By Danielle Taylor, PsyD
In NJ, students spend 180 days in school per year. A typical school day is 6-7 hours which means that students spend over 1,000 hours in school each year! This is why it is so important to ensure that you find an academic environment that is the right fit for your child. Often when looking for a school we focus on the school’s reputation and the rigor of the academic program but there are other factors that are also important to consider. Here are some important considerations and questions to ask as you review your options:
The Student is Your Northstar
Be sure to consider your child’s strengths, preferences, and opportunities for growth. Whenever possible, include them in the school review process and ask for their input! Look for alignment amongst these and what you learn about the school. And remember, everyone is different which is why different schools with different styles exist-it’s all about finding the best match!
Research Your Options
Explore options on websites such as niche.com, privateschoolreview.com or on social media. If you are looking for a special education school in NJ you can use the “Find a School” tool on the NJ Alliance website (https://specialeducationalliancenj.org/find-a-school/).
Explore the Environment
The classroom environment sets the stage for the educational experience. It is important to consider your child’s sensory and environmental preferences when selecting a school. How many students are in the school, grade level, and classroom? What kind of seating is available? Are desks and chairs clustered together in small groups or separated from other students. What is the lighting like? How are things set up in the room-is everything in its place with minimal decorations or are there lots of decorations, toys, etc around the room? What is the noise level like in the classroom and in common areas? Is the campus accessible for people with mobility issues? What are transition times like-are the hallways crowded and noisy?
Review the Routine
Some students benefit from having a consistent routine with few changes and others crave variety, which is why it is important to understand the flow of a typical day. Is the school day highly structured or unstructured? Are there often changes to the daily schedule or is it relatively consistent day-to-day? How many breaks are built into the schedule? What are students allowed to do on breaks? Do the students have the opportunity to choose what they will do and when they will do it? How long is the school day?
It is important to trust your gut about how it feels to be on the campus. No matter how glossy the brochure or how shiny the accolades, the way you feel while visiting should be a key factor. If something feels off, it probably is. Do you feel welcome and safe? Do the staff look happy? How are people speaking to one another? Would you want to spend over 1,000 hours a year there?
Connect with the Community
Talk with other caregivers and students about their experiences at the school. Look on social media for local parent groups and ask questions there as well.
Designed for Differences?
Some schools expect all students to learn and show what they know in specific ways while others are more flexible and willing to adapt and adjust to each student. This is critically important for students with unique learning needs including those with specialized plans such as 504s or an Individualized Education Plan. Be sure to ask specific questions about how your child’s plan will be implemented.
If your child experiences learning differences, having current, in depth information about how they experience, process, and understand themselves, others, and their environment is a crucial part of choosing the right school. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation can provide this information along with strategies and interventions that will support them. Be sure to ask questions about how the school incorporates evaluation recommendations into their practices to ensure they can provide the support needed to maximize your child’s learning experience.
We all have our own preferences, needs, and strengths that make different environments a good or poor fit for us. Using the tips above will help you to keep that in mind and help you find a place where your child will grow and thrive!