Traditional VS Nontraditional Schools: How to Know Which is Right for Your Child

Before I founded School Without Suffering, I worked with two students who deeply impacted who I am as an educator and what would become SWS’s philosophy.

I was trained as a traditional public school teacher in the philosophy of high expectations and rigorous standards. Those principles, along with urgency, were to be pillars of our teaching practice, and wavering from them at any point would have been deemed a failure.

I bought into this philosophy completely. I saw clearly how urgent work with high expectations and rigor would prepare my students for entering the job market one day, where they would have to compete with others who had worked equally hard for jobs none of us could even imagine yet.

It felt important. It also felt…stressful. And sometimes, it was the helpful kind of stress that keeps you moving forward. But a lot of the time, it was the unhelpful kind that makes you feel overwhelmed and stops you from doing your best. This was true for my students and me.

When I went to Harvard for my Masters in Education, I had the great opportunity and privilege to learn from professors asking deeper questions about school and education: What’s its purpose? Is it just about jobs? Is there anything else to it? Even if it is primarily about preparing our students for their future work, is the way traditional schools are going about it the best to get them ready?

I started to think about how I interacted with students from a different perspective. And then, a few years after graduating, I met “Alex” and “Chris.”

Pecked to Death by Worksheets

By the time I began working with Alex, he had already left the traditional school he’d been attending. He was homeschooling with private tutors while the family searched for non-traditional options that would better suit Alex as a learner.

I was hired as Alex’s private tutor for Math and Science during this time.

Here’s how their mother described the situation: 

“Our son had gotten fairly disaffected with school, where he was frustrated with the slow pace in math and science and felt he was being “pecked to death by worksheets.” We were concerned watching our otherwise bright and inquisitive child wither intellectually. Laura embarked on an intensive course of study in math and science, and the impact was fantastic. We could see his spark start to reignite and his confidence grow with every session.

To get this result with Alex—reigniting the spark for learning and reestablishing the confidence lost to the traditional school grading system—I created a problem-based learning curriculum for our time together.

Alex had become convinced that performing fundamental math calculations like adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and finding the area and perimeter of objects were exceedingly dull. It was also clear that the way that these concepts were taught and assessed in his traditional school, which relied highly on rote memorization and timed quizzes, had left him with quite a bit of math anxiety.

A project-based curriculum, therefore, had multiple benefits for Alex:

  1. He was able to practice (and master) fundamental math skills in contexts he found intensely interesting, such as architecture and (introductory) astrophysics.
  2. Assessment of their mastery was based on the process he undertook to complete his projects and not his output on one quiz or test. So, he felt less pressure and was able to overcome his anxiety enough to learn the math that he needed to.
  3. He learned that he does not find math and science boring at all. He’s quite interested in the subjects!

Our experience together highlighted for Alex that he could still love to learn. He just needed to find a school that would teach him in a nontraditional way that lit his spark.

Letting a Bright Light Shine

A few months after working with Alex, I met “Chris.” At the time, Chris was a high school student nearing the end of ninth grade, and he was getting crushed by the experience. Not because he couldn’t do the work—to the contrary, he was exceedingly bright. Instead, the grind and lack of ability to be creative and time to pursue his interests were stifling his light.

But I didn’t recognize that at first.

When he and his mother first spoke to me about getting support with school without suffering, his mother let me know that there was a possibility of Chris transferring to a democratic school for tenth grade. 

I immediately, and subconsciously, thought to myself,” the best thing to do is stay in the rigorous high school. My job is to make sure that this child gets what they need to stay at this school.”

But over my time working with Chris—getting to know him and equipping him with executive function skills he needed to be successful—I got to see that while he was capable of staying at this high school, he would be much better served by the democratic school.

Like most parents, Chris’s parents had some fears about leaving the traditional school system:

  • Don’t traditional schools do a better job of the college prep essentials such as SATs and AP courses?
  • Don’t traditional schools serve as feeder schools to the best universities and colleges?

The fact is, admissions officers look for characteristics and experiences that make an applicant stand out and contribute something meaningful to the makeup of their first-year classes. And often, non-traditional schools provide precisely that.

As far as whether traditional schools are better at the college prep essentials, the fact is that some are, some aren’t. 

When it comes down to it, your child will do just fine with college admissions provided that you and he pay attention to the basics – does he offer what the college is looking for – and the details – applications turned in on time and complete. 

And of course, there are myriad opportunities outside of the traditional college system that students might prefer to take advantage of.

With all of that and the success and well-being of their child in mind, Chris’s parents agreed with him that they would give the democratic school a try. And he’s thriving there now.

When Traditional School Works

A friend of Chris’s, “Georgia,” joined School Without Suffering at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Georgia attended the same rigorous traditional high school that Chris had.

It was the year of remote-schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many others, Georgia, always an exceptionally bright student, like so many others, did not fare well during online learning. Georgia’s mental health took a turn for the worse in the middle of the Fall semester, but the rigors of school did not let up. The stress of school fed the health issues, and the health issues fueled the school struggles. Georgia ended up taking a medical leave of absence from school for about a month.

The school welcomed her back and had a support program to help her transition back into school from her medical leave. When that program was over, on the recommendation of Chris’s mom, Georgia’s parents reached out to me to help her finish the school year strong.

Having had the experience that I did with Chris, one of the first things I did with Georgia was assess whether the school was the right fit for her.

It turned out that the rigorous traditional school is just where Georgia wants to be. And by teaching her the executive function skills she needed to help her stay on top of her work and regulate her stress, we were able to get her most of the way to being comfortable and performing well again. Working with the school to get a 504 plan in place was the last piece of the puzzle for Georgia, and she is proudly looking forward to graduating from the same rigorous traditional high school this year.

There is No Panacea

It’s vital that I don’t close this post without making it clear that transitioning from a traditional school to a non-traditional school is not a panacea for school struggles.

At about the same time that Georgia came to School Without Suffering, another student who had been in a very similar situation as she had also joined us. This student, “Franklin,” had also taken medical leave for mental health issues during the 2020-2021 school year. Franklin, however, did not attend a traditional high school. In fact, his school didn’t even give grades.

The school uses an inquiry-based curriculum, and instead of taking tests and quizzes, students create projects that answer essential questions. These projects are scored along a continuum that reflects their progress toward meeting mastery standards. Students revise their projects based on teacher feedback until they meet the standards.

This school structure and philosophy was a much better fit for Franklin than the traditional system. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t still have challenges and didn’t still need support.

He responded extremely well to coaching from School Without Suffering, where he strengthened executive function weaknesses that were holding him back from success and received the academic support he needed to graduate.

So what does this mean for your child? If you’re considering whether to stick with the traditional system or make a change, here are some steps to take:

  • Make sure your child has the support—emotional and academic—that they need where they currently are. 
  • If you can get this support in place while they are in their current school, consider giving them some time to see how things go there with the extra support. 
  • Give them the opportunity to talk with you about how things are going and really hear them out. 
  • Before making a decision, visit both traditional and non-traditional schools. Ask questions. Compare schools. Then decide which approach works best for your child and you.

And of course, know that you don’t have to make this decision alone! Comment below with any questions you may have. We’re more than happy to help!

Laura Fragomeni

Founder & Principal Academic Coach

Laura Fragomeni, Ed.M.


Laura Fragomeni is a Harvard-educated master academic coach and the founder of School Without Suffering, an academic coaching practice specializing in helping struggling students around the world be happy and successful.


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