From the very beginning of our homeschooling journey I have identified as an unschooler. Since that term gets bandied about a lot on the Web, what I mean by that is I have completely trusted in my children’s innate drive to learn, to acquire the skills they need as they live and explore life, with myself playing a supporting role as facilitator and cheerleader.
For the first few years it worked as expected, but as my daughter has gotten older I have begun to notice gaps appearing in her learning. There are certain subjects in which she is significantly lacking in knowledge despite the fact that these are things she encounters as part of daily living. It’s not just that she doesn’t know these things, because that could be easily remedied. It’s that she actively resists learning about them, to the point of getting quite combative if anybody remotely suggests such knowledge or skills might be useful.
I have also noticed over the last couple of years that the variety in her life has diminished to the point where this past year she engaged in very few structured activities outside the home. Instead of the normal increased diversification one expects as children grow and mature, I have seen a significant narrowing of focus and limiting of experience that has caused concern on behalf of myself and my husband.
These issues can be explained by what I have learned about autism over the past eighteen months since I first realized that my kids might be “on the spectrum”, as they say. My daughter has very rigid ideas and points of view, with lots of black and white but virtually no shades of grey. Topics that, for whatever reason, she deems unimportant fall completely off her radar such that she not only fails to focus any attention on them, she will go so far as to actively and vociferously avoid learning anything about them. Such a way of thinking can be a real handicap if the child is allowed to entirely dictate the path of their learning.
Then there is her social anxiety which, like many “Aspies”, was not present during her younger years but developed as a result of years of failed attempts at socializing. She now avoids crowds or groups of any kind which means she refuses to join any clubs, classes, or group activities even when the topic is one she is interested in or even passionate about. Despite having a wonderful homeschooling community around us she is a part of it in name only.
How I got here is a common story among parents whose children have developmental disorders: waiting for her to grow out of it (or into it, as the case may be) and then waking up one day to realize she wasn’t doing either. Instead, things were getting worse. The gaps in her knowledge were growing and her social life was shrinking. It was time to take a critical look at my approach to homelearning.
It has been very hard for me to accept that unschooling is no longer a good fit for our family, let alone the consideration that it may never have been in the first place. But that is where I find myself now. I am not one to dwell on past mistakes and “what-ifs”; I prefer to take the lessons learned and move forward. I most definitely do not think any less of unschooling, and I know it to be a wonderful way to raise confident and motivated learners: I’ve known such children and have watched them grow and thrive over the years. But I think I can say now that when it comes to autistic children it is possibly not the best fit and I’m now convinced that it’s specifically true when it comes to my own children.
This has been a huge mental shift for me and it has taken some time to process it all. In a way it has felt like losing my religion. Like saying good-bye to beliefs that provided me with comfort and security but no longer fit my reality. Or voluntarily leaving a community, albeit largely a virtual one, of which I felt I was an established member and a respected voice. I have even felt as though I have been going through a sort of grieving period.
But after some heartfelt talks with my husband, establishing a new set of goals for homeschooling and approaches to meeting them, I now feel that I have emerged from this process. I am fully embracing the fact that we need to change the way we homeschool, and I’m even excited about it. That is part of why I decided to start a new blog, because it represents a rather significant shift in how I self-identify as a homeschooling parent. The term “unschooling” doesn’t apply anymore. I’m thinking that “eclectic homeschooling” will be a more appropriate description. And in case you are wondering why I feel the need to adopt any particular label it is because there are so many different ways to homeschool that it really helps to have some basic descriptors for the sake of discussion.
So what is eclectic homeschooling and, more to the point, what is that going to look like for our family? Probably the biggest change is that our children are no longer going to have complete autonomy over their learning. My husband and I (but still not the government) are going to decide what we think is important they learn and know. Some of it I will be in charge of presenting in the form of “project time”, which will combine sessions of my choosing with their chosen projects or activities in a regular, scheduled period of “sit-down” time. For other topics we will be enlisting the aid of a specialized tutor/SEA (Special Ed Assistant) who will be working not just on filling gaps in knowledge in a way that is fun and engaging for the kids, but also teaching them life skills along the way. The kids will still have choices, particularly when it comes to how they learn a given topic. But I am going to set and enforce the agenda. I cannot allow their disabilities to cheat them of experiencing life to the fullest. If Nature’s process has been thwarted, it’s up to me to set it right.
My daughter is going to have a harder time with this than my son, who has already learned over the last year of autism therapy that sometimes choices are far more limited than you would like them to be, and sometimes you have to do things even when you are not wildly passionate about it (with autism there are basically two settings: madly enthusiastic or vehemently oppossed!). He is still young enough that gaps in his learning are not apparent. But I intend to avoid having him end up where his sister is now.
There is definitely going to be an adjustment period for all of us, and I am going to need a lot of support to manage it effectively, but that is (in part) what their therapy teams are for. But I also know that once the new normal is established, it will become expected and uncontested, and that’s the part I’m looking forward to. Because, the fact is, I love learning with my kids and being a part of their learning and lately I have felt shut out from that process. So here’s to a new learning year, and an exciting new path for our family!