Choosing a school is a huge decision that many parents agonize over for years before their child’s primary school education begins. In this excerpt from her best-selling book, SCHOOL READY: A practical and supportive guide for parents with sensitive kids, teacher and Kids First founder Sonja Walker shares tips to help you make the most of information nights and school tours.
As you visit the schools that you are considering for your sensitive child, keep your eyes and ears open for the subtle, but important, messages you will receive about the people your child will be in contact with next year. If you keep the questions below in mind during your school tour, you’ll get an idea of the school’s culture and whether it’s a good fit for your child and family.
As you move around the school, do you hear voices raised in anger or frustration?
When you look into classrooms, are children busily (not necessarily quietly) engaged in learning activities?
Can you spot any children who are cooling their heels outside the room because they’ve been sent out?
How do the teachers and auxiliary staff speak to the children during incidental contacts such as in the playground or on the way to the library?
Do the school leaders appear to know the children’s names?
All of these observations will give you an idea of the culture of the school and how well your child and family might fit in.
I often say that the people who work in the school’s front office secretly run the school. While school offices are not necessarily the exclusive domain of women these days, it’s certainly true that they usually remain the heart and soul of the community.
Often staff who work in the front office have been a part of the school for a very long time, know everything there is to know about it, and are the ‘gatekeepers’ to the teachers you want to talk to.
Equally, when your child has forgotten their lunchbox, is feeling unwell or is struggling in the playground, the front office is likely to be their first port of call.
Based on your observations during your visit, could your child go to these people if they needed assistance?
Open days, Education Week and school tours offer a great overview of schools, but often you can gain insight into the kind of community it is by visiting on other occasions.
Does the school have a fete, fair, art show or creative arts performance that you could attend?
Would you be welcome at a weekly assembly to see how the students behave and are spoken to by teachers?
Ask the question and see what answer you receive. It will give you a good idea of the school’s ethos.
It’s not always practical or reasonable for the principal to be available for spontaneously organised school tours, but if you met the marketing manager, senior students or another member of staff, were they willing and able to answer all of your questions?
If you did meet the principal or another member of the school’s leadership team, what impression did you get?
How did other members of staff and students respond to them as you moved around the school?
The observations you make about the people you meet could be important in your decision making.
Did the school representative you met seem to be the kind of person who you could turn to if you had concerns or if your child experienced difficulty?
This is an important consideration for every parent, but for those of us who have children with unique needs, it’s really worth thinking about.
In any given school, there are people who hold different roles. If you or your sensitive child have problems that need to be solved, there are likely to be a number of staff you will turn to, and it’s quite possible that the first person you will call is not the principal.
I know this might sound odd, but these days principals are very often tasked with running the ‘business’ of the school. While they are dealing with budgets, HR and the implementation of policies and procedures, other members of the team – such as assistant principals, school counsellors and leading teachers – are the first options when worries arise.
So my message here is not to be too concerned if you find that you meet a principal who seems a little preoccupied or with whom you don’t immediately ‘gel’.
Of course, if they come across as an authoritarian that staff and students are fearful of then take note, but there may be others in the school community that you are likely to have more to do with. Try to meet them too if you can.
If you were buying a house or a car, you’d probably take the time to research your options and make sure you were as informed as you could be before you signed on the dotted line.
Choosing a school for your child has similar significance, because in handing your precious son or daughter over to teachers you are transferring your trust (and that is a hard thing to do!).
Making the best possible use of school visits will help you to make confident choices, so be prepared to ask questions and, if possible, take someone who knows your child with you when you do a school tour.
Another person may notice things about the school and its staff that you don’t, and it’s good to be able to talk decisions through with someone who has their own perspective on what you have seen and heard.
© 2018 Sonja Walker
Kids First’s experienced team of psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and teachers has helped thousands of children make a successful start to school. Our small group and individual support services offer excellent opportunities for children of all ages and abilities to build confidence and school readiness skills.
Call us on 9938 5419 to find out how we can help your child.