By Heather Haines
Recently, when my son Samuel fulfilled a long-term ambition by sky-diving, it felt to me the culmination of our home education journey. All those years ago, I took a leap of faith in pulling him out of school, and here he is a capable young man confidently pursuing his interests. Sky-diving seemed uncannily appropriate.
Samuel started school at four years old in the UK. Right from the beginning, there were school problems. He was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of three and he has been gathering labels ever since. He had a statement of Special Educational Needs and school was a continual process of meetings and therapies. By the time Samuel was seven and we moved to New Zealand, he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and it was very evident school was not a good fit for him.
I had a degree in English, I trained as a primary school teacher with a view to supporting children like my own and started teaching in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Samuel was being constantly suspended, was badly bullied and was becoming depressed. I realised from my own training that teachers didn’t receive much advice in how to support kids who don’t fit the system. I had children in my own classroom who were a bit like Samuel and they were very often misunderstood. He went through several schools and the problems just followed him around. In desperation, I started talking about home schooling him. At the school where I worked the staff discouraged me from that and persuaded me to enrol him there instead. I did – and they suspended him within the week.
I guess, after that, home education was inevitable.
Coming out of school, Samuel’s self-esteem was very low; he couldn’t write very well and, in his words, felt “dumb”. We started school at home with a timetable but that just didn’t work and I thought, “If this didn’t work in school, why am I doing it at home?” So we moved to project-based work that Samuel initiated. In NZ we were able to pick and choose what to take from Distance Education which I found useful for Maths, a passion of Samuel’s that I didn’t share.
Samuel has dysgraphia which has always made writing difficult. Remedial work didn’t really make a huge difference, but I noticed that when he had an interest, the dysgraphia was less of a problem. I let the curriculum go; I believed in Samuel and ran with his interests.
Samuel was 11 when his little sister, Poppy, arrived and we moved to Australia the following year. Home-education-wise we just did our own thing. We didn’t belong to any groups at that stage as Samuel didn’t really have the need to mix with other kids. He was always into computers, and the written form of education just never suited him. At home, I allowed him to do what he was good at, and kept making things available to help him learn in his own way.
When he was 13, we attended an Open Day at university and found out that Samuel could do a Head Start program with them – something designed for kids to get university credit while still in school. They couldn’t quite understand the idea that he wasn’t in school at all and insisted he couldn’t enrol in the program without also being enrolled in a school. So, again, we tapped into Distance Education, this time at year 11 level and Samuel went to uni one day a week where he found like-minded company. As it turned out, he didn’t do the full quota of year 11 work, instead starting on uni papers where, if you pass the paper, you are guaranteed a place at uni. At 16 he applied for, and was granted, a full-time place at the University of Queensland based on the ranking he received from those papers.
When Samuel was young, I was warned by one school Principal that he was a possible Columbine kid and needed serious psychiatric help – such a shocking appraisal of my son when all that was wrong was that he was very misunderstood within a system that was not suited to him. Sure he was angry but who wouldn’t be in his position? Coming out of school, and being able to do what he wanted made all the difference.
He’d been written off you see and look at him now. At 19 he is in his final year of Software Engineering, he’s held a part-time job since he was 14, and does surf lifesaving as well. He’s never been medicated and he has been able to achieve what he wanted. All this despite the fact that I was told by one psychologist that my refusal to give him Ritalin was tantamount to child abuse, as I was not offering him a window of opportunity to realise his full potential! I allowed Samuel to follow what he was good at and more importantly what he loved, and that’s his future now. I think school just places too much emphasis on what kids aren’t good at and not enough on what they are really interested in.
The sky-diving was something Samuel had long wanted to do, and just seemed to epitomise how far he’d come. I think we are often too protective of our children so, in gifting him the sky-dive ticket, I again had to accept his interests and trust him. He took the highest jump available and loved it. He now wants to train and do a whole lot more. I was waiting at home and received his text complete with a selfie taken in mid-jump. I was so excited I had to share via the Unschool Australia Facebook group.
Despite having seen how successful Samuel’s home education was, Poppy’s dad had a strong belief that school was the best educational option for her. With this thought, together with Poppy’s desire to try kindergarten, we embarked on a mainstream education route but, as it turned out, Poppy had other ideas and decided after one term that kindy, nor school were the right option for her. Now aged eight, she too has been diagnosed with dyslexia, continues to be home educated and is free to explore her big loves which are art and music in a supportive environment.
She wanted to meet other home educated kids so I started to tap into the local community and initiated a facebook support group which is known as the SunnyHomeschool Support Hub as well as a facebook page – SunnyHomeschool/ Unschool where I now enjoy supporting other parents home educate. I do feel home education is easier now than it was years ago – with all the groups, classes and clubs available. I also feel that Samuel offers an inspiration to home educators who are just starting out – they can see that he is at uni and his options haven’t been limited by home education as some often feel might be the case. Not that University is the Holy Grail but it is what he wanted and he got there – despite school!
I’m also involved in dyslexia and ASD support groups and see so many families with children having school problems. I see what happens to these kids and really do think that school plays a huge part in worsening their problems rather than helping. A change of environment makes a huge difference. Samuel did learn to read, not the school way, but his way and he now loves reading. Writing not so much but with computers, typing, spell and grammar checks he is fine. I don’t think the remedial work we did on dysgraphia actually helped that much – he just got there in his own way and with time. I think what did help was accepting who he was, and opening up opportunities for him to follow what he was interested in and excels at, and I continue to follow this philosophy with Poppy.
So, to parents of kids with dyslexia or dysgraphia, I would say, don’t look for a magic program to necessarily fix it. Our children are not broken. Tap into support groups to get ideas certainly, and see what’s available, but all children are different and there is no magic reading program that is going to solve everything. What works for one child may not work for another. The great benefit of home education is that you can step away from things that don’t work and try something else. Don’t worry about what ‘should’ work or what ‘always’ works, find what actually works for your child. You know them best and you can choose the program or approach that works best for them.
What I have discovered is that all children learn differently. I get a little concerned when parents become rigid in their homeschooling approach. I do not believe in buying curriculum and saying “This is what we are learning today.” I prefer to let kids follow their interests. Some kids do like textbooks and a routine and that’s fine; what doesn’t resonate with me is when it is imposed on them. Parents need to be open and flexible. Our education evolved in response to Samuel. To a large extent I stood back and let him learn what and where he wanted but I was also very involved, in that I was interested and responsive. Samuel taught himself from the start all he could about computer programming and now that is where he sees his future career and it is that passion and interest that got him to where he is today. School did not get him there.
From my own experience, I say to parents struggling with kids who are a bit different: let them follow their interests and it will work out. I have a son who was so very misunderstood. School had no positive expectations for him – quite the reverse. They had written him off.
We took a chance on education and did it our way. ADHD, Asperger’s – whatever the difference is – it isn’t going to go away and why should it? They are the characteristics of people not faults to be fixed, but school is part of the problem when it tries to force kids into a box. The system was such a dark and lonely place for us. I want parents to know that if your child is not coping in school and you are feeling hopeless, know that there are other options and home education is not the end; it can be the beginning.
In a very real sense, that sky dive was both a celebration of freedom and a vindication of the leap of faith I took in making the decision to educate Samuel outside the system.
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