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 GreatSchools.org with permission from the book, Picky Parent Guide.