The beauty of unschooling kids with special needs

Written by Jamie C. Martin of Simple Homeschool

I have two twelve-year-old boys.

One reads at a college level.

One reads at a 1st grade level, on a good day.

Both have been nurtured in the same environment, raised on a diet of the same beautiful books. Surrounded by an environment rich in words and the classics since the day they joined our family.

They have one more thing in common, as well: Both love learning and feel smart, confident in the knowledge that they each have God-given strengths and abilities.

THIS is the beauty of unschooling children with special needs.

Two of my three kids (currently ages 14, 12, & 12) have conditions that would, in a traditional school setting, be considered special needs. Some of those conditions I’ve written about here–some I haven’t. Some of them we’ve known about for ages; some become clearer as the years pass by. Some have been formally diagnosed; some haven’t.

But none of them have changed our family’s approach to education, which has continued since the preschool years along similar lines. (It’s like the one thing in life I’ve managed to stick with, which goes to show it must be a divine calling!)

Like most of life, our educational philosophy is an eclectic hodgepodge of ideas: Leadership Education, TJEd, interest-led learning, unschooling.

But as my kids who learn differently become older, I’ve found “unschooling” to be the most comforting word to my homeschool mama’s heart, which of course desperately wants the best for my beautiful growing babes.

The word reminds me to let them be who they are, that I’m not waiting for them to “arrive” or reach a certain achievement level. It reminds me that they are not broken, not in need of my “fixing,” and that their education is their own. It reminds me to let go of outcomes over which I have no control anyway, and to trust the future to the One who can be trusted.

Unschooling brings peace to our home; let me explain what I mean when I use the term.

What I DON’T mean when I say unschooling:

I don’t mean a complete lack of structure. We have a strong, steady rhythm to our days, one that varies according to the day and season. I don’t mean radical unschooling, the term used to signify no household rules of any sort: no bedtimes, assigned chores, etc. (Though I’m not knocking that if it works for someone!)

I don’t mean that during our days anything goes; we have serious restrictions on screen time, for example, because that’s what feels right for us.

I definitely don’t mean that I ignore my kids all day, or never guide our educational time. I do, working hard to inspire not require by sharing with them what inspires me. I don’t mean that we ignore their special needs and refuse to get them extra help.

And because I’ve read many well-meaning articles that have still unintentionally made me feel guilty, I need to mention that I also don’t mean that this is the only or the best way to homeschool kids with special needs.

I’m merely sharing our story, trusting that you’ll be led to what’s best for your family just as we have.

What I DO mean:

When I use the term unschooling, I mean we have taken away the manmade, artificial categories school systems create. We don’t think in terms of levels, tests, or grades. We have no assigned curriculum to cover each year, no set calendar. We believe in learning all the time, yet we also have the ability and freedom to switch up our routine when we need it.

Unschooling means that we put our faith in our kids’ in-built, God-given curiosity.

We believe that an individual’s passions typically point toward the knowledge they need for life and success in their unique mission and calling. We believe, like Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver, and John Holt, that education isn’t one size fits all.

This means that my main job as a parent/educator is to help my kids go deep in their passions, even as I go deep in my own.

Unschooling gives us wide freedom within safe boundaries. And here are a few of the reasons why it’s been a beautiful fit for my children with special needs.

1. They know they have gifts.

Each of my children, no matter their abilities or disabilities, has grown up hearing again and again that they are here for a reason–that they matter.

Because we’ve done our best not to value or praise book learning over other types of learning, my three have grown up with a sense of confidence.

And because they haven’t had to defend themselves against constant school bullying, they have peace with the way God made them. (While still going through the angst of normal adolescence, ahem.)

2. They can focus on strengths.

I am a word-lover all the way, an author and blogger blessed to do work I love. But put me in a room full of scientists and I’d feel like a dunce. Of course kids with special needs feel that way too, when surrounded by others who excel in areas they currently can’t.

That’s why the safety of homeschooling, and the freedom of unschooling, is such a gift. It lets them excel in their own areas and feel smart in their own ways.

3. They can make progress according to their own inner timeline and development.

I’ve always told my kids, even when I have moments of doubt, that everyone is ready for things at different times.

I cling to the wisdom of Plato: “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.”

I tell them that God has given each of us exactly what we’ll need for His calling on our lives, provided we’re willing to work hard and develop it. All of us don’t need the exact same skill set or abilities because we don’t have the same ultimate purpose!

4. They don’t believe in artificial distinctions that don’t matter.

Thanks to unschooling, in our home math isn’t more important than a willingness to do the chores with a happy heart. The ability to complete a worksheet correctly isn’t ranked higher than the ability to show compassion to someone in need.

Love of learning and love of others matter most, and we have both in abundance.

We’re not racing toward some fake finish line that ends at age 18, or after college, or EVER.

No matter what our abilities, we live to learn, so that we can learn to live–today, tomorrow, and in all the days yet to come.

Are you homeschooling children with special needs as well? What have you found has worked best for your family?

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About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.

Comments

  1. I loved this. Thanks!

  2. This is beautiful, Jamie (I want to be you when I grow up). Thank you for the encouragement and the practical examples. So much wisdom here.
    Shawna Wingert’s latest post: Back To School and The Struggling Learner

  3. Brandy Aultman says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have started homeschooling my 5 yr.old twin boys this year whom both have autism. Some days I wonder if I’ve made the right decision and your words have really blessed me today. Thank you!

  4. Well, well, well. God certainly had His hand on my afternoon (as though He ever wouldn’t, LOL). Doing research for my business and ran across this incredibly timely post. I’m considering shifting to unschooling after 5 years of eclectic, curriculum-based schooling that has worked moderately well but has of late been feeling less and less appropriate for my ADHD/dyslexic daughter. It’s a really scary move for someone who loves workbooks and textbooks and has an education background, let me tell you! But the more and more I read, the more and more convinced I become that it’s the right thing to do. Thank you SO MUCH for this post (and for linking to that super bundle! Hello awesomeness!!) and for your blog – I can’t wait to read more. <3

  5. Not paying attention to the author of this article, I thought “yeah- another TJED’er”. Then I realized it was you, Jamie.
    I wouldn’t exactly identify as an unschooler, and I wouldn’t pin you as one, either (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it goes to show how labels can have different meanings to different people.
    Anyway, we’re all doing the best we can, aren’t we? And that’s a beautiful thing for our kiddos and our families.
    Many blessings to you and yours.

    • Also, I have two 12 year olds as well, raised the same way, with the same books, environment-AND from the same womb…and they couldn’t be more different. God made our sweet people just the way they are. We are fortunate to have them as they are fortunate to have us as loving parents who appreciate their God given talents and characteristics.
      May God continue to bless you all!

  6. I love this! Thank you for sharing your heart and a glimpse of your family life. It so blessed my heart and resonated the truth and freedom we live in our family as well!

  7. Yes, yes and YES! As a mum with an 11 year old with SN who has definitely benefited so much from a child-centred, delight-driven approach, I loved reading this.
    Kelly’s latest post: The Homeschooling Criticism Series – The Three Types of Homeschooling Critic

  8. This was a very thought provoking post! I’ve never read anything like this so forgive my ignorance. I have a few questions. What do you do about state requirements for testing? Say you go in (because you have to in my state) and your child misses 90% of the questions and can’t read 90% of the test due to dyslexia. Can you just completely trash the results without looking or does the state require progress to graduate a child? I like your style and am thrilled you have found what works for you and your kids! I’m still working on that for sure. I can definitely see that changes will need to be made as my 10-year-old goes in the middle school . This was a very well written and thought provoking article. Thank you for taking the time to write it!!

    • Hi Katie. Each state is different when it comes to homeschooling laws, so yes, you’re right that that would influence the way in which someone goes about unschooling. Our state does not require testing, so that hasn’t been a problem for us. I know that in some states homeschoolers are required to document that they have taken the test, but scores do not have to be reported. In other states, you can opt for a portfolio review of work done in lieu of testing. And in states where testing is required, there are of course exceptions made for kids with disabilities (of which the school system has many, of course!)–meaning kids can have tests given orally, etc. So it’s important to just really understand your laws and also connect with others who have been homeschooling longer in your location and can share their opinion. Some good sites to help with that would be https://www.hslda.org/laws/default.asp and there are many FB groups that could be helpful, including https://www.facebook.com/groups/UnschoolingMom2Mom/ – Hope that helps!

  9. Thank you for your thoughts. I am an educator so like Alison having a hard time. Have one maybe two with issues. What does your day look like? Do u use any thing to teach Rdg ,wrtg, and math? Thank u. Struggling lots to even begin. Lost my thunder!

  10. We’ve been doing this for years but this post for some reason clicked in a way that made me comfortable in finally calling us unschoolers. Loved your definition. 🙂
    Jamie’s latest post: Unschooled kid vs. standardized test

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