When my now nine-year-old daughter, Rachel, was in nursery school and signing her fingerpaintings, I began to suspect she might be in the wrong school. But since she’d come home singing, it was clear she was happy. So each year as Rachel progressed through school, I’d ask the teacher to pair her with an advanced classmate, with whom she could tackle extra projects, to ensure she was being challenged. For a while, this strategy seemed to work. Then one night near the end of grade four, my daughter dropped the bomb. “Mom,” she said, “I’m just so bored.”
It’s hard to know when it’s time to switch schools. The fact is, all kids face academic and social challenges as they grow. Besides, schools can be expensive, wait-lists can be long and, in smaller communities, there often aren’t many options. Transitioning to a new environment can be tough and, of course, there’s no guarantee your child will be better off. Still, if she’s really not thriving, it may be time to move on. Here’s how to determine whether that time has come for your child, and what to do about it.
Assessing the problem
“With your child gone for up to eight hours straight, you need to feel confident his needs are being met,” says Leisse Van Walraven, program coordinator at Children First: School Choice Trust, a national organization that helps low-income families afford private schools. First, she says, consider whether he is generally happy at his current school. While you should expect some September bumps (he may be missing you, having trouble finding a best friend or feeling overwhelmed by his math tables), those issues should smooth out by the time the first report card comes home.
Come November, the teacher should be connecting with your child and monitoring his progress on various levels — academic, social, even spiritual. “Your child should be getting into the school vibe, enjoy being there,” Van Walraven says. If he’s not, you’re probably picking up on signs at home. “If he’s anxious, depressed, defiant or scared, you should be asking: ‘What’s going on at school?’” says Corry Meretsky, a Toronto educational consultant who matches kids with schools. Whether it’s an undiagnosed learning disability, loneliness at recess or the fact that he’s twiddling his thumbs all day, you need to pinpoint the problem — and fast.
Joel Lewis first questioned his daughter’s schooling when she was in grade five. A popular girl with a flair for the arts, Kate was becoming increasingly frustrated with the degree of structure in her parochial school. “With the religious and cultural course load, by the time she got to the subjects she enjoyed most, she’d had enough,” Lewis says. Then his daughter came up with a really clever answer on an English assignment. But instead of praise for her ingenuity, she got a big fat X. The problem, Lewis says, was that the school’s fast-paced curriculum didn’t leave room for thinking outside the box. “When Kate’s creativity is stifled,” he says, “her confidence plummets.”
Before you start submitting applications to new schools, consider whether there’s a way to make it work for your child where she is. Start by helping her help herself. “It’s natural to want to protect our kids the second something goes wrong,” Van Walraven says. But when your child is facing adversity — anything from feeling scared when the teacher raises his voice to feeling left out at the lunch table — there’s a huge opportunity for her to grow through problem solving. “Encourage her to speak up and say how she feels,” Van Walraven says. “You empower her much more by staying silently close at hand than you do by taking over.”
And yet, Meretsky says, since you know your child best, you very well may need to advocate for him. It could be a simple case of moving his desk closer to the board, or calling in a speech therapist a couple of times a week. Whatever the problem, don’t wait for the parent-teacher interview. After asking your child what would make school more comfortable for him, talk to the teacher about what she has observed and find out what she recommends. It may be that all he needs is an extra worksheet to help him keep his assignments straight, or a less chatty classmate at his study table.
But some problems can’t be fixed. Socially, your child simply may not click with the kids in his grade. Or perhaps he would learn better in a smaller class, or make more friends in a single-sex setting. “Each school has a particular philosophy,” Meretsky says. Some are stronger in academics while others emphasize the arts, or are known for their expertise in remedial help. Bottom line: It’s a question of whether that philosophy jibes with your child’s learning needs. While a French immersion program may present the perfect challenge for your gifted son, your independent daughter may learn best in the more self-directed Montessori style. And a school with a rich sports program may be ideal for the little jock with energy to burn.
Once you’ve made the decision to switch, start canvassing the options. If you’re willing to pay for advice, you can hire an educational consultant like Meretsky. She’ll go over your child’s report cards, listen to your concerns, then outline the pros and cons of the alternatives. “No school is perfect,” she says. “We’re looking for the fit that’s closest.”
At the same time, you have to do your homework. “Click on the ministry of education website and follow the links to the public and private schools in your area,” Van Walraven says. Besides cost and location, there are many factors to consider, such as teaching style, class size, moral or religious values, single gender versus coed, and extracurricular programming. You can also check your local newspapers, stop by education fairs and talk to other parents.
In the end, though, you won’t get a real sense of a school until you’re inside it. Some offer open houses, and most will invite you to observe their classes in session. From watching the students, you’ll home in not only on their work level, but also how engaged they look, how the teachers interact with them and, most important, whether you can picture your child in the class. “You get a gut feeling,” Van Walraven says. “Trust it.” But a word of warning: Unless you plan to hand this big decision over to your child, you should first visit the schools on your own. (Otherwise, she just may fall in love with a school for its grand architecture and hot lunch program, as Rachel did.)
Just because you’ve settled on the best school doesn’t mean your child will jump for joy. “Even if she’s excited about moving on, saying goodbye is hard,” Meretsky says. She suggests boosting your child’s enthusiasm by selling her on the features her current school lacks — a band, a swimming pool, a science lab. Then hook her up with some new classmates. If she has a buddy or two to show her the ropes in the first couple of weeks, she’ll feel much more at ease.
Take it from me — as frightening as it feels to kiss your child goodbye in a new parking lot, finding she’s in a better place comes as a great relief. Joel Lewis was thrilled with the choice he and his wife made for Kate. “Within a week of starting grade six, she was thriving,” he says. There were no more homework fights and soon she was proudly scoring A’s and learning to play the bass clarinet. And yet, Kate’s younger sisters stayed on in the old school, which is the right place for them. “Just as each school has its strengths, so does each child,” Meretsky says. “You always have to keep in mind: What works for one won’t necessarily work for all.”