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The Flip Side

How Learning Differences Intersect with a School Search

In our previous column, we outlined three different ways in which boarding schools organize support for students with learning differences. But the question remains: How do you know which of those options is the best for you child? The key to identifying the best school fit is to recognize where your child is in understanding his or her own learning profile.

Learning differences have their own trajectory in a student’s career. Families with curious, motivated children can be surprised when those same children struggle in school. Clear identification and articulation of learning differences is the first step to addressing them.  Determining whether a roadblock to reading comes from dyslexia, or attention issues, or executive functioning deficits will lead to action steps. Learning differences are best identified by qualified professionals, who also make recommendations for next steps. With that information in hand, families often pursue two tracks: a) investing in specialized tutoring or services to offset learning differences while also b) defining classroom accommodations that allow children to demonstrate their learning. Over time and through consistent effort, children develop more awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. They can then build the tool box of compensatory strategies that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Although succinct for the benefit of newsletter readers, that description—from identification to remediation and accommodations and ultimately to independence—could make the process of deciphering a learning difference seem very step-by-step. In reality, it is a journey with many fits and starts, with many frustrations and triumphs. It is also an experience that is highly individualized. Children may be identified at an early age or not until high school. Some students have stronger manifestations of learning differences, and progress on building compensatory strategies may be slow. Some students feel comfortable being the only kid in the class who needs a specific accommodation. Other students don’t want to feel singled-out because of their challenges.

All of these factors play a role in school selection.  What percentage of other students at a school has learning differences? Is support available for executive function skills? For language-based learning differences and/or nonverbal learning challenges? To what degree are supports integrated into the classroom? Having a clear articulation of the learning difficulty and developing personal strategies to offset it may lower the level of support a student needs in a secondary school setting. Being able to speak up when needed, without embarrassment is an important indicator of the amount of social support a student may need.

Children always have the potential for dramatic change as they grow. It can be difficult to predict, however, when students with learning differences will reach a breakthrough that will make their school life easier. Knowing this, parents may want to begin a school search early so they understand the range of options available. At the same time, parents need to be open and responsive to the ways students grow and change even in the first six months of eighth grade. As always, we at The Bertram Group are available to help you and your child explore what is best for you.  

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