The 3 biggest pitfalls of picking an elementary school

Want to find the right school for your child? Avoid these common mistakes parents make when trying to choose the best educational experience.

By GreatSchools Staff

When it comes to deciding on a school for your child, the more choices you have, the better, right?

Sure, except that having more choices makes the school-choosing process all the more difficult as you struggle to answer questions like: Where will my child be happiest for the next few years? Is the popular public school near our house or the private school with the stellar scores a better bet? Is this school really as great as it seems?

To help parents avoid common pitfalls when choosing a school, we checked in with Liz Perelstein, president of School Choice International. Perelstein, who has worked as an admissions officer, now advises parents on that sometimes crazy-making, but all-important, question: Which school will be best for my child?

1. Judging a school by the hallways

Maybe the school's been freshly painted a chipper chartreuse and the hallways are decorated with MOMA-worthy sculptures of endangered rain-forest animals. Or maybe the school resembles a dismal and dimly lit 1970s-era Eastern-bloc orphanage. Either way, don't let a cursory and superficial tour sell or sour you on a school. (Keep in mind: even a physically downtrodden school can have the best teachers and curriculum in town.) If you really want to get to know a school, get a sense of it where it matters most: in the classroom.

If you're seriously considering a school, ask to sit in on a couple classrooms and observe — for anywhere up to a half hour. That sounds like a lot of time, but your homework will serve you and your child well. See how involved, active, and inspirational the teachers are. Do they interact well with the students? Do the kids look bored, fidgety, or are they badly behaved? Check here for more questions to ask when touring a school.

2. Choosing a school based on the kindergarten class alone.

It's hard to picture your little one as a big kid, but she will be soon enough. So have as discerning an eye for the upper grades as kindergarten.

Do kids look happy and engaged? What's on the walls of the classrooms? What are the room layouts? What kind of special offerings — from academics to team sports to after-school programs — does the school offer older kids? To learn more on assessing an elementary school, check out these insider tricks.

3. Choosing a school without regard to location.

Although on the surface this may seem less important than other factors like test scores, parents should be able to get to the school without too much difficulty — either for emergencies or for school events. And if there's no school bus and little chance at carpooling, you might be making the trek twice a day, week after week, year after year.

As well, children should be able to easily have play dates with other kids — more difficult if they live far from the school. And if you want your child to stay for after-school activities (and that's where a lot of the good stuff happens!), you — not the school bus — will often be the one picking her up. More:fFree printable elementary school tour checklist.