When Andres, a child on the autism spectrum, was in first grade, he became upset in math class and, in frustration, broke his pencil. “That moment dictated his entire public school experience,” his mother, Anaya J., told Truthout. “He got overwhelmed, broke the pencil, and was quickly labeled as ‘dangerous.'” By the end of that academic year, six-year-old Andres had been suspended four times. The reasons? Refusing to do his work, becoming distracted in class and kicking school personnel when they attempted to physically restrain him.
Anaya says that over the course of that year, she saw her son’s self-esteem plummet and knew that she needed to make a change — and quickly. She made countless phone calls, and after a great deal of bureaucratic wrangling, finally placed Andres in a private school that specialized in educating children with disabilities. “Andres was enrolled in a program that cost $80,000 a year — a fee I couldn’t pay myself,” Anaya said. “I had previously sued the Department of Education (DOE) to force them to pay for his schooling, since the law requires them to do this if they can’t provide an appropriate public school placement for a particular student.”
For more than three years, Andres excelled in this program. Unfortunately, Andres’ education began to unravel when suddenly, without warning, his paraprofessional — or educational assistant — was removed from the classroom. She had been the person who helped Andres stay on track in class and helped him when he became dysregulated. “The process was not transparent,” Anaya says, “so I have no idea why the school did this. I could not get a real answer. The [paraprofessional] was essential to him. She was the stop-gap between him and his teachers. Once DOE pulled her, Andres had no support in school.” And once more, he began to flounder.
This time, Anaya decided to completely withdraw Andres from school and began to homeschool him in September 2017. Together, she and her son are now pursuing “unschooling,” a form of homeschooling that allows the child to determine what he or she will study and when.
Anaya understands that unschooling has countless critics, who question whether unschooled students can acquire the math, reading and research skills — or even the disciplined work ethic — they’ll need as they come of age, but she dismisses these concerns. Andres is thriving, she says. He spends two full days a week in micro schools — small, private, student-directed learning centers — for which she pays out of pocket, one of them run by a woman who is herself on the autism spectrum. Among other things, Anaya says, her now 11-year-old child is learning about himself. “He’s discovering that his behaviors are part of who he is and that he can function despite them,” she said. “Just yesterday, I heard him tell his brothers that he did not want to eat something because it would upset his sensory system. His self-awareness is phenomenal.”
Andres attends a weekly math class and has been to computer coding camp and museum-run art classes. He’s also gone on numerous educational excursions with other homeschoolers. “I’m learning independence,” he said. “I like being able to decide what I want to learn.”
Although Anaya admits that “the concept of free choice can sometimes feel like an abyss to Andres,” she has seen him blossom since leaving school. For example, a few weeks ago, she noticed him watching a video on the scientific method. After viewing it, he decided to do an experiment, mixing yogurt with different fruits to see what color variations would emerge. He then watched a second video, this one on molecular biology, which he followed with a film on Max Planck, a German theoretical physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1918.
Kids who don’t communicate verbally are considered unable to communicate at all.
“It somehow caught his eye,” Anaya, a fact-checker, editor and researcher who works at home, explains. “He spent two-and-a-half hours reading about Planck and learned that his daughter had participated in the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. Andres then wrote a paper, four single-spaced pages, about her work. He really enjoys typing, but on this particular day, one thing led to another, and he ended up learning a great deal about science, history, rebellion and writing.”
Homeschooling Is on the Uptick
Andres is one of approximately 2.2 million US school-aged children, out of a total population of 49 million, who are currently being home- or unschooled. And their numbers are growing.
There are many reasons for this: Some parents choose to home-school/unschool for ideological reasons; for example, to insert a Biblical worldview into their child’s education, without ever enrolling their child in a public or private program. Others, however, are motivated by a desire to avoid relentless testing, rigid curricular demands and the lack of freedom imposed by most public school educators. Still others, like Anaya, remove their kids from school as a last resort, once they conclude that schools are failing them. For these parents, home-schooling is the lesser of numerous evils: They fear what will happen if their child is subjected to repeated in-and-out-of-school suspensions or outright expulsion. Some worry that the bullying, racism, homophobia and/or transphobia that their child has experienced will lead to suicide. For many parents and children, home-schooling/unschooling seems like a rational, responsible choice.
But it’s rarely easy.
In fact, there are as many ways to home- or unschool as there are children. Some parents form co-ops with like-minded families and share the work, whether it’s organizing field trips, coaching sports programs or overseeing other kinds of group activities. Others purchase curricula — there are numerous online courses, curricula and printed materials for sale at rates ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand — and set up quasi-classrooms in which children follow the instructions provided. The public library is typically also utilized.
What’s more, there are few laws dictating what home- or unschoolers are expected to learn or how they should be taught. For example, 39 states have no requirements regarding credentials, so even a parent who is barely literate can be an instructor. Similarly, there is tremendous variation in student monitoring: Some states require home-schooled kids to take an annual proficiency exam or be evaluated by a licensed educator. Others require few evaluations, and 11 require no evaluation whatsoever.
Access to programs that work for nonverbal children are completely class-linked.
Lisa R., a resident of Montgomery County, Maryland, is home-schooling her 10-year-old daughter, Marisa, and is pleased by the accountability demanded from her local education department — a belief that is not always shared by other parents. “We are required to submit the curriculum we use, supplemented by videos of Marisa as she studies, to the county school board twice a year,” she said.
She believes that this is essential to guarantee that real learning is taking place.
“Marisa is a nonverbal communicator,” Lisa says, “and we are very networked with other parents who utilize the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), a communication system that utilizes letter boards and a keyboard to help the person express [themself].” Lisa and her wife came to RPM after both public and private schools made little headway in educating Marisa. They are now part of an educational cooperative, where teachers trained in RPM work one-on-one with the students enrolled; they also follow a clear curriculum with measurable goals and standards. “What’s great is that the curriculum can be tailored to the individual,” Lisa said. Still, she adds, the curriculum covers the same subjects that other fifth-graders are taught.
“I’m not someone who ever expected to home-school my kid,” Lisa said. “But when my wife and I saw how little the schools were actually willing to do for many kids with learning difficulties, we felt we had no choice. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, kids who don’t communicate verbally are considered unable to communicate at all. The schools assume incompetence, as if being nonverbal is a reflection of intelligence. This needs to change.”
Lisa describes what she calls public school “warehousing,” basically babysitting kids rather than teaching them, as if the goal is to spend the least amount of money possible on each child who is enrolled.
Home-schooling, on the other hand, can be pricey. “We pay about $20,000 a year for the co-op Marisa goes to and it maxes us out,” Lisa said. “You need to be fairly affluent and highly educated to even find your way to RPM. The travesty I see is that access to programs that work for nonverbal children are completely class-linked. We’re a two-income household, but educating Marisa is a struggle that has shaped our professional choices. These choices are not available to most people. There’s a huge disparity.”
Financial Sacrifices Demanded
Jan Hunt, director of the Natural Child Project and author of three books on unschooling, explains that unschooling is very different from both regular school and from most varieties of home-schooling, which she agrees can be costly. “Unschooling costs as much or as little as the parents want to spend on resources and activities,” she said.
Hunt became an unschooling adherent after reading John Holt’s 1981 book, Teach Your Own, and meeting local unschooling families. “The best way to learn anything is to explore whatever we’re most interested in at that precise moment,” she said. “Unschoolers learn to trust that the child knows what he or she needs to learn and how to learn it. School makes that approach nearly impossible.”
“Perhaps the best analogy is to a reference librarian, who waits until she knows what the library patron is looking for, and then helps her to find it. No reference librarian tells the patron what to learn, although she may make suggestions once she knows the patron’s interests. In the same way, unschoolers stay alert to their child’s interests as they develop naturally, and help their child to find the resources needed. We don’t direct or teach. We just pay attention.”
Studies, she says, support the efficacy of this approach.
In 2011, psychologists Peter Gray and Gina Riley queried 232 families from 34 US states and several Canadian provinces that had unschooled their kids for at least three years. Their first study focused on parents; a second study, conducted in 2013, queried 75 formerly unschooled students. In the first study, all but three parents voiced strong and enthusiastic support for the method. Seventy percent said that unschooling had taught their children responsibility, self-direction and self-motivation, but noted that social isolation was sometimes a problem. Nonetheless, they concluded that the positives outweighed the negatives.
The later study, which focused on the students themselves, revealed that virtually everyone who had been unschooled — albeit a tiny sample — was personally successful: 78 percent were self-supporting, with 53 percent in business for themselves. The majority worked in the arts as photographers, graphic designers, writers, illustrators, painters, musicians and actors. In addition, 83 percent had pursued a higher education, with half of those completing a Bachelor’s degree.
Learning Emotional Intelligence
In addition to fostering curiosity and intellectual development, unschooling advocates stress the importance of non-academic lessons: For example, they often point to the value of developing emotional intelligence.
Like Anaya and Lisa, Paula T. began home-schooling her now 24-year-old daughter Jana after a host of charter, parochial and public schools deemed her child a behavior management problem. “All kids are unique and no labels are needed, but that’s not what schools do,” Paula said. “I wanted Jana to learn critical thinking skills and know how to help a diabetic grandmother at the end of her life.”
Paula eventually realized that she did not need to place her child in school, that she could plug her daughter into a community band — the home-schoolers band — and programs specifically created by local museums for home-schoolers. “She could also interact with others by playing computer games,” Paula said. “For us, there was no downside to unschooling. But I’m aware of my extreme privilege. I did not have to work outside the home, and was happy to be around my child every day, answer her questions and meet her needs.”
Paula says that she and Jana took advantage of the learning opportunities that constantly presented themselves in their everyday lives, a foundational precept of unschooling. This is not a new philosophy. In fact, until the late 19th century, most people were educated at home; the only organized schools were run by religious bodies and charged a fee, with Massachusetts becoming the first state to impose a compulsory education law in 1852. The idea of a formal classroom — with same-aged children following a standardized curriculum — was challenged by progressive educator John Holt in the 1970s. Less than a decade later, more than 20 states had legalized home-schooling, but it was not because of Holt. Instead, the shift was promulgated by the grassroots organizing of evangelical Christians, who feared secular humanism and wanted their offspring to have no contact with “godless” public schools.
By 1993, home-schooling was legal in all 50 states. Its popularity continues to grow, and its unschooling wing continues to expand. There’s no reason to anticipate this trend reversing, especially as public school budgets and funding for support services continues to diminish.