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The Psychology of School Choice

When one size does not fit all students.

Father Teaching Son
Source: ZouZou/Shutterstock

While humans differ on many psychological characteristics and have varied preferences, there is a sentiment that all students should be educated in the same way.

In my previous blog post, I described how siblings often have distinctive personalities due to differences in genetic and (unshared, nature via nurture) environmental characteristics.

Our human differences go beyond personality, however. From academic aptitude, to motivation, to attention, these differences, which can be both strengths and weaknesses, can make it difficult for some children to have their needs met in a typical classroom setting.

As adults, we likely realize our strengths and weaknesses, which leads to career choices that utilize these strengths.

But, what about our kids?

Many parents take for granted that the local public school option or the type of school they (parents) attended will automatically be the best option. What happens when that is not the case?

Personal Family History

As an infant and young toddler, it was evident that our older son was “different.” He had an unusual ability to focus and remember concepts from an early age. He didn’t enjoy the playtime other 3-year-olds craved. Despite these differences, we enrolled him in a play-based preschool that came highly recommended. It quickly became clear that we made a mistake. The school director reprimanded us because our son preferred chapter books to playground play.

We hobbled through the school year, but we were much more thoughtful for the following year. We enrolled our son in an academically-oriented preschool that accommodated his advanced academic skills. He loved it.

Enter our younger son. Unlike his older brother, it was apparent from an early age that he struggled to remain focused. He also had difficulty verbally expressing his anxiety.

So, what did we do? We enrolled him in an academic preschool and it was a disaster. After several weeks, we removed him and kept him home. We tried kindergarten in our local public school and his inattention and impulsivity, combined with difficulty expressing his anxiety, led to him internalizing that he was the “bad kid.” We were devastated. We pulled him out of school and began to homeschool. From day one of homeschooling, he was a happier, less anxious kid.

At this point, our older son was excelling at a highly regarded private school in third grade. When he learned about homeschooling as a possibility, and that he could self-direct his learning, he was intrigued and wanted to try it too. Three years later, he would tell you it is the best choice he ever made.

We felt empowered to make atypical educational choices partially due to my educational background and partially due to our generally non-conformist identities. However, I wonder about others?

What options are available?

I encounter many parents who have kids thriving in school. However, I also find many parents have children who are struggling in school, for a variety of academic, social, emotional, or behavioral reasons. These parents have exhausted all avenues for support in the school setting and feel their child may thrive in another environment.

It can be daunting and overwhelming to step off the regular educational trajectory, but parents seeking a better educational fit for their kids can be assured there are other options besides traditional public or private schools.

Some Alternative Educational Options

1. Public Charter Schools

2. Public Magnet Schools

3. Online Schools

4. Homeschooling

5. Online Independent Classes

6. Private Classes

7. Micro-Schools

8. Homeschool Co-ops

9. Unschooling/Self-Directed Learning

Increasingly parents carve out an eclectic mix of “school” options to best meet the needs of their individual children. We opted for this model within our family. It includes a blend of live online, asynchronous, in-person, and traditional homeschooling classes. For some families, it may be hybrid homeschooling, which can be a blend of traditional public school attendance and homeschooling.

Note that locations have different requirements, but homeschooling is legal in all 50 U.S. States. International legality of school options varies by country.

The Freedom to Choose

The intent of this article is not to focus on the politics of school choice, but to highlight the reality of individual differences in children that suggest a need for varied educational options. No matter your political leanings, determining the most appropriate educational environment for individual children is essential for healthy development and overall family happiness. For most kids, this may be the regular public or private school, but for others, it may be a more individualized approach.

Final Thoughts

As parents, we know our children best. We may consult experts in specialized fields to gain valuable information and to develop necessary interventions for our children, but sometimes we must make a difficult personal choice. If we realize an educational environment is detrimental to our children or that a non-traditional option may be a better fit, we should feel confident that many educational options exist.