Category Archives: Child Development

Public or Private School?

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.

Curriculum

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.

Teachers

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.

School size

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.

Cost

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.

Facilities

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.

Admissions

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.)

Diversity

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.

Equity

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.

Outcomes

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)

Read more about how to help your child succeed in school.

Examples of Elementary School Choices

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.

Summary

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.

A Sample Bedtime Routine

images from https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/915/41654651100_8f51e34536_b.jpg

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.

Bedtime Routine

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.

Stimming: Self-Soothing Behaviors

What is Stimming?

Have you seen a child flapping their hands? Elbows bent, hands up by their face, hands flapping like bird wings?

Some children may do it when they’re worried or anxious. Other children may show this behavior when they’re excited or happy, as in this video.

(You can see other examples of excited hand flapping / stimming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QD9OPDUVejo and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_gZqQy_Ae4.)

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.

Some people have a hard time stopping themselves from stimming or are very uncomfortable if forced to stop. This can be a sign of autism, though not everyone who stims is autistic. (If your child is over 3 years old, and frequently flaps their hands or uses other stims and also shows other possible signs of autism, it’s a good idea to learn more about autism, learn more about deciding whether to have your child assessed for autism, and how to access developmental testing.)

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.

Do we need to stop a child from stimming?

Before deciding that stimming needs to be “fixed”, it’s important to ask autistic people about autistic experiences to get their perspective. In her post “the Obsessive Joy of Autism“, Julia Bascom, current Executive Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) says

“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 happyso 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.”

Julia Bascom

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.

Good Autism School

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?
  • Build emotional literacy: Teach and practice emotional regulation skills (Check out the Zones of Regulation tools.)
  • 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.

Learn more:

Accessing Developmental Testing

child working with blocks

Note: This post is tailored to families in Washington State, but the general process is similar elsewhere.

Monitoring

I encourage all parents and teachers to do developmental monitoring: from time to time check out a developmental checklist to be sure your child is on track. And read developmental newsletters for ideas on how to support well-rounded development. Or, you can check out the Washington Early Learning and Development Guidelines which are an amazing resource for children birth through grade 3, where each developmental level includes ways to support your child’s development, differences in development and guidelines for when/how to seek intervention services.

Screening

About 1 in 6 children has a developmental or behavioral issue, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and developmental delays. Only 30% of those concerns would be detected just through the monitoring process. Early intervention from birth to age 3 can help children learn important skills, and getting support and services for children age 3 and up can have a huge benefit for their schooling.

If you are wondering if your child might have autism or ADHD or developmental delays, start with a screening tool. The results might help to reassure you that your child is actually developing normally or they could validate that seeking further assessment and testing would be beneficial. The ASQ – Ages and Stages questionnaire is one of the best available tools for overall development, and you can complete it yourself in about 15 minutes. The ASQ-SE screens for social-emotional development, and can help to identify possible autism signs. (Learn more about using the ASQ and ASQ-SE and understanding your child’s ASQ results.)

For Washington state residents: you can complete the ASQ and ASQ-SE online and a child development specialist from Within Reach will contact you with the results within a week and discuss those results with you. Oregon offers an online ASQ and ASQ-SE here that appear to be open to anyone – you will see the results when you complete the screening.

Talk with a Professional

A helpful second step is to talk to your child’s doctor or their teacher or childcare provider about your concerns, and share the results of the screening. Here is a tip sheet for talking with a doctor about your concerns.

Your child’s doctor may offer a referral to a specialist, such as a child neurologist or a child psychologist. You could also ask for a written referral for testing, using this form.

You can also directly contact your state’s early childhood system to request a free Child Find Evaluation to find out if your child qualifies for intervention services. You do not need a doctor’s referral to make this call.

Evaluation – for Children under 3

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA (specifically in Part C) guarantees your child a right to a free developmental evaluation. Some people call it “birth to three services,” “early intervention,” or “Part C services”. If your child qualifies for intervention, services can be billed to insurance, or offered on a sliding scale. You will not be denied services if you can’t pay for them.

In Washington, evaluations are provided through ESIT – Early Support for Infants and Toddlers. (Info for Outside Washington.) Each county has a lead agency that processes referrals and schedules evaluations. All the agencies are listed here. To learn which agency serves your location, you can call the Help Me Grow Washington Hotline at 1-800-322-2588.This statewide, toll-free number offers help in English, Spanish and other languages.

The evaluation process uses standardized tools and observations to evaluate a child’s development in 5 areas: physical, cognitive, social-emotional, communication, adaptive / self-care, and sensory processing skills. The evaluator uses natural situations to look at these skills as a child plays, stacks blocks, draws, etc.

If the evaluation shows your child is eligible for services (eligibility criteria here), they may develop an IFSP – Individualized Family Service Plan – and you will be referred for early intervention services, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, hearing or vision services. In most cases, services are provided in the home or in a child-care setting.

Learn more about IFSP and Early Intervention, and even more about IFSP.

Evaluations for Children age 3 – 5

In Washington, “Child Find” evaluations are offered through your school district. They are free but you must request them.

You can call your school district coordinator* and say: “I have concerns about my child’s development and I would like to have my child evaluated through the school system for preschool special education services. Can you help me or let me speak with someone who can?” Write down who you speak to, the date, and what was said; you might need this information later.

At some point, you will need to submit a written request for evaluation. Some parents start with that. A sample letter to request evaluation is available on PAVE’s website, or the state offers a referral form. (Learn more about how to make the request for an evaluation.)

From the time of request the school has 25 school days to decide whether to evaluate, then 35 school days to complete the evaluation. Make sure you keep a record of when you started the process. (Learn more about the referral and evaluation process.)

The evaluation might look like academic tests, questionnaires, informal observations of the child and parent interviews. They may measure: communication skills, hearing and vision, motor skills, social skills, academic skills, thinking and reasoning. (Learn more about evaluation.)

IDEA describes 14 disability categories. If your child meets the criteria under one of those categories, they are eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Learn more about developing an initial IEP. (Tips for preparing for your IEP meeting.)

If they don’t meet IDEA eligibility, but they have a disability that impacts a “major life activity” they can have a section 504 plan for accommodations which enable equitable access. (If they are found not eligible, learn what to do.)

Children with identified disabilities can receive free special education and related services at preschools run by the local public-school district or through Head Start or ECEAP. (Learn more about preschool placement.) Related services might include speech therapy, occupational therapy, mental health counseling or special transportation, etc.

If your child is older than 5:

Contact the public school that your child attends or that they would assigned to (if they are homeschooled or attending private school). From there, the process is much as described above.

Most specialized education is provided by special educators who “push in” with support in the general education classroom. (The IDEA requires education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the greatest extent possible with typically developing peers.) Some children do not thrive in typical classrooms, and may receive “pull out” instruction in a specialized setting.

Families that homeschool or attend private school, have the option to receive some services from the public school system, even if they are not attending full-time. Learn more about private school Equitable Services plan.

Private Evaluations

In order to access publicly funded early intervention services and special education, you will only need to complete the free evaluations described above.

It is also possible to have a formal evaluation by a child psychologist or psychiatrist, a occupational therapist or speech/language pathologist, clinic specializing in autism, ADHD, etc. This may lead to a more detailed report about your child’s diagnosis and how you can support them, or it may make you eligible for additional services that could be covered by insurance, or may make your child eligible for medications. These diagnostic evaluations may be covered by your insurance or might require paying out of pocket, and can be expensive, so be sure you check about costs and coverage.

If you’re looking for a provider for a diagnosis, seek recommendations of knowledgeable professionals in your area from:

  • Support groups (for example, Autism Speaks has a national directory of providers;
  • People who have children or other family members with the condition
  • Governmental resources (for example, the Autism Guidebook for WA)
  • Your primary care provider or other health care professionals
  • Early intervention or special education providers

More Resources

*How to Contact Your School District

For children age 3 to 5, you’ll reach out to the special ed team in your child’s school district. Here’s info for all the districts in the state. k12.wa.us/sites/default/files/public/specialed/resourcelibrary/SpEdDirectory.pdf

Here are contacts for district’s on Seattle’s Eastside. (I teach for the Bellevue College Parent Education Program so these are the resources I refer to.) If their websites said what agency provides evaluations for ages birth to 3, I list that after the website URL. (If the Early Intervention provider is not listed, call Help Me Grow Washington Hotline at 1-800-322-2588.)

To refer your child for Kindering services, call (425) 653-4300 or submit an online referral form here.  Kindering provides helpful information about their telehealth evaluations.