For my family, I chose to take an approach informed by an understanding of brain development: the brain (and body) to develop well need both novelty and repetition, and the ability to learn in places we feel safe. And we need some down time for relaxation and fun.
When we try new things, we stretch ourselves, applying past learning in new ways to accomplish new goals. This gives us more new skills to apply to future challenges. We also have lots of opportunities to find new things that we love doing.
When choosing activities, I also keep in mind the multiple intelligences approach. I want my children to develop in all areas: music classes to build musical intelligence, story time and theatre classes to build linguistic intelligence, wilderness classes to build naturalist intelligence, sports for kinesthetic intelligence… a little of everything to build their brains and bodies.
When we have the chance to do the same thing again and again, we have the chance to build mastery. To get really good at a physical skill. To build a deep knowledge of a topic that we have a passion for. To explore all the facets of that interest. Where novelty gives breadth to their learning, repetition gives depth.
If you’re a more authoritarian style parent, you might choose the thing you want them to excel at and focus there. If your parenting style is more permissive or authoritative, you may follow their lead. (A permissive parent may be more willing to let them quit if they get bored, an authoritative or authoritarian parent is more likely to push them to stick to it and build their persistence as they build their skills.)
Personally, I try for mostly breadth before age 10, and then specialization after age 10 or so. I feel like that’s enough years to expose them to all sorts of experiences and skills. But around 10 is when it starts getting harder to be new to a skill – for example, if you join your first soccer team at age 10, you may be playing with kids who have been on soccer teams for five years already.
Safety and Belonging
We all learn best (and have more fun) in settings where we feel safe and feel like we belong. (When we feel safe, our brains produce the hormone oxytocin, which creates a high degree of neuroplasticity / openness to learning.) So, when choosing activities, it’s worth keeping this in mind. Some people choose a local club / YMCA or parks program that offers LOTS of different activities in the same venue and where they’ll often encounter the same kids again and again. We go to the same family camp every year, where our son has tried out: lagoon swimming, row boating, ping pong, hiking and more. Some families have their kids always attend programs that their kids’ friends are doing.
In addition to novelty and repetition, our brains and bodies also need down time! We need time to process and integrate all that new learning. Time where no one else is telling us what to do but we get to decide can also lead to creativity and independent decision making. So, resist the temptation to over-schedule your child’s every minute in pursuit of maximum brain development and college application resume building. Make sure you give them the downtime too.
What does this look like?
This is my experience… I won’t claim it’s the only or best way to do anything, but it is a sample of how this approach can play out.
During the school year, my kids typically do a couple of extracurricular activities. Usually, that was one physical activity – soccer team, swim lessons, dance class – and one that was more cerebral – theater class, music lessons, art classes, science class or coding. And the other afternoons and weekend days are down time. (For my youngest, it’s also been church every Sunday morning which includes both spiritual learning and fun playground time or game time.)
During the summer, they usually do 3 or 4 weeks of camp, a few weeks of family vacation or camping, and the other weeks are totally laid-back, do anything you want to do at home weeks.
For all three, we did lots of novelty up to age 11 or 12. For my oldest, at that point, he wanted to focus fully on theatre. So, from then on, it was all theatre! (Well, there was that one year where he surprised us by joining the middle school tennis team when he’d never before played tennis…) But what I found interesting was how his diverse background played in: in one show, they had to mime shelling peas… it was clear from watching the kids that he was the only one who had actually done that before! When they needed someone to roller skate – he was one of the kids who knew how. All the things he had done before informed this new focus.
My middle child continued to pursue diverse interests: one summer was herbal medicine, fashion design, and electric guitar. She has a computer science brain that loves to gather data and find patterns, so the more data, the better! There were a few times during their adolescence that both my older kids lamented the fact that they had friends who were “experts” in something – baseball, equestrian skills… because that had been their primary in-depth focus since childhood. My kids went through brief periods of wishing they’d done that, but then came out the other side happy to have had the diversity.
With my youngest, we tried to do as much of this approach as we could, but he is autistic and when he was younger would easily get overloaded / overstimulated by too much input, so we chose fewer extracurriculars and shorter programs (half day camps vs. full day camps, etc.) Just as he gained the ability to do more, we went into pandemic lockdown and we had fewer options for a few years – I feel like we’re still sort of finding our way back from there, but last summer, he did the theatre camp, family camp and swimming lessons he had done in previous years and he tried the completely-new-to-him ultimate frisbee camp. And I continue to feel that this balancing of novelty and repetition is the right approach for us.
Now, I have to acknowledge my privileges… I know not everyone may have the same options I do. I have the blessings of living in an area with a huge array of children’s activities, and also of having income and work schedule flexibility which allows me to make these choices. I know that what I just described is not within everyone’s reach. But even within the realm of free story-times, online classes that are accessible in areas where in-person program options are limited, “cheap date” ideas and activities we do with our kids at home, I think it is always helpful to have this some novelty / some repetition approach.
Every year students ask me: which is better – public school or private school? Or they ask – what’s the best school for my child? There are no simple answers for those questions. But let’s take a big picture look at the differences between public and private. [If you decide you’re interested in choosing a private school, be sure to check out my post on Choosing the Best School for your child.]
In this post, we’ll explore the following topics: curriculum, teachers, accreditation, class size, cost, transportation, admissions, services for gifted / special needs / ESL, diversity and outcomes.
A caveat up front: I live and teach in western Washington, and we are blessed with excellent public schools and with many great private schools too, so my comments below all assume that to be the case. I know that in many parts of the United States, the public schools are sadly not great, whether that’s due to limited funding or to political demands that have forced educators to use textbooks and curricula that do not reflect research based best practices. And in some regions there are limited private school options. So, your experience in your area may be different.
Public school curriculum is designed by committee – lots of committees – making lots of compromises between what’s ideal and what’s do-able within the constraints of funding, politics, staffing, and more. It will never be the perfect curriculum for all children. But it’s a pretty solid curriculum for most kids.
Private school curriculum varies widely. Some may follow a particular model, such as Waldorf or Montessori. Some may have a special focus: the environment, STEM or the arts. Some may focus on a specific population: gifted children, autistic children or bilingual. Some may be faith-based, incorporating prayer and religious teachings into the day. Some use textbooks and lesson plans developed elsewhere. Some create all their own lesson plans incorporating a wide range of books and online resources. All programs will have the basics of reading and math, but look for differences in the arts, science and world languages.
Not only does the content differ between schools, the teaching methods can range. They might use: lecture, discussion, independent work with worksheets, hands-on materials, project-based learning, and more. Most schools use a wide range of modalities, but how they divide the time up between those teaching styles varies a lot. Some private school teachers are truly excellent and use the freedom of their setting to create inspiring lessons that really engage their learners. Some are just not as great.
If you are considering a private school, it’s worth spending time perusing their website or other resources, attending open houses and asking questions to learn more about what is taught and how it is taught.
If you as a parent have very specific learning goals, and you have the time and energy to search for the perfect match, there may be a perfect private school for your child. If you just want to make sure your child gets a good solid basic education, then public school may meet your goals.
On average, public school teachers are better paid and have better benefits, therefore, on average, public school teachers are more experienced and more highly educated. Nationwide, in public schools 11% have less than 4 years of teaching experience vs. 16% in private schools. 48% of public school teachers have master’s degrees versus 36% in private schools. (Source) More public school teachers do regular professional development. (Without regular professional development, information and skills can become dated.)
However, there are some truly excellent teachers in private schools. I know many fabulous and passionate teachers who left public school because the bureaucracy and requirements blocked them from doing what they thought was best for their students’ learning. In the private school setting they have a lot more independence and freedom to adapt their program to best meet the needs of the students in any particular class.
Public schools may have stricter requirements for teacher training and degrees than private schools do. This can ensure they meet a certain level of skill. However, private schools have more flexibility in their hiring, and may be able to do something like hire someone with 20 years of experience in a professional field who just doesn’t happen to have a degree in education or a teaching certificate but is an excellent teacher nonetheless.
If you’re considering private school, ask about the training and experience of their teachers and ask how on-going professional development is supported.
Accreditation / Standards / Assessment
Public schools have many standards that guide them (e.g. Common Core or Next Generation Science Standards) and use a lot of standardized testing to ensure that they are meeting those standards. The upside to that is there are minimum learning goals that must be met. The downside is a lot of time is spent “teaching to the test” rather than focusing on a child’s broader educational needs.
Many (not all) religious schools are part of a denomination wide or diocese wide consortium that helps to set standards. Many do an excellent job of covering all of the standard school subjects and covering religious topics. However, some focus more on religion and students might not receive an adequate basic education in topics like reading, math and science. If you’re considering parochial school, ask about this.
Many non-sectarian schools (not all) may be certified by organizations such as NAIS. The process of becoming and remaining certified is highly rigorous and requires that schools meet high standards.
Some schools are not certified by anyone. That can be just fine. All my kids have spent some years in start-up private schools that were too new to go through the certification process, and they were truly excellent schools with passionate leadership. I paid close attention to their education to make sure it met my standards. Some schools do not do any standardized testing. And that can be fine too. But I know when my older children went to a non-traditional elementary school, I would occasionally get standardized workbooks from Lakeshore Learning to doublecheck that my child had the grade level skills that they needed. They always did, but it was reassuring to me to check that.
When considering a school, ask what steps they take to ensure that the children in their program are meeting grade level standards in all the core topics so that they are adequately prepared for the next steps in their education.
Class size and ratios
In the Seattle area, our k-3 public schools have an average class size of 25. Private schools range widely, from 10 – 30 per class. (The lower cost schools or religious schools are more likely to have larger classes, the highest cost schools are more likely to have smaller classes.)
Classrooms with 12 – 18 students tended to be richer in interactions and conversations. Classrooms with 25 – 30 students might have better classroom management and children might learn more facts. (source)
In addition to class size, it’s important to look at student to teacher ratio. At private elementary schools it averages 9:1 and at public 17:1 nationwide. Some larger classes may have two teachers or a teacher and a teacher’s aide, so you may see ratios of something like 26:2. (source)
As a general rule, the smaller the class and the better the ratios, the more individualized attention each child will receive, which in general is better for their education.
If you have a shy child who is overwhelmed when there is too much going on around them, then small class size may be a priority for you. If you have an outgoing, social child they may prefer a larger class with more potential friends to socialize with.
Nationwide, the average private school has 166 students and the average public school has 526. (source)
In general, the smaller the school, the more likely your child will be known as an individual. (And as a parent, when my older kids went to an elementary school with 150 kids I felt like I knew all the teachers, most of the kids and many of the parents. When my youngest went to an elementary school with 550 kids, I barely kept track of who was in his class and couldn’t have told you the names of all the teachers.)
However, smaller schools may not have all the resources of a larger school. They may be less likely to have a gym or an art room or a specialized music teacher. They may have fewer extracurricular activities. If you’re considering a small school, just be sure it has the resources that are important to you.
Public schools are free. (Paid for by local taxes which you have to pay whether or not you have children and whether or not they go to public school.) You might have to purchase some notebooks, pencils and Kleenex for the classroom. You might have a few additional charges for extracurricular activities. The PTA may ask for optional donations which help to fund special events, special equipment purchases and extracurricular activities. But basically they’re free. And if you’re lower income you could qualify for free lunches as well.
Nationwide, the average cost of private school is $11,000 a year but there’s a wide range from Catholic schools around $7000 per year to non-sectarian schools up to $25,000. (Source) Scholarships may be available.
On Seattle’s Eastside, there are Christian schools ranging from $6400 – 25,000. Catholic schools ranging from $7800 – 10,000. Non-sectarian independent schools ranging from $11,000 – 30,000. (Source) Most schools will also ask for significant additional donations, as most private schools only cover 90% of their expenses with tuition and count on donations (mostly from current families) to cover the rest of the costs.
For many people, the cost of private school is simply out of reach. Or could only be covered if the family makes substantial sacrifices elsewhere.
If you are able to afford private school, but wondering if it’s worth it, you could ask yourself: what else could I do with that money instead? Some parents choose to spend it on other enriching activities for the child or the family, such as travel, music lessons, private sports coaches, tutors and more. Some enroll their child in public school but do substantial donations to the school’s PTA that can allow that school to offer things to bring them more on par with private schools, such as art or music teachers, foreign language programs and special equipment. (source) This way the funds benefit their child and all the other children at the neighborhood school. Some parents roll those funds into paying for housing in a more expensive neighborhood than they could otherwise afford which may give them access to a better public school. I know of some families where a parent would have to work full time to afford private school and has chosen instead to enroll the child in public school and work a part time job that enables them to volunteer in the school and have more time and energy to spend with the children after school.
Public schools are fairly homogeneous – most public elementaries have similar facilities. Amongst private schools, there is a very wide range in facilities and equipment. Some (typically the most expensive private schools) may have outstanding facilities with attractive furnishings, large gymnasiums, and maker labs full of 3-d printers and other state of the art equipment. Some (typically the least expensive private schools) may meet in older buildings with faded carpet and minimal technology. It’s easy to get caught up in appearances when you tour a school, but think hard about whether the surface glitz has a real benefit on your child’s learning and whether you want to pay for that level of facility.
Transportation / Proximity
Public schools are typically near your home. If they are not within walking distance, they provide transportation free of charge. All the students at the school live near you, so your child’s friends will all be reasonably nearby.
A private school may be near you or may be far away. You will be required to transport your child or pay extra for a school shuttle, if available. Your child’s friends may live near you or may live far away, which can make playdates and parties harder to coordinate. There is additional cost involved in transportation, and more commute time for you, so also an opportunity cost for you to consider what else you could do with that time if you weren’t having to transport them.
Public schools have to take every child in their catchment area, even if you show up in the middle of the year, even if you have challenging special needs.
Some public school districts offer choice schools that offer special focuses, such as STEM or the arts. Admission is typically by lottery. At some you have a pretty good chance of being drawn at random. Others may have hundreds of applications for a handful of slots so your chance of getting in is quite small.
Private schools range in how selective they are. Some will admit pretty much anyone who applies. Others have long waiting lists and can be very choosey in who they admit. Some have very specific requirements, such as gifted schools that require that a child have IQ tests showing they are in the 95th or 99th percentile to be considered. There are fees for applying and for any required testing.
Note: some parents choose a private school because they will let children enroll at a younger age, and the parent is hoping to push their child ahead in school. I don’t recommend this.
When considering schools, I advise people not to fall in love with any one school or think of it as the only acceptable option, because you may not get in and you want to feel like you have other viable options. It’s important to remind yourself that your child can succeed no matter where they go to school.
Where do kids go to school
Nationwide, 50.7 million children attend public school, and 5.7 million children attend private school. Source (Of the private school children about 1.6 million of those attend Catholic school. Interestingly, 18% of those in Catholic school are not Catholic. Source)
So, about 90% public, 10% private. In the city of Seattle, 78% attend public school, 22% private. (source)
Services for Gifted / Special Needs / ESL
The public school must serve all types of children. Their mainstream classrooms are designed to meet most needs of most kids. Then they provide pull-out services and push-in services to meet special needs. For example, children may be pulled out of the class for a few hours a week for remedial math support, meeting with a speech pathologist or social skills classes for autistic kids. Or they may attend a gifted program at another facility once a week. Or instructional aides may be “pushed in” to the classroom to provide extra support during reading lessons for English language learners or to reduce behavioral disturbances. They may also have a resource room where children can go when they are not able to keep calm in the classroom. About 15% of children receive some sort of special services. The school provides for the testing to see who qualifies for gifted programs or for 504/IEP services. (Learn more about how to have a child assessed for special needs such as autism or ADHD.)
There are bilingual schools and language immersion private schools, and some parents choose these, either to connect their child to their cultural heritage, or to expose them to another culture.
There are private schools that specialize in gifted kids – prospective students must be tested to see if they qualify. Some of these programs use an accelerated curriculum where kids go through typical academics at a faster pace, doing fourth grade math in second grade, for example. Some use an enrichment program – going deeper into topics with project-based learning. (Learn more about acceleration vs. enrichment.) Some parents prefer a school that is all gifted children vs. the public school where the child spends some time in gifted programs but the majority of the time in the mainstreamed classroom. Some appreciate that in a mainstream classroom, their child gained confidence and positive teacher attention from feeling like one of the smartest kids.
There are private schools that specialize in kids with ADHD or autism. Some parents have found those to be the right fit because they feel their child is accepted for exactly who they are and gets exactly the support they need. Some say that it seems to them like institutionalizing kids with behavior challenges and they feel that their child learned worse behavior from their classmates there than they had before.
Some children with ADHD or autism can fit in anywhere and don’t need a lot of extra supports. Or, they need just a little bit of extra flexibility and individualization in the curriculum. These “quirky” kids can do very well in the right independent school. Children with more complex needs are typically served better by the public school which may have more resources to support them. (See the bottom of the post for my experiences with gifted and special needs kids.)
In general, public schools are as diverse as the neighborhood they are located in. For the larger middle and high schools that almost always is a high level of diversity. Since elementary schools are smaller and pull from a more focused neighborhood, they may be diverse or may not. But overall, a public school is likely more diverse than a private school since private school admission typically requires a higher income and may have additional things which limit the population, such as IQ testing requirements, religious affiliation or special interests.
Some parents choose schools specifically to connect with a religious or cultural heritage and are seeking a certain degree of homogeneity. It can be comforting to feel as if you’re connected and belong amongst those who are similar to you. Some parents choose schools specifically for diversity to expose their child to a wide range of people and life experiences and also because they feel that better prepares their child for the broader world. (Learn more about the benefits of both “mirrors and windows” in your child’s education.)
If you’re considering a school and you are a person with a traditionally marginalized identity, it may be worth talking to people at the school who share that identity to see whether they feel welcomed there and feel like they belong or if they ever feel tokenized or excluded.
Some people argue that higher income parents choosing private schools supports inequality by increasing income segregation and often racial segregation within their area’s public schools. (Since private schools are more likely to be out of reach for children from lower income families of color.) John Burbank of the Economic Opportunity Institute says “I do not think that sending kids to private school is a benign act, as many Seattle parents like to believe.” (Source)
Due to this concern, some parents intentionally choose to enroll in and support their public school to increase the diversity and to advocated for increased opportunities for neighborhood kids. (Note: unfortunately, this can also lead to inequities as you can see in the fact that one Seattle area high school has fundraised $3.5 million in assets while other Seattle high schools have $0. Source)
Community / Parent Involvement
When looking at school options, it can also be well worth thinking about how involved you would like to be (and are able to be) in your child’s schooling, and what level of parent participation is welcomed or expected at that school. You may also consider how much there is a feeling of a parent community at the school.
With my three kids, there have been times where we have been at small schools (co-op preschools, a start-up elementary and a start-up middle/high school) where I have been extremely connected to the community – I knew and was friends with many parents, I volunteered in the classroom and with special events. I served on the board of directors. I spent many hours on campus. I had great insight into my kids’ education.
There have also been other times where I was the drop-off and go parent who had almost no connection to the other parents and my volunteering was one or two afternoons a year. As a busy working parent, that sometimes just feels like the easiest answer. I’m glad in some ways that right now my youngest child is at a large school and I can kind of opt out of everything without feeling terribly guilty because there are other parents picking up the slack.
However, I don’t feel nearly as connected to his education this year as I felt with his siblings in the past. And I don’t have as much peer to peer connection to parents as I did in the past and I miss that.
It is worth thinking about what you would like in a school for you as a parent and making sure that they have opportunities to meet those needs.
Many people think the bottom line is in the results – who does better in life – kids who went to private school or kids who went to public school.
In numerous studies, private school students have outscored public school students on standardized testing including the SAT and ACT, they have a higher rate of high school completion and college admission, and score better on other criteria as well. (One study found students who had attended a private school performed better on 14 of the 19 outcomes. Source.)
However, that may be less due to the private schools themselves, and more due to the types of families that choose and can access private schools.
“Without any control variables, Catholic school students scored better than public school students on reading and math tests. When control variables, such as initial test scores… race and ethnicity, family structure, parental marital status, parental education, income, and employment, were included in the regressions, the results differed substantially: they showed a negative effect for attending Catholic schools in math and almost no effect for reading.” (source)
“Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics… gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones.” (Source)
“The apparent advantages of private school … were almost entirely due to the socioeconomic advantages that selected families into these types of schools and were not attributed to private school education itself.” Source
Higher income parents, whether they choose private school or not, are able to offer more opportunities to their children: travel, tutors, extracurriculars, test prep, music lessons, laptops and more. More highly educated parents, whether they choose private school or not, are better able to support their child’s learning and advocate with their teachers. Parents who prioritize education will typically have children who do better in an educational setting.
While you may not have full control over your income or education status, there is a lot that you as a parent can do to increase your child’s chance of school success whether they are at a private school or public school. Key things you can do are:
create a home environment that encourages learning,
communicate high, yet reasonable, expectations for their children’s achievement and future careers, and
become involved in their children’s education at school and in the community.” (source)
I will share here the stories of how we chose the elementary schools each of our kids attended and how those decisions turned out. None of these are meant to show “the right way” to do it or to be definitive examples… they’re just three examples. Your needs and experiences will vary, so feel free to skip this section…
My oldest child was bright and creative and loved stories. He was in a theater preschool which he adored. But then his teacher told me “sometimes I feel like he’s not able to follow what we’re talking about.” I was stunned by this, because I knew that he was following everything. I observed. He was a perfectionist and didn’t like being put on the spot, so when she called on him with a simple question, he froze like a deer in the headlights. I could see that in his mind he was thinking “that question is way too easy – she must be asking me something harder – what is she asking???” I realized that he wouldn’t do well in a public school class with up to 28 kids in it (the class size at that time.) He needed to be in a very small class setting with low pressure and a teacher I could work closely with. We chose a small school with small class sizes and he thrived there. He had two best friends who were also very bright and very creative and they sailed through the school together. It was an inquiry-based progressive school where the teachers were able to adapt projects to challenge these three bright children and keep them engaged and excited. My son was also “dreamy” and sometimes didn’t pay attention well. (This was later diagnosed as ADD, but since he lacked the hyperactivity part, it wasn’t obvious.) In a larger class, I think he could have spaced out for quite a while and the teacher might not have noticed because he wasn’t disruptive. In this small school, the teachers noticed and kept him on track.
My second child was also very bright. Since her brother’s private school worked so well for him, we put her there too. She did fine for a couple years, happily engaging in the play-based, inquiry based program. However, in this small school, by chance, there was no one in her age cohort that was at the same intellectual level as she was. So she didn’t really have any peers that challenged her or carried her along with them on fun projects. When she was second grade age, they put her in a class of fourth grade age kids – she was still ahead of them academically but so far behind socially that it wasn’t a good fit. Luckily by her fourth and fifth grade years, she’d found her place and they’d paired her with teachers that were able to find the right challenges with her and find ways that she could relate better to the other kids. (Much later on she was diagnosed as autistic. Autism often manifests very differently in gifted girls than the typical stereotypes of autism.) In fourth and fifth grade, they also had a flexibility with her… when this child is overwhelmed, she wants to escape away from other people. They allowed her to go outside into the woods on the school campus when she needed to and return when she was ready. I can’t imagine any public school being able to do this accommodation. In the end, the school was also a good match for her and laid a good foundation for her future.
When we decided to have a third child many years later, we planned that he would go to that same private school. Our backup plan was a local choice school which was small and had a lot of parent involvement, recreating many of the things we liked about that private school. He is super bright – taught himself to read by his third birthday. Unfortunately, he also had behavior challenges. His siblings’ school did not accept him. We lotteried for the choice school but there were only five spaces available and he was over 100th on the waiting list. So, we started at our neighborhood public school. In kindergarten we lucked out with teacher assignments and his teacher had a background in special ed. We got him assessed and he was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, and we set up a plan. Kindergarten was great for him. But his first grade teacher was not a good teacher. Not good for anyone, I thought, but especially him. So, we opted out part way through the year and joined a small start-up elementary full of quirky kids with passionate teachers who were committed to “twice exceptional” kids – kids who are gifted and have challenges. It felt like the perfect fit. He was there for the end of first grade and all of second grade. We loved it. But then just a few weeks into third grade, they asked us to leave. His behavioral issues were escalating and had become more than the small school could handle. He would have big loud meltdowns where he needed to be in a separate space with an adult to help him calm down. With only three rooms and three teachers and with the fact that they shared a building with other tenants who were distressed by my son’s screaming, it just wasn’t working. We considered a move to a private school for autistic and other special needs kids but his needs were not as high as the other children there. So, in the middle of October, we jumped back to public school. They welcomed us back in, got his IEP and 504 set up and got him settled in class. We tested him for gifted services and he qualified for those as well. He spent the rest of elementary school in the public school, with some pull-out services (gifted math, gifted reading, social skills classes) and the ability to go to the resource room with the paras when he needed help getting through a meltdown, but most of his time is spent in the regular classroom. The principal of his elementary was so supportive – when he had behavior challenges, she always approached it positively, with the ‘he’s a good kid, how do we help him get back on track’ sort of approach. Public school has ended up being a really good fit for him and his needs.
I think my lesson from my three experiences is that at every school and with all kids, there will be times when all is going well and it feels like the right fit. And honestly, you’re likely to have rough times – maybe even a whole school year that doesn’t go great. Maybe this is because your child is at a particularly rough stage in their development (a period of disequilibrium). Maybe there just happens to be a bad match between your child and the teacher that year, or there are problematic classmate pairings. But if the teachers and the administration are respectful of kids and parents and are willing to work collaboratively with parents to find the best solution, and if you as a parent are willing to advocate for your child’s best interests, you can get past those rough patches and ensure that the overall school experience is positive.
I know this was a really long post, and I know that it offers no clear answers, just more questions to ask yourself.
Public schools may be more standardized and more straightforward so you may not need to do much research. Private schools, because they vary more, require that you put more effort into understanding who they are and how they work and whether that’s a good fit. If you are choosing between private school options, ask the questions I mention above and I also encourage you to check out my other post on Choosing the Best School for your child for even more questions to ask yourself.
In the end, I think the answer is that as long as your child feels safe and supported and like they belong at the school, and as long as the school helps them to stay excited about learning, that matters more than whether the school is public or private. And whatever school you choose for them, if you support their learning and set high but fair expectations, they will succeed.
Routines are very powerful tools for kids – although you may not think of them as a discipline tool, they absolutely are. When kids know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it is so much easier for them to do well! Routines are especially important around the big transitions in the day – getting up and out the door in the morning, mealtimes, and bedtime.
This post is about one sample bedtime routine. It’s not meant as the “Single Best Bedtime Routine for All Children Every Where.” Because there is no such thing, because every child is different and every family circumstance is different. But it may give you some insight with where to start building your routine.
Where to Start
Maybe you already have a bedtime routine that’s working for you and your family, but you’re not sure if you’re “doing it right.” Or, if you searched for a post on bedtime routines, it’s more likely that your current bedtime routine is not working for you.
How would you know if you have a sleep problem?
Don’t listen to outsiders on this one: it doesn’t matter what your friend, neighbor, or mother-in-law thinks. It doesn’t matter if what you do is different than the advice you read on some website or in some book. It matters how you feel! If your routine is working for you, your partner, and your child, then NO, you don’t have a sleep problem. If, however, you, your partner, or your child are miserable, stressed out, sleep-deprived, frequently ill, resentful or just tired of the situation, then take steps to fix the problem!
Assessing the Current Situation
If your routine is working, don’t expect that you can make a simple switch and overnight everything will be magically fixed. It takes a while to adjust to new habits.
It helps to start off by thinking about where you are now and where you want to get to.
Spend a few days keeping a journal of what you are currently doing, and see what the patterns are. Then write down what your ideal schedule would be. How are those different? Make a one-step-at-a-time plan for how to move in that direction. (For example, if your child stays up till 9:00 or 9:15 every night, you can’t declare that “starting tomorrow, you must go to sleep at 7:30.” But, you could do bedtime at 9:00 one night, 8:50 the next, 8:40 the next, and so on.)
One thing to watch for during these journaling days: when does your child show tired cues? As they near the end of their day, do they have a quiet time, where maybe they get bleary-eyed, rub their eyes, yawn, snuggle down and rest a lot? If you settle them down when they’re in this state, it can go easily. If you miss this “magic window of opportunity”, then often they get a wave of energy. I’ve worked with many parents who say their child is full of energy – wild and wired and running around crashing into things at 10:00. That doesn’t mean they “want” to stay up till 10:00. That might mean that you missed the tired cues they showed at 7:00 and their adrenaline kicked in to keep them going.
Figure out when your child’s internal clock hits its sleepy time in the evening. Try to start your wind-down time before that so you’re ready for the bedtime routine when it hits. Lots of kids will go from tired-but-not-yawning to yawning to overtired-wild-child if you wait too long.
Once you know your current routines, start working on taking steps toward a new one. Here are some ideas to get there.
Create a sleep-supporting environment
It’s worth putting thought into what best helps your child sleep. Don’t feel like you have to spend a ton of money to get these things, but think about how to best re-purpose what you have or can find cheaply.
A comfy bed and pillow
The right sheets and blankets. Our whole family loves flannel sheets year round. We discovered when my son was a toddler that sleeps much more deeply with a fleecy blanket than with a puffy bedspread. We discovered when he was 5 or 6 that he sleeps even better with a weighted blanket in a fleecy cover. (He’s autistic and finds the weight to be comforting.) Your child might be different – they might overheat at night and love their jersey knit sheets and lightweight duvet.
White noise? Music? Many children sleep better with a white noise machine (or a fan running) or with quiet music playing at bedtime.
Nightlights? My oldest child could sleep without a nightlight but Mr. Turtle made him happy so we used it off and on. Then when my daughter was little, I remember seeing research that showed use of night lights was linked to early puberty (and now they say blue light from screens on devices might be as well), so we avoided night lights. Now as an adult, she has a hard time falling asleep when there’s any light in her vicinity. My youngest likes the light on in the hallway. And he had a period at age 10 where he was having a lot of night-time anxiety that was stopping him from sleeping. I asked him what would help and he said a disco light! I thought that sounded crazy – but it turned out it worked great. Watching the swirly lights distracted his anxious ADHD brain just enough that he could settle down.
Stuffed animals and toys? For a baby under 1 year old there should be no soft items in the crib. But for older children, you can make the choices that work best for you and them.
So yes, do think about creating the best sleep environment. Think about having multiple sleep “cues” that help cue your child to settle down. However, don’t let anything become a sleep “crutch” without which they can’t sleep! For example, your child might usually have: bedtime music, bedtime story, pajamas, a favorite stuffed animal and snuggles with you. But not always all of them… that way if one night you can’t find the stuffed animal they can still sleep. Or if you’re travelling, and forgot pajamas, they’re still able to fall asleep in their clothes. Or if you leave them with a babysitter they’re still able to fall asleep. We practice rotating out items so that none of them are absolutely essential.
Wind down routine
The original version of the illustration at the top of this post had 8 steps in it. That’s too many steps for a bedtime routine, I like separating thing into two chunks. Wind down may take 30 – 45 minutes. The bedtime routine might take 10 – 15.
For wind-down time: turn off screens (videos, video games) or at least switch to blue shade, turn down the lights in the room, turn down the heat (cooling down signals the body that it’s time to sleep), and turn down the activity level. (No rough-housing or big physical activity right before bed.) Consider an evening snack or bath time, whatever best helps them and you let go of daytime energy and settle down.
I like to have a four or five step routine that I teach to my child. I might make a poster with pictures of the steps on it as a visual signal. I reinforce the routine by talking about “this is how we always do things. Remember, we always have four things we do before bed. What are they?” A preschooler should be able to recite the four steps.
I will sometimes give a last chance alert before we start that routine: “it’s almost bedtime – is there anything you need to do before we start our routine.” That gives them that last chance to have a snack or find a toy or finish something up – that way they can’t ask for that later because you already gave them this chance. But set a time limit on this option… like “I’m going to start the timer and in five minutes you need to walk away from the Legos even if it’s not done.” Or, if my son asked for a snack at his five minute notice, he couldn’t choose a snack that takes a long time to eat or prepare. He could choose what we jokingly called the “suck it down” snacks: yogurt tube, applesauce packet or a cheese stick.
In our family, when my son was in preschool, our steps were: going to the bathroom, brushing your teeth, bedtime math and two stories, music on / lights out. The process takes 10 to 15 minutes and then we’re done and out of other options for the day. If they’re dawdling, use a when / then: “when you’ve brushed your teeth, we get to read stories and I’m really looking forward to that.” If they continue to resist, use an if / then: “if you don’t finish in the next two minutes, then I can only read one book, and that would make us both sad.”
Whatever your routine, you gotta stick to it! Clear limits are really important. For example, we always read two bedtime stories. NEVER more. If kids learn some nights you’ll read 5 stories, they’ll ask for 5 every night!
If they learn that every time you turn off the light and walk away all they have to do is ask for a snack you’ll come back, they’ll ask every night.
How to Respond When They Get Back Up
Now, just because you set up this plan for a routine doesn’t mean it magically works the first time. It takes a while and a lot of consistency on your part to make it stick.
After the bedtime routine, your child may try to “escape” from bed. Don’t let them, because if you let them escape once they’ll try every night… Instead, every time they get up, calmly and gently pick them up, stating simply “It’s now your bedtime, you need to be in bed. I will see you in the morning.” And place them back in bed. No long lectures, no anger, just a matter-of-fact unbreakable rule. Use a when/then: “when you do a good job at bedtime, then we get to do [something fun] tomorrow.” If they continue to escape, use logical consequences: “if you get up again, then….”
We just stick with it till it sticks. So, make sure you’ve set a bedtime plan that is something you can stick with reliably, even if you yourself are tired or sick or busy or whatever. Consistency is key. Over time it will become how things work in your family.
I do need to caution that even once your bedtime routine is well established, it doesn’t mean there won’t be days when it fails. (We expect sleep regressions around big developmental changes (periods of disequilibrium) daylight savings time, or the night before a big event when they’re excited, or on trips or other changes to the routine.) When those changes happen, the best way to get back on track is to ground yourself in the routine. It will evolve and adapt as your child grows, but it’s a reliable and comforting thing to return to for both of you.
Hand-flapping is an example of a self-soothing behavior. There are several other self-soothing behaviors children use, like rocking, thumb sucking, jumping, spinning, humming, hair twirling, or lining objects up in a row. These repetitive behaviors might be called “stimming” for self-stimulating, or stereotypy.
This is common in toddlers, then tends to become less common as they get older – fading in the preschool years. But some children continue to do it. Parents of older children who still do this often view it as a problem that needs to be solved, and may say things like “how do I stop my child from flapping their hands?”
Let’s first figure out why children stim, and then think about how to respond to it.
Why do people stim?
When you’re nervous, do you ever bounce your knee? Or bite your lip? Or wring your hands? When you’re impatient, do you tap your foot or drum your fingernails? Have you ever been so excited that you want to bounce up and down? Or clap your hands and squeal? Or throw your hands up in a victory celebration? When there is a sudden loud noise, do you cover your ears? When you’re waiting on hold on the phone, do you click your pen up and down, pace, or rock your chair? Do you mumble to yourself or swear repeatedly to communicate your frustrations? These are things we all do. These things could be called “stimming” because our brains/bodies are seeking to regulate stimulation, whether that’s to distract us when we’re bored or soothe us when we’re anxious or release tension or express big emotions. Having stimulation that we chose can help us to regulate our brains/senses.
Neurotypical folks can typically stop themselves from doing these behaviors if they feel like it’s not appropriate where they are, or if they’re disturbing someone or if they don’t want other people to notice them.
If you want to better understand why someone is flapping or stimming, here are ideas to explore:
Determine what triggers the behavior. Is it too much stimulation? stress? excitement overload? Or boredom? (too little stimulation)
If you change the environment (for example, making it quieter and more peaceful), does that change the frequency of the stimming?
If you give them an acceptable alternative for boring circumstances where they have to sit still (like having a fidget spinner in class or a coloring book at church), does that reduce the stimming?
Does it help if you “notice” and validate the underlying feelings: “It looks like you’re really excited about this.” Or if you notice what’s triggering their behavior: “it is really loud here – that’s bothering you isn’t it?”
If it only happens in certain situations or certain moods, it can be easier to understand and to influence. If they do it all the time in all circumstances, it may have become a habit, and making changes to the environment or activities may not change it.
Are they seeking attention? An autistic child who is stimming typically does not care whether others notice. Some neurotypical children may do behaviors like stimming because they notice that they get a lot of attention when they do. If you have realized they only do these things when they have an audience, stop paying attention to the performance and see if the behavior fades.
Can you re-direct their attention to some other activity? If so, then do. Or is it really hard for them to stop? This perseveration may be more common for autistic children.
“One of the things about autism is that a lot of things… are harder. But some things? Some things are so much easier. Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap… I flap a lot when I think about Glee or when I finish a sudoku puzzle… I spin. I rock. I laugh. I am happy. Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happy, so enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.”
And another perspective from an individual with an autism spectrum disorder:
No one should try to stop hand flapping because it is part of who we are. Would you like it if everyone were trying to make you stop smiling? … Or putting your sunglasses on top of your head? Or crossing your legs when you sat? That is what people are doing to us when they try to make us stop flapping our hands: they are trying to force us to stop moving in ways that are natural, healthy, and comfortable to us.
I know many autistic adults who may “mask” at work and in public – acting in ways that are considered neurotypical. This helps them to fit in better but can be exhausting. When they are amongst friends and family, they may stim when it soothes them or gives them joy.
My son is 11 – his current stims are making random sudden noises, and the need to say the same thing multiple times in a row. (Typically either something he’s really excited about or something he’s saying to talk himself out of being worried about something.) Our family knows that saying things multiple times is soothing to him, so we roll with it at home. But we do let him know that it can annoy other people or lead peers to shun him, and we asked him if he wanted our help figuring out other ways to manage this – like writing things down on post-its he brings home from school. Random noises are OK at home, but we asked him if he wanted ideas for alternate things he can do elsewhere when he has that energy that won’t disturb others, like blowing out a puff of air instead of making a noise, or flicking his fingers.
If the stimming isn’t causing problems for the child, you don’t need to “fix” it.
When is stimming a problem to work on?
When it interrupts other activities (e.g. their hands are so busy flapping, they can’t use them to do other things),
When it is blocking learning (e.g. they are frequently being asked to leave the classroom because they’re overly disruptive),
When it affects your child’s ability to make friends,
If your child is accidentally harming themselves or others, or
If the child themself wants to reduce the behavior or wants to learn to mask when they choose to
What are ways we might reduce stimming?
First, never punish stimming. This would be like punishing a child for crying. Or for laughing. Don’t criticize or shame a child for stimming.
Here are some supportive methods to try that might reduce stimming if it has become a problem:
Increase physical activity: If the child gets more exercise (especially heavy work) or spends more time outside, does that reduce stimming behavior?
Change environments: Can you spend more time in environments that the child finds calming and less time in places / circumstances that overload them?
Place and Time: Can you set times and places where stimming is welcomed? That might help reduce their need to do it in situations where it is more problematic.
Replacement behaviors: Are there other things they can do with their body that meet the same needs? Maybe hand clapping, hand pressing (like in a prayer position), playing with play-dough, or using a fidget toy. If they are stimming, instead of saying “don’t flap”, re-direct them to the replacement behavior: “get your calming bottle.” When you see them proactively choosing a replacement behavior instead of stimming, praise that.
Overcorrection: Sometimes flapping hands really hard and fast for a just a short while, or jumping hard and fast for a little while, will help get it out of their system quicker.
Release Tension: One of the reasons for stimming is to release tension – are there other effective releases – laughter, crying over sad movies, journaling or drawing?
Raise awareness and make plans: When the child is stimming, you could briefly comment on it to help them be aware. If you notice common triggers, you may help your child notice those. Then you can work together on an action plan. For example, if noise and crowds overwhelm them, you might plan a trip to the zoo for a Tuesday afternoon rather than Saturday morning. Prepare and inform: when you’re approaching an event that might cause your child stress, let them know and talk about ways they might manage that.
Professional support: A therapist to address anxiety can help. An occupational therapist trained in sensory integration can help with regulation. (You may also see information about ABA therapy. That can help, but be very cautious about this option, as much of ABA therapy is framed around the idea of “fixing” autism by training children to behave “normally” and withholding rewards when they show autistic behaviors. I recommend you not choose places that define stimming as a problem, instead choose one that offers alternatives to stimming that a child could choose to use instead.)
Parent support: Talking to other parents of kids with challenging behaviors can be a huge help, as you learn you’re not alone in your worries. It can also help parents to talk with a parent educator, parent coach, or therapist to discuss their own concerns.
When my older two kids were in college, my youngest was in preschool. On campus, there were lots of discussions about the importance of consent – asking before touching someone else – and standing up for your right to tell others whether or not it’s OK to touch you and how you like to be touched. It turns out that all those kinds of conversations can be done at a developmentally appropriate level with a preschooler, and lays the foundation for long-term healthy relationships.
Personal Space – My Bubble
It is helpful to teach preschool age children the idea of a personal space bubble – have them reach their arms out to their sides, in front, and behind to make sure they’ve got plenty of space around them and they’re not bumping into anyone or anything. If they can touch something, they need to move a little to be sure nothing is in their bubble.
During coronavirus, we taught our preschoolers The Bubble Song (video) from Magic in the Music. You can adapt this song for personal space: Sing “You gotta keep your bubble, bubble, bubble” 3 times, then “And you gotta ask ‘fore you pop into mine.” As they sing it, they can dance around, reaching their arms out to form their bubbles. Other people taught ideas like airplane wings or bird wings – if your wings bump into anyone, make more space.
This was helpful for teaching social distancing to reduce illness spread, but it’s also just a helpful idea for kids in general. It’s easier for kids to concentrate in group time when there’s not somebody else bumping up against them. It’s easier to keep kids in a line if they know to make a little space in front of and behind them. And it encourages them to be more aware of their surroundings so they don’t bump into the easel or the desks. For teachers and parents, it’s nice to sometimes have a little room to breathe between us and the children. But this idea of a personal space bubble can also lay a good foundation for talking about consent and bodily autonomy.
Consent: Ask Before Entering
Once they know about the personal bubble, we can teach the idea of not invading other people’s bubbles without permission. If they want to hug or kiss someone, or hold hands, or sit in a grown-up’s lap, they can ask first. (If you’re nursing a toddler, you can absolutely request that they ask first before nursing.) For a child who doesn’t use many words yet, you can teach the sign language word for please, and how to show what they want to do.
Teach that when they ask, they have to wait for an answer. The person might answer yes, they would like touch now too! If so, you are welcome in their bubble.
Or, they might say no, or might not say anything – anything other than an enthusiastic yes should be treated as a no. They might also say something like “no thanks, but I’d like a fist bump.” Whatever they say, it’s important to respect that.
And if you still want touch, you could ask someone else, or you could hug a stuffed animal or snuggle up in a blanket.
It’s also worth noting that we all have different moods on different days, and that someone who wanted to hold your hand yesterday might not want to hold it today, and that’s OK.
It’s OK to Say No
It’s important for children to know that their body is their body, and they have the right to say who can touch it and how. If someone asks, it’s OK to say no thank you, or it’s OK to offer an alternative – like “I don’t want to be touched right now but I’d love it if you sit next to me while we draw.”
If someone doesn’t ask before touching, it’s OK to say “please don’t kiss me.” Or “you need to ask before you touch my hair.” If someone doesn’t respect their wishes, or touches them in any way that makes them uncomfortable for whatever reason, they can say no and they can tell a trusted adult.
Other Ways of Expressing Affection
Offer children lots of options for appropriate ways to touch or express affection so that they have alternatives to offer when someone says no to them, or when they want to say no to touch from someone else. We can shake hands, fist bump, high five, wave, bow, jazz hands, blow a kiss, say hello, sit near someone, walk side by side, make them a gift, and so much more.
This is a great place to reinforce ideas about diversity – we have different ways we like to express and receive affection and it’s important to respect that and learn to speak different love languages.
Model these Skills
Be a role model for how to ask for consent – ask your child if they want a hug, ask if they want your help wiping the food off their face, and so on. If there’s a safety issue, you could offer a choice: “you and I need to be holding on to each other in the parking lot – would you like to hold my hand or do you want me to carry you?”
When I wrestle with my son, I ask him if he wants to wrestle. I will stop in the middle of it, and say “is this still OK?” He knows that if he ever says stop, I will stop right away.
Practice these Skills
When children in my class are playing in a physical way (like crawling over each other in a ball put, I’ll occasionally pause the play for a moment and say “is everyone having fun? Are you all OK with this or do we need to change anything?” If anyone looks in any way uncomfortable, we stop the play and make some ground rules. One of the preschools I teach at only has a couple rules: “Everyone gets to play. Everyone gets to feel safe.” These are great ideas for grounding that conversation.
We can teach children that some parts of their body are private – we cover them with clothes when we’re out in public, we don’t touch other people there and they shouldn’t touch us there, and we only touch those parts on ourselves when we’re in private spaces like our bedrooms or bathrooms. Teach that those parts are the ones that are covered up by a swimsuit – bottoms for a person with male body parts, top and bottoms for a person with female body parts.
Teach correct anatomical terms to children: penis, scrotum, anus, vulva, vagina, nipples. Having the correct words helps them communicate clearly with you, caregivers and doctors. (You can also teach that these are not words we run around yelling on the playground.) Learn more about talking with children about sexuality.
Children should know that if anyone ever touches their private parts, asks a child to touch theirs, shows pictures or asks to take pictures of private parts, they should tell a trusted adult right away. Parents might need to touch those parts to teach you how to keep them clean or doctors might need to touch those parts to be sure that they are healthy, but they should always ask.
Children should have several adults who are their “safety net” of trusted adults that they can talk to about any touch that makes them uncomfortable, or really that they can talk to whenever they are uncomfortable with anything or wondering about anything. Ideally I like a child to have five people on their list, including someone who is not in their family – teachers, scout leaders, ministers, soccer coaches… This is helpful when they are children for issues like abuse. It’s helpful when they’re teenagers if they have questions about sexuality, substance use or other complex topics. When my older kids were teens, they each had contact info for multiple adults who could bail them out of any bad situation they got themselves into, and that was a huge reassurance to me.
Talk to your child about their safety net and make sure they know what adults can be resources to them.