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Boarding Schools Expand Options for Students With Learning Differences

Learning differences add complexity and increase the urgency of educational planning—and many students with learning differences discover that they thrive at boarding schools. These unique settings integrate academic challenge and support beyond the traditional school day, maximizing the potential for students to develop self-awareness about their learning styles and come into their own as confident, successful learners. Many students benefit from a boarding school’s structured study hours, the availability of teachers, and being fully immersed in a community that encompasses academics, extra-curricular, and social activities.

As general awareness about learning differences has grown, these days every school has some students with documented learning differences. By law, all schools must respect classroom accommodations—such as a child’s need to type on a computer or to have extra time on tests—that are outlined in formal learning plans. While there are exceptions, U.S. boarding schools can generally be divided into three categories when considering approaches to learning differences. For discussion purposes, we will examine:

  • academically-rigorous schools that offer minimal support beyond seeing teachers for extra help,
  • schools that offer learning support programs that integrate into traditional curriculum, and
  • schools that specialize in serving students with learning differences.

Students interested in the most academically-rigorous boarding schools may find support through drop-in writing or math centers, peer tutoring, and referrals to more specialized tutors. Although most faculty at these schools are not specialists in learning differences, they are nonetheless devoted to understanding their students. Students with previously diagnosed learning differences are most successful in these school environments when they have intrinsic academic motivation, recognize their learning differences, and have already identified a set of strategies for overcoming their challenges. These qualities help them self-advocate and make the most of available resources to get the help they need.  

Other boarding schools have comprehensive learning support programs that enhance their traditional academic curricula. For an additional fee, students meet up to several times per week—either individually or in groups—with learning support faculty who are in communication with teachers from core academic classes. These meetings may include tutoring, coaching in time management and organization skills, and help with self-advocacy.

Another niche of boarding schools is devoted to serving students with learning differences. These institutions offer a community where all students are working through this challenge. These schools have faculty who are trained in working with learning differences throughout their academic departments, and they orient classroom approaches specifically to support different kinds of learners.

Compared to some other parts of the world, the United States is fortunate to offer such a range of options for matching students’ intellectual drive and need for support. We are thrilled that learning differences do not inherently preclude students from pursuing any exciting learning opportunities in boarding schools. As with any candidate, determining the best fit comes from a considering the students’ interests, strengths and challenges in combination with the specific offerings at each boarding school. In our next column, we will explore more in-depth how the family’s journey in addressing a student’s learning differences intersects with the path of a school search.

Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in advising families about independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at

Kristen J. Naspo provides services for domestic and international boarding school candidates and those seeking therapeutic school placements. She can be reached at