Choosing the Right School: Questions to Reveal Your Child’s Best Options
Traditional public schools. Magnet schools. Charters. Private options. Learning pods. The schooling options seem endless — and endlessly complicated. Start by understanding your child as a learner and your family’s resources and limits, then ask these questions to match types of schools with your child’s needs.
Nearly two-thirds of students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) end up changing schools at some point in their education due to inflexible curriculum, behavior challenges, anxiety, or many other factors weighed by families examining education options, according to an ADDitude survey. Usually, it’s easy to see what’s not working — and it’s much harder to identify the best alternative schooling option for a child’s academic and social needs.
Is public school, beholden to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the best way forward? Or a private school that offers more hands-on or project-based learning opportunities? What about homeschooling? How can you tell if a specific type of school will deliver what a child needs most?
Choosing a school should follow a rigorous process of weighing several important factors, from your child’s learning needs to your family’s values, expectations, and resources. Whether your child is learning to read or learning to drive, here is how to start the school-evaluation process.
Choosing the Right School: Questions to Ask
1. Who Is My Child as a Learner?
Knowing your child is one thing. Knowing your child as a learner is different — and essential for understanding what type of schooling suits them best. Ask the following questions as you build your child’s learning profile:
- What are my child’s strengths, interests, and talents? Learning environments that tap into these facets can improve your child’s educational experience.
- What are my child’s challenges and needs? Consider behavioral, emotional, attentional, or other challenges that interfere with learning. Have any new challenges emerged during the pandemic?
- How does my child learn best?
- Think about the most helpful teachers in your child’s education. What qualities did they possess?
- Which settings have worked best? Does your child thrive in an interest-led, Montessori-like environment? Or do they need more structure?
- Could online schooling work for your child? Was remote learning productive or disastrous? Are they self-motivated? Will they ask for help virtually?
- Which supports are most effective? What best supports your child’s ADHD, executive functioning, and other learning needs?
- If your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan, read it and consider which accommodations work for them. But don’t stop there – search IEP banks for ideas.
- Look through your child’s diagnostic test results, psych evaluations, and other tests for possible recommendations. Ask your child’s pediatrician, therapist, and teachers for insights about not only what has worked but what would be on their wish list for your child.
2. What Are My Needs and Expectations?
- Outline your family’s values. You want your child to be self-sufficient and successful – what is included in that vision? How important is it, for example, that your child has time for music, sports, fine arts, religious instruction, nature, and/or other subjects?
- Identify your educational aims. What do you think are the goals of education? Consider if you value an education emphasizing character development, creativity, emotional intelligence, citizenship, curiosity, entrepreneurship, cultural heritage, or other areas.
3. What Are My Resources and Constraints?
Time and Money
Free public schools are a popular option for many families. If you are mulling private school, consider whether you can truly afford the cost and what might change in your family’s budget and lifestyle if you proceed. Many private schools offer need-based financial aid. But they have limited funds and a limited number of scholarships.
Homeschooling, whether group or individual, is inexpensive compared to private schooling. (There is still the cost of purchasing curricula and other services. However, the time spent either teaching and/or coordinating and facilitating homeschool learning might mean a loss of income. Some states offer funding for homeschooling.
Location and Transportation
Consider the following factors if in-person schooling, whether public or private, is your preference:
- Is the commute feasible? What time will your child have to wake up to get to school, and when will they be home? If you have multiple children going to different schools, will transportation work?
- Does the school provide transportation? Is carpooling feasible?
- Extracurriculars and social hangouts are part of the educational experience and might require additional transportation and financial resources.
How to Choose the Right Type of School
The most common types of schools are described below, with tips to guide your search and decision-making. A most exhaustive list of school types exists at www.schoolchoiceweek.com/tips.
Public schools are free to attend and funded by taxes. Local school districts and the state and federal government set goals, choose the curriculum and determine academic goals and benchmarks.
Students with learning challenges may qualify for free additional accommodations and services, which may be documented in an IEP or 504 Plan. These documents may be transferred across public schools.
Budget and personnel constraints, as well as other factors, may limit a public school’s ability to deliver individualized teaching and may affect the quality and quantity of support your child receives.
Public School Search Tips
- Specialized public schools are popular among students with distinct academic interests or strengths. Magnet schools, for example, may focus on STEM studies, the arts, leadership, etc.
- Though public schools offer psycho-educational evaluations that help identify a child’s learning needs, a private neuropsychological evaluation may be necessary — and expensive. Consider an updated neuropsychological evaluation if your child is transitioning to a new school, especially if it’s been more than three years since their last assessment.
- If the school permits volunteering, sign up to familiarize yourself with your child’s teachers and environment.
- Tutoring may help supplement your child’s learning. Educational therapists are trained to help students with ADHD, learning differences, and other needs.
Charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools choose their curriculum, standards, and discipline policies. The schools are open to all, but they have a limited number of seats and hold lotteries when warranted. They also set earlier application deadlines than other types of schools. Online charter school programs are available in several states.
Like public schools, charter schools must comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), providing IEPs and 504 Plans to qualifying students. A charter school cannot ask about your child’s learning needs at application time unless it’s chartered specifically to serve students with particular disabilities.
Charter School Search Tips
- Ask the following questions to the charter school’s special-education consultants:
- How are IEPs and 504 Plans honored?
- Are instructors trained in teaching students with ADHD and learning differences?
- How are disciplinary actions tailored to students with ADHD and learning differences?
- What accommodations are available for my child’s learning needs?
- How does the school virtually teach executive function skills if it’s an online program? How do they allow for or tolerate movement, fidgeting, etc.?
Private schools are independent, and students pay tuition to attend. Some states allow families to use education savings accounts toward private school costs. IEPs and 504 Plans do not apply in private schools unless the state determines – after a long legal process – that a child needs to attend a private school to obtain a free, appropriate education, as outlined in federal law. Then, the state will pay for the child to attend the school that provides the mandated services.
There are many types of private schools — traditional, boarding, online, etc. — and schools that serve specific populations, like students with ADHD and learning differences. Don’t discount these alternative options. A boarding school, for example, might be a good option if family dynamics trigger difficult behaviors from your child or if it provides unusual opportunities your child cannot get locally.
Private School Search Tips
- Ask about the type of work each school expects from its students. For example, lots of essay writing and few alternatives might not be the best fit for students with reading and writing challenges.
- Interested in online private schools? Use this search tool.
- Involve your child in the search as much as possible. Have them develop their questions, goals, and desires.
- Consider hiring an educational consultant to help find the right private school for your child. The Independent Educational Consultants Association is a good place to start.
Homeschooling is parent-directed education known for its flexibility. Parents determine goals, curricula, schedules, and the learning environment. Contrary to popular misconceptions, homeschooling often provides ample opportunities for socialization and learning. Parents also do not have to teach all subjects and often outsource instruction.
States have different homeschool laws, regulations, and procedures. Parents who homeschool are not bound to follow IEPs, though some parents create a Student Education Plan (SEP) that covers their child’s learning needs. SEPs are not legally binding, but they specify goals and document the remediation and accommodations provided in the homeschool.
Learning Pods and Micro-Schools
These types of schools go by many names — from learning pods and micro-schools to pandemic pods and pod schools — and comprise a small group of students who gather, under parental supervision, to learn.
Whether a learning pod is considered a homeschool or a private school varies by state and largely depends on who chooses the curriculum and who directs the schooling.
Homeschool Search Tips
- Like schools, parents homeschool using different methods, including classical education, the Charlotte Mason approach, Montessori, unit studies, unschooling, and eclectic. Take time to explore these and see what suits you and your child.
- There are many kinds of homeschool curricula to shop among. While some parents choose one of the many complete packaged curricula, many parents of children with ADHD take an à la carte approach to individualize instruction for their children’s strengths, interests, and weaknesses. Visit CathyDuffyReviews.com and SPEDhomeschool.com for curriculum reviews.
- Umbrella schools — private institutions that serve to oversee homeschooling families — can provide transcripts and other support.
- For advice on how to begin, see HSLDA’s extensive special needs section and SPED Homeschool’s Getting Started section.
Types of Schools for Students with ADHD and Learning Differences: Next Steps
- Free Download: Is It Time to Change Schools?
- Read: How to Choose a New School – Questions to Ask Educators and Administrators
- Story: “How An ADHD-Friendly School Changed My Daughter’s Life”
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “A Parent’s Guide to the Best School Options for Students with ADHD and LD“ [Video Replay & Podcast #400],” with Kathy Kuhl, which was broadcast on May 11, 2022.
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