Choosing the Right School

Listen to the full conversation here!

Dr. Neil Boothby is a psychologist and founding director of the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child at the University of Notre Dame. He is an internationally recognized expert and advocate for children affected by war and displacement.

Kate Schuenke-Lucien is the Director for Haiti Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). Since 2012, she and her team have implemented education programs focused on primary and secondary teacher training, strengthening local school governance structures, and building capacity for local educational organizations.

Dr. Monica Kowalski is the Associate Director for the Program Evaluation and Research and a faculty member of the ACE Teaching Fellows program. Prior to joining the ACE team, she worked in Notre Dame undergraduate admissions for three years.

It is that time of year again. School enrollment season is upon us, and with all of the different options for schools, choosing the right one for your student can be a daunting task. How do you know when a school is the “right fit?” How big of a difference is there really between public and private? Does it matter so long as the school has a good academic reputation? Ultimately, given the diversity of options one has for educating his or her child, it is not productive to limit one’s scope to a particular model of education (e.g., charter, magnet, private, Montessori, Waldorf). Rather, informed parents should review the different options and ask intentional questions that dig deeper than a school’s academic track record and are tailored to their child’s specific needs. We’ve compiled a series of questions, backed by research, to ask teachers and administrators to add to your arsenal. Whether you’re looking at elementary schools or high schools, these questions will help you walk away with a more valuable opinion than “they had a nice gym.”

What is the breakdown of student academic achievement across demographics?

Yes, academic achievement is important, so do your research on a school’s test scores and academic reputation. Your research may tell you that a school has a strong pattern of academic growth, good test scores, and continuous improvement; however, these numbers will not always tell a complete story. Education journalist and author, Peg Tyre, suggests asking, “are all of the students learning?” For example, do students who are initially in the lower quartile of academic achievement also show academic improvement, or is improvement limited to those students who entered with a strong academic base? You want to find a school where everyone learns.

How does your school view student-teacher relationships?

Student-teacher relationships are a key indicator of a child’s attitude towards school and his or her future relationship with learning (OECD 2015). Therefore, choosing a school in which teachers value a student’s social and emotional development can be just as important as how teachers value acquiring subject-specific knowledge. Students who report strong relationships with their teachers are less likely to be late to school, skip class, and feel like an outsider or lonely. Additionally, these students are more likely to report being happy at school, making friends more easily, and feeling like they belong (OECD 2015).

How do you promote SEL, and what policies are in place to support SEL?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is how children and adults develop and use “the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL 2018). Typically, SEL is divided into five domains: 1) Self-Awareness 2) Responsible Decision Making 3) Self-management 4) Social Awareness and 5) Relationship skills. Students with higher levels of social and emotional skills are more likely to have better grades, to have higher incomes and better jobs, to live longer, and are less likely to commit violent acts (OECD 2018). Therefore, it is important to ask schools how SEL is built into their curriculum. You can take this a step further and ask how they measure students’ SEL. Any school can have an SEL curriculum, but the schools that value it will measure its impact and continually refine it for greater success.

Do you have a physical education program? How is physical activity integrated into the classroom?

Studies show that an early introduction to and development of healthy physical habits has a significant impact on a child’s future relationship with physical activity and health. Additionally, research tells us that just 15 minutes of physical activity integrated into the classroom can have a positive impact on academic behavior (Rasberry, et al 2011). If you have the opportunity to speak to teachers, ask them about their teaching style, and pay attention to the examples they provide. Do their examples revolve around direct lecture, or are students getting up and moving around the classroom and interacting with the space and with one another?

What are your school’s technology policies? How do you adopt a developmental lens when integrating technology into the classroom? Do you have a digital media literacy program?

In most 21st century classrooms, your student is bound to use technology. Today’s students are digital natives and generally pick up technology easily in comparison to their teachers. Therefore, you want to assess if schools teach your student not only how to use technology but also how to interact with it. As children grow, they develop essential cognitive skills and capacities, traditionally learned through play. With the ever-expanding digital landscape, technology has become a key aspect of play, so just as children must be taught how to interact on the playground, they too must learn how to act in digital landscapes (Graber 2012).

Technology can accelerate children’s relationships with complex social interactions. Interacting with one another through games and virtual spaces removes the social cues associated with body language used to decipher interactions as well as traditional barriers to responding. How do students learn to interact kindly and politely through technology and to transition from interacting with a device to a real person?

Additionally, the ability to distinguish between a virtual world and reality is a learned, developmental skill. For example, consider how a young child may not understand the difference between a virtual friend or pet and become confused when one ceases to exist (Graber 2012). How do the teachers account for this in their introduction to and implementation of technology?

Finally, it’s not just about picking the right school. Once the decision has been made, parents, in particular those of young children, must make a concerted effort to prepare their students for the transition. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, suggests taking concrete steps to prepare your child as the start of the school year nears, and we agree. Visit the school with him or her, and then integrate elements of the school environment into your home. Start practicing and implementing some of the school’s rules into your home’s rules. Tell different stories about school, and help your child imagine what his or her future days and schedule will look like. Before you know it, the school year will be here, and your child will be ready and excited to learn!

Be sure to listen to Neil, Kate, and Monica continue the conversation on how to best choose a school for your child. In the podcast, they will address questions regarding the variety of school options for families, how to best prepare young learners for academic success as well as the college admissions process, and much more!

Listen to the full conversation here!

Learn more about the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child at

February 21, 2020

Health and SocietyschoolsNeil BoothbyMonica KowalskiKate Schuenke-LucienGlobal Center for the Development of the Whole ChildEducationFamily and ChildrenInstitute for Educational Initiatives