How To Know If Alternative Education Options Would Benefit Your Teen

Posted on October 27th, 2016

Melissa M

As a product of a traditional public school and a former public school educator myself, I am very quick to say that traditional school works very well for most students. There are, however, certain circumstances where alternative schools might be something to consider for your teen.

The term “alternative school” refers to any educational setting designed with non-traditional teaching practices – a unique learning environment or curriculum that seeks to meet unique learning profiles. In general, this means that alternative schools may have a more individualized approach to learning, focus on experiential or project-based learning, have a low student-teacher ratio, or perhaps evaluate students learning using non-traditional methods.

When students experience academic or cognitive difficulties, schools want to help. If your teen is struggling with any of the below-mentioned issues, your teen’s teachers likely want to partner with you to ensure your teen’s success and well-being. Families tend to pursue unique schools after various interventions in traditional settings have not been successful. The following issues are the most common reasons that families pursue alternative educational placements:

Learning Differences

All individuals have unique learning profiles and preferences. However, distinct learning differences can become problematic over the course of an adolescent’s academic career as they can be difficult to address in large-group, traditional settings. Learning differences and related disorders include (but are not limited to):

  • ADD / ADHD
  • Auditory processing
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyslexia
  • Executive Functioning Deficits
  • Language Processing Disorder
  • Memory Issues
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
  • Visual Perceptual / Visual Motor Deficit

If students struggle with any of the above learning challenges, it doesn’t automatically mean an alternative environment is needed. However, if you notice that your teen has consistent difficulty with the pacing of courses, is continually falling behind, or is experiencing stress, anxiety, excessive frustration, or self-esteem issues in light of their differences, you may want to consider a program with support services designed to meet your teen’s specific learning needs.

Motivation & Engagement

Teens can lose interest in school for a variety of reasons, but in my experience, it is usually because they are bored. The content is either too easy or so difficult that they tune out and disengage. They might not see the merit or real-world application in what they are learning. They may want to explore topics on a deeper level or they may lack a strong rapport with their teacher.

Schools that allow for individualized and strength-based learning are crucial for the students that need their love for learning reignited. Additionally, the connection a student has with his/her teacher is critical to leverage in the classroom.

In smaller alternative schools, particularly 1:1 learning environments, teachers tailor the instruction to meet the individual’s interests and specific learning needs, while keeping them adequately challenged and supported. They often use relationship-based teaching practices so students feel understood, respected and safe asking questions, pushing back and helping co-create the academic journey with their teacher. Students with that level of participation and empowerment in their learning are rarely bored. They often come alive when they realize that they can be successful in school when their specific interests and needs are addressed in the classroom.

Mental Health Challenges

There is no denying that many academic environments can create stress for teens. Whether it is the pressure to succeed, competition with peers, or fear of failure, academic-induced stress can be detrimental to a teen’s self-esteem and confidence during this delicate phase of development. While certain amounts of stress and anxiety are normal, these feelings should not impede your teen’s academic abilities or become a roadblock to general health and well-being. If your teen has a clinical diagnosis or behaviors that may indicate anxiety, depression, OCD, an eating disorder, addictive behaviors and / or suicidal ideation, they may need an alternative school environment in addition to other clinical interventions. After all, when a teen is struggling emotionally, there is very little (if any) learning taking place.

Social Setbacks

We all know that being a teenager is hard. At times, an adolescent’s social experience can be severe enough to warrant a change in environment. If your teen has been the target of bullying or harassment, has begun to associate with the “wrong crowd,” or just hasn’t seemed to fit in, he/she may benefit from a more intimate or inclusive learning environment.

Illness or Injury

Whether suffering from a chronic physical illness or an unexpected injury, it can be difficult for a student to adequately heal while staying up-do-date with the cognitive demands of middle or high school. In addition, the stress, anxiety, or frustration caused by the fear of falling behind (or the reality of doing so) can delay a speedy recovery and getting back on track. In cases where the illness or injury is severe, families often seek short or long-term placements that can provide more flexibility around class scheduling and academic load. Some alternative schools can be very accommodating with schedules including rolling admission where a student can begin classes at any time, various course loads depending on their readiness, or even reduced school days allowing more time for appointments and/or recovery. Some unique schools even have extended business hours ensuring that students are in class at the optimal times when they are cognitively ready to learn.

Homework Woes

For some teens, homework is a non-issue. For others, it can significantly impact academic success, as well as family dynamics. If homework is negatively impacting your relationship with your teen, you may want to consider alternative supports.  At some specialized programs, no homework goes home. Students complete their independent assignments at school before leaving for the day. This means that kids get to be kids when they get home and parents are relieved of the micromanaging and dinner table fights.

Significant Extra-Curricular Pursuits

Some students have their sights set beyond academics and choose to lead rich extra-curricular lives. Competitive athletes, actors, musicians or students that travel heavily may need flexible school schedules to meet the demands of their non-academic pursuits. While many of these students may be candidates for independent study programs, there are also programs that can work around their unique scheduling constraints. At some alternative schools, schedules can be individualized. At these schools everything from the start time, days of school per week, duration of the school year and academic course load can be tailored to meet the needs of the student. This method of flexible scheduling works particularly well for students that have considerable practice schedules during the week or need to devote months at a time to these important activities.

So What Now?

There are numerous alternative schooling options, both public and private, in the Bay Area all with varying missions and goals. As the Head of School of Fusion Los Gatos, an alternative Middle and High School, I have seen all of these benefits first-hand. At Fusion, we use a one-to-one teaching model where the educational experience is customized to ignite a student’s passion for learning. Classes are based on a mastery learning model (students demonstrate their understanding before teachers move on), course material is presented in ways that suit students’ individual interests, strengths and challenges, and homework stays at school – eliminating frustrating homework battles. I encourage families to research the options and connect with trusted professionals for additional resources and ideas.

Sometimes educational placements for students with complex challenges require a deep knowledge of specific issues or perhaps programs outside of the area. When finding alternatives becomes difficult, I encourage families to work with an Educational Consultant. These experts assist families with educational planning regarding placements, as well as treatment options if needed.

I wish you and your teen a smooth road ahead this school year. If you hit any bumps along the way, know there are many people and wonderful programs out there ready and willing to support you.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.