The Search for Your Child’s Ideal Learning Environment

Guest Contributor /// Scott Steele

It was about five minutes into our drive home from the hospital with our newborn son when I noticed everyone whooshing past our car. Hey, what’s the big rush? When I looked down at the speedometer to see that I was going twenty miles per hour in a forty miles per hour speed zone was the moment I realized the magnitude of responsibility I would have for this adorable human being for the rest of my life. This is when life insurance agents pounce on you. This is when you start wearing a helmet when you ride a bike.

Now that he is in school, the things that keep you up at night change. There’s not just the day-to-day keeping them healthy, alive and safe, there’s the looming future when they will all too soon spread their wings and fly from the nest.

My son is a rambunctious, creative and energetic 6-year old like so many other kids his age. To say he is easily distracted is a gross understatement. He is easily overstimulated, especially by too much sensory input. This can trigger anxiety and pretty much a mental shutdown/meltdown. He has attended three schools in three years, each one with their own teaching methods and specific environment. In that time, we’ve had numerous calls from the school and meetings with the principal and teachers with a pattern of familiar commentary. “He can’t sit still. He can’t focus. He struggles to be quiet at appropriate times.” My son is not an intentional troublemaker, usually anyway, I just don’t think we have found quite the right environment for him. Teachers at his first two schools commented nearly verbatim that they’ve “never in all their years of teaching seen a student like him.” Hmmmm. Now how do you take that exactly? A bit heartbreaking to hear once, but twice really kind of stung. What more could we do? What were we doing wrong? Were we doing too much? What’s wrong with my school? I was pretty bummed and went through the stages of grief (or “good grief”), denial, anger, bargaining, depression and now, acceptance. Change, that is the constant. And I think that I am finally okay with that.

Our son’s first school was a pre-school with a highly structured, uniforms-and-all environment that had a reputation for generating the patriotic wunderkind leaders of tomorrow who could read at a sixth-grade level by kindergarten. I did like their phonics-based approach to reading and their practice of nurturing confidence in public speaking at such a young age. However, my son’s particular classroom (and the school) were in a bit of an upheaval. The new administration’s leadership had set my son’s teacher up for failure, intentionally or not, by leaving her understaffed. It was heartbreaking to see our son at such a young age dislike school and even feel like a failure (Yep, his 4-year old words).

So we opted for a near polar opposite approach; a much more free-form Montessori environment, which was probably a little too free-form. When presented with the choice of doing “work” as they referred to studies, or recess, my son inevitably chose recess. Who wouldn’t, right?

Okay, so my son is different — and that’s a good thing. These are the kind of kids who innovate, who question the norms. He may or may not become the next Steve Jobs, but I do take a certain amount of pride in being the parent of someone who doesn’t just dance to beat of his own drummer, but one that polkas, break dances or whatever is called for in that particular situation. I do not want him to lose that creative spirit, BUT he still does have to live and function in the real world. There are norms of expected behavior in the classroom and life, so it’s important to accommodate his needs while not taking away from the rest of the class or giving my son a sense of entitlement, or even a crutch excuse for behaving badly.

Currently, he attends a private Catholic school. We are still seeing patterns in behavior, but we keep trying new things and the faculty has been very supportive. Most recently, they are collaborating with the public schools and an arsenal of experts. In our initial meeting, I had expected two, three people tops, but walked into a room filled with people all rooting for my son — speech pathologists, child psychologists and more. I have found that an open dialogue with your teacher, principal and your school counselor (if you have one) and a quick response to any obstacles or challenges is key. Share information freely and work as a team. The school year goes by quickly so before it floods, make sure to stop the leaks.

I don’t know if we have yet discovered our son’s learning style, nor have we without a doubt found the right place for his “unique” perspective on the world. I’m still new to being an advocate for my child’s education and future. At times I wonder if the model for learning is an outdated model from the Industrial Revolution that perhaps doesn’t prepare our children to become creative problem solvers and critical thinkers ready to realize their full potential in the 21st-century workforce. Children are not mass-produced products. They are unique works of art.


Scott Steele is a writer, creative, and family man. He enjoys painting, biking, snowboarding, and spending time with his family.

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