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Taking your gifted learner out of school

I gave a workshop at the recent Homeschool Association of California Conference in Sacramento, and a few people suggested that I post it here for those who couldn’t attend. If you are the parent of a gifted learner and you’re thinking about taking him/her out of school, perhaps this will help you make an informed choice.

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Parents generally assume that the year their children turn six years old, they will send them off to kindergarten. The children will use scissors and paste, learn the alphabet, and maybe even learn to read. They‘ll sit quietly while the teacher reads stories to them, and use manipulatives to familiarize themselves with basic mathematical concepts such as number recognition and counting. It will be fun, and parents will proudly display their children‘s artwork on the refrigerator at home. When the parents go in for their first parent-teacher conference, they will meet the wonderful lady (it‘s usually a lady, isn‘t it?), maybe for the first time, whom they have entrusted with their children‘s introduction to the world outside of their home, and they will be told how sweet their children are and how well they have learned to play with others. They will have no worries.

It’s a nice fantasy, isn’t it?

Making the Choice, When Typical School
Doesn’t Fit Your Atypical Child
(Goodwin/Gustavson)

When I read this quote, I imagined a classic frame from the Peanuts cartoon, with all the kids’ heads up and all you see is their big mouths laughing: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! This description fits me, and I’ll add one more piece: I considered the day that my second and last child started kindergarten as the day my life would get going again. Not that I didn’t love having babies and preschoolers, but I was itching to find my adult self again. Well, it didn’t happen. At least, not the way I thought it would.

My first child was your classic “smart kid.” Always at the top of his class. Well-behaved. Sometimes a bit of a smart-ass, which we respected him for. Our second child was… something else. She was clearly highly intelligent, but her need to “get into” things surpassed any parenting method you have heard of. Frankly, if we were the type to beat our children, we would have worn ourselves out trying to beat her into submission. She would never, ever stop following her own muse.

Her muse, it seemed, did not work in a classroom setting. I enrolled her in a small private school, joking that either the Buddhists would reform her, or she’d turn them all Catholic. I should go check out the church at the bottom of the hill, because none of their patience and compassion got her to settle down. Her three months in the classroom was awful. By the end of it, she was a psychological basket case and so was I. When I told her she wasn’t going back after winter break, she was sad.

I wasn’t.

We tried homeschooling for a few months on our own, but we just sat around and hated each other. We didn’t know other homeschoolers and I didn’t really have good friends with kids. It wasn’t until we joined a public homeschooling program that spring that I met parents who didn’t act as if my daughter’s bad behavior would somehow infect their kids. They just accepted us in our weirdness, which was such a relief.

Fast forward a few years. My daughter and I are seasoned homeschoolers, and my son was doing Just Fine in school. This is the sort of thing parents tell themselves when they actually know they have no choice. Things with my daughter were very difficult, and my son’s needs were taking a back seat. We were paying for a fine private school (I still think it’s a fine school!), and his teacher was impressed with his abilities.

But I started to notice something: My son started to focus on the minimum effort he had to put into anything. Where my homeschooled daughter did things because she enjoyed them, my schooled son did things because he was told he had to. On top of that, there was a rough personality clash in the classroom, and my son was making himself sick with worry. He’d get off the bus every afternoon with a new physical ailment. He missed ten school days in the first semester of classes due to “stomach aches” that disappeared as soon as the bus pulled away from the curb and he knew I wasn’t up to driving him 40 minutes to school.

He and I started a casual discussion of “if you homeschooled for a year” and he jumped on it with much greater ferocity than I expected. He had made a best friend at school, the first really solid friendship of his life, and I thought this might dissuade him, but it didn’t. So in June 2010, we officially became a 100% homeschooling family.

Now that you know my story, let’s turn to what I know about the experience of gifted kids and schools in general.

How do schools not serve some gifted kids’ needs?

I want to be very clear about that word “some”: I am not including all gifted learners and all families here. So if you love school and your children are excelling in school, that is really wonderful and don’t feel the need to flame me. However, this is not the experience of all gifted learners and their families.

By their very nature, almost all schools offer few independent learning options. It’s just too hard to integrate a kid into a classroom if he’s doing different work than other kids. Few schools accept the research that shows that acceleration of gifted kids (either putting them in a more advanced group for single subjects or grade-skipping them) actually shows positive results. [Download and read A Nation Deceived for data on that.] No matter how they try, schools by their very nature offer an inflexible curriculum that is supposed to suit all the kids. A kid who is on a different plane of learning altogether can be disruptive. One mom of a gifted boy told me that his teacher had forbid him to ask any questions at all in the classroom. So the message was, “Not only are your questions irrelevant in our classroom, but you also aren’t allowed to have a legitimate question when you don’t understand something.”

On top of that, most gifted kids just aren’t the poster kid you’re thinking of: You know her — she’s well-groomed, well-spoken, the valedictorian, and top scorer on the volleyball team. Nope, gifted kids are as mixed a bunch as any group of kids. You have many who simply have bad social skills. On top of that, you have a good proportion who are “twice-exceptional”–both gifted learners and disabled in some way. A surprisingly high number of kids who test very well on IQ tests have disabilities such as dyslexia. Another chunk of gifted learners have Asperger’s disorder. That well-groomed valedictorian you know is not undeserving of her prizes — she worked for them. But there are lots of gifted learners who find that the one-size-fits-all approach to learning just can’t accommodate them. Try telling your public school that your kid who is in the 99th percentile on the STAR test needs special accommodations. It’s a hard world out there for 2e kids.

So it might surprise you to find out that the reasons that parents actually do decide to take their gifted learners out of school are largely not academic. Lack of intellectual stimulation and challenge are high on the list, but the parents I know talk more often about the lack of peers, the social isolation their kids faced, and the resulting health problems that were often the call that finally woke the parents up to reality: My smart kid isn’t doing well in school (even though he’s getting straight A’s).

Parents of gifted learners don’t take their kids out of school to insult the school or the other families. They take them out of school so they can follow their passions, work at their own pace, have healthy social lives, and do the unusual things that they are often drawn to.

Making a positive transition to homeschool

So say you’ve made the decision, and you’re going to take your kid out of school. You have a few hurdles to get over, and they aren’t academic ones. Most states have clear rules about what you have to do if you homeschool. California has an undeserved reputation as a state that is “hard on homeschooling,” but it’s easy. Go to the HSC website if you want details.

The big question is, how do you get your kid on board? Even kids who are miserable in school often prefer the hell they know to the one they don’t. Perhaps they’ve even heard bad stuff about homeschooling (perhaps even from you!). And isn’t quitting school “giving up”?

I recommend a positive path toward choosing homeschooling. Rather than framing the choice as “quitting” and “leaving”–all these negative terms–, consider how you can talk positively about the choice. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve heard speak negatively about school in front of their kids, only to have to resort to that choice again later. Better not to do the damage now than to have to backpedal later. Also, chances are that your child has a healthy affection for, say, his teacher who was so kind even though she couldn’t integrate him into the classroom. Vilifying her forces your child into a psychologically difficult position.

An important thing to do is to introduce your child to homeschooling and homeschoolers. Perhaps you can have “days off” where you do what you envision doing as a homeschooler, so your child has an idea what to expect. Also, it’s great to meet other homeschoolers (and great for the parent, too). You find out that they aren’t all weird (though many of us don’t mind being called that!), and they may have a lot in common with you and your child.

Easing your child into homeschooling: Do gifted kids need to “deschool”?

My correspondents had two answers to this question, and those answers were: Yes and No. (You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you?)

*If you need to learn what “deschooling” is, visit this page. Generally speaking, deschooling is the time you take to decompress before you start to homeschool.

Yes:

Your child has learned to do only what is required.  Your child is not self-motivated.  Your child is way ahead academically and needs some downtime.

It sounds like taking time to deschool and get a sense of why you’re homeschooling is in order. Time off will not hurt your child — it can only help. In this case, don’t push too hard.

You need to watch your child and learn more about his learning style.  Your child lagged academically and you are eager to teach.

In this case, you may be tempted to jump right in. I don’t know how my child learns, so we’d better start now! Bad idea. I am so sure I will do a better job than his teachers of whipping him into shape and getting him to show his true brilliance. Definitely time for you to chill for a while and get to know each other.

Your child is resentful/angry about leaving school. You don’t know any other homeschoolers and the process is new to you.

You are leaving behind a lot of cultural assumptions that you’re going to have to learn to shed…slowly. Take some time before you think you know what homeschooling will look like in your home.

No way!

Your child has projects lined up because schoolwork took so much time. Your child is begging to get going on learning new things.

You know your child better than anyone else does. If deschooling just seems completely wrong to you because your child is so ready, go for it. I know one kid who left school and within a couple of years he was the top student (as a young teen) in all his community college math classes.

You and your child are “in sync” and you will notice if she goes into overload.

Here’s where you have to be completely honest with yourself: Are you really as clear on your child’s needs as you think? If so, then go for it. But watch carefully and be willing to step back if your child starts to resist.

What does gifted homeschooling look like?

Let’s face it: The homeschooling parents of gifted learners are taking on a bigger job in some ways. Our kids are more likely to be drawn to careers that require college, and thus we have a lot more riding on our decision to homeschool than a family whose child has no college aspirations. If your kid is fascinated with astrophysics, your choice to homeschool could literally dash his hopes into a million pieces. Then again, so could school, but no one person would have to take the blame. One of the hard parts of homeschooling is the level of pressure that society places on individual parents, whose kids may just as well have bombed out in school, too.

The great thing about gifted homeschooling is that it is just as varied as the homeschooling of any kid. It depends on the child, the family, and all sorts of other variables.

In my experience, there are gifted homeschoolers trying out all the variations on homeschooling:

  • School at home: This is where homeschool basically mimics school, but with only one desk. Many new homeschoolers try this route, especially if they sign up for a charter that requires lots of documentation.
  • Classical homeschooling: This approach centers on going back to a more old-fashioned definition of the educated mind. Here’s a magazine that could teach you about it.
  • Unschooling: Also called child-led learning, this is pretty much the polar opposite of school at home. Instead of being the teacher, you the parent are the facilitator. Whatever your kid expresses interest in, you try to help make it happen. Very pure unschooling is hard to do, because that would mean that the parent never makes a suggestion or prods in any particular direction. But lots of people who call themselves unschoolers do a bit of prodding and stealth education, just making sure their kids don’t notice.
  • Eclectic homeschooling: This approach works for families who don’t follow one particular philosophy. A little of this and a little of that. For example, my family is pretty unschooly in many ways, but I insist that my son (who is not terribly fond of math) keep up to grade level in math. So I’m unschool-y in language arts, and a little more structured in math.

My personal experience is that no matter what philosophy you are drawn to, most homeschooling families of gifted learners end up somewhere on the eclectic scale. Yes, there are those gifted kids who just learn all they need to with nary a prod from a parent, but they’re pretty unusual. Most gifted homeschoolers do take some classes or online courses, and do have some idea of academic goals, such as when they plan to take the SAT, or which gifted education program they might want to test into. By definition, these homeschoolers really can’t be called unschoolers in any pure sense.

The things you should take into consideration as you start building your homeschool life are:

  • relationship between homeschooling parent and child
  • the child’s maturity
  • the parent’s ability to teach subjects
  • availability of local resources
  • sporadic learning rather than constant change
  • depth over breadth
  • resistance to certain subjects
  • child favors certain learning modes
  • child may resist parent as “teacher”

Remember that no choice is forever. If you sign up for an online charter and your child is bored silly, just drop it. Don’t feel like you need to stick with a full school-year of anything. Remember, you’re homeschooling for more flexibility in your child’s education.

The most important thing you can do is to make sure to set up a support system:

  • Local homeschool programs: Hanging with other homeschoolers is so helpful. Be aware, though, that this is a general community group, and using the g-word in their presence will probably invoke those “all children are gifted” discussions that won’t do you or your child any good. Best to get your gifted support elsewhere.
  • Co-op classes: Join with other parents to offer variety of classes. This will work best in a population center where you’ll be able to find a good group of learners who resemble your children in some way.
  • Online classes: There are tons of classes both for pay and free. I always suggest trying the free ones first! Check out Hoagies’ Gifted and Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum for lots of links to resources.
  • Online support: Join the Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum Yahoo Group or other online forums to ask questions and seek advice.
  • Mentoring: As your child’s interests develop, find other adults willing to help. This is particularly useful if your child’s interests are far from yours. If you care nothing for astronomy, your astronomy lover might seek out mentors in the local astronomy club.

Do homeschoolers get into college?

Yes! In fact, a number of the best colleges now have special applications for homeschoolers, whose applications are apt to be very different from schooled kids’. Here are some ways your child can approach college:

  • Concurrent enrollment:
    Kids take some college classes at college or online while homeschooling. In this case, the child does not get a high school diploma, and thus registers at the cc as a special class of student. With the budget cuts at the community colleges, this option is becoming more difficult.
  • Community college leading to transfer to a university:
    For this option, the homeschooler matriculates (through getting a private school diploma or taking a high school equivalency exam such as the CHSPE in California), and enters CC as a student. The drawback to this is the it’s likely that your homeschooler will get so many credits, s/he won’t be able to apply to university as a freshman. It’s a great option if this doesn’t bother them.
  • Early 4-year:
    Some gifted kids are ready emotionally and academically to go early. In this case, your child needs to find out what the requirements are and how s/he can fulfill them as a homeschooler.
  • Traditional route:
    There is no reason why your child can’t wait until 18 if having a traditional college experience is important!

The only right answer is what’s right for your child’s temperament, areas of interest, and future plans. To get more information on these options, join the Yahoo Group Homeschool2College. Here are a few more considerations:

  • Prepare early: Start researching options a few years ahead of when the decisions will have to be made.
  • Get involved with others on the same path: Use local resources plus online support groups.
  • Get ready to let your teen lead the way. College readiness starts with ability to make their own decisions.

Evaluating success

I think this is one of the hardest part of homeschooling. Since homeschooled kids tend to move into a more natural way of learning — intense periods of growth followed by long periods of what seems like stagnation — it’s sometimes confusing and frustrating to decide whether they are on the right path. Some advice:

  • First of all, don’t compare: Kill those school demons! Your child will probably not develop and learn like school kids.
  • Second, remember that how long it takes to settle into homeschooling will vary from child to child.
  • Finally, remember that homeschooling is about whole child learning: Do you see your child’s growth in all areas?

It can be very helpful to observe before & after:

  • Confidence
  • Social skills
  • Focus on interests
  • Willingness to try new things
  • Follow-through

For older kids:

  • Goal-setting
  • Self-motivation
  • Willingness to face a challenge

Lots of parents, used to their schools testing all the time, wonder about assessment. I think it’s helpful to assess occasionally, but not to rely on it more heavily than on your own observations of how they’re doing. Consider:

  • Younger children: Occasional grade-level assessments if you’re concerned or want a benchmark.
  • Older children: College readiness and covering a set curriculum becomes more important.

Lots of parents wonder about whether their homeschooled child has to go through all the testing that they do at public schools for gifted programs. For homeschooled kids, I.Q. testing is not necessary unless you think it will offer you valuable information. Some parents find out valuable information about how their kids learn and what they need help with. But the raw score isn’t going to tell you anything particularly useful to homeschooling.

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I’m now in the fifth year of homeschooling my daughter and the second for my son. It’s always a roller coaster and I’m the last person to say that it’s been easy. It’s not. But here is the question I ask whenever I feel a need to: Would my child be better off in school? If the answer isn’t a definitive “Oh, Yes!” then I figure I’m still on the right path. School can be great for many gifted learners. But if it’s not right for your child, don’t think of it as failure. Just choose a different path and discover where it leads you.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.


9 Responses

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  1. Shawna says

    Wonderful! Just wonderful! Thank you for giving us a voice.
    Sincerely,
    Shawna Singh
    Ohio
    mom of twin 2e homeschooled 9 year olds~

  2. Suki says

    You’re welcome! Good luck with your homeschooling. — Suki

  3. Suji says

    Suki, this is a fabulous post. You’ve put it all into a nutshell so very well. Enjoyed reading this!

    - from your “almost” namesake ; )

  4. Kita says

    Bingo. May need to forward this post.
    I like your assessment method, to ask whether the child would be better off in school, requiring a definitive “Oh, Yes!” Can happen, but oh, so rare.

  5. Suki says

    Please do feel free to forward it on!
    I do know a family that’s going back to school, but in their case, I’d say it’s because they never fully embraced homeschooling. They attempted school at home, and their kids were lonely and bored. Homeschooling is a huge commitment, and parents need to know that if you’re going to do it halfway, you’ll only be halfway successful (if you’re lucky!). Families that can’t make the paradigm shift shouldn’t feel that they’ve failed — they’re just clearly schooling families.

  6. Lydia says

    I’m so glad I joined the homeschool community on my first year of homeschooling my son. He will be a 2nd grader. You blog was great to read from a parent that is a new kid on the block of homeschoolingl. I am feeling stronger everyday that I have made this choice for my gifted son that was one that didn’t fit in. I also coming to accept if all w do that day is read 230 sight words and discuss punctuation we have school/learned for the day.

  7. Suki says

    I’m glad you found it helpful. Something I didn’t put in is the fact that the average school day only has about 2 1/2 hours of actual learning. Most of the school day is taken up by organizational stuff like getting a bunch of unruly kids to line up. The gifted learners in the class generally learn to wait, wait, wait. Although patience is a fine skill to hone, it’s not one you need to work on for hours every day! The other thing to remember is that going out in the world and doing things, as well as staying home and doing fun things like playing games and cooking, are also learning times. Second-graders who don’t have to work to stay at grade level can spend most of their time doing other, more fun/stimulating activities.

  8. schedule5 says

    Argh! I am trying to decide whether to homeschool my gifted 2e daughter and it’s taking up all my headspace. I’m definitely going to give this post a reread as we get closer to needing to give notice to her current school. We are afterschooling just a little now and already seeing improvements in her attitude to working. I guess that’s a big pointer, right? :).

    • Suki says

      Hi Stacey — It’s a big change, and thinking about it can really take over your brain! The way I make these decisions easier for myself is to remember that: 1) No educational choice is forever — if homeschooling doesn’t work, school will still be there, and 2) Nothing your daughter does now will get her so “behind” she can’t fill in the gaps when she needs to. School parents are given this impression that if their kids don’t meet the benchmarks set up for each schoolyear, their kids will *always* be behind. Yet as adults, we know this isn’t true. We know plenty of really normal, successful people who, you find out when you question them, had some trouble in school at some point. Yet, they aren’t scarred for life! How can that be? It’s because education is something that continues throughout our lives, and we will seldom meet benchmarks at the same time as other people. It sounds like you and your daughter might need some deschooling time rather than afterschooling. Perhaps you can ask her about some activities she’d like to do with you. No matter how “uneducational” they sound, go for it and do the activity with her. She needs to know that she can trust you not to give up on her, even when she has bad days, weeks, months…



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