Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What is most often overlooked when considering private school for your gifted child?

Does your gifted child need a private school education to succeed? Are the costs of private high school education worth it?  Do they provide more challenge, more stimulation and more creativity - all something gifted children need? Do they really open the door to admission at more prestigious colleges? What are the drawbacks? And what is frequently overlooked?

Most families cite numerous reasons for choosing private education, including the richness of the learning environment, smaller class size, individualized attention, presumed greater potential for success, values education (particularly in religious schools), and advantages in the college admission process. Nevertheless, even families who can afford the tuition often wonder whether the benefits outweigh the costs. A recent article questioned the presumed benefits and noted the shortcomings of private schools, particularly in relation to college admissions (see this article). It is a reminder that a private education certainly does not guarantee acceptance at top colleges, and challenges the assumption that enrollment is even necessary for achieving success. 

But one question is frequently overlooked: Is this school the best for my child’s emotional well-being?

Psychological factors need to be weighed as heavily as educational benefits. When deciding which educational setting is best, the child’s psychological well-being is as critical as the educational fit. All children, and especially gifted children, need a challenging, supportive, enriched learning environment. If this cannot be achieved and there are other options available, it is reasonable to consider a different school. Safety, self-confidence, respect, and engaging interactions with teachers and peers are all necessary for children to feel free to learn and grow intellectually. If they are preoccupied with anxiety related to social stresses, boredom, isolation, or too much academic pressure, they will not thrive. For a child who is bullied, feels alienated from peers, or fears for his or her physical safety, transfer to a different setting can be a lifesaver and provide much needed relief.

Some families proactively choose a private education to enhance their child’s opportunities, even when their child is already thriving socially and emotionally in public school, assuming that private school will be as socially and emotionally advantageous as it is academically. However, academic excellence or religious values do not necessarily mean that the school will provide the social/emotional environment your child needs.

What do you need to ask when deciding whether private school is good for your child’s 
emotional well-being?

1. Does the school provide specialized services, guidance, and close supervision that is unavailable in the public schools? Will my child feel more secure and nurtured in such an environment? Does he or she need the added attention, encouragement and accountability? Would these extra services help my child feel more confident in his or her academic abilities and would this contribute to an upward trend in school performance?

2.  Are more challenging classes available that would better meet the needs of my gifted child? Not all private schools screen during the admissions process, so it cannot be assumed that your child would necessarily find more similarly gifted peers than already enrolled in public school. Even if most classes seem to be engaging, are there additional classes that might be exceptionally challenging? Are there stimulating extra-curricular activities that will spark my child’s interest, or are fewer opportunities available, given the smaller number of students at the school? For example, certain clubs, athletic teams, or even a school orchestra might not be offered due to limited student interest.

3. Will my child benefit from a more homogeneous environment with students who are similar to one another? What if my child is different in terms of religious, racial or socioeconomic background from many of the students? Will this lack of diversity create a problem? Even if my child is demographically similar to the other students, will the lack of diversity affect his or her world view? If the school is populated by particularly wealthy families, will this contribute to a sense of entitlement or an unrealistic perspective about acquiring wealth or material possessions?

4. Will the more intensive emphasis on academics challenge my child to flourish and succeed, or will it create too much pressure? Could this contribute to excessive perfectionism in a child who is already too driven, or depression in a child already preoccupied with anxiety over possible failure? Will the environment create unrealistic expectations regarding college admissions, contributing to an assumption that entrance into an elite college is essential to success?

These questions are not easily answered, but need to be raised. It is essential to weigh the potential social and emotional consequences, both positive and negative, when considering a private school education.  Easily overlooked, it could be argued that emotional well-being is the key to your child’s academic success.

Next blog: Surviving public school!


  1. Psychological considerations definitely get neglected when exploring private school options. Great post to bring this to light!