Picky Parent Guide

Choosing a School: Considering Family Needs and Values

Your family's values, preferences and practical concerns are important factors to consider when choosing a school.

What Matters for Matching My Family to a School

Which of your family's wants and needs matter most for choosing a school? Which will affect your family's life and goals greatly, and which are really low-priority afterthoughts? Which needs must be met at school, and which are better met at home and elsewhere? What will the impact be on your child and family when school is not a perfect fit with your family?

Focus on the Four Fit Factors

Fortunately, we can focus on a limited number of factors that determine how well a school fits a family. As we've talked to parents about their school choices, these are the issues that come up again and again, the ones that truly make a difference when it comes to finding a school that fits. We have taken all of these considerations and sorted them into four Fit Factors. These Fit Factors are simply a way of organizing your family's many needs in a way useful for finding a school that meets them. The Four Fit Factors for families are:

  • What Your Child Learns: These are aspects of your family that affect what subjects and at  what level of difficulty your child should be taught at school. These include your family's values about what content should be taught and particular goals you may have for your child.
  • How Your Child Learns: These are aspects of your family that affect how a school should teach and interact with your child both in and outside of the classroom. These include your family's values about how children should behave at school, and how children should learn and be taught at school (teaching method and classroom management).
  • Social Issues: These include your parental preferences about the student and parent community of a school, preferences about your own or other parents' involvement in the school, and your biases about particular schools and school types regardless of quality and other aspects of fit.
  • Practical Matters: These include your family's needs for child care during non-school hours, daily and yearly schedule, transportation, school location, coordination of your multiple children's educations, and your financial constraints.

Prioritizing Your Needs

Some families will find that their multiple needs pose conflicts. You value social connections you can get only in an expensive private school, but cannot afford one. You strongly prefer a teaching method that leaves lots of room for exploration, but logistically cannot swing that way-across-town magnet school that fits the bill. And so on. If this turns out to be you, then you will need to prioritize among your family's needs even before you get to the challenge of reconciling them with your child's needs. Add to this key questions about your child's top needs and school academic quality, and you will be ready to pick a great school that fits.

For many parents, these things that rise to the top of the "must have" list will come down to those things that you can least well accommodate at home. You can sign up your child for ballet and soccer with the elite social set, but you cannot feasibly increase your family income to fund private school. You can keep your child's afternoon calendar clear for plenty of unstructured "imagination" time at home even if you cannot change your work schedule to cart your child 10 miles to and from that magnet school. Every family brings different capabilities and constraints to the table. Be honest with yourself about your family's aspirations and requirements.

You must start with a true and clear picture of your family needs, and trust yourself to balance these with your child's needs and with your search for a good quality school. Giving short shrift to your own needs as parents, or to the impact on your other children, will only cause problems down the road. Facing up to your real needs now will help you appropriately prioritize your school-hunt efforts and ultimately find a better-fit school. Your hunt may lead you down paths you never imagined! But focusing on what's most important now-in the planning phase-will lead you where you need to go. Trust yourself as a parent, both to be honest about your own needs and to bend later if your child's needs pull you in a different direction.

How Does a School Reinforce Values?

A school can reinforce-or call into question-your values in several ways:

  • What your child is taught, including explicit teaching of religion, morals and ethics
  • How the school interacts with children, including general school policies (dress, honor code, disciplinary policies and expected manners), teaching methods and classroom discipline
  • The social environment, including values and behaviors of teachers, other students and their parents

The fact that a school teaches your religion in its curriculum does not necessarily mean that your values and ethics are reflected in other school policies, the teaching method or social environment. You'll need to consider the broader school culture, not just what's taught in the classroom. If values are an important element of schooling for your family, let your school hunt priorities reflect this. Whatever your needs, biases or preferences, it's best to recognize them now and decide how important they are to you before you start sorting through your school options.

Putting the Fit Factors to the Test

To see how the Fit Factors affect your family and your choice of schools, download and fill out these worksheets:

Worksheets for Finding a Great Family Fit

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

Family Quick Think: What Values, Needs, Strengths and Challenges Stand Out About Your Family? Family Needs Summary Personalized Great Fit Checklist School Comparison Worksheet

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