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How to Choose an Elementary School

Photo by: iStock

You probably have a million thoughts swimming around in your head as your child approaches school age: Is he really growing up this quickly? Will she learn everything she needs to in time? Is my child ready to spend part of their day without me? Am I ready to spend part of my day away from them? And how do I know which elementary school is right for us?

Yep, they do get big fast, and the truth is that you’ll both be able to handle the transition — even if there are a couple growing pains along the way. As for enrolling your child in the best elementary school, we’ve got some expert insight into that, as well.

“[Their school], in essence, dictates how they grow up and how they are raised,” noted Alison Bernstein, a mother of four and founder of Suburban Jungle, which helps young families make smart choices about where to live. “The group of children with whom your child spends these formative years will ultimately end up being one of their greatest fundamental influences.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All
it’s important to know what characteristics to look for. “Some of the characteristics that make a good elementary school are a diverse school, teachers that are certified and come from excellent graduate schools, and safety,” said Lyss Stern, a mother of three, parenting author, and the CEO of DivaMoms.

She said that a good school invests in the students individually and as a community, and also values its teachers, administrators, and parents equally. A good school brings all these people together in an effective, nurturing way so they may understand each student’s specific needs. Remember, not all children learn the same way and therefore require different teaching methods. When a school understands this, it can mean great success and happiness for your child. Bernstein agrees about the importance of customized learning.

“You have to know who your kid is and what works best for them as an individual,” she said. “Do they appreciate small and nurturing surroundings — or would that perhaps be too socially limiting? Do they thrive in larger environments with an abundance of kids and opportunities — or will they get lost in the shuffle?”

Also consider the extracurricular activities offered by the school, said Margot Machol Bisnow, author of Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers & Change Makers.

“If your child loves sports, it would be terrible if they were in a school without sports. If your child loves art or music or acting, it would be terrible if the school didn’t offer those opportunities,” she said.

Consider the Past, Present, and Future
If you’re still unsure, ask your child directly and observe how they interact on playgrounds and in social settings right now. You can also pull from your own childhood experiences and reflect on what you liked and disliked about elementary school. Finally, look to the current group of children at a particular school, and the children who’ve moved on to middle school, high school, and beyond.

“Understanding the different kinds of kids in the various school districts, as well as school possibilities, is equally as important,” said Bernstein. “Knowledge is power. Understand the intangibles. Think about the sorts of colleges they apply to down the road, the make of cars they drive and what they do for the summer. Do they have jobs after school or mandarin tutors? Do they walk home or do they have a driver pick them up? Think about the little things, and that will clue you in on the right place for your family.”

None of these examples are good or bad — it’s simply a matter of where you see your child fitting in best.

“Parents have to decide what are the most important qualities they want in a school, see if they can get those, and then watch their child and be sure that, in fact, it’s the right school for them and they’re thriving,” said Bisnow. “If not, parents should be willing to move their child to another school, even if it’s not what the parents had originally visualized. Perhaps the parents think the child will do best in an elite private school, but the child is miserable. Move them to a charter school or public school. The reverse is also true.”

Signs the School isn’t a Fit
Sometimes it can boil down to a “feeling” you have, but there are also clear signs that a school is isn’t a good fit. For starters, if you sense a lack of community, if there are language barriers, if the structure is too rigid or too loose, or if there are strong personality clashes with teachers and administration. If your child is already enrolled and struggling socially or academically, this could also be a sign that it’s not an ideal learning environment.

“It’s so important for the parents not to be fixed on the ‘right’ school just from their own vantage point — it’s what’s right for the child,” Bisnow stressed.

To help you get a better feel for schools, attend open houses or request a tour or meeting with the principal or admissions counselor. You can also talk to friends or locals within the district —in person or on online forums, if possible — to ask about their, and their children’s experiences. At the end of the day, choosing the right elementary school is all about where you, your family, and your child feel the most comfortable, and have the most potential to thrive.

Wendy Rose Gould is a writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. She covers women’s lifestyle topics for numerous digital publications, including InStyle, xoVain, Refinery29, Revelist, PopSugar and ModCloth. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram or at

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