The Right School for Your Square Peg

Psychologists who work with children and adolescents hear a lot about schools. We hear the good (When Schools Get It Right), the bad (Dealing with a Difficult Teacher), and the ugly (Bullying Is a Community Problem). Because school performance is generally considered a good indicator of overall functioning, I pay close attention to my child clients’ academic achievement as well as their social and emotional adjustment in the school setting. Young people experiencing depression, anxiety, disordered eating, or a range of other psychological problems may experience a decline in functioning at school in one or more of these domains. Students with attention deficit disorders and/or learning differences may struggle not only academically but socially, emotionally, and/or behaviorally as well.

When a child is not doing well academically, socially, and/or behaviorally at school, or when a child is anxious or unhappy at school, it is important to think about the match between the child and the school. Most schools are completely fine for most kids, and most kids will do just fine in just about any school (none of this applies to blighted, under-funded, urban school districts like Philadelphia’s; truly, it is a wonder that any kids come out of these forgotten schools prepared to succeed in work or college).

Still, not every school is right for every child at every moment in time; even an excellent school can be a poor match for any particular child. Generally speaking, public schools (not the forgotten, under-funded ones such as those in the Philadelphia School District) are better equipped to meet the needs of students with special needs than independent or parochial schools. In addition to greater resources, public schools are federally mandated to meet the individual needs of every learner. That means that if a student has a documented learning disability and/or a diagnosed emotional disturbance (I hate this term, but it’s the one used by the federal special education law) and the learning or emotional problem is interfering with academic achievement, the school must provide an individualized education program (IEP) to meet the child’s needs. That is how it is supposed to work, and I believe that more often than not, it does.

There are circumstances, however, in which a public school district does not do what it is supposed to do. There is a variety of ways that this can happen. The psychologist working for the district may interpret psychoeducational test results in such as way as to rule a qualified student ineligible for an IEP, or a school may acknowledge the student’s eligibility, attempt to meet the student’s needs with the services it has to offer, and still the student does not make adequate academic progress. In some instances, despite valiant efforts by school personnel to provide what a student needs, the student continues to flounder academically. Parents have legal recourse in any of these scenarios, but due process can be expensive in terms of time, money, and emotional toll, and while the process plays out, the young person is not receiving appropriate educational services.

In broad terms, there are several other types of schools: charter (including cyber schools), parochial, and independent. The first is free and is often only available to students through a lottery system. Parochial schools cost money, are religiously affiliated such as Catholic parish schools, and include religious education in their curriculum. Independent schools also require tuition, are independent from most government regulation, and may or may not have a religious affiliation. A subset of independent schools have programmatic offerings for students with special needs but are largely geared to typical learners. There is a small number of independent schools that specialize in educating students with learning disorders or social-emotional problems. These schools tend to be progressive in their approach to education, offer remediation of specific learning deficits and/or a therapeutic learning environment, have small class sizes, and offer lots of hands-on, multi-modal opportunities for learning. If you are considering independent school options for your child, the National Association of Independent Schools‘ website has a lot of helpful information.

Parents of children who are struggling to maintain academic achievement in line with their cognitive ability frequently ask me whether I would recommend moving their children to a different school. I respond by exploring the various school options the parents are considering and the potential costs and benefits of each one. Rarely does the idea to consider changing schools originate with me; however, I do ask parents to consider such a change when one or more of the following conditions exist:

  • A child is beginning to (or has already) shut down. Some kids are so frustrated by repeated failure experiences (however they might define “failure”) that they begin to hate school, to stop trying, and/or to see themselves as stupid. They may resist going to school or go with a frown and a sense of resignation. They may be whiny or resistant during homework. I am currently working with a 2nd grader who I fear is in the process of shutting down. Recently, he told me

I’m not smart and I don’t even want to be. – Franklin, age 7

There is a clear difference in this little boy’s behavior and mood at school and at home. At home, he is fun-loving, curious, and eager to learn. At school, he is sullen, withdrawn, and “confused.”

  • A child is not making academic progress in  line with his or her cognitive ability. Whether a school is slacking off or demonstrating full commitment to its students’ success, not all children will learn well in all environments. When a child’s achievement is not keeping pace with her cognitive ability, every effort needs to be made to rectify the situation. This might mean re-evaluating the services being offered by the school, or it might mean a change in schools. Franklin, who is a smart little boy, described the time he spends in a mainstream classroom of 22 kids by saying

When I’m in the big class, I feel confused. I can’t keep up. I wish I could be in a small classroom all the time.

Fortunately for this sweet little boy, his parents have been very proactive about exploring the options and are in the process of applying to an independent school with a specific mission of educating children with language-based learning disabilities.

  • A child is spending a lot of out-of-school time in tutoring, specialized reading instruction, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc. Sometimes, in an effort to avoid disrupting a child’s education by moving him to a new school, parents opt to supplement the services he receives at school. Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a child work with a tutor or an occupational therapist after school or on weekends. The problem arises when multiple appointments per week are added onto an already challenging school week. Imagine if you had to get off the school bus at 4:00 only to be taken to a reading specialist on Mondays and Wednesdays and a speech therapist on Tuesdays and Thursdays. At some point, you would start feeling burned out and resentful about all of the fun activities and downtime you were missing. A middle schooler that I see for depression summed this up perfectly when she commented

I don’t mind therapy or math tutoring or Wilson instruction [specialized instruction for individuals with reading disorders] twice a week but I do mind all three put together. – Gabriella, age 14

Gabriella has been unwilling to consider different schools because she does not want to leave her friends in public school, but she has recently begun talking about checking out a couple of independent high schools where math support and reading instruction are incorporated into the school day.

The decision to move a child from a public school to an independent school or an independent school to a public school or a parochial school to a specialized independent school will never be easy. There are many, many factors that have to go into this decision. There are financial, geographic, sometimes even spiritual considerations, as well as many more. After a careful process of exploration, parents may make the decision to leave a child right where he is. Like most parenting challenges, there are no rights and wrongs; there are only potential costs and benefits. Even so, if any or all of the three conditions described above are true for your “square-peg” child, you owe it to her to make a thoughtful, informed decision.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Right School for Your Square Peg

  1. A very insightful and well written article. Thank you for sharing.

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