Updated: Oct 21, 2022
On Thursday, Oct 13, 2022, REEL hosted a panel of parents with kids who have attended both private and public schools as well as psychologist Dr. Lisa White of Summit Center, who advises families on schools for 2e learners. We did not record the session in order to protect the privacy of our panelists. This blog post captures the key takeaways. (Check out REEL’s Private Schools List for Bay Area schools (and some beyond) that may serve 2e learners.)
We opened the session with a presentation from REEL on The Five Elements of a Successful Classroom Environment, which you can read about in a separate blog post.
Next we heard from our parent panelists. They explained that their children initially attended their local public elementary schools. They chose to switch for a variety of reasons:
One parent shared that while their son had friends and seemed happy, he was bored; when combined with his developmental immaturity, he was described as being “a pain for his teachers.” As a result, he was put on a behavior plan to keep him on task. Even so, the family had a good relationship with the school, were placed with good-fit teachers, and the Special Education team suggested services and accommodations. However, in 7th grade, he moved to a small private school, as his parents felt he might be better off in a small environment where the teachers could get to know him well.
This parent recalled that her other child came home from kindergarten with a disappointing level of work. By first grade, her daughter was working hard to fit in, hiding the big books she liked to read, faking a lisp, and showing signs of low self esteem and risk aversion. Her parents thought resilience and bravery were more important to focus on, so they decided to switch to a small private school focused on social-emotional learning starting in 2nd grade.
The second panelist shared that her neurotypical and high achieving older daughter was anxious and quiet in elementary school, so when it came time for middle school, they decided that she should try the small, supportive, private, all-girls school in their neighborhood with a focus on community, social learning and STEM. She thrived there, and while not formally evaluated for giftedness, continued on to the high school of one of the more established private gifted schools in the area.
The second panelist’s other child was a high energy and very social preschooler who taught himself to read at age three, but reached other milestones later than expected, including refusing to write. Due to relatively high academic achievement in the elementary years and decent “social masking,” he was not offered accommodations or evaluations despite family requests. His 1st grade teacher did not believe he had learning differences and refused to conduct an evaluation when he had writing refusal. However, he had good support from some teachers and was able to mask his ADHD and writing struggles with the help of a gifted best friend with much better executive function, as well as many hours of private occupational therapy. Sadly, his 4th grade teacher bullied him and other students and the family ended up opting for private neuropsychiatric evaluation that revealed ADHD, dysgraphia and mood concerns for anxiety and depression. He did end up with some accommodations on a 504 which carried through to the local public middle school where he did fairly well except again had conflicts with a couple of teachers who saw his over-participation as arrogance. Given how well his older sibling did at her smaller private schools as well as the high stress/ competitive reputation of the local high school, the family began looking at a number of private options. He was deemed too high energy for some of the smaller gifted schools (where the family was upfront about his ADHD) and the the family decided to switch to a private, large all-boys Jesuit school in 9th grade for its many academic and extracurricular options . As outlined below, he has since transitioned to a local 1:1 school.
Lisa noted that clients come to her either at natural transitions (kinder, 6th, 9th) or in a state of crisis, often having tried several schools and unable to find a good fit. She advised switching from schools where the child is always in trouble and feels out of place as well as environments that push against the child’s challenges all day.
Several panelists pointed out that, when considering schools for 2e learners, one often has to “shoot for the least bad option because nothing is perfect.” Lisa pointed out each child has different needs. Often, it’s not a question of private versus public, but the decision depends on which school is best for each individual child. Consider your child’s needs today. 2e learners change over time and may need to change schools, so don’t worry about high school fit when looking at kindergarten options. Lisa suggested prioritizing emotional health over academic rigor.
The panelists looked for various elements in their private school decisions:
Project-based and engaging curriculum
Less chaotic environment
Small school with like-minded people
Focus on developing strengths and opportunities to show strengths
Social-Emotional learning woven into the day
Emphasis on building confidence
Atmosphere of acceptance
STEM focus, allows for advanced math (for a STEM/math-focused child)
Match for the child’s current mental well-being
A place where can they be who they are
Support/community for parents
Most panelists were happy with the change to private school because they were able to fulfill the list above. Oftentimes, the accommodations from public school were no longer necessary in a smaller and more naturally accommodating environment. However there have been tradeoffs. Sometimes a long commute or financial stress might outweigh the benefits. Some project-based schools necessitate outside tutoring in core subjects for some kids. Some schools were a good fit academically and intellectually but not socially. A smaller environment also could mean fewer choices of extracurricular activities and potential friends.
In one case, the transition to a large private school where he did not know any students during the pandemic and online learning created a lot of stress and caused the child to get behind academically. By the time the child returned to campus, he was too stressed to partake in all the fun clubs and activities that originally attracted the family to the school. He also hadn’t been able to make friends during virtual learning. Many factors combined to create mental health challenges despite efforts from the school to support academic challenges. In the end, the family opted to leave the large private school for a 1:1 school. The 1:1 school was able to tailor learning to the child’s interests. His love of learning returned and his stress dropped off immediately.. However the 1:1 environment hasn’t addressed executive functioning skills and there are fewer opportunities for socialization and extracurricular activities. Again, there is no perfect environment, so the parent advises others to determine what can most easily be addressed outside of school.
The panelists shared some tips for truly understanding a school outside of open houses or tours. They suggested talking to multiple parents at the school to get varied perspectives and the inside scoop. In addition, they advised to visit schools when you can see the kids on campus, for example, during recess or shadow days. Ask about flexibility at the school: Can students start clubs? Does the school use UDL (universal design for learning, allowing choice and voice in assignments)? Does it emphasize strengths? Do the electives align with your child’s interests?
In terms of the application process, panelists all advised being honest with the school about your child’s strengths and challenges/diagnoses. Schools hate a “bait and switch,” and, without honesty, it is difficult for the school or the family to know if the school can truly support the child’s learning needs However, Lisa pointed out that it’s important to not just write “ADHD”, but rather to explain how a learning difference presents itself uniquely in your child as well as what you as a family are doing to help your child learn and grow. In addition, Lisa advised to write about your child’s strengths equally descriptively as their challenges, and to go well beyond generic descriptions like “curious” and “loves learning.” Your goal is to make your child stand out with specifics such as, “Spent 3 hours researching otters and constructed a habitat.” Show the school the child is way more than their diagnosis. You may also want to share your child’s IEP with the school and ask if they can continue the needed elements.
Are accommodations offered in private schools? Although private schools don’t have to honor IEP/504 plans, usually the smaller environment allows for accommodations more easily. However, many private schools don’t supply services unless it specializes in addressing certain challenges (i.e., schools for dyslexic students may provide intervention services, etc.). Parents often supplement with services (i.e., OT, SLP) outside of school. Of course, when thinking about staying in a public school setting in order to continue services, even if a child is able to qualify for an IEP/504, there can be high turnover in staff and you may face a new battle every year. Or, you may feel your child is getting pulled out of class too frequently. Parent/school partnerships tend to be less adversarial in a private setting. But, know that private schools can “counsel out” a family if they feel they can’t serve the student’s needs.
How do we address school refusal? There is a reason for refusal. If it’s increasingly problematic, it’s time to consider a change. Sticking to a traumatic school experience can lead to disaster, in particular in terms of a student’s mental health. After a trauma, give the child a chance to “recover” through homeschooling, unschooling, or 1:1 school setting. In the public schools, after a child has refused school enough, the district eventually has to offer an alternative, which can be made either through a parent or doctor request. The alternatives that public schools have to offer are usually not advertised publicly, so parents have to do some digging. However, these independent study programs are often very structured and not a fit for 2e learners, so be sure to explore them with an eye towards what is a good fit for your unique child.
Is Montessori a fit for 2e? These programs tend to be goal-directed, so consider whether your child will be interested in those goals. Also, a mixed age classroom can be good when you’re the young one and have the opportunity to stretch upward, but may be less engaging when the child is on the older edge of the group and may run out of new things to do. Some Montessori schools won’t let students move beyond the age-grouped material.
How do you get a diagnosis for 2e? “2e” is not a recognized diagnosis in the DSM-V, but many neuropsychologists will evaluate for strengths and challenges, and may acknowledge it narratively in their reports. If you can afford it, get a private neuropsych evaluation. If you cannot afford a private evaluation, you can request an evaluation in writing through your public schools. Learn more about this process in this past REEL event on “Working the System.”
How do parents choose a school? Start by making a pros/cons list of your current situation and potential new schools. Then, weigh the areas that are most important to you. Consider whether you can mitigate the cons in other ways; for instance, if the school has the psychological safety you’d like for your child but doesn’t offer classes in a specific area (language, computer science, art), can you afford to address those outside of school?
What about leaving friends at their current school? You can keep friends from the old school, it just takes a little extra effort. For example, find activities they enjoy doing together. Plus, if you transition at a natural point such as the start of middle school or high school, it’s more likely that friends will already be going in different directions anyway.
What if you have a teacher/child fit challenge in a school situation? Should you definitely switch schools? Not necessarily. Think about your options. Can you switch to a different classroom? Be sure to use ‘I statements’ when you speak with the school (rather than placing the blame on the other party), and then have heart to heart about the challenges. Work to uncover what’s concerning the teacher and collaborate to come up with plans. Keep in mind that middle school will probably be the hardest years. Be sure to preserve your relationship with your child, teach self advocacy skills, involve counselor / school psych, and discuss resiliency building.
What if school cannot feed my child’s interests? This depends. If your child has esoteric interests, focus on giving them time outside of school to explore those options. In this case, you’d want to protect their free time to allow for exploring interests. Consider self paced learning or local club meetups. Less rigor at school gives more free time, and that is just one of the trade-offs you might want to consider as you think about the best school environment for your particular child.
Lisa encouraged everyone saying, “You’re all good parents, just for trying to find the best school situation for your child.” Keep in mind that there’s only so much you can do, so have compassion for yourself and your child. Your child can’t work on every skill and challenge at the same time. Keep the focus on your child’s strengths as much as possible. Let go of preconceived notions and change your parenting mindset. You are not in control, so just do the best you can in this moment. And, remember that your relationship with your kid should always be priority #1.
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