We asked Kevin Pendergast, Head of School at The Kildonan School, what a parent should look for when visiting a potential school for their child with learning disabilities and what aspects of a school help a child with LD thrive.
What should a parent look for when visiting a potential school for their child with a learning disability?
They should be looking for whether or not the staff at the school cares more about the individual student ahead of the program. When parents visit a school and ask questions, they should see if the school staff is talking about the program or asking about the individual student. Are they saying things like 'Everyone at the school receives the same kind of education' or are they making it clear that in their program and services they individualize the educational experience for each student? Are they paying attention to what happens to the student outside of the six or eight hours of academics? Is the school staff providing services and making sure it has the training to insure the child is educated and that the whole student is being addressed? The right school should not just focus on the weaknesses of the student, but the strengths and talents as well.
What advice do you have for parents concerned about transitioning their child with learning disabilities into a new school?
Parents should do a lot of research to look at whether the school their child is transitioning to places the individual needs of the student at the highest priority.
I would also advise parents, if transitioning to a boarding school, that they look at if there is a summer boarding program held at the school. Try that program first so the student and family grow familiar with what it means for a student to live away from home. I advise students to take advantage of any counseling that is available through the school for kids who are making that difficult transition. Even if they are going to be a day student, it can be very helpful to obtain counseling for kids.
Also, take advantage of residential life programming at the school. Kildonan has a transitioning program where students are able to discuss, think about, and process difficult issues that come up in the life of an adolescent with learning disabilities—issues of self-esteem, bullying, or substance abuse. The resident life program directs these concerns and allows students to talk about them openly.
I also advise parents to talk to other parents who have already made the transition at the new school. We have found here that it is very valuable for parents to talk to other parents who have already been through the same transition process. A school staff is going to be reassuring to parents, but it's more meaningful and often more helpful for a new parent to talk to an existing parent.
What factors contribute to making a student with LD who is struggling in one school thrive in another?
The first objective is to do an assessment of the student to see exactly his or her skills and to make sure that the curriculum that is developed at the new school is perfectly tailored to the needs of that student making the transition. A big factor is how individualized the education is in the new setting. If it is just as systematic as the educational offering at the previous setting, that student is not going to find success in the new setting. For the transition to succeed, the new setting must offer a truly individualized education.
Another factor is a lot of communication between the parent and school staff. The more the school knows about the student, the more the school is communicating with the family and professionals that have worked with the student before. If the school can provide its best effort, then the students are going to have a greater experience. Overall, the three key factors that contribute are assessment, individualization, and communication. One aspect that impacts a positive change is a qualified, well trained, knowledgeable, caring, intelligent teaching faculty. That is the difference between a successful experience versus not successful. Another aspect is a program that provides opportunities for a student to discover his or her own unique talent and strengths.
Kevin Pendergast is Headmaster at The Kildonan School in Amenia, NY. He received a BA in English from SUNY Albany, a master’s degree in English language and literature from Fordham University, and a JD from Case Western Reserve University School of Law.