Choosing the right school for your child

Which school is best for your child? That’s a decision that weighs on all parents, especially when special needs are a factor. Your choice will affect your child’s life in the short and long terms.

Maybe your child is just approaching school age. Maybe your family just moved to a new area. Maybe you and/or your child aren’t happy in their current academic environment. Maybe you just want to explore alternatives. Whatever the case, the time to look at schools is now—before the summer break starts.

Begin the process by narrowing down your list of possibilities. Make a list of your priorities, bearing in mind any achievable yet challenging goals you have for your child. What physical and academic accommodations do you need? What staff-to-student ratios are acceptable for you? What’s your budget? What kind of vibe encourages your child to thrive? A little research will help you sort through the options, ultimately yielding a short list of finalists within your geographical area that warrant a closer look.

That closer look starts with a site visit. Some things to look for:

About the physical school: Note the general neighborhood and general cleanliness of the campus. Some items to observe:

  • Security: Do you feel protected? Does the security presence feel oppressive? Does the staff seem alert and focused? How well do they interact with students?

  • Facilities: What’s the condition of the gym, library, auditorium, cafeteria, special-purpose classrooms, outdoor facilities, bathrooms, hallways and common areas? Is it well maintained? Is everything ADA-compliant?

  • Displays: What’s on the walls? How much is student-created and/or student-focused?

  • Cafeteria: Don’t just observe. Taste the food if you can. Do the students seem comfortable there?

  • Classrooms: Do you get a sense of student engagement? Managed play? Utter chaos?

About the program: Keeping in mind that every child’s program will be individualized, see if you can observe students whose needs are similar to your child’s. Notice if students and staff seem engaged while in group and individual settings.

  • Behavior: How do staff members deal with challenging behavior? Is there an official disciplinary policy manual? How consistently do staff members teach by example and through positive reinforcement?

  • Meals: Does the school allow for food restrictions? Does the staff make an effort to make the food appetizing? Healthcare: Is there a full-time nurse? How clean, organized and well-equipped is the medical office? How to they manage the process of giving kids their maintenance meds?

  • Activities: What’s the range of daily activities? What are the schedule and sequencing during a typical day? How consistently are they followed? Are there sufficient periods for rest and play?

  • Therapy: Are there certified Physical, Speech and Language, and other therapists available? How do they interact with students?

  • Technology: Do you see adaptive technologies in use by the students to help them see, hear, communicate or move around? Do the devices seem current (i.e. not worn out)? Do the students seem comfortable using them?

About the staff: Spend some time observing teachers, therapists and support staff as they interact with students.

  • Problem behavior: How gently and empathetically do staff members redirect kids who need it?

  • Reinforcement: Do staff members make an effort to praise students individually and for specific behaviors? Or is it more generalized?

  • Engagement: Do classes feel like lectures or are they more participatory? How do staff members draw out students who are shy or having a difficult day?

  • Assistants: Do teachers and assistants work as a team? Do they support each other in the classroom?

  • Accessibility: How much access will you have with school officials when you need it? Do they make it easy to schedule meetings? Do you get a sense you have their undivided attention?

By showing up to experience the school, with your child, you’ll gain a perspective you can’t get from websites and brochures. And springtime is the perfect time to remove any question marks hanging over your child’s educational prospects for the fall. That way, you and your family can be free to enjoy summer with a more focused sense of anticipation.

To arrange a personalized tour of Hope Haven and our Discovery School, call us at (904) 346-5100. And be prepared to ask lots of questions. We’re always happy to answer them.