything I do to get any help with him."
"I have 3 children of elementary school age and are having trouble getting them the help they need in public schools. One boy is Autistic/Asperger and the other boy is Autistic/full-blown and the other girl is Autistic/pdd the teachers constantly tell my boys they are losers and won't succeed and won't pass their grades. I have had several meetings with the teachers and principal and school psychologists and aids but to no avail. What is said and suggested at the meetings never happens. I am writing and e-mailing all political people I can and will take this all the way if I must. Georgia state laws state that only 1% are exempt from taking the end of the year test(CRST). They themselves have said that there are a lot more that need to be exempt, but they only let the extreme cases be that way. This must be changed. My kids will not pass the test and I know it. Help any way you can. Tell me about Georgia on line schools for gifted children and also about any virtual schools ! I can school my children through til this law gets changed, which may take a few years. "
"My son has ADD and is suffering in the public school system. Do you know of any schools in Michigan that are focused on children with ADD? By the way, he is not ADHD. He does not have behavior problems, just severe difficulties focusing."
"Hi, my son is 12 yrs old in the 6th grade. He displays all of the signs that his school is not a good fit. It seems that his social health is affected the most. He feels the need to be accepted by his peers and he daydreams in class and he says that he just thinks about going home. He is an intelligent child and speaks mature for his age, but he becomes quiet once at school. His grades have dropped, but according to his principal he is over qualified to participate in any tutoring/academic programs, they think he is just lazy,so where do I turn? I've tried switching his school, but they only process those requests at certain times of the year. You have a helpful site, but do you have any suggestions for my situation?"