In this article, Barbara Probst discusses important factors to consider when choosing the right school for your gifted child.
Like most parents of 2e kids, you’ve probably spent a lot of time and energy making sure your child gets all the "extras" he or she needs at school – whether it’s modification, enrichment, or alternative instruction. At some point, though, you may find yourself thinking, "Wait a minute! Why do I keep working so hard to change the school to fit my child? Why not find a school that already fits my son or daughter, a place where my child belongs, is understood, and doesn’t always feel like an outsider?"
It makes sense to look for an environment where your child can be nourished instead of just "accommodated," though it’s not always easy. Some of the questions you may face include:
- How can I figure out what kind of school my child needs?
- What are my options? What’s out there?
- What are the obstacles?
- Who can help?
How Can I Figure Out What Kind of School My Child Needs?
What all parents want is a place where their children can thrive – where they’ll be nurtured and helped to develop. For a 2e child whose needs are complex, that means a combination of fostering strengths and addressing weaknesses. You may hear about wonderful programs; but if they don’t take this two-pronged approach, they’re probably not right, no matter how attractive they seem.
Including both exceptionalities can be a challenge. A traditional high-stakes prep school or a program for high achievers (even if your child’s IQ seems to qualify him or her for admission) is unlikely to be a good fit. Similarly, a school that only addresses your child’s difficulties may also be a poor match. Though it’s nice to have a program that can remediate learning disabilities (LDs) or manage AD/HD, be careful of choosing one that focuses primarily on the child’s weaknesses. You need a program in which educators also respect, enjoy, value, and nurture the child’s strengths.
A school will also be a poor fit if its agenda is to "fix" your child, like a car needing repair. Many programs take this approach, even if it isn’t stated explicitly. For a 2e child who’s sensitive and perceptive, this approach may backfire and actually make the situation worse. It may lead to anger or depression, causing your child to reject offers of help out of pride and defensiveness.
The best schools for your 2e child are likely to be places with an unconventional approach, rather than conventional schools with a few extras tagged on. These schools will have the flexibility to adapt to your child’s needs, rather than requiring your child to adapt to the school’s structure (as public schools must, in order to educate large numbers of children, and as elite private schools often do, in order to maintain their reputations).
How, then, can you figure out which school would be a good fit? The first step is to list your child’s core or salient traits, without labeling them as either good or bad. Your child might be a divergent thinker, have an unusually wide or narrow range of interests, need to learn through touch and movement, be emotionally sensitive, need time alone, crave variety, have an artistic flair, tend toward perfectionism, have a slow or fast tempo, and so on. Focus on your child as a whole person, not just on what you think are educational needs.
Next to each trait, jot down activities and elements of the environment that would suit a person like that. For example, a divergent thinker would benefit from the opportunity to putter in a science lab or explore a craft without having to complete projects on a timetable. An intense and driven child, on the other hand, may need the challenge of competition and the chance to set new records. Depending on the kind of person your child is, he might need clear structure or loose structure, an abundance and variety of students or a small setting with few students, frequent changes of activity or time to pursue an interest without interruption, opportunity to compete and excel or de-emphasis on grades and freedom to learn at her own pace. Be as specific as you can.
Then you need to prioritize. Rate each item as either A or B, depending on how essential each is for your child’s well-being. The things you rated A are what you must have in a school. They are your priorities. Other features, the B items, may be less important for your particular child. These are the features it would be nice to have because they support your child’s core traits, but they’re not a priority.
The important thing is that the school’s style shouldn’t contradict your child’s basic nature. For instance, if your child tends to obsess and insist on perfection, a school with lots of rules, inspections, and competition would only increase your child’s anxiety. It’s not for him or her, even if the school’s other features seem right on target.
Go back to the list of your child’s traits. Rank your current school according to how well it matches each of your child’s needs. Then ask: does my child need a change?
What Are My Options? What’s Out There?
Once you figure out what your child needs, how do you find it? New programs open up all the time, all over the country, with a spectrum of styles and price tags. However, finding the right match can be difficult.
If you go on the Internet and type in "schools, twice exceptional," you’ll get lots of great articles but no list.
One reason for the difficulty is that there’s no name for this kind of school, no category you can search for. The usual categories, like preparatory schools or therapeutic programs, aren’t quite right. Another reason is that descriptions on websites and in brochures can be misleading. Some schools that seem ideal for "quirky" kids who haven’t succeeded in traditional environments are actually populated by youngsters with more serious problems and less academic capability. Some will only take youngsters with formal diagnoses of LD who have no history of disruptive behavior; they might not be willing to accept a child whose record describes him as volatile, eccentric, or high-maintenance. And some schools are too high-pressured for your 2e child, who may be fragile, despite her talents.
There are good programs, however. They may be public or private, day or boarding. Some, like Hampshire Country School, have been around for decades. Others, like Franklin Academy in Connecticut or Bridges Academy in California, are newer. Occasionally a public school district will set up a special program to address 2e needs, like those in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cherry Creek, Colorado; and Montgomery County, Maryland. Or, if you’re lucky, there may be a nearby and suitable option under another name (e.g., Westchester County, New York, has an alternative public school program for the "gifted-handicapped") and you won’t have to search far or come up with a hefty private school tuition.
Public school programs vary from district to district, according to budget constraints, priorities, and the style of the Special Education Chairperson (the gatekeeper for services, assuming your child’s diagnosis entitles him or her to classification as a special education student). Federal law states that every child is entitled to an "appropriate" educational program, and district personnel may feel that your child can manage perfectly well in a regular school with a few extra supports and enrichment activities. The burden is on you to prove otherwise.
Even if you do and your district is willing to find (and fund) another program, it still has to be the "least restrictive," meaning closest to regular mainstream schooling. Your child may have to go through a series of failed placements before the district will pay for a more comprehensive or distant program that’s actually the one he needs. The process can take a long time and waste valuable years – years in which your child can become frustrated, angry, or depressed from being in a setting where she doesn’t belong.
For those with the financial means, a private school is often the best (and speediest) solution. When you explore private schools, however, there are no guidance counselors or school psychologists to provide screening and quality control, so you need to be cautious. Impressions can be misleading. Every website looks terrific; facilities can be impressive; and many schools, even the ones that are "hard to get into," will put their best foot forward in order to compete for your business.
You should have a clear sense of every private school you investigate. A school should know, and be able to communicate, what it is and who it serves. No school can be all things to all people; a school needs to be comfortable with what it is and what it is not. You may find yourself tempted by a prestigious program that accepts a certain percentage of youngsters with LD, Asperger Syndrome, or AD/HD; but be sure that services are provided to help those students succeed. When a school tries to serve two agendas – accepting children with issues in order to boost enrollment or qualify for certain funding, while still projecting the image of a traditional prep school to please parents and donors – it’s the 2e youngster, caught between agendas, who suffers most.
You’ll have a wider range of possibility in private schools than in public, as long as you’re careful and discerning. While a track record is important and convenience is nice, the most important thing is the fit for your child. Fit comes from the school’s philosophy and also from the people, students, and staff who comprise its community. Because some programs change character from year to year, depending on the students enrolled, it’s important to visit rather than relying on alumni data or printed testimonials that reflect the school’s past, and not necessarily its present, character.
What Are the Obstacles?
There may be external obstacles, like constraints of location and tuition. Cost is obviously a factor in considering a private school, especially one with small class size, high staff/student ratio, and other special features like individualized instruction, tutorial services, counseling, and so on. Day schools usually cost from $15,000 to $25,000 per year, and full boarding schools from $35,000 to $55,000 per year. Some are even higher.
You may need to be creative about financing your child’s schooling. If the school has a therapeutic component, you may be able to get your health insurance carrier to pay the therapeutic portion. If you can convince your school district to pay for the educational part, you’ll only need to cover incidentals and the residential cost (room and board, if appropriate). Taking your school district to court, if you feel it’s refused to meet your child’s needs, may be a way to finance tuition; however, this can be a long and uncertain road. Alternatively, if your child sees a psychiatrist willing to state that he or she requires a specialized program, you may be able to deduct a percentage of tuition from your taxes as a medical expense. Loans and scholarships from nonprofit organizations like the Davidson Institute for Talent Development and the Jack Kent Cook Foundation are also possible.
If you find a terrific program that’s far away, you have an additional dilemma. Should you try to relocate, perhaps temporarily, or should you consider boarding school? Sending your child to boarding school can be a hard decision for parents. It can make you feel that you’re giving up control, losing your place in your child’s life, or that you’ve failed your child at home. Adjusting to boarding school is often more difficult for the parents than for the child, especially if the child is happy and has found peers, perhaps for the first time.
There may be additional internal obstacles to accepting that your child needs something other than a mainstream education. It may require a shift in expectations, the abandonment of old dreams, and the acceptance of new ones. Both parents may not go through this process in the same way or at the same time; and strained family relations can result, especially with members of your extended family, who may not understand what you’re going through or why you want to "send your child away."
Who Can Help?
You may need a guide on your journey. Often this means an educational consultant. Though this involves an additional expense (up to several thousand dollars), it can be money well spent. The consultant is likely to have much broader knowledge about schools – and greater objectivity about your child – than you do and can save you many false starts.
You can do some legwork yourself before deciding if a consultant is necessary. Start with the Petersons’ Guide, making sure to read the entire description of a school and not just the "blurb." Log onto twice-exceptional websites and follow every link. Go to conferences and gather literature. Find information and support groups that may know about programs, and ask everyone whose opinion you respect – guidance counselors, doctors, camp specialists, clergy – about schools they’ve heard about.
If you decide to use an educational consultant, make sure you find one through the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), rather than through advertisements or personal websites. Go to IECA’s website, to be sure the consultant you’re considering is a member. Founded in 1976, IECA has developed a set of ethical guidelines that members must subscribe to. According to the group’s website, the organization "sponsors professional training institutes, workshops and conferences, publishes a directory of qualified consultants, offers information to students and their families regarding school selection issues, and works to ensure that those in the profession adhere to the highest ethical and business standards."
That’s important, because anyone can set himself up as an educational consultant. There’s no licensing, professional requirement, or enforceable standard – it’s strictly a business, dependent on customer satisfaction. Although membership in IECA is voluntary and the organization has no actual power over its members, a consultant’s choice to belong is an indication of a commitment to professional ethics.
Educational consultants’ fees vary, depending on the extent of their services. The better ones will insist on meeting you and your child and doing an observation in the child’s present educational setting. (Distance, however, may limit contact to phone consultations and a review of written records.) As you interview consultants, be sure to ask lots of questions. Prepare your list of questions using the IECA’s Principles of Good Practice, plus additional questions, such as:
- How long have you been practicing?
- How many children have you placed?
- How many of your clients have been 2e children?
- What do you know about twice-exceptional issues?
- What educational conferences have you attended in the past year?
- How recent is your school information?
- How often do you return to visit a school?
- Are any former clients willing to serve as references?
All in All
In conclusion, here are the steps to follow in finding a school that fits your child:
- Focus on your child’s specific traits, both strengths and weaknesses. For each trait, what would be an ideal environment?
- Know your priorities. Be flexible and open-minded about other features of the school.
- Find people who can help. You may be too close to the situation to be the best judge.
- Let your child have the final word. Remember that the school must feel right to him or her.
Barbara Probst, MSW, LCSW, is a clinical social worker specializing in helping families whose “different” children have somehow become “difficult” children – often because their sensitivity, intensity, or giftedness is mistaken for a “disorder.” In addition to running parent support groups and working with individuals and families, she also teaches at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, gives presentations throughout the country, and is the mother of two adolescents. She is currently completing a book slated for publication in early 2008.