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What to ask private schools if your child has an LD

Are you considering a private school for your child? If so, be clear about your priorities and organize your search to save time and reduce stress.

By Linda Broatch, M.A.

You may have decided to send your child to private school for any number of reasons. If your child has a learning disability (LD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), your decision might be a response to past frustration in trying to meet your child's learning needs in the public school system. Or you may have decided on a particular private school because it promotes important values or seems like a good fit for your child's personality or learning style.

Whatever the reasons, you will likely discover that attending a private school is not a magic solution to your child's learning challenges. Like public schools, private schools differ widely in their understanding of, and attitudes toward, children with LD or AD/HD. They also vary a great deal in the degree to which staff is prepared to make classroom accommodations and modifications that support successful learning for students with LD or AD/HD.

Researching and applying for admission to private schools can be time-consuming and expensive. You can save yourself time and stress if you organize the search process from the very beginning. We suggest three steps in the private school application process, which are described below.

Step 1: Create a learning profile for your child

Like parents, private schools are usually seeking the best possible fit between child and school. Many private school applications or interviews call on parents to describe their child as a person and as a learner. So a helpful first step in selecting a suitable private school for your child is to create a profile of his learning strengths and challenges, interests and activities, personality, and social style. If it seems useful while you're creating the profile, ask for observations about your child from family, friends, coaches, and teachers.

Sample questions:

  • What are my child's favorite and least favorite school subjects?
  • Does my child learn better with highly structured assignments or more open-ended ones?
  • What are my child's social skills and challenges?

Step 2: Prescreen prospective schools

Before you fill out a long application form, collect all the required documentation, and pay the application fee, it can be useful to prescreen a school to see if it meets your most important requirements. If your requirements include, for example, that a school be state accredited, you can get a yes or no answer pretty easily. On the other hand, if you are looking for a learning environment that addresses the needs of a child with learning or attention problems, the task of prescreening a school can be more complicated.

One way to organize the school information you collect is to create a grid with your family's most important requirements across the top, and the prospective schools listed down the side. To get a variety of perspectives on a school, read its brochures, visit its website, call the admissions officer, and talk to parents you or your friends know whose children attend the school.

Note: Especially at the prescreening stage, you may be hesitant to directly ask a school how it addresses the needs of children with LD or AD/HD, for fear the school will automatically reject your child. When this is the case, you might want to start with a more general question, such as "To what extent does your school individualize instruction to the needs of each child?" The school's response to this broad question should give you a pretty good sense of whether and how to ask more specific questions.

Sample questions:

  • How does the school describe its approach to education?
  • How much time are children expected to spend on homework, and how does the school describe the purpose of homework?
  • How often are standardized tests given, and what is their purpose?
  • How are students evaluated?
  • What is the school's approach to discipline, and what methods does it use to modify children's behavior?

Step 3: Follow up with your chosen schools

Once you've determined which schools you will apply to, you'll undoubtedly want to ask more detailed or in-depth questions about what those schools offer. You might want to set up a grid that displays your eight to ten most important questions across the top, with the list of schools down the side.

Sample questions:

  • What are the major topics covered in each core subject during the year, and what print, audiovisual, or online materials will be used to teach them?
  • What is offered in the way of art, music, dance, and sports?
  • What percentage of the teachers is credentialed?
  • Is there a learning specialist on staff? If so, what are his or her qualifications?
  • What kinds of support or resources does the school offer parents?

Overall, your strategy for applying to private schools is to keep the maximum number of options open. Each school you consider will have its strengths and weaknesses, and your child may not get into his top choice. Hang on to your school information even after you've made your final decision. Often, after the school year begins, there are changes in enrollment, and previously closed options can open up again.

For the well-being of your child and family, try to keep the application process as positive and stress-free as possible. Focus on the steps you can take control of, and try not to view setbacks as a personal failure. This will make it easier to move forward with enthusiasm toward whatever choice your family eventually makes.

While we are pleased to present information and resources, it is against our policy to recommend or endorse any one specific individual, product, organization, or website. Because parents know their child best, they are the ones who determine the appropriateness of a school or provider based on a match of their child's needs, their own preferences, and the program or services offered. These questions are intended only as guidelines in the decision-making process.

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.


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