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.
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!)
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?