Is Your Child’s School Student-Centered? A Checklist for School Visits

Whether it’s your neighborhood, district, public, private, or charter school, parents often want to tour a potential school to see firsthand the school environment and culture as a way to inform their decisions. Your children will be going to the school everyday, so checking it out in advance, rather than basing opinions on reputation or what you can find out online, can make you feel more confident about the place where your child spends the bulk of his day. Also, even if you did not visit your child’s school ahead of time, it’s never too late. You can schedule a visit even if your child/children already attend the school.

This checklist is for parents who want to ensure that the school is student-centered. A student-centered classroom and school helps create deeper levels of engagement through a more personalized learning environment and allows for learners to thrive- by putting them in the driver’s seat.

Student-centered approaches, defined by The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, are described in more detail by the following tenets:

  • The learning is personalized.
  • The learning is competency-based (students move forward through demonstration of mastery so they can move at their own pace).
  • The learning happens anytime, anywhere.
  • The learning is based on student interests.

How can you tell if the school you are visiting- or the school your child currently attends- is a student-centered school?

Look for:

  • Students are working at their own stations- choosing where to learn based on what works best for them.
  • Students are working at their own pace– for example, one student may be way further ahead than another student in math. The teacher has classroom management strategies for handling the differentiation.
  • Student work is visible in the classroom and the hallways- and all students are represented.
  • Objectives or lesson plans are visible. Many students are visual learners so the classrooms is organized. It is clear what students are doing and working on.
  • Students are doing the bulk of the work and the talking. (In other words, don’t be afraid of a loud classroom).
  • Students are working on various projects- they are doing hands-on, real work.
  • Students are using technology to learn more about their own interests or to move at their own pace.
  • A mission or vision statement for the school is visible. This should be present and visible somewhere at the school.
  • There is a high degree of student engagement which looks like enthusiasm, excitement, and passion. (If you see a lot of bored students, it’s probably a good idea to ask why).
  • There is a strong sense of school community. The students are helping one another, and respectful and caring towards one another.
  • Adults are talking to each other respectfully and learning from one another. Adults are modeling the ways students behave. If the adults are having fun, connecting, and learning from one another, the students will too.
  • Are the kids having fun? If there’s no joy, there’s no learning.

After doing your observation, you will hopefully have a chance to ask some questions. Here’s a handy list of questions that can guide you to learn more about the school and their student-centered approaches:

  • Parent Involvement. Are you as a parent involved and meeting with the teacher and your child regularly (at minimum, 3- 4 times a year) to discuss your child’s academic and social-emotional growth?
  • Mentorships. Are there opportunities for your child to both be mentored by older students and/or mentor younger students?
  • Real World Learning. How well does the school incorporate the real world and encourage meaningful real world experiences?
  • Community Involvement. Are students involved in clubs and organizations after school that they are passionate about? How does the school help students build connections to one another?
  • Technology. How does the school incorporate technology in order to allow students to learn at their own pace?
  • Student Assessment, Feedback and Growth. Does assessment and feedback go beyond test scores? How does the school ensure that all students are aware of their own strengths and struggles? How does the school talk to students about their strengths and growth areas? How does the school involve parents in those conversations? Is this done in a way that is non-threatening and builds on strengths instead of derailing confidence?
  • Noncognitive Skills. In what ways are students also gaining noncognitive skills at the school- skills, attributes, and habits of mind that go beyond reading, writing, and math?
  • Discipline. How does the school handle discipline? Is there a rush to suspend students or does the school actively teach conflict resolution and restorative justice, so students can learn how to resolve conflicts, own up for their mistakes, and ultimately stay in school.

For an additional school resource, please see Jennifer Miller’s Parents’ Heart and Head Report Card.

It’s so important to be in an open dialogue with school staff about your child and their optimal learning environment, their interests, and their unique ways of learning.


This blog is part of our Smart Parents Series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject “Smart Parents.” For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is a student advocate and former teacher.

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1 Comment

Andrew Frishman


thank you for sharing these insightful tips for parents. I feel that much of what you describe in eloquent text is captured with vivid examples in this short 3 min video/animation -

Also, much of what you describe here reminds me of what occurs in Big Picture Learning schools -

I also appreciated your last "look for" - If students aren't happy, then [recent research shows] that they aren't learning to their full potential -



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