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Is It Time to Change Schools?

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Updated on Jul 24, 2008

When you signed up for kindergarten, you did everything the experts said to do. You visited schools, talked to people, and made what seemed like the best choice. But now, a year or two later, you just don’t have a good feeling about things. Maybe it’s lessons that don’t seem quite right; maybe it’s a tone around the playground. But your kid isn't happy, and neither are you. Many school districts now offer quite a few choices such as magnet schools, charters, or even alternate neighborhood schools. Is it time to consider one of them?

To learn more, we turned to the pros at the National Association of School Psychologists, which coordinates research and advocates for students and families across the country. Here’s what Stacy Skalski, Ph.D., a longtime school psychologist and current Director of Public Policy for NASP, recommends:

1. Make sure you know exactly what the problem is. This sounds easy, but if you’ve ever listened to a hysterical second grader, you’ll know: it can be awfully hard to understand what’s really up. Take time to ask questions; quite often, problems turn out to be very different from what they seem at first. Skalski says parents should “sit down with your classroom teacher and have an authentic and specific conversation…When developmentally appropriate, you may even bring your child.” Listen carefully to all sides, and send a clear message: “We understand this may be tough to talk about, but we are really committed to working it through.”

2. Start by doing everything you can to work it out in your home school. Remember: switching schools is usually a huge leap for kids. In fact, research suggests that it may be among the most stressful events of childhood, sometimes comparable to a divorce. Even a great new school will have other kids, a new teacher, new expectations, and probably a different pace. So before you go elsewhere, Skalski says, use the home team. Ask for extra help from your teacher, and administrators, as appropriate. Can other staff, such as the school psychologist, lend a hand? However, beware of quick fixes. “Research suggests,” says Skalski, “We need at least six weeks of faithful intervention and careful monitoring of student responses…and we also need to be willing to try multiple interventions.” And if all those things fail? All is not lost—you’ve still gathered valuable data that will help you move forward.

3. Still No Improvement? Weigh your choices. Skalski says sometimes “a problem is just grossly insurmountable.” In particular, beware violent situations; children must feel safe if they are to learn successfully, and no child should be left in a threatening environment. In most cases, if your child can move to a different room in the school, this will be easier than moving to a building across town. But if you do decide that transferring to another school is the only option, speak honestly with the teacher and administrator about your choices. Districts offer a variety of strategies for moving schools; in some, competition and “open enrollment” are encouraged, while in others you may need to complete several bureaucratic steps. As a final caution, Skalski urges parents to move kids “during natural breaks,” such as summer vacation. It’s easier to be a “new” kid when everyone else is new to a class, and nobody knows the routines yet anyway.

Of course, it would be wonderful if someone could offer a checklist for tough parent decisions like this. But every child is unique, and each case deserves special care. Whether you stay or whether you leave, Skalski says, you can take heart if you’ve followed the steps above: your child will have watched you take on a tough problem and do everything you can to work it through with integrity.

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