Traditionally, schools have assumed that all learners are created similarly, if not equally. We all learn the same way, the theory goes, just not at the same speed. In this view, the sole determinant of school performance is a student’s innate ability and motivation, so a school only need provide one instructional setting and style in order to provide an equal learning opportunity for all. A more progressive and successful view of education acknowledges that different learners learn differently; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to instruction and, in fact, a setting and teaching style that works brilliantly for one student may be grossly ineffective for another equally talented student.
While alternative schools and student-oriented, strengths-based teaching methods have long existed, they’ve recently been popularized in the US at the institutional level by movements such as Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, Daniel Goleman’s writings on emotional intelligence, the explosion of experiential learning and multi-modal approaches, and other theories, studies and books. The result of this proliferation of educational models is a dizzying array of alternative schools—public and private, day and residential, for children of all learning types. Parents in most metropolitan areas have their pick of Waldorf schools, experience-based schools, art-oriented charter schools, science, and math magnet schools, “back to basics” or “3-R” schools, non-public schools for learning disabled students, therapeutic day schools, and etcetera. Parents from any geography can select from a similarly wide array of alternative residential schools, including experiential or wilderness-learning schools, sports-themed schools, studio or performance art institutes, equestrian-themed schools, therapeutic boarding schools and LD schools.
What all of these alternative schools share in common is their acknowledgment that students are diverse in terms of what motivates them and how they learn. But the term “alternative” merely indicates that a school eschews traditional educational approaches in favor of specialized ones. The specialties and sub-specialties of alternative schools, however, are so diverse and far-ranging that an attempt to understand them all may feel futile. If you are seeking a more effective educational option for your child, teen or young adult, the best place to start your research is not with the schools themselves, but with your child. Once you have a clear understanding of your child’s emotional, intellectual and learning profile, you will have considerably narrowed the number of relevant options, making your search much less overwhelming. It’s not enough simply to know that your child is not a “round peg,” you have to know exactly what kind of peg he or she is…square? Elliptical? Triangular? Three dimensional? Or, less figuratively speaking, experiential? Kinesthetic? Right-brained? Auditory? NLD? There are several sources of information that can help you create a portrait of your child as a learner. If you do a good job of constructing this portrait, you’ll have a much easier time selecting the appropriate alternative school for your child.
There are a variety of assessments available to objectively measure your child’s functioning. Tests include:
Some assessments gather data via interview, others are pen and pencil tests, and still others are observational. The key isn’t so much to select one particular test over another as to select a battery of tests that gives a broad and integrated overview of social, emotional, intellectual (on a variety of axes), behavioral, familial and neurological functioning, as well as a profile of aptitudes and motivators. Whatever battery of tests is administered, be sure it has a strengths-based dimension; tools that are merely diagnostic or pathology oriented are limited in their ability to paint a complete picture you’re your child’s needs and potential.
Let’s face it, no one knows your child like you do. Your understanding of your child is not only experiential, it’s intuitive, it’s genetic, it’s spiritual. Your vision for and of your child is informed by a deep parental understanding that no one else has. So while your own subjective understanding of your child should be balanced by another more objective source of information, it’s equally important that those objective sources of information be informed by your parental instincts. Neither source of information is absolute, but both are critical to understanding your child’s unique constellation of strengths, weaknesses and educational needs.
Even if the observations of your child’s teachers and other caregivers differ from your own, don’t dismiss them out of hand. It’s typical for children—especially teens—to behave differently in different settings. These differences can give you critical clues regarding your child’s learning style, motivators, social style and intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Second-hand information can take the form of formal IEP reports, report cards and progress reports, as well as informal chats with your child’s teachers, friends and friends’ parents, and others who routinely interact with your child when you are not around.
Analysis and Placement
Once you have enough information to create a broad portrait of your child as a thinker, social being and student, it’s critical to have an objective analysis of that information. A well-trained, assessment-savvy therapist, psychologist, educator, or educational consultant can help you turn a confusing pile of information into a meaningful learning profile. The final step, assuming your child is not the traditional round-peg student, is to match his or her learning profile to the right alternative school. Knowing the learning style that is best for you child can help you narrow down options, making your own research much more efficient. If you still feel overwhelmed by the vast array of alternative-school options available for your child, consult with an educational consultant to narrow down your options and make the best possible choice of a learning environment and instructional style for your child. And remember to visit your top two or three options so that you can exercise one of the most powerful sources of information available to you—your parental intuition.