Why We Decided to Homeschool
Most people have been supportive and some were even not surprised when we explained that we were pulling Townes from his private school to home-school him. (My mom said, "FINALLY! I've been hoping you'd do this for years!")
But we have also had some head-scratchers. Especially once they find out that Kate is also being homeschooled. Why the different reaction for each kid? Well. They are very different people with different educational needs.
And while this choice has been life-changing for us, it doesn't mean that it's the right answer for everyone. We all make decisions based on our experience and what we think is best for our kids.
Beyond the fact that Townes has an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, causing him, his classmates, and his teachers stress throughout the day. School just wasn't a good fit for him.
Not Every Child Fits the Public School Formula
Without telling all his business, a little background would help. Townes is considered 'neuro-atypical'. That is the general way to describe some of his learning differences. He's been in therapy since he was 20 months old due to severe verbal delays.
Long story short, we've had him in and out of therapy since he was 20 months old. He's had every evaluation and test out there. But it wasn't until we had a neuro-psychological evaluation that we discovered he is dyslexic, has some language processing disorders, and is "high probability" of being on the autism spectrum (no surprise to us!).
He has strengths and weaknesses, just like we all do. However, he sees the world in a very different way than the rest of us 'neurotypical' people.
He is also highly sensitive and takes in way more information throughout the day than the average person. Because of this, noisy environments and a lot of social interaction drains him. He's like an introvert on steroids!
School required so much of his energy to sit still, focus on the teacher, and navigate social situations, that by the end of the day, he was depleted.
After-school activities were painful and homework was hell. Homework created a negative feeling toward learning and started eroding our relationship with our son. (We were the bad guys making him do homework after he had "worked all day".)
The stress on him and, in turn, our entire family was huge. I hated school about as much as he did. I never loved school as a parent. Managing the paperwork alone left me feeling like the most disorganized person on the planet. I felt overwhelmed. And I wasn't even going to school all day!
Long story short, Townes to school is like a square peg to a round hole. We had incredibly caring and thoughtful teachers, but each year Townes' differences required him to expend more of his energy just to get through the day, never mind really learn anything in-depth.
He is also a hands-on learner. I think most people are, but for him, trying to sit still and listen to someone teach him doesn't work. He has to do to learn. Even if that means figuring it out on his own.
We moved to Denver in the middle of the first quarter of his 3rd grade year of public school. After a few months he started displaying severe anxiety about going to school and creating fantastical reasons as to why he was so different than his classmates.
This was the year when he realized he was not neuro-typical. He said, "Everyone in class is reading chapter books and I can't read the first sentence." It was heartbreaking. He very clearly articulated why school was not the best fit for him. He made case after case, and plea after plea. And we just kept sending him there because surely I couldn't teach him, right?
I mean, he was receiving practically full-time support from specialized professionals at school. How was I qualified to provide him with the same level of service?
Then, he had a meltdown and we were referred to a psychologist who recommended a neuro-psychological examination. This was the report we had been waiting for. The doctor was able to pinpoint Townes' dyslexia and other developmental issues/differences.
The news was a gut punch and a relief at the same time. Our doctor recommended a private school setting for Townes and we were able to get him into a school not 10 minutes away for kids with "learning differences".
Private School Isn't Magic
He spent the next two years at the private school with lots of successes and also some social setbacks. He regained his confidence in his academic abilities and also lost some self-esteem on the playground. But we thought the positives outweighed the negatives.
On day two of this year I received an email from his teacher recounting the multiple meltdowns he had and his struggle to just keep it all together. This was day two. I was devastated.
That night, through tears, I started researching alternatives to school. I just couldn't go through another year of multiple calls and trips to school every week to pick him up in the middle of the school day. He was miserable and we were too.
I thought we could use the money we paid to his private school to hire him some tutors. He does very well one-on-one. I figured we could have a tutor for 4-6 hours/week and spend the other time on playing and exploring.
But after researching that idea, I realized that wasn't realistic. Qualified tutors are most-likely employed full-time during the school year.
I ended up looking deeper into homeschooling and stumbled across unschooling. The thought of facilitating what my children were interested in, in a relaxed homeschooling environment appealed to me more than the idea of working through state-created curriculum and worksheets.
Suddenly, I had a ray of hope.
I spent that night and the next day reading everything I could on unschooling and continued to feel the inspiration and calling to do it. The whole concept sat really well with me.
A United Front
The following night, Joe and I had a date night. We were eating at a new restaurant and I broached the subject with something like, "This week was challenging for Townes and for me. I can't do this another year. I've been doing some research on homeschooling and I think it's something we could do--and we should consider it."
I was nervous because we both felt so good about him at his private school (it was a huge improvement to public school). To my surprise and delight, he replied, "I have been thinking the same thing." !!! I went on to tell him about the unschooling approach and he was as intrigued as I was.
We had all but decided to pull him from school, but we decided to "sleep on it" and do more research.
The next week and a half was rough at school. I was there every other day for a panic attack, or general overwhelm. I knew in my heart this was not the best situation for him. And for the school! His meltdowns were a distraction and happened so frequently, I was worried about the toll it was taking on his classmates. They had genuine concern for him--which can serve as a great lesson for kids, but when it's happening multiple times a week, it becomes a distraction.
Mental Health and a Happy Child
In the end, Townes' mental health far outweighs his need to successfully take a math test. Concepts that are necessary for him to be a successful adult will come in time. Giving him the life skills and space to cope with his day-to-day life is our top priority. We didn't think that forcing him to continue in a situation that was causing him so much distress was healthy.
We spent the next week and a half reading and talking about all of the opportunities and potential unique learning experiences unschooling could provide the kids. It's all about learning through living life--how beautiful is that?
What was Holding us Back?
Joe and I also had to come to terms with our own insecurities and reasons for keeping him at the private school. Was our motivation to keep Townes there a way for us all to feel that he is "normal"? We had to take ourselves out of the equation and truly think about what was best for Townes.
The week before we took him out of school we talked to Townes one-on-one about our plan. We explained that he would be learning about things that interested him and we would be providing him with more resources related to those interests and some hands-on experience.
After a few minutes of us talking about it, he said, "Yes. This sounds just like me." He was very matter of fact about it. He gets it.
An Opportunity for All Kids
We were so inspired by the unschooling approach that we felt that Kate could also benefit from this way of learning. The plan was to have her finish out her fifth grade of school and then "give it a try" for her sixth grade.
She was surprisingly not as gung-ho about the idea at first. She thought it made sense for Townes, but she was fine going to school.
"How will I learn math?" "Who will teach me trigonometry?" To which we replied: "You will learn math in the moment when you need math. And if you have a burning desire to learn trigonometry, we will find a way for you to learn it. But you most likely won't need in-depth trigonometry concepts at any time in your life. And if you do, you'll learn it when you need it. Just like people do in most careers."
Pulling the Plug
The third week of school we pulled the plug on Townes' formal education. I sent a note to his teacher on Monday morning explaining our plan to homeschool him. Oddly enough (funnily enough?), she wrote back and said, "yeah, that sounds like the right plan."
I was surprised--I thought they might try to work with us and/or convince us to try a little longer. Her response only made us feel more right in our decision.
After a few weeks of deschooling with Townes and talking to Kate about our feelings on public schools (the busy work, lack of flexible learning, and no ability to follow curiosities instead of moving on to the next subject) Kate started to become more intrigued at the idea of staying home and learning things she was interested in. Instead of being told what she needed to know, she would be able to explore a subject that she was interested in until she got her fill.
Slowly she started moving her unschooling start date closer and closer. Her last day was on the Friday before Fall Break. It was the end of the first quarter and it felt like a good spot to make a clean break. She was counting down the days and so were we!
We think that most kids would benefit from a child-led approach and have no doubt that Kate will thrive in this environment. I know that not every family has the ability to go this unconventional approach, so I'm grateful that we are able to make it work.
Inspirational Unschooling Resources
Kids have a natural curiosity and love of learning. They have interests and desires all their own and who are we to dictate what they should be learning by a certain date? Children all learn at different paces and to force learning on them takes away from their natural ability to absorb information in their own way--and in their own time.
I am a product of public schools and I can assure you, you'd be appalled at my lack of knowledge in some areas and what I retained in other areas. I can tell you more than you'd ever want to know about photography. Because I have a burning passion for it, I can't get enough of learning more about it.
I take classes on the regular to keep opening my mind up to the full spectrum of everything photography. But keeping up on something like politics, or learning how to sew makes my eyes glaze over!
I'm learning about photography because I have the desire to learn it.
The most life-changing things I read about educating our kids came from John Holt's writings:
"Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won't learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything." --John Holt, Teach Your Own
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." --John Holt
"About reading, children learn something much more difficult than reading without instruction - namely, to speak and understand their native language. I do not think they would or could learn it if they were instructed. I think reading instruction is the enemy of reading. " --John Holt
This last one about reading struck a chord with me. Townes has been labeled 'dyslexic', but even that is a spectrum 'disorder'. Not all dyslexia is the same.
We noticed last summer that sans any tutoring or structured therapy, he began reading more and more. We made sure there was always a stack of books around the house where he could find them and sat back as he picked them up and started perusing them. He would even stop and read us facts about whales or dinosaurs--or whatever caught his attention.
Without the pressure of having to read a three-paragraph passage for homework twice every night, his mind was free to approach reading in his own way. Don't get me wrong, he still struggles when compared to kids his own age, but with the pressure off, we know he will continue to make great strides!
He will read in perfect time.
Nothing is Set in Stone
While we are still deschooling, we have slowly been adding in activities outside of the home. Kate takes three dance classes each week and dabbles in sewing and cooking classes. Townes takes parkour twice a week, chess club, and does some unconventional/play therapy each week.
There is no way our kids could handle these awesome activities if they were in school all day.
We have also started to grow our tribe and find other like-minded families with kids who are also unschooling or homeschooling.
Putting my photography business on hold was the best decision we made and I'm slowly getting my footing with homeschooling.
I can tell you that without a doubt, unschooling saved our son from serious mental health issues, and I shudder to think of the scary road we were on. Our family is the happiest it's ever been. We're relaxed, virtually stress-free, and excited to move forward!
I'm so glad I have the ability to share here on the blog and it will be fun to see how our unschooling journey unfolds over the next couple of years. We will be doing some course correction and tweaking along the way, I'm sure!
Let me know if you have any questions--I'm always up for sharing about our experience, or hearing about yours.