When Ekin’s family moved from Kleinberg to Brampton, Ontario prior to her starting Grade 6, she and her parents underwent an extensive school search. They researched public and private schools, hoping to find an environment that would not only accommodate Ekin as a learner, but also make her feel happy and welcome.
They asked neighbours for recommendations, researched schools online and then visited each one in person. “My parents took me to all the schools with them so that I could see how the classes were run and try to picture myself there,” recalls Ekin who is currently in Grade 8.
“I wanted a school that had nice teachers that wouldn’t yell at you if you got something wrong, and instead would explain what you could have done to get it right,” she says. “I like knowing where my marks go.” Ekin was coming from a Montessori school in Kleinberg and was looking for a similar learning environment. As a self-proclaimed visual learner she says: “I wanted a mix of text book and hands-on learning; I like to see pictures and have things laid out for me.”
When she visited Rowntree Montessori School in Brampton she was impressed with what she saw. “When I came here I thought: ‘Oh, they have lockers and everything,’” she recalls. “The teachers seemed really nice and I liked that they had so many clubs and sports teams if you stayed late after school or arrived early.”
According to experts, when parents include their child in the school search—as Ekin’s did—they are more likely to find a school that “feels” right; however, equipped with an understanding of the child’s learning needs and social behaviours, they will be more likely to find the perfect fit.
So what are some tips for parents to help understand their child’s learning needs?
Observe your child at home
Dr. Kathryn Ages is a Toronto-based psychoeducational consultant who assesses students with learning difficulties by identifying their strengths, challenges and needs to accommodate their learning. She says that parents can uncover a lot about the type of students their children are by watching how they play and interact with others at home.
“Verbal learners tend to do well with language-based education, they can listen to a teacher, soak in the information and verbally share their ideas,” she explains. These kids are often more talkative, have a wide vocabulary and can express their ideas easily. They tend to feel more comfortable reading and sharing their thoughts. “Non-verbal learners,” she continues, “are more visual, they understand information through graphs, maps and charts.” These learners often benefit from hands-on work, and prefer real-life learning. “These are kids that need to have their hands in the dirt,” she says.
Meeting the learning needs of children
Many students can be identified as having a variety of learning styles and thus will benefit from teachers who can teach to the whole child. “Parents should look for teachers who are engaged in a variety of teaching modalities while in the classroom and then address these same modalities when they ask children to do seat-work, homework, major projects and tests,” explains Dr. Alan Edmunds, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London. He says that the best schools tend to understand and look toward Universal Instructional Design (UID), which involves considering the potential needs of all children when designing and delivering instruction. “Teachers should ask themselves, what do I need to do in order to give all of these kids a chance to succeed?” he says.
At Glenburnie School in Oakville Ontario, this is the premise upon which the curriculum is developed. “Our teachers are required to include auditory, tactile and visual components in all of their lessons,” explains Linda Sweet, director and founder of the school. “We also emphasize that all concepts taught in our classrooms have real life applications, in order to anchor this knowledge to the everyday world.”
Sweet’s belief is that learning should not be about producing right or wrong answers, but rather about evaluating and synthesizing information while taking risks and learning from your mistakes. “We want our students to be engaged and motivated while taking ownership of their own learning,” she says.
Finding the right fit
While this notion appeals to many families, for those parents looking for a more traditional approach to education, Glenburnie might not be the right fit. That’s why Sweet recommends parents visit schools equipped with a list of objectives that they would like a school to meet. These can range from education and discipline philosophy, to testing and homework requirements, to communication practices. As the theory goes: if you know what you’re looking for, you have a much better chance of finding it.
Once you have decided on a school, Sweet advises that parents maintain regular communication with teachers and administrators. If the practices and beliefs of the school are not similar to those at home, it may become confusing and frustrating for a child. “In our parent orientation session,” Sweet says, “we encourage parents to keep an open mind and remember that this is a new era and school should not be the same as it was 20 years ago.”