Transitioning to High School (Part 2 of 2)


In my last post I described the rocky start we’ve been having as my daughter transitions to a “real” high school. It was her idea, and it is part of the larger goals she has set for herself, but her anxiety has been worse than expected. She’d had a good week previously, and I thought we were over the worst of it, but then this past week her anxiety resurfaced. It was terribly discouraging and she was beginning to doubt that she could get through this. I was worried for her: worried that if she quit she would never forgive herself, that she would lose confidence, and that it would take years for her to try again. I knew in my heart that she was ready for this step, I just had to figure out where the anxiety was coming from. So I thought about what had transpired over the last couple of weeks.

The week before had been great, but it was also rather unique. It marked the start of a new semester, a week where the school comes together for team-building exercises and lectures on basic skills (e.g., inquiry, logic, rhetoric); there are no formal classes. Each day began with a morning ritual that included a drumming circle (which she enjoyed) followed by a series of games and exercises that she found easy and fun. Importantly, the week had a predictable routine and required little from her in terms of knowing where to be next or what she should be doing because the whole school participated in the exercises together. The rules and expectations were new to everyone and clearly laid out to the group for each activity. And although she came home pleasantly exhausted, she made it through each 4-hour half-day without any trouble.

The following week, classes began. She had Mondays off, and on Tuesday she left after the first class, but she seemed mostly okay, just a bit confused (see below) and tired. On Wednesday she asked me to come get her after the first class, and she broke down as soon as she got in the car. She was terribly upset, and she refused to go back the next day. The next night she told me she didn’t want to go Friday either. I’m afraid I tried pushing her (gah! I know better than that – it never works!!) as my own feelings of worry and anxiety overcame me, which of course was the wrong move (pro tip: increasing anxiety in someone who is already anxious does NOT help!). She broke down and started saying maybe she had made a mistake, maybe she was not ready for this. That got me really worried so (after I apologized) I went to bed and thought long and hard about the situation. By the next morning my thoughts began to settle on a coherent explanation for what was going on.


I know from years of dealing with my son (who has more severe autism than his sister) that one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety is through routine and predictability.  When faced with a new situation, we engage in a process our therapist calls “front-loading”. We let our son know exactly what he can expect, which helps ease the transition to the new activity or environment. I realized that my daughter was not getting any front-loading. It’s tricky because the things you explain in the front-loading process are usually so “obvious” to neurotypical people that it can be difficult to even identify them. I thought about her first week, and how front-loading might have helped.

Her first class on Tuesday was Math. She came home not even knowing if she had been in the right classroom (and was too embarrassed to ask). She told me later she felt “stupid” because she was certain that she was far behind everybody else, which she based on the fact that everybody else seemed to “know what they were doing”. She felt utterly lost, but nobody knew it because she is so good at hiding her feelings in front of strangers (a typical trait of Aspie girls).

The next day was science class, which she was so looking forward to, but which turned out to be a review of lab safety procedures followed by a pantomime exercise which she didn’t understand. To make it so much worse, she became convinced that she had embarrassed herself in front of everybody. After that was lunch, which she had been excited about because she and her new friend were going to walk to the nearby convenience store. But she got so worked up about “making a fool of herself in class” (which I am quite certain she did not do) that she was “too terrified” to enjoy the outing (interpretation: she was a wreck thinking about how she had embarrassed herself in front of everyone).



After lunch was teacher-supported study block, but when one of the kids told her that it was a time to work on projects, she got anxious because she didn’t have a project, and the idea of sitting through an hour of not-knowing-what-to-do was just too much for her. By then she had reached the breaking point and needed to come home.

In reviewing all this (most of which I didn’t know until she told me Thursday night) I could see the perfect storm that led to her anxiety overload. My suspicions were confirmed when I met with the math teacher the next morning. I learned that because math class involves kids at different grade levels and abilities, each child works on their own curriculum. The teacher goes around to the kids helping them with their workbooks and sometimes gives talks about new concepts if a group of them are working on that. I can see why my daughter was confused about whether she was in the right place, because she was expecting a teacher standing up in front of the class lecturing. Also, the teacher had given her a workbook but she didn’t understand what to do with it, and she felt too “stupid” to ask.

No wonder she felt so lost, confused, and insecure. Had all of this been explained to her ahead of time she would have known what to expect and what to do, and that would have greatly eased her anxiety. For the science class, if she had known ahead of time she could have thought about the pantomime, I could have helped her understand what the purpose was (they were supposed to act out what not to do in the lab; it was supposed to be funny), she could have rehearsed her bit, or practiced how to politely decline.

I began to mentally berate myself: how could I forget how important it is for my kids to be front-loaded? It’s the curse of her being so high-functioning, and so capable of masking her true feelings when out socially. But I was now certain that the key to reducing her anxiety was for her to know what to expect ahead of time to a much greater level of detail than was being provided up to this point. She had to feel competent and capable, and that meant knowing what to expect and knowing how to prepare for it.

The plan I came up with was to work with her at home before each class in order to ensure she was prepared for the day. And we would also review the materials after each class so she understood what was required of her. 


To pitch the idea to her, I framed it in the context of University (which she is excited about attending one day). I explained how at University (particularly in the early years of huge class sizes) you don’t really go to class to learn the material. You go to class to get the material. Then you take home your notes and handouts and you review it (i.e., you study the material). If you have questions, you book an appointment with the professor. And the really successful kids find out what the next lecture will be about, and they study the subject beforehand. So I suggested to her that we create those same habits at home. It would help ease her anxiety, and as a bonus it would help her develop good study habits.

When I told her my idea, she responded positively. Although the night before she had told me she didn’t want to go to school, she agreed to come that day for French class while I met with her math teacher to begin our new plan.

She had a great time! None of the kids have had much French (the school has been doing German as their second language for the last few years) and so she is not behind at all. The format was simple: the class reviewed words and phrases together, repeated them following an audio prompt, and they got a list of all the words and definitions. She told me that she was glad she’d gone to school, that she really liked the class, and she was invited to a get-together by her new friend and another girl! The class has a pretty straightforward format, she was able to follow along without any trouble, and she is not feeling anxious about going to the next French class on Monday (yay!). We are going to review her homework tomorrow (making flash cards using the words they learned that day – she is excited about illustrating her cards!), so that she comes prepared and confident.


For science, I’ve emailed her teacher to find out what subject will be covered next class. She and I will review the topic at home so that she has a basic understanding of the context when she arrives at class. This will help her feel less anxious and insecure. After class, she and I will review the material that was covered, research anything she doesn’t understand, and prepare for the next class.

As for Math, I brought home her workbook and explained what I’d learned at my meeting with her teacher. I could see how relieved she was when I explained the format of the class, and she was rather excited by the fact that she had her own workbook. She has the choice to work on it at home with me, or go to class and work on it there. Right now she wants to work at home, which is fine. We will go through it together until she feels more confident, and then she can attend math class at school. If she wants help with something, she can go to a math class or to the teacher-supported study block.

We are both feeling optimistic about this plan. This week she will attend for French and Science and work on her math at home. It’s only one (2-hour) class a day, four days a week, but after her big setback this past week it’s important to proceed slowly. I’m feeling confident that this new plan will go a long way to easing her anxiety levels. I promise I will keep you posted (thanks for all the lovely messages of support!), but for now both her and I are feeling very hopeful!


Categories: autism, Education, learning, Miss Em | 4 Comments

Transitioning to High School (Part 1 of 2)


In my last post I explained that my daughter, Miss Em, has begun attending a “real” school. We found a lovely little private school that seemed the perfect fit for her, and a great place to move forward with her social and academic development. Unfortunately, neither her nor I anticipated just what a huge change this would be for her, and it ended up triggering her anxiety to levels we haven’t seen in a long time.

Our whole family was excited about her first day, and so was she. But only a couple hours into it she begged me to come pick her up. She was having a huge anxiety attack and was terrified of having a meltdown in front of all these strangers.

The next morning I met with the teacher support person who helps students both academically and with their social/emotional needs. Although Em took to her immediately and her presence was comforting, Em continued to suffer from anxiety. It was hard for her to put into words what the problem was, so it was hard for the rest of us (me and her teachers) to figure out how best to support her. I was blown away by the concern and desire to help that was expressed by the staff: I could not have asked for a kinder, more supportive environment for her.

For her part, Em remained positive and determined. She knew that the first little while would be tough, and she knew that eventually she would get to know the other students and teachers. She looked forward to feeling part of a family, as she had at her previous program. Still, she was struggling to make it through one class per day.

Last week was the start of the new semester, and they begin with a week of team-building and group exercises. She had a great week, and I honestly thought the worst was behind us. She even made friends with a girl who loves to draw. I really thought that was the final turning point, and from there on in, we would have smooth sailing. The following week (this past week) the new coursework began, and we were both feeling positive about it.

So it was with dismay that I found myself once again responding to a text message asking me to come and take her home. As soon as she got into the car she burst into tears, saying how hard this was, how she was beginning to doubt herself, etc. My heart ached for my daughter, and I recalled with sadness all the struggles she has faced in her short life.


I lay awake for a long time that night, thinking about the problem and what we could do to help her. I recalled the words she had said to me in anguish: how she felt so lost, how she felt she must be much less intelligent than these other kids, how she dreaded going to sleep at night because it would bring another day that much closer. Even though my own life was currently worry free, my heart was suffering for her.

But then early the next morning, as I was slowly waking up, I had a lightbulb moment. I felt I had finally figured out what the problems were and – most importantly – I came up with a solution.

Continued next post…




Categories: autism, Education, learning, Miss Em | 2 Comments

Big Changes for my Big Girl


A couple of weeks ago my 14-year old daughter, Miss Em (who has Asperger’s Syndrome), started attending school for the very first time since preschool.

For the past two years she has been attending a local learning centre for kids with autism and related challenges, as part of her overall homeschooling program. This provided a safe environment in which she could practice her social skills, improve her focus and attention skills, and build enough stamina to get through a full day of activities. And she did very well. As of last fall she was attending 4 days per week. She was excelling academically and socially but…she was starting to get bored. She wanted to dive deeper into her school subjects, engage with a mentor, and she was also starting to look ahead to her goals beyond school: University is definitely in her plans. She also wanted to expand her social horizons beyond the small group at the learning centre, and see how she fared in a more neurotypical crowd.

For all these reasons, she decided to give high school a try. I knew that a regular public school would be too much for her: way too many kids, not enough personal interaction with mentors, and I knew from hearing other families’ tales of woe that our local public schools fail pretty miserably when it comes to supporting special needs kids. Not to mention the social environment in a large high school can be positively toxic, especially for a child who struggles with social interactions.



Alternatively, we have several elite private schools here, and although I was sure that the hefty tuition fees we’d be paying would net us some serious special ed support, their academic schedules are very intensive and the kids are carrying the weight of some very big expectations placed on their shoulders by the adults around them. I didn’t think my daughter would do well in such a high pressure environment.

Fortunately, there was one little private school I’d discovered a few years ago that happens to be within a 5 minute drive of our house. I had thought back then that if she ever wanted to go to school, this might be a good place to start. We toured the school just before the Christmas holidays and fell in love. It’s a small building, and there are only about 30 students in the whole school (grades 9 – 12). There are 4 teachers, and classes are either split in two (Grade 9/10 and Grade 11/12) or done with the whole school. So you can imagine that the teachers develop close relationships with the students, and the students with each other. I’ve found through my experiences with homeschooling that bullying is far less likely to take place in small groups with lots of adults around, and in multi-age groups.  

We received a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and they were happy to consider accepting my daughter on a part-time basis. As a bonus, our homeschool program is paying the tuition fees! She was due to start right after the Christmas holidays, and there was a great deal of excitement in our family as that time approached. The plan was for her to attend 4 days/week for half-days at first, moving to full days in a week or two. They were just finishing up the first semester, so this would be perfect timing.



However, it turns out that neither my daughter nor myself anticipated what a huge change this would be for her. It’s not just dealing with the social situation – being a stranger in a crowd of unfamiliar faces, worrying about every word she says in case she embarrasses herself, etc…


But I didn’t stop to think about all the things she wouldn’t know by virtue of having never gone to school. Little things like transitioning between classes, how to distinguish handouts from assignments or homework. How to organize materials from different classes, what to do during class (take notes? Just sit and listen?), what to do on a break (stay in the classroom? Go outside?), etc. We had a steep learning curve ahead of us.


To be continued…

Categories: Education, learning, Miss Em | 1 Comment

What exactly is a Learning Centre, anyway?


In my last post, I talked about the new learning centre that Mr. Boo is attending. Some people might be confused about how a learning centre fits in with the concept of homeschooling, so I thought it might be helpful to discuss the role of learning centres in homeschooling.

Families who choose homeschooling are usually dissatisfied with the school system, and often try to avoid duplicating the classroom environment. However, as local homeschooling communities grow, they soon realize that having a place you can go – to hang out, learn together, do crafting or chemistry experiments, or listen to a local expert do a show and tell about something interesting – can be very handy. In my years of homeschooling I’ve been involved in several attempts to find such a place, and it can be challenging.

The facility needs to be available during the day, child friendly and preferably baby-proof since the families attending have kids of all ages, have tables and chairs that can be set up as needed, a kitchenette is very handy, and storage is an often overlooked need. It gets really tedious to cart bins of projects and supplies back and forth, and families have to shuffle them around when they can’t attend due to illness or whatever.

If someone has a suitable home, with enough room for everybody, that is a possible solution. But it puts a lot of pressure on the host family, and if they are ill or otherwise unavailable it can mean a cancelled day.

The next step up is to find a community space, but as anyone who has been involved in a non-profit organization knows, such spaces are usually costly. Parents may chip in for the cost, or if the families belong to the same funded homeschooling program (here in BC they are called Distributed Learning programs), that program may provide some funding for the space. Our DL program supported our community in setting up such a space a couple of years ago, but it lasted only one year due to rising rental and insurance costs for the facility, lack of other options in our area, and changes to the DL funding policies. It also required a huge amount of work on the part of the parents involved, and ultimately it folded.



Another challenge for homeschoolers often occurs when the children reach adolescence. While the younger set is happy to participate in family-oriented get togethers with children of all ages, the older kids like to be around other kids closer in age to themselves, with activities that are geared toward their interests. They also love a bit of independence thrown in, such as the ability to go across the street to a coffee shop to grab some pastries! We had a great teen group in our area that met in the centre of a small town where the kids could walk to nearby shops; the space was comfy and had a kitchen and was a great hang out for the parents and kids. Sadly, we lost the space and some of the families “aged out” and it hasn’t been put back together just yet.

The next step beyond a parent-organized space is a learning centre that is run by an organization. Such a centre might best be described a small private school that is geared towards homeschoolers, who generally only want part time programs, perhaps one or two days a week at the most, and who are not looking for school-style academic instruction, but support and facilitation for project-based and learner-directed learning. We are very fortunate in our area to have a number of such centres sprouting up here. They offer a wide range of programs, workshops, and activities for homeschooling families. Some require enrolment on a term-by-term basis whereas others operate on a drop-in basis. Some invite entire families to participate, while others provide full child supervision and parents can just drop the kids off and go.




Finally, there is the issue of homelearners with special needs. The incidence of autism is such that learning centres and special schools for kids with autism are popping up all over the place, it seems. There are two such schools in our area, though they are both a long commute away for us. Also, when I last enquired, they did not allow part-time attendance, which rules them out as desirable options for many homeschooling families. Because families in BC with children on the autism spectrum are eligible for funding from various sources, such programs are usually set up to accept direct funding from those sources.

The distinction between “learning centre” and “small private school” can get a bit blurry. I use the term “school” to refer to a program that runs 4 or 5 days a week, enrols children on a term or semester basis, is not set up for whole families to participate, and has a program of learning and activities that is set up by the administrators and in which full participation is generally required in order to attend. I use the term “learning centre” to refer to a facility that is set up for families to come together with children of all ages for activities related to learning, or a more school-like situation that is only available on a part-time basis (once or twice a week).

In summary, every learning centre is different. They range from programs designed and executed entirely by the parents for no other reason than they wanted to make it happen, to government-funded programs run by organizations that offer alternative educational opportunities. Learning centres can be a valuable way for local homeschoolers to come together and connect, to learn together and grow as a community. They can also provide support for homeschooling parents who are finding it difficult to keep up with their kids’ growing interests, or who need respite for whatever reason.


Categories: Education, Homeschooling, rethinking education | 1 Comment

Growing His World


Over the years that we have been homeschooling, I have tried taking Mr. Boo to any number of classes, activities, clubs, and field trip groups and we have always ended up dropping out. Gymnastics, swimming lessons, kung fu, clay, therapeutic riding, young naturalists’ club…you name it, we’ve probably tried it, and the pattern goes a little something like this.

“Hey, Mr. Boo, do you think you would like to do [insert activity here]?”

“Yeah, that would be awesome!”

At the first lesson or outing, he would be all excited and enthusiastic. By the third lesson he’d be lukewarm, by the fifth or sixth lesson we’d have constant battles just to get him out the door, and his behaviour would become really disruptive for the rest of the class/group. Eventually the stress of it all would get too much for us and we’d quit. I kept thinking that time and maturity would solve these issues, but the pattern just kept repeating.

Two years ago he started attending an after-school program for kids with autism at a local centre for people with disabilities. The staff there are amazing. When his behaviour became a problem, they saw it as an opportunity to learn how to better support him. He was always accepted, never judged, and always supported. Eventually we made it past the “I hate it” stage, and the battles to get out the door, and he began to enjoy going there. He made friends, and now he looks forward to seeing them each week.

He goes twice a week for 3 hours each time. They often go to the park or some local venue, and on days when the kids get out of school early for teacher training, they take field trips to fun places like the indoor playground in the neighbouring “big city”. I used to take my kids there and places like it when they were younger, and it was always a very stressful experience for me. I had to stick so close to Mr. Boo, when what I really wanted was to sit with all the other mums and socialize. Plus, when Mr. Boo inevitably would shove some kid down a slide or whatever, it was extremely stressful for me (I am a very non-confrontational person) and I often ended up in tears dragging my crying child to the car. With the after-school program, he got to have a blast at one of his favourite places and I didn’t have to deal with the stress (the staff, not being as emotionally involved as a parent, deal with this stuff as part of their job and handle it well).

With the success of the after-school program, I felt he was ready to expand his horizons a bit more, get out in the world more, but I was stumped. I felt like we had tried and tried and nothing seemed to work for him, and I was tired of the struggles and battles. It was slowly dawning on me that perhaps I was in over my head when it came to giving him “more”. Project-based homeschooling is great, and we’ve all got this life-at-home thing down pat; it’s relatively peaceful at home for the most part (given that we have two kids on the spectrum). But it has seemed clear lately that he is ready for more, perhaps even eager for it without knowing exactly what “it” is. It’s that parental instinct that tells you it’s time to move to the next level, that your kid is ready. But I didn’t know what that would look like, or how to do it.

The answer came in the form of a new learning centre in our area for kids with autism, which I learned about through one of my facebook groups. While they offer 5 full days a week, families have the option of attending as few as 2 days a week, which is about as much as we felt Mr. Boo could handle right now (and honestly, 5 days a week is just too much time away from the family for our liking). Turns out the lady running the program is a registered provider with our homeschool program’s special ed division and I was able to get feedback from other families in the program – it was all promising.

So last week, Hubby and I toured the learning centre and met the head instructor, a behavioural therapist with a resume a mile long. While her extensive years of work with kids and adults with disabilities was impressive, Hubby and I were much more impressed with the answers she gave to our questions and what we saw of how the program was run. It was apparent that this lady understood these kids and their needs as well as us parents do (and, in some ways, probably better). When I confided in her that our son can become physically aggressive when he is driven past his coping point, she confided to me that every child in the program had come with that same note on their file, and not once had they had any incidences of violent behaviours. She emphasized that their days are designed to give the kids plenty of breaks and opportunities to recharge (they have a sensory room, for example), so that each child meets their full potential. With only six kids in the program, and an assistant or therapist there each day with the head instructor, you can’t beat the adult:child ratio, and we loved that it was a small group.

For those of you not familiar with a learning centre and/or who may be wondering how that fits into homeschooling or unschooling, I plan to write a post on that topic soon. In short, this one is essentially a very small private school for homeschoolers, paid for with our autism funding. The educational philosophy is very consistent with our own – the kids do their academic work through project-based learning, in which the kids direct the project and participate to the full extent of their abilities. Some examples of current projects are: expanding the treehouse in the forest play area with the assistance of a licensed carpenter; converting a garden shed to a chicken coop, building a run, and raising layer chicks (the learning centre is on a 5-acre property); and putting on a play.

Hubby and I left the tour full of joy and excitement at the wonderful new world that is about to open up for our son. He had his first day this week and it went very well – he made friends, he participated in the group discussions and activities, he played, and he even made it through the afternoon martial arts class (they do a different class each afternoon: swimming, skating, and music are also offered). He is excited about going back tomorrow, and we are thrilled about all the new experiences that await him.

I do expect that there may be a transitional period where he decides he wants to quit, where we will struggle to get him out the door, and where he may try the patience of everyone around him. I am determined to make it through! But my gut tells me that it might just go differently this time. The instructor said the children are very supportive of one another, and Mr. Boo is now at an age where he forms meaningful friendships with other kids – perhaps enough to keep him motivated to stick with the group through the tougher parts of adjusting to new routines and expectations.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of our decision to enroll him in the learning centre, and what that means for us, or says about us, as homeschoolers. I don’t think these things are incompatible at all, and I’ll expand on that in my next post. But I’m also coming to accept that I need help and there is nothing wrong with admitting it. Raising a child with autism is no easy task (that’s a subject for yet another post!), and homeschooling such a child presents its own challenges. I’m responsible not just for making sure he is in an environment that is conducive to learning, but also for making sure that he has real world experiences. This is relatively easy for most homeschoolers: the number of activities, classes, clubs, and field trip offerings in our small community alone are impressive, and as homeschooling grows so do the myriad choices and opportunities for homeschooling families. But for me and my son, such opportunities come with particular challenges and I am ready and willing to admit that I am not always cut out for them.

I have much more to say about all of this, but for now I’m going to end by saying that my mama heart is very full this week. I’m so excited for Mr. Boo and all that awaits him. I feel blessed that we have found such good people to bring into his life, and that he is about to be part of something really special.


bring it on

Categories: autism, Education, Mr Boo | 2 Comments

My Radical Idea : Let’s Get Rid of High School


Various ideas that have been floating around in my head over the past years came together recently in a rather dramatic “Ah-HA!” moment. It was like a mental vortex that was initially moving rather slowly, as a sluggish whirlpool, but then built up momentum until, in one moment of brilliant inspiration, it coalesced like a Big Bang into an idea that got me really excited.

This plan is based on several key ideas that I’ve been pondering for some time. First idea: mentorship. How much better it is to learn by doing then to be told how to do it. Second idea: adolescence. An artificial age construct that arose from the systematic infantalization of our youth; we keep them out of the adult world at a time when biology drives them to take on adult responsibilities and we wonder why they end up creating cultures of their own whose values sometimes clash with the adult world. Third idea: entrepreneurship. Peter Thiel offers a scholarship to college students that pays them to drop out and start a business. His premise is that you get a far better education by starting up, and even failing, a few businesses over the course of a typical college education than you do going into debt for a degree. Fourth idea: the propaganda fed to parents and students that college is the only route to success. This combines with the Fifth idea, which is that university degrees are rapidly losing their value and we should stop using them as a tickets to a job.

All these ideas came together one morning while I was lying in bed, thinking about my daughter who, at age 11, is getting close to that time when she will need to start thinking about what direction to follow in terms of her working life. Given that she doesn’t go to school, she has plenty of time to start her own business, do an internship or two, attend some non-credit college courses, or mentor under somebody she admires in a field of interest to her. I thought about all the poor schmucks in high school who have to wait until graduation to fully enjoy such experiences (and then figure out how to support themselves while doing so), and I suddenly wondered what would happen if we just got rid of high school altogether and, instead, replaced it with real experiences at real jobs. Here is what I came up with:


For the first 12 – 13 years a child would be educated in a child-led learning environment whose main goal is to allow children the intellectual freedom to discover their passions and interests, what Sir Ken Robinson referred to as The Element.

Around the age of 12-13, kids would leave this learning environment and be assigned an unpaid internship at a real business in their community. At first, they might work 3 hours a day, four or five days a week, leaving them plenty of time for extracurricular activities and, later, part-time paid employment. As the kids got older they would work longer hours until, by the time they reached 18 or so, they would be working full time.

Employers would receive significant government incentives to hire such interns (from all the money we’ve saved by not having high schools anymore), and because interns are unpaid, their costs to the employer are virtually nil. When I think of my own smallish community of about 5,000 in town and 30,000 in the surrounding area, I can list dozens of  business and industries right off the top of my head: libraries, fish farms, logging and forestry, pulp mills, lawyers, doctors, dentists, city council, civic and mechanical engineering, hair salon and spa, bakery, restaurant, farmers, dog trainers, horse trainers, couriers, bookstores, health and fitness, grocery stores, software development, tech support, pharmacists, car mechanics, butcher, well and irrigation specialists, landscapers, house cleaning businesses, livestock hauling, construction and trades (plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, painters)….the list goes on. And lest you think the idea of an internship in a hair salon or gas station, for example, means just training a kid to cut hair or pump gas, think bigger: learning to run a small business (keeping the books, ordering supplies, calculating costs and profits, managing employees, etc.).

As part of the requirements for employers to get their government incentives, the interns would have to be in training, not gophers who are taken advantage of to do the tasks that nobody else wants to do. This is where the Career Consultant comes in.

Each child (intern) would be assigned a Career Consultant (CC), paid for by government using money formerly allotted to high school education. Each career consultant would handle only a few interns so that they could retain a personal relationship with each one. Their job is to be the intern’s advocate. They check in with the student weekly or bi-monthly, serve as a liaison between intern and employer, ensure that these unpaid interns are not being taken advantage of by employers, guide the intern toward the areas of work that interest him/her, and generally follow along with the student through the next five or six years until they complete the program. Ideally, the CC stays with one student throughout the course of the program to really personalize each child’s experience. This can all be done through electronic communication with some site visits. With the guidance of their CC, kids can figure out what jobs appeal to them and then focus on internships in that industry to gain job-specific skills and experience. And, of course, to network and build relationships, which are oh-so-important for getting a paid job.


An intern can request placement in a particular job if they already have an idea of what they want to do, but kids who don’t know what they’d like to do would be assigned an  internship somewhere in the community by the CC, based on the CC’s knowledge of the intern (through a thorough interview process and get-to-know-you period that, ideally, starts in the last months before entering the internship program). There would be a minimum time commitment of, say, 3 months before an intern can request a transfer, and internships would end after 6 months. If the intern liked the position they could stay as long as they wanted or maybe be moved to a different employer in the same field (my concern would be ensuring equal opportunity for all students to try out all fields). If the employer wasn’t happy with the intern’s performance, and if the CC could not help resolve this issue, the employer would have the right to terminate the internship and the intern would be placed elsewhere. If certain internships are really popular and can’t take on all the kids who want to work there, shorter terms and rotations could be arranged, but consider that employers can take on as many interns as they have employees to mentor them, so hopefully this wouldn’t be a huge issue. 

There is no competition for placement. You cannot get it based on grades, or marks assigned by employers, or by collecting any form of “currency” that gives you an advantage over other students. The intern’s performance is shared only with the CC and not with any other employers. This serves many functions. First, the current climate of high school students following gruelling schedules of work, school, and volunteer time simply to qualify for college entry is ruining their lives. In my day, I had a B+ average and plenty of time for a life outside high school, and I got into university with no problem. Today’s kids are  overscheduled and stressed-out because their entire life is geared towards beating out the thousands of other kids all competing for the same few spots in college. That is no way to live, and the minimum standards for college entry bear no correlation with the ability to be successful in college (and life beyond) anyway. Second, it keeps the playing field even, especially for kids in lower socioeconomic groups. Third, it allows kids to make mistakes and not be penalized by them for life. It may take some kids a while to learn good work ethics, or to figure out why they are not performing to the employer’s standards. The CC’s job is to help them with this and get them into another internship so they can try again with a fresh clean slate. In short, in my scenario, there is no reason for kids to get all competitive and try to gain advantages over their peers. It’s an equal opportunity playing field.

But what about the “fun” things that school provides, like sports teams, academic and hobby clubs, art education, and all those other things that, frankly, many schools have already dispensed with due to lack of funding? And, let’s be honest, schools also serve a major function as government-sponsored daycare centres. What do kids do outside of their internship hours? My idea includes using some of the aforementioned government savings on education to fund community centres. Each community would have a proper recreation/community centre/library complex that would offer such programs at minimal-to-no cost to students. Sports, art classes, club meetings, and other “extracurricular” pursuits could take place there, and it would provide a hangout for those kids who, for whatever reason, can’t go home after working at their internship (remember it isn’t full-time until the last year or so of the program).

community centre

There are numerous benefits to implementing such a plan, not just for students but for communities as a whole.

(1) This program gets rid of arbitrarily-designed curricula, useless busywork in the form of essays and homework assignments, and irrelevant, out-of-context, factoids that schools spend so much time and money trying to get kids to memorize long enough to regurgitate onto a test paper. As interns, kids would learn valuable interpersonal skills such as time management, conflict resolution, and other things that are so important when working in a business or industry with people from varying ages, backgrounds, levels of authority, etc. I don’t think school, with its age-segregation and overly-bureaucratized rule structure, fully prepares kids for this reality.

(2) More importantly, by the time kids have completed the program they have a portfolio, rather than a “report card,” which reflects nothing useful for the working world, unless you happen to land a job in an industry that consists of taking multiple-choice quizzes and writing essays on random topics. By the end of their internship, kids will have worked at a series of jobs over the last 5 or 6 years and that, my friends, is Real Life experience. Along the way they have picked up many skills, both technical and manual. They have likely figured out what job or industry appeals to them and, having focused on that industry during the last few terms or years of their internship, have now made connections in the business, have references, have accumulated the necessary skill sets, and have a solid understanding of how that business or industry runs. When they go to get a full time paid job in the industry in which they have already been participating, they don’t need to present their grade point average or report card or score on a provincial standardized test because they would have real, documented evidence of their skills. This could be projects on which they worked, products they helped design and take to market, and any other documentable task. Not to mention, at this point they would be allowed to gather references from any and all former employers who worked with them as interns. If you were hiring someone for a job in your industry, which would you rather take, the kid who has been holed-up in a high school for the last five years, has an excellent grade-point average, but little-to-no real experience with holding down a job, working for and with people, and doing pretty much anything in your industry? Or, the kid who has spent the last 3 years interning with your colleagues and peers in industry, who has real outcomes to show from real people in real businesses doing real work, and who can be judged on actual performance in the field. I know who I would choose.

(3) Youth would be integrated into the community, rather than warehoused and isolated from it. What better way to get youth involved in their community than by allowing them to be active participants in it? This giving of responsibility to kids who are old enough to handle it and who are biologically driven to seek it could possibly end the increasingly toxic social consequences of age-segregation and ridiculously low adult:child ratios, such as bullying and cliques. Not to mention the also-toxic consequences of boredom and exclusion from adult society and responsibilities, such as substance abuse, vandalism, and excessive risk-taking.

Charity brochure final.cdr

(4) It’s not just the students who benefit, but the entire community. The aforementioned community centre/library/recreation centre complexes that take the place of high school buildings would serve Everybody in the community, not just high school kids, and many more programs could be run than just those for the kids. Most communities already have such facilities in place, but for many they are badly in need of upgrading and enhancement. Smaller towns that currently lack such facilities would hugely benefit by having the funds to build one. So immediately this program would benefit communities for everybody in them, and no more battles around how best to use taxpayer money for schools.

(5) Workers would benefit by having a second set of hands to help them with their jobs and by getting mentorship training (perhaps provided as part of those government incentives I spoke of earlier). If every working person in a community had a student intern, it would ease the work load on everyone and free up more time for other pursuits. Think of the community building that could take place if people had some extra leisure time.

more leisure time

(6) The interns would need a transportation system to get them to and from their internships, home, and the community centre as most can’t drive and/or don’t have cars. Communities could put some of the money they save by not having high schools and school buses into boosting transportation infrastructure so that the interns can get to and from their jobs and their after-job activities. Governments could subsidize or pay for student bus/transit passes which would provide a monetary boost to cash-strapped municipal transit systems. Whether it’s a shuttle bus system in a small town or subway passes in a larger town, the adding of the entire population of high school students to the transportation ridership would definitely provide a much needed boost to their bottom line. For smaller towns and rural communities, which often lack decent transit systems due to low ridership, it would be enough to make it worth their while to invest in  transportation which, again, would serve EVERYBODY in the community, not just high school kids.

So that is the basic outline of my idea. In Part 2, I’m going to present an example of what this would look like using two hypothetical kids.

I originally intended to followup this post with another, but life just got in the way. One day, I may get back to this subject, but for now I just don’t have the time…

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