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Choosing a school: expert insights

Learn from education experts about how to choose the right school for your child

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Choosing a school for your child is a big decision. On OurKids.net, we provide all the information you need on this decision. We also bring experts to you at the annual fall private school expos.  If you've shortlisted and are calling/visiting schools now, be sure to read these questions to ask private schools.


In this article, education experts weigh in on some of the key factors involved in choosing the right school. For instance, they discuss what to look for, learning about schools, mistakes parents make, school red flags, and how to know when a school isn’t working. What follows are valuable insights into choosing the right school for your child.

Below, you can also access all the answers our experts provided by topic or through their full interviews. You can also read our parent interviews on choosing schools for their children, as well as our in-depth guide to getting into school.

Read answers by topic

Read full interviews

 

school interviews

 

Highlights on choosing a school: what experts say

On what to look for

There's no such thing as the perfect school. Nor will any school meet all your criteria. However, any school worth its salt needs to be clear about what it provides and what it doesn't.

“A school should be able to answer three key questions: Who are you? What do you do? What do you do well and differently? Vague, motherhood answers aren’t helpful here—‘we want to bring out the best in every child,’ ‘we’ll help your child reach her potential,’ and the like. A school should provide a clear and specific description of what they offer (and what they don’t). For example, ‘our school is geared to children with general but not specific learning disabilities.’
—Janyce Lastman, Education Consultant, The Tutor Group

Read Janyce’s full interview

Keep in mind, the right school will vary between families. What's important is to look for the right fit for you, your family, and your child.

“It’s important to consider schools in terms of whether they’re a good fit for your child. First, what’s the right social and emotional fit? You might look at things like athletics, the arts, and what’s outside the classroom. Second, where is your child at academically? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What is their reading, writing, and math like? Then I would look at what makes sense in terms of the child’s growth? Is the child going to grow into the school and evolve with it or is this a school that may only work for a shorter period of time?”
—Elaine Danson, Education Consultant, Danson and Associates

Read Elaine’s full interview

“Knowing your child is priority number one. This doesn’t just refer to diagnosed needs: you’ll want to find out what makes your child happy, and what they need to be motivated and productive. Also, what interests your child? If you have a really sporty kid who needs to be active, an IB academic program may not be right for them. Are they really socially activist minded? If so, you’ll want to look for a school with a strong community or political aspect.”
—Ruth Rumack, Director, Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space

Read Ruth’s full interview


Beyond basic fit, there are many things you may look for. This will depend on your priorities, what you value in education, and more. However, there are two crucial elements any school you're seriously considering must satisfactorily deliver: teaching and curriculum.

“There’s evidence to support that teaching is a huge factor. So it’s important to look at the retention of staff in a particular school, and whether they hold on to their best teachers. Couple that with class size and that’s a winning combination. A varied curriculum that’s multi-disciplinary and able to meet the needs of different students is also critical. So if a child is very gifted in math, will the school be able to meet his needs? The best schools know their students and differentiate the curriculum accordingly.”
—Ann and Karen Wolff, Education Consultant, Wolff Educational Services

Read Ann and Karens full interview

On learning about schools

What are the best ways to learn about schools? Most agree that an in-person visit or tour is critical. It's important to observe schools up close. Check out classrooms, school facilities, common spaces for students, and other parts of campus to get a feel for a school.

“It’s important to visit schools before making the decision. And don’t just visit during open houses where everything is really canned and students are handpicked to give tours. Sit in the office, ask for a private tour, look in the classrooms. Peek in the window and see how many kids are engaged. See what’s happening in the actual environment.

While different learning environments suit different kids, there are certain universal markers for success, such as a vibrant and engaging classroom. Would you want to learn there? Are you inspired to learn there? Does it feel like a place you could come to every day and feel good about learning?”
—Ann and Karen Wolff, Education Consultant, Wolff Educational Services

“I recommend to families to go to a school several times for different reasons. First, you’ve got to go there once to check it out, either at an open house or on a private tour. Then, you should go back for one of their evenings. Say you’re interested in theatre and the school says ‘We’re putting on a play, why don’t you come back?’ Go.

Drop off your application materials on a regular school day. This will give you a sense of what’s around and what the school feels like. Try to have your child go with you. You’ll want to get her impressions of the school as well. While you won’t have the time to visit each school you’re interested in multiple times, ideally, you’ll do this with schools you’ve shortlisted.”
—Elaine Danson, Education Consultant, Danson and Associates

“I want kids doing the hustle and bustle when classes are changing, when announcements are on, and when students are going through the corridors. So I always encourage families to visit during the school year, so they get that visceral reaction when they walk in the front door. Does it feel like home to me or could I really belong here? Can I imagine myself here? Is it too uptight or stressful?”
—Jane Kristoffy, Education Consultant, Right Track Educational Services

Read Jane’s full interview

Parent networks can be an especially valuable resource for learning about schools. 

“Sometimes parent-to-parent connections can be really helpful, because it gives you another place to bounce ideas and questions off of. It’s important to tap into your network, since parents often have plenty of information about different schools and educational environments. You can also go to school events, such as a holiday concert, to meet with parents who have kids at the school. This can give you special insights into the culture and feel of the school community.”
—Una Malcolm, Director, Bright Light Learners

Read Una’s full interview

On mistakes parents make

There are some common errors parents make when choosing a school. Make sure to avoid these all-too-frequent ones. While this won't guarantee you'll never stumble, it will help keep you on the right track.

“Many parents have a long checklist and they expect to find a school that has everything on their list. I tell them that looking for a school is like looking for a spouse, job, or the perfect home—it’s a compromise or trade-off. No school will have everything that’s on your list. If you get 75% to 80% of what’s on your list, you’re doing great. What do you do about the other 20% or 25% that’s on your list? These things you can often find outside of school, through after-school programs, travel, volunteer opportunities, or elsewhere.”
—Janyce Lastman, Education Consultant, The Tutor Group

“Some parents don’t look at their children as learners and pick schools based on other priorities. They might look at the prestige, name, or reputation of the school, which are variables that don’t often contribute to success. Some parents also have preconceived ideas about what’s right for their child, which may or may not be correct. It’s important to go into the process with a open mind, and think carefully about what type of educational environment will work for your child.”
—Ann and Karen Wolff, Education Consultant, Wolff Educational Services

“It’s a mistake not to give schools an honest and complete picture of who your child is. This will interfere with their ability to determine whether they’re the right fit. Other mistakes include not visiting schools in person, going strictly by a school’s reputation or others’ opinions, relying on outdated stories of schools, and not having ‘back-up’ schools.”
—Jane Kristoffy, Education Consultant, Right Track Educational Services

“Not all parents know the value of getting through the door of a school and talking to people. Go to open houses, fairs, and school events. Put your ear to the ground and talk to people. This is the best way to learn about the feel of a school, as well as the opportunities that are available to students.”
—Joanne Foster, Education Consultant

Read Joanne’s full interview

“You should never select a school for life anymore. Your child will change over time: his learning needs and styles, social needs, personality, and more. Ideally, a learning environment will meet your child’s social, emotional, and academic needs. Since these evolve over the years, you may need to consider making changes to his educational environment or switching schools at various points.”
—Irina Valentin, Psychologist, Valentin and Blackstock Psychology

Read Irina’s full interview

On school red flags

Just as there are certain best practices schools should adopt, there are also certain no-nos to avoid. Some schools have flaws that can't be overlooked. Make sure you exercise caution in these cases.

“High staff turnover is a bad sign. You want strong leadership too, so if the principal, headmaster, or board of directors is changing every couple of years, this points to a lack of stability. If my child is in grade 2, I’d like to know there’s continuity from grade 2 to 3.

What are the goals of the school? What are their priorities? How do they approach the curriculum? If a school can’t answer those questions, this is not a good sign.”
—Ann and Karen Wolff, Education Consultant, Wolff Educational Services

“Bad schools aren’t transparent: they don’t communicate clearly or they do so with a spin. You should also avoid schools that give you a high-pressure sales pitch: schools that accept your child and try to get you to sign on the dotted line right away, and that want all the money up front. Of course, this is different than a school that sends out a letter that says ‘We need to know in 10 days, because we have a waiting list.’”
—Janyce Lastman, Education Consultant, The Tutor Group

“The biggest red flag is a lack of commitment to understanding your child. And that might mean not doing initial testing, not looking at a child’s assessment, or not meeting for an in-person interview. And you want to make sure that communication goes both ways. It’s almost like a dating service: you need to vet the school out, and decide if it’s the right fit for your child.”
—Una Malcolm, Director, Bright Light Learners

On how to know when a school isn’t working

Sometimes schools don’t work out. For one reason or another, it may not be the right fit. But how can you know a school, or educational environment, isn’t working for your child? Here’s what three education experts had to say.

“The number one sign is if your child refuses to go to school. Kids typically love to be with their peers, so if you can’t get them to go to school, this should set off alarm bells. Another one is complaining of physical symptoms, such as stomach aches. All kids complain about these things from time-to-time, but if this leads to continual school avoidance, something is wrong. Similarly, a child hating school because it’s ‘boring’ can be another red flag. ‘Boring’ can be a misnomer for a whole laundry list of things that may be going wrong.”
—Ann and Karen Wolff, Education Consultant, Wolff Educational Services

“You have kids who are unhappy. For younger students, it can be psychosomatic things, like ‘I have a tummy ache,’ ‘I have a headache,’ or ‘I don’t feel well today.’ Getting a lot of calls from the school because your child wants to go home. It can also be subtler things like just not participating as much anymore, or withdrawing from the social scene. Also, academic struggles can be a sign of unhappiness or depression. When these kinds of problems persist over a long period of time, this can be a sign that something’s wrong.”
—Ruth Rumack, Director, Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space

“I think the biggest indicator is the child themselves. Whether that’s stress, anxiety, feeling unhappy, them not wanting to go to school. There can be externalizing factors as well that translate into behaviour, so that you visibly notice there’s something they’re frustrated with. Keep in mind, though, if your child is just starting at a new school, there is an adjustment period. But if this drags on for several months, you should start to look into it more seriously.”
—Una Malcolm, Director, Bright Light Learners

Of course, identifying that an educational environment isn't working for your child is only the first step. You'll then need to decide what to do: how can this problem be resolved? 

I think the first thing to think about is to voice this to the school: 'I'm noticing he's frustrated,' 'he's resistant to go to school,' 'he's not connecting with a teacher.' However it's manifesting, the biggest thing is to voice this to the school, because they might not know. The first choice, though, is not to pull a child from school, as this can be a huge adjustment. It's to try to make it work in the current environment, see if there are any strategies that can be implemented. Whether it's a social activity, sport, or academic adjustment, the school may be able to intervene with the necessary support.
—Una Malcolm, Director, Bright Light Learners

“This doesn't necessarily mean the school isn't right for them. It might just mean they are struggling academically in one or more subjects, and that the student doesn't know what to do, and the parent doesn't recognize this early enough. This calls for a kind of surgical solution: offering targeted academic support. But if the student is extremely unhappy, suffers from chronic malaise, is unmotivated, or has other serious psychological problems, this is more serious. No matter how accomodating and diligent a school is, they might not be able to help your child work through these problems. You may need to look outside the school for answers.”
—Ruth Rumack, Director, Ruth Rumack's Learning Space

Additional wisdom

“It’s important to look at the social makeup of the school. Is there enough variety that your child will have a group that they feel connected with? Because you want to have friends that are like-minded, and you want to be in a social situation where you feel honoured and respected. Variety can also be found in extracurricular activities, leadership programs, and sports activities, which tend to have kids with a wide range of personalities.”
—Ruth Rumack, Director, Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space

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