the network for radical unschooling families
Not all homeschooling families start out with the intention to homeschool. Some do, of course—I’ve met lots of parents who knew they would homeschool long before they had school age kids, who came to homeschooling as an extension of their parenting philosophy– but others, like us, had blithely assumed that their kids would happily head off for school at five and spend most their days there until they were, oh, eighteen or so.
I love homelearning, I love unschooling, I’m glad we’re living our lives this way… but this was definitely not Plan A. We started homeschooling because, for us, school just didn’t work out. It wasn’t the right place for our kid.
We’re not alone in that. Over the last couple of years, I’ve met dozens of parents of young kids who have started to homeschool because their kids, for various reasons, were struggling in the classroom. Maybe they were frustrated or unhappy or bored; or maybe they were being bullied; or maybe they were spending more time in the principal’s office than in class… but they were all, in one way or another, not fitting in.
The other thing that many of these families had in common were that their parents were regularly at the school, meeting with teachers, trying to understand and mediate and advocate and somehow make things better for their children. And although none of these kids had been diagnosed, various labels were starting to float around the edges of those conversations with teachers and principals: Attention Deficit Disorder. Hyperactivity. Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Autism Spectrum. Dyslexia. Anxiety. School Refusal. Selective Mutism. And on, and on, and on.
I’m not denying the very real challenges that some kids face– or the fact that a diagnosis can be useful in helping in getting appropriate interventions and support for a child. I’m not suggesting that it is as simple as square pegs and round holes. But, but, but…
It seems to me that the range of what is considered “normal” in the classroom is becoming far, far too narrow. Too many of our kids— too many of the eccentric collectors and the quirky tinkerers, the endlessly energetic kinetic learners, the fiercely strong-willed debaters, the artists and the day-dreamers, the deep-thinkers, the outside-the-box kids—are being told that something is wrong with them. That they need help.
But when we’re talking about five and six and seven year old kids… and the problems are only occurring in the classroom… when the summer holidays are happy and unstressed… when the child is in tears on Sunday night and refusing to get out of bed on Monday morning… and when the number of these kids seems to be steadily increasing to the point of absurdity… surely we should ask what exactly it is that needs to change.
About one in eight boys is diagnosed with ADHD– making it more common than left-handedness or red hair. If teachers’ ratings of their students were used this number would double to closer to one in four. And then we have doctors areprescribing stimulants for kids who don’t even have a ADHD diagnosis, because it improves their school performance. Think about that for a minute… At some point, don’t we have to admit that just maybe it is the school environment, not the kid, that needs to change?
We don’t force kids to sit up at six months or walk at one year just because many are ready to do so—and yet schools are set up with the expectation that all kids can and should learn on same schedule. We may know that some kids are ready to read at two or three, and others at nine or ten or twelve, but we don’t allow for this diversity. What is the effect of being forced to focus on reading or writing before you are developmentally ready? Of spending years learning that you are not good at certain skills? Of being made to sit still at a desk when you need to move? Of having to wait to learn about things that interest you because they don’t appear on the curriculum until middle school?
Is it really surprising that so many kids struggle?
I’ve been fascinated by the stories of parents who’ve left the school system after these kids of struggles. Most of the highly anxious kids I know who have left school to learn at home have had dramatically decreased anxiety. I feel like I’ve finally got my kid back, one parent told me recently.
Many kids who were diagnosed with or being assessed for ADD/ADHD have found that once out of school, medication was no longer needed. They may still have the same traits, but they aren’t such a problem outside the classroom. Peter Grey published some interesting research on this group of kids.
Outside of school, the quirky kids are still quirky but they often find their place in the wider world with far less difficulty than in the classroom. Outside of school, there is room for a little more eccentricity. Kids can find their people (hint: they don’t actually have to be born in the same year as them!) and they can work in their own way, at their own pace. Outside of school, there is time for daydreaming and for running and for spending countless hours learning about elephants or taking apart engines or discussing ethics.
People sometimes ask me (okay, they often ask me) how kids are going to be ready for the Real World if they don’t go to school. But think about the world we live in and work in; that world that doesn’t look anything like a classroom. Are our unschooled kids ready for it?
Of course they are. They’re already living in it.