Touring Schools: Ideal Conditions for Growth and Learning by Anne Simon

Los Angeles private elementary schools have begun their school year.  For parents who are sending their children off to school for the first time (or to a new school) it is a time of hope combined with anxiety. Moms and dads hope that their children will grow and learn as they become happy, well adjusted members of their school community. But, as parents can also be afraid of all the things that come along with the ride. Private school families (and public school parents too) have great expectations and great hopes, and therefore great stress.


It’s a time of year when parents of 3 and 4 year olds who are planning to go the private (independent) school route start to think about where they want their children to be a year from now. There are many questions to address and decisions to make. Tours, coffees, applications, interviews, testing… These are all part of the process that will consume their lives for the next eight months.


I want to take a step back from all the logistics of applying to private schools for a minute and offer some ideas about what parents need to think about as they seek out the best school for their child and family. It is very important to consider these issues in the context of your own family values and circumstances. There is no best answer, best school, or best situation. Each child is unique and each family must decide which school(s) will give that child the best education for him/her and for their family.


I call these ideas Conditions for Growth and Learning. I have tried to distill them from my decades of experience in private/independent schools with different styles and philosophies. This is a rubric to be filled in by parents as they look at the schools. It is hopefully a tool to help determine the best fit for their child and/or family.


They are:

  • Physical and Emotional Safety
  • The Foundation; Challenge and Expectations
  • Setting the Bar Just Right
  • Encouraging Risk Taking
  • Appreciation for the Value of Mistakes and Course Corrections
  • Limit Setting –Padded Walls; and Engagement
  • Being Known and Encouraged to Participate


Look for further embellishment on each of these ideas in the future!



The most basic need that we all have is to feel safe – safe physically and emotionally. This is something that some of us, especially those of us who have lived our lives in relative comfort, take for granted, or at least assume comes with the package of being able to offer opportunities to our children. It is not necessarily so! Sometimes we don’t even recognize that this essential need is absent until we experience some kind of threatening situation. Every child has her/his own unique personality and will grow optimally in an environment that compliments her/him within a foundation of safety. As parents, we spend those first precious years discovering who our children really are and trying to figure out what they need. In choosing a school, it is important to make sure that the environment you are thinking of placing your child into is one that will enfold him/her and offer the security that will allow your child to feel safe enough to attend, explore, and flourish.


There is no “one size fits all” school! Everything about a private elementary school is thought out – its philosophy, mission, structure, and style. These institutions are very intentional. The values of each school flow into the environment and influence every aspect of the school culture. This plays itself out in many ways.


A school that focuses on traditional academic rigor can be intimidating to a student who is has a unique learning style. Intimidation does not allow a child to feel safe to explore and take risks, even ask the questions he/she might need to ask in order to learn. Similarly, a school that focuses on allowing children to choose their own learning experiences all the time might find a student paralyzed by too many choices and not know where to start. This can have an equally damaging result.  There are numerous other examples within this spectrum.


You should assess each school you tour in the context of what you know about your child and your family values. First look at all the written material you can – brochures, websites, reviews, etc. Talk to people you know who have attended the school. When you visit, take a good look at the way the school lives out its mission and philosophy – the tone and style of the school.  Ask yourself if it is an environment that will support and challenge and encourage the development of your child’s best self. If you sense a hint of toxicity for your child, pay attention to it.


The more we know about learning, the more we understand that the first order of business is attention. What makes it possible for a child to attend deeply and engage in the curriculum and the culture of the school? The elements that comprise this ability to attend, and therefore grow and learn, are wrapped up in the nuances of the style, tone and culture of the school as much as it is in the school’s program and curriculum. A sense of safety – security, being known, being cared about – is the basis for any learning that is to take place. Once that benchmark is met, you can look forward to assessing the next condition for growth and learning.


Coming soon:



Anne Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools in Los Angeles. She is the former head of Wildwood Elementary School and the former dean of the Crossroads Middle School. Her daughter, a veterinarian, is a graduate of Crossroads. 

Thank you to everyone who voted for Beyond The Brochure in the Circle of Moms Top 25 Mompreneurs! We are one of the proud winners!  

Thank you! xo Christina, Anne and Porcha

How To Describe Your Child’s "Weaknesses" During LA Private Elementary School Admissions

It is so important to be able to portray your child realistically when speaking with admissions directors you encounter during the private school admissions process. This does not mean that I think it is wise to describe your child’s idiosyncratic behaviors as weaknesses.  It is preferable to let people know that you accept your child – quirks and all. The question is: what do you say about the quirks? What can you say that tells the truth in the most positive way possible?
Some children have issues that fall in the social/emotional arena. Perhaps they are noticeably shy and have a hard time moving into new activities. This can cause parents concern if they think their child will receive some kind of bad mark when they do not jump into an activity during a group play session or assessment. Some children have social challenges – like sharing or taking turns, that can create some disruption. Some are just active – I had one student stand up on the table and start marching during a one on one paper and pencil kindergarten readiness assessment.
There are also children who have already shown signs of cognitive or academic concern. More often this is the case when a child is brought to a private school at an older age, when parents have grown concerned about their child’s progress.
The answers are not clear-cut. I return to a refrain I have used before – be sure to do your homework! It is not a good idea to take a child who is struggling academically and think that applying to a highly competitive academic school will be successful. Make sure that the schools you are applying to offer a program that fits your child. Ask questions openly that will determine this. Then, frame how you speak about your child in a way that does not apologize but accurately describes your concerns. Similarly, if you have an active child, for instance, who does not have a very good attention span, be sure that you explore this issue well in advance of speaking with admissions directors about it. Talk to your preschool director about it. If you have had an evaluation done, or had some counseling from your pediatrician, then you enter the discussion from a place of educated concern, looking for an appropriate solution to the situation. Ultimately, you do not want your child to be somewhere where they cannot be successful. If you are prepared and educated, you can speak about your child’s issue without it reflecting poorly on you or your child. It frames the discussion in a problem-solving way rather than a defensive one.
Using phrases like “observer” rather than “withdrawn”, and referring to “challenges” rather than “weaknesses” may seem trite but are not a bad idea. The goal is to have a positive and real discussion about your child and the school’s ability to provide the best kind of education for that child. If you can keep this in mind, the road getting there becomes a bit smoother.
Anne Simon, Beyond The Brochure co-author, is the former head of Wildwood Elementary School. She is also the former dean of the Crossroads Middle School, where her daughter is a graduate of the high school. 

Don’t miss school event information, guest posts and more! Like Us On  Facebook! 

Do You And Your Spouse/Partner Agree About The Best Type Of L.A. Private Elementary Schools?


Photo courtesy Bing Images

Christina, my wonderful and talented stepdaughter, (sidebar: we are on a mission to recast that word in the positive light that reflects our relationship, and that of many other stepmother-stepdaughter relationships) has written recently about the importance of establishing a family message that can be presented consistently to schools as you journey through the elementary admissions process.


Part of this task is to determine whether you and your spouse are really looking for the same thing in the education of your children. It is remarkably easy to think you see things similarly but when you are up against it, perhaps even at an admissions open house, you discover that there are some significant differences in your perceptions or expectations.


It is generally the case that people are comfortable with what they understand. We have all responded to our own upbringing, either by valuing it and wishing to recreate it for our children, or by questioning our own experience and seeking something different. It is very important to have this conversation at home well before you begin to build your family brand and participate in parent interviews.


It is likely that one of you has taken the lead in gathering the necessary information that will determine what schools you visit and apply to. There is a lot of learning that takes place along the way. One example is that you will discover that the best competitive academic schools have come to realize that ‘hands-on’ learning is appropriate and preferred in many instances at the elementary level. Looking for the classroom where children sit quietly in rows and keep their eyes on the teacher in the front of the room who talks may seem familiar, but it does not mean that the best teaching is going on in that school. Be sure that both you and your spouse have the benefit of this new level of understanding that you have found. There are articles on the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) website that can help with this need to keep current with what is accepted as “Good Practice” in elementary education.


The importance of you and your spouse/partner being on the same page when it comes to interviews at schools cannot be underestimated. Admissions directors can sense any rift, or even minor difference, between you very easily, and that will create concern immediately. So do your homework – both of you, and have the necessary conversations, even if you don’t think you need to. What you discover will either cement your family message or help you determine the issues that need to be resolved before you can move forward as a united front.


In the end, isn’t this just part of what being a family is? I think so!

Anne Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles.