Choosing a School: The Not So Obvious Questions You Need To Ask

Choosing a school can be difficult, and surviving a bad choice can be incredibly stressful.  So how can parents best navigate the school selection process?  Let’s face it, easily comparable statistics, like high average test scores, matter very little to a
child’s daily well being. Parents have to dig deeper to find the information that indicates whether their child can thrive at a particular school.

When my son was entering kindergarten, I thought I asked all of the important questions, but we still ended up in a school that didn’t work for him.  Now I have a better sense of how to navigate the school selection process, but that knowledge was gained through a painful process of trial and error, including pulling my son out of school and transferring him mid-year. Keep inmind that these are good to know going in — but a rare school will meet all of these. Here are the things I wish I had asked and considered:

School Motto

I didn’t pay much attention to the school motto, but in hindsight I can see that mottos reveal a lot about the school.  “Work Hard and Be Nice” is a motto that is adult centered, focused on achievement and behavior.  “Learn and Grow,” on the other hand, is a child-centered motto that focuses on fostering a love of learning.  If you don’t like a school’s motto, that may be a warning sign that the school is a bad fit.

Visit the School

Tornado project

H.P. Hart/Good Eye Images

Tour the school, but remember, the tour is their best face. Do as much as you can to read the teachers and their body

  • Sit in on a class before you enroll. If that’s not permitted, ask why. A good school will not view it as a distraction, but a way to determine if the school is a good fit.
  • Do the teachers and administrators listen to your thoughts? Do they ask what is important to you as the parent?
  • Do they have P.E., Art and Science programs? If so, how often? Many of these programs have been cut due to budget, but some schools fund them via Parent Teacher Associations.
  • Is the school narrowly focused on academics, or is there a focus on the whole child that includes social skills, problem solving, and emotional health?
  • Are parents allowed in the classroom the first day, or ever? Many schools line kids up outside the room for drop off and pick up; this policy is a clear message that parents are not wanted in the classroom. This can be problematic, especially in kindergarten when transitions are hard. If parents aren’t allowed in the classroom, the school may be compromising the needs of the child for the ease of the school.
  • What percentage of students transfer in (sometimes referred to as “choicing in”) to the school? If students are transferring out, where are they going, and why?
  • How much homework is typical?  Developmentally, kindergartners should have little to no homework, but that is rarely the case. Often there is a general homework policy, but some teachers are more lax about it than others.  A rule of thumb for homework is about 10 minutes per grade level starting in first grade; unfortunately, many schools hand out more.
  • What is the school’s bullying policy? We want schools to take bullying seriously, but I’m leery of a zero-tolerance policy. Zero-tolerance policies shut down communication and disregard reasons behind behavior. Children will have conflicts—it’s how they learn social skills. How aggressive behavior is dealt with and how the children learn from it are more important than the punishments doled out.
  • How do teachers handle transition times? In order to keep the classroom moving, timers are sometimes used. This can cause angst for some children. No one likes to be timed on their work every day.  A classroom without timers is a sign that the teacher has better tools to manage the class schedule.

Ask About Recess and Free Play

H.P. Hart/Good Eye Images

H.P. Hart/Good Eye Images

A child with limited recess and free play is more likely to have too much energy in class, to act out, and to be stressed.  Research shows that play makes brain space for learning. Movement should ideally be incorporated into classroom time as well.

  • Is running allowed on the playground? Many San Diego public schools don’t allow running on the asphalt. If your child’s playground doesn’t have an area free of asphalt, ask about the running policy.  Some schools adhere to it strictly, others are much more lenient.  Adequate recess time is great, but it may not be enough if children can’t expend enough energy.
  • How are energy needs met for higher energy children? If you have a high-energy child and the school can’t meet those needs, a good kid can become a “discipline problem.”
  • How often do students have PE? Does PE ever take the place of recess? Some schools have PE, but then shorten recess. Swapping PE for recess diminishes free play. Kids need a break from instruction to replenish the mind. PE may be movement, but it’s not a break.

Teacher Comforting Upset Elementary School PupilAsk About Discipline – Be Specific!

  • What does discipline look like? Is recess ever withheld either as a punishment or for not finishing classwork? Withholding recess is counterproductive to behavior issues—it prevents a child from resetting and releasing stress.
  • Do teachers use a behavior management system? How is it enforced? Is it cards? A stoplight system? Do other children or parents see the cards at the end of the day? Are time outs used?  A successful behavior management system should not shame or embarrass a child, but instead help him to understand his behavior so he can control it himself.
  • How are disruptive children handled?
  • What would the teacher do if a child hits? How would he or she handle a child that talks in class?

Ask About Teacher-Parent Relationships

  • How is teacher-parent communication structured?  If you want to talk to your child’s teacher, will you be able to do so in a timely manner? Will you be heard?
  • If your child has any issues that need to be addressed, will the teacher discuss them before the parent-teacher conference?
  • Can you volunteer? If so, do volunteers work directly with children or do administrative work? If they put you in a corner filing, beware.

Talk to Parents

Here’s where you can learn a lot—if you ask the right questions. Ask more than whether a parent liked the school or a certain teacher; ask why they hold that opinion. Another parent’s priorities may not match your own, so their reasons for liking or disliking a school may be irrelevant to you. Ask:

Ben_Kerckx / Pixabay

  • What do you like about the school?
  • What don’t you like?
  • Did your kids react badly to anything?
  • If there were one thing you could change, what would it be?
  • Did your kids like it? What didn’t your kids like about it?
  • Lastly and most importantly: Will my child be happy here?  Will my family be happy here?

Every family will have unique perspectives and concerns regarding schooling, so be sure to stay closely aligned with what is important to you and your child.  Whether it is the arts, academics, free play, discipline or religion, if you can’t get the concrete answers you need, it’s probably not the right choice.


Other posts that may be helpful in choosing a school:

Choosing a Primary School – The Guardian

How to Choose a School: by teachers for parents


Related Posts in this series include:

Dear Public School: It’s Not Me It’s You

Public School: How I Made the Choice

School and the Unconventional Parent

11 thoughts on “Choosing a School: The Not So Obvious Questions You Need To Ask

  1. I love your article, we are in the process of trying to get my son in somewhere appropriate for him for Grade 1. I asked at our local public school if I could see around the school and was told that was absolutely not possible. If they gave a tour to one parent then the next thing they’d be doing is spending all their time doing tours. I was informed that we would be invited to a parent’s tea in May, after we had applied and been accepted.

    I was trying to imagine what it would be like to buy a car using that process.

    Any way, I have been made to feel like I am not allowed to ask questions with regards our public school system. “It’s good” i’ve been told and encouraged to leave it at that.

    I’ve been investigating into local independent schools and have had nothing but good experiences from patient people going out of their way to answer all of my questions. But still there is a nagging voice inside me that says I should just do what everyone else says and put my blind faith and child into the public school system.

    Thank you for your article, encouraging questions and making me feel like I’m not the only one who would like to know a little about the place I am sending my child to for 8 hours a day.

    I think you have helped me with my decision.

    • I’m glad to hear it helped you. I’ll never understand why schools don’t treat us like the customers that we are, but yes, it shows a lot about them when they behave that way. Most people spend more time researching their phone company than the school they will send their child to, it doesn’t make sense.

  2. You make a really good point about asking about discipline in the classroom. In my opinion, it would be a good idea to ask multiple teachers about how they handle misbehaving students to see if the staff is trained on using effective discipline. That way, you can rest assured that your child will be treated well, no matter who is supervising them.

  3. My sister is trying to get her daughter ready for kindergarten next year, and wasn’t sure what school to put her in. I really like that you say to check and see if they have P.E., art, and science programs. If I were picking a school, I would want to make sure that they are able to learn more than just the basics.

  4. We recently moved and we are needing to find a great elementary school for my 9-year-old twins this fall! I was surprised to know that mottos reveal a lot about the school. When I go to choose one for them to go to I will be sure to keep that in mind when I visit the schools!

  5. We are getting ready to move to a new state, and we are wanting to find a good school for our kids to attend to. It’s good to know that when we visit the different schools that there are somethings that we need to remember to look for or ask about. I like how you pointed out that we make sure that they focus not just on academics but also on social skills, and problem solving. It will be nice to know that our children will be developing well throughout their whole education.

  6. Thanks for sharing! My son will go to school soon, so I’m looking for different options. It’s awesome how you mentioned about checking programs which are available at the school. I’ll consider these recommendations in order to make a right choice of the school.

  7. I don’t really understand the logistics behind this post. In my town, there is one school, and that’s where all the kids go unless they’re homeschooled or go to expensive private school many miles away. Why would one have so many choices? How does that work?

    • Yes, it’s quite different in a smaller town. I am in Southern California and we have 5 school in a 5 mile radius and I’m in the suburbs. I wonder if this contributes some to caring less about parent input versus a small town where everyone knows each other. Hre you get zoned to one school but can also do what is called “choicing” in to another neighborhood school. There are also charter schools and magnet schools to choose from. Choice is a blessing and a curse, I suppose.

      • That’s exactly what I thought. We are fortunate to live in Vermont, which is at the forefront of a lot of modern education practices, but we also live in a bit of a socioeconomic bubble. That’s also a blessing and a curse! Thanks for the reply.

  8. I like how you say that you would want to consider sitting in on a class before choosing a school. Finding out what kind of things teachers emphasize is good. My sister is looking for a private school, so she’ll have to sit in on some classes first.

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