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Transitioning a Family from School to Home Education – Tips from the Rearview Mirror

by Gina Beth Basteri

When I made the decision to remove my daughter from public school, I delved into research mode. Learning all that I could about curricula, educational philosophies, "socialization," standard courses of studies, how to get into college without a diploma, and anything else that came to mind. While there are many articles out there that go over the “hows” of taking a child out of school and where to begin home educating, I had a very hard time finding any that went much beyond the standard “be sure to allow the child to deschool.” And many were written by people who have never actually gone through the process themselves. I am not an expert, but hindsight is priceless. It is my hope that you will find these inside tips helpful to you, as you begin your Home Ed journey.

Decompressing vs. Deschooling

While deschooling of the child is very important, deschooling the parents should really be the first step in the process. When you are raised to believe that only accredited teachers can help someone learn, you have to build yourself up and realize that no one is more qualified than you are to teach your child. Parents need to break away from the thoughts of what “school” looks like and begin to realize that “education” and “schooling” are not one and the same and often, detrimental to the other. Most sources will advise that one month of deschooling is needed for each year a child has been in a school system, however for the parents I would, at the very least, double that amount of time.

I like to think of this process more as a decompressing of the learner within – the learner that generally gets squashed away in order to conform and fit in within classroom settings. Both the parent and child need to be allowed freedom to discover what being educated means to them. What is truly important for your child to know? This is a question that only the parents and the child can answer. Often the answer is very different from one family to another and even from one child to the next within the same family. Children who have been schooled need the chance to remember that learning is fun and begin to enjoy learning again. When you take away rote memorization drills and allow a child to explore what they find interesting, or what is needed to solve a real problem, they rediscover the curiosity and enthusiasm that is frequently suppressed by a system that needs everyone to remember the same information in order to pass the test.

A common misconception that the word deschooling brings to mind is that the child is allowed to just “do nothing” which can make a lot of parents uncomfortable. It is better to think of this time as allowing the family to discover how they learn, what their interests are and what they want their lives to be like. Children should be allowed freedom to discover what interests them and how they best absorb information. Parents can encourage this discovery by providing a multitude of resources, from traditional workbooks, to field trips, to television series, to co-op classes and anything else that might pique their interest in a subject. Learning styles can vary greatly and often a child will enjoy math through hands-on manipulation of blocks, but enjoy reading a great historical fiction series to learn about the Revolutionary War. This time will allow you and your learner a chance to see what fits.

It should also be a time when the child's circadian rhythms are allowed to return to a natural state. Often children who are used to being told what to do with every second of the day, have no idea when they are hungry, thirsty, tired or even need to go to the bathroom. They have become trained to sleep when told, eat when told, and hold “IT” for extended amounts of time when necessary. This causes circadian rhythms to become nearly dormant in a child's body. When given the chance, these natural feelings will return and a child will have control of his or her body again, often leading to children who had discipline and attention issues becoming far more content and attentive. This is a factor that is very often overlooked by behaviorists within a school environment, but has been noted time and again from parents who have removed their children from the system.

Swiss Cheese Knowledge Base

The most frequent question I see on home education forums from parents who are thinking of taking this step is some variation of “What curriculum should I use?” For the person asking, this seems like such a simple question. Surely, my fourth grader in Wyoming should be learning the exact same information as the fourth grader in Dakota. This could not be further from the truth. Not only do different states teach different things at different ages, different counties and even different schools within the same town teach things differently. No matter what standard base is being used, not all fourth graders in any system are going to learn the same information. For most home educators this is even more of a widespread question because they tend to realize the individual needs of each child and therefore can't tell you what curriculum to use without having any idea what type of child would be using it. When you take a child out of a system where one set of principles or standards is being taught, it is not possible to pick up a catalog and order the fourth grade school in a box set because you have no idea if that system is going to be aligned with the previous one.

Another thing that is often not discussed in regard to where to begin is the concept of a “Swiss cheese knowledge base.” Children who have been in schools have often been taught a lot of information in a very disconnected manner because the focus of so many schools is to teach to the test – CAT, FCAT, MCAS, SAT, ACT or whatever acronym your state has chosen to best “measure” output. This causes many children to have blocks of information scattered with all kinds of holes where the information is missing or has not been connected to anything to make it permanent in the child's memory. In order to truly learn something it must be digested and connected with a real world application or situation. This is why so many children learn from movies, activities and games – they are using multiple senses and therefore can more easily retain the information. I highly recommend approaching each topic as though the child has never encountered it before. This allows you to set the pace at which you move through things, skimming through content that seems to be coming easily to the child, focusing on areas of great interest for as long as the child wants, or slowing down and going deeper on something that needs more time to be fully understood.

What About Socialization?

Inevitably the “S” word is always brought up during a transition from a school system to home learning. For families who have been traditionally educated it is hard to fathom how their children could possibly make friends or learn to be productive citizens when they spend every day at home with only their family to interact with. It may be hard for many parents to believe, but although they may not be as “socialized” as their public school counterparts, home educated children are generally more social and outgoing. "Socialization" is manufactured, living and learning is natural.

A very important thing to keep in mind is also this: kids feed off of the fears of their parents so it is important for the parents to assure their children that they are not the only ones on the planet that have made the choice to learn at home. Join online communities and local support groups to connect with other home educators in your area. You may need to put yourselves out there, even if it is outside of your comfort zone. By getting involved with a wide variety of classes, hangouts, park days, co-ops, field trips etc. you widen your chances of finding families with common interests and outlooks. It can be difficult at times for kids to feel connected so try not to feel discouraged if, after your first attempt, you don't meet anyone that your child hits it off with. If you just keep trying you are likely to build friendships that are based more on common interests, than on what class you randomly got placed into. Many families find that their children develop bonds with people in the community – local shop keepers, librarians, museum workers – because the kids have a true and honest interest in obtaining knowledge from experienced adults, rather than textbooks.

Just Live!

Once a family has their feet under them in this new world, they tend to come to the realization that learning and life go hand in hand. You will begin to see that kids absorb information when it is presented in a format that resonates within them. I have heard story upon story of parents being astounded at the wealth of knowledge that flows from their children’s mouths, often on topics the parents themselves know nothing about. When given a chance to follow their own interests, children learn more quickly and deeply than is comprehendible by traditionally schooled parents. The greatest gift given to anyone is life and the chance to just live it!