By Dindy Vaughan
Not every child is happy at school.
Some struggle along grudgingly, some fight the system, some opt out and refuse to achieve; and mostly their parents worry.
In many cases it comes down to ‘school refusal’. The state of Victoria currently has not hundreds, but thousands of school-age children who are simply refusing to go. The majority are not rabble-rousers and delinquents; they tend to be quiet, somewhat withdrawn and, one guesses, depressed. They sit at home, they play computer games, they socialise a little with a few friends; and again; mostly their parents worry.
A child who is not happy at school is not necessarily a ‘misfit’. Schools are full of excellent dedicated teachers doing all they can to present the best programs available, but not all children can fit the pattern.
So what do you do with a child who is not happy?
When my five-year-old daughter exhibited extreme distress after one term of school I acted swiftly. I took her out.
I was working then, as now, having established my own business and being the financial mainstay of the family, so it was not an ‘easy’ decision.
The initial months were hard. She had turned from a confident toddler who would happily spend a day in someone else’s company to a child who would not, literally, let me out of her sight without extreme distress.
She loved ‘school-work’- every morning as soon as breakfast was over the books were out on the kitchen table with demands that I show her maths, reading, spelling. But if anyone came to the door, adult or child, someone she knew or someone she didn’t know, she would grab the daily newspapers; spread them on the table to hide what she had been doing, and jump down to push kiddie toys around the floor. As soon as the visitors left, she would jump back to the table, whisk off the newspapers, and get back to work.
I have no idea how it was that her school experience taught her to be ashamed of loving learning. I do remember, though, one day at school, seeing and hearing a lad who was twice her size shouting angrily at her, “You CAN’T read! You’re too little to know how to read!” She did not appear to worry at the time – but how often was that scenario repeated when I wasn’t there, and when her class teacher wasn’t around either? It’s anyone’s guess.
She retained a few close friends from pre-school years, and played confidently and happily with them if they came to my place, but she would no longer go to anyone else’s place to play. It was months before these patterns began to change.
One day, when two young women, whom she knew well and liked, were visiting she breezily said, “Would you like to see the maths I did today?” They, knowing nothing of her phobia, responded cheerily, and looked over the maths with relaxed interest. I nearly fell off my chair. When she whisked off again, I told them the story; they were delighted that she had developed such particular confidence in them.
Another day, visiting the supermarket, she willingly, of her own accord, walked down one aisle while I walked down another: a second milestone.
At this time the Alternative Education Resource Group (the forerunner to HEN) was in its developing stages. Getting in touch with this group was a godsend, not so much because of resources (in fact, I found I was quickly resourcing for the group) but because it put us in touch with other families embarking on the adventure of home schooling.
We were a diverse group, from many different walks of life, different levels of education, and varied ideas about what ‘education’ entailed, but we all had one thing in common: we believed our children were better served by learning at home.
We began to arrange group outings: to the zoo, to Healesville Sanctuary, to Queenscliff Marine Studies Centre. We had regular ‘music and art’ days at my house, storytelling mornings, local library visits, picnics; our children had a relaxed social group to relate to, and plenty of time to pick up the things that interested them. The ABC Schools programs were invaluable, but again, children were free to pick and choose what they wanted to do.
If anything was a central idea in our little group, it was that children would be free to explore things as they wished, in their own time and space, and not be pressured to follow a pre-ordained ‘syllabus’.
This of course led to head-on clashes with Education Department Inspectors, who, in those days, came to our homes and conducted severe, school-based assessments and found us desperately lacking. Most of the group compromised, and wrote out imaginary syllabuses which looked nice on paper and had never been followed for an instant: I locked horns and had many tense battles over the principle. But we all stuck to our guns, and in the long term were vindicated: of our close little group of seven children, all entering school at different stages, some not till year eleven, five had outstanding academic school careers, two have been successful and two of the seven are also developing careers in creative arts. Two have also been leaders in the school community, holding a high level of responsibility and leadership positions.
Far from being scholastically shaky and socially undeveloped, those bogeys constantly thrown at us by friends, acquaintances, casual observers, family and education departments, the children have shown the reverse to be true.
These days, of course, pressures from the Education Department have eased. Our first group of children did more than simply complete their own schooling: they proved a point.
One of the most notable things amongst the children was the diversity in their approaches; not one of them followed the same path as another: not only did they choose to focus on different disciplines; they chose very different paths in pursuing the same discipline. And, contrary to expectations, they do not excel only in supposedly ‘soft’ subjects; four are outstanding in mathematics and science subjects.
We were never ‘pushy’ parents and our kids were never prodigies. In fact, the oldest of the seven, who has had a brilliant university career, was pronounced at the age of ten to be desperately educationally backward and in dire need of immediate immersion in mainstream schooling! His mother was dreadfully shaken, but stuck to her guns, and he did not choose to go to school till year eleven, when he was fifteen.
Nor were we a bunch of highly-skilled, trained teachers.
Only one parent in our close group was a trained primary teacher, and only one trained secondary. Nor did these two have much input into the style of learning we were each individually developing – everyone had sufficient confidence to explore it on their own account.
The primary teacher did remark, with great interest, on how quickly the children learnt a topic or subject which they initiated themselves. Programs which would, in school normally take several weeks to cover – careful preparation, monitoring, repetition and exploration – were being knocked over before breakfast because, one morning, one child suddenly “wanted to know”. If anything was characteristic of the group of children, this was it.
My own experience suggests that most children are performing below their potential. If that spark of ‘wanting to know’ can be kept alive, it will flame into a passion where learning is easy because the goal, the knowledge, is the treasure.
That said, it must be emphasized that for parents it is a long, dedicated slog. Children with a passion for learning are very tiring. Seven times a day they will challenge your own preconceptions: one of the first things you learn to say is, “I don’t know, but we can find out.” Sometimes that’s a hard task. I vividly recall a small person pirouetting along the pavement on the walk back from the Post Office, gracefully closing the last turn with a gesture of the arm and the question, “And I take it you can’t have factors of a minus number?” We worked that concept for a number of weeks. On the other hand, subjects beyond one’s scope – in our case classical dance, German and Russian languages – can be sought out and pursued with specialist tutors, a welcome break for the beleaguered parents. We became adept, too, at sharing skills: I would work with music, giving fervent thanks that someone else was happy with craft-work (my hell will be wall-to-wall paste and paper, interspersed with reverse garbage). Neighbourhood and community houses, too are great for short course and unusual skills. Once you start looking you find learning everywhere. But it is go, go, go all systems full capacity.
There are off days, there are unsuccessful days. There are days when your kids are bored and you are cranky, and vice versa. But there are many, many more days filled with fun and laughter and a very particular sort of happiness that is completely fulfilling.
I found there is a wisdom in learning not to question children about their motives and reactions. This is hard for adults, who have been schooled to analyse and respond in a fairly cut-and-dried manner. Children, if you leave them alone, will sometimes explain things to you at a later date in a manner that is very surprising, even illuminating. My daughter, as a small girl, utterly rejected all fiction which imitated life. “I can’t understand,” she would snort, “how people can spend so much time on things that never happened.” Yet she would read ‘fantastic’ books – the Wombles series in particular was one of her favourites. I accepted this oddity and didn’t push her.
Years later, at about eleven, she began to read the fiction-as-real-life books quite happily.
One day, out of the blue, she said to me, “When I was little I couldn’t rest until I had a complete picture of the world.” And suddenly into my mind clicked all the geographical, meteorological, geological, astronomical, historical, physical science books, games, puzzles, posters, quizzes, quests, diagrams, models and holiday special projects she had flogged me through. For her, this had to come first; before she could begin to deal with the life issues raised by the fiction, she needed to establish the structure in which it was functioning. To push her while this was formulating would have set up unbearable conflict. I was glad I had let it ride.
Motives for reading, too can be multifarious. She read the Babysitter Books (and everyone will tell you how BAD that is!) in both the Australian and American editions; the same book twice, that is. Quite a long time later she chuckled to me, “They are hilarious those books, they translate all the language into metric, so when one of the characters says, ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole’, they rewrite it as ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a three metre pole.’” – leading to amused speculation about the interchange, “Jamie, you’ve grown another foot since I saw you” and the riposte, “No, I’ve still only got two” and its metric equivalent. This little game with language and mathematics absorbed her attention for a long period of time. A stern librarian would never have known about the jokes, and would have thoroughly irritated her by pushing her to read ‘better’ books. I believe it is so important to let children be where they are; and if you don’t know where that is, respect it till they work through it in their own time and space.
Adults are generally very fond of the slogan approach to life issues. Barbie Dolls Are Bad News; they teach little girls bad values. Our four Barbie dolls were played with constantly: they were four sisters, the eldest owned and ran her own business which was a gymnasium; the second was in the Australian Ballet, the third was at university and the youngest was doing VCE, year twelve. Boy, did those girls WORK! A Barbie bed was a prized item, and when it came as a gift, the canopy over the top, in many neat pink plastic rectangles, afforded two straight hours of maths games before any of the Barbie girls could lie in it.
Children who are free will define their own reality.
These days I speak with many parents who are concerned that their children are unhappy at school. I explain what we did about it, and most quail. “But I’m not a trained teacher; I wouldn’t know what to do!” is usually the first reaction. We take pains to explain how unnecessary this is; we describe our philosophy and we have our own grown-up kids around us as living proof that it worked. There are more resources in the bookshops, libraries, on the television and computer than ever before, and a multitude of groups running exciting programs. It IS very hard work, but if that doesn’t faze you, consider it a real option. And …
P.S. Home-schooled children have been found by studies to have one major factor in common: in teenage years they do not appear to need to go through the teenage rebellion stage. They remain good friends with their parents.
Originally published in Australian Parents Talk About Raising Children by Rhonda Fienberg. Published 1999 by The Occasional Office, North Ringwood.
Dindy Vaughan is a writer, educator and composer whose life has centred on cultural and community development. Dindy’s daughter now has a PhD in social linguistics.