Guest Author - Shaunta Grimes
In the United States, and many other countries, families are compelled by law to educate their children. School is compulsory, something that cannot be ignored without legal ramification. While we all have to live within the boundaries of the law, sometimes in our own homes we can make the laws work for us in a unique way.
One of the best decisions I've ever made was to make traditional education non-compulsory for my kids. My son has Asperger's Syndrome and is often overwhelmed and exhausted by the experience of going to a public school. Although my daughters both love school, my older daughter went through a period of school anxiety in middle school. When she was in the eighth grade, I finally told her that school was optional.
Even though all three of my children go to public school most of the time, we identify as an unschooling family. Public education is a tool, and when it works it gives my teenagers access to teachers and resources that teach them what they want to know. When it doesn't work, we stop using it and look for more effective tools.
It's a scary thing to tell your kids they don't have to go to school if they don't want to, and to trust that they'll be willing to learn the things they need to know on their own without the structure of formal education. What's worse is forcing a situation that doesn't work for your child, and watching them slowly lose their love of learning.
If you have a teenager who struggles in school academically or socially, whose moods and behavior are affected by spending seven or eight hours a day in a situation that doesn't fit them very well, it may be time to take a step back and rethink what education means to you. Realize that compulsory state-run education is only one way to learn and that many teenagers are successful with other options.
Here are some ideas if your family is ready for a change:
Sit down with your teenager and have a real conversation about their education. If they're struggling with middle school or high school, ask her why. Ask for her ideas on how things could be better. Take their concerns seriously. Something that doesn't seem like a big deal to you may be a very big problem for them.
Get a copy of Grace Llewellyn's book The Teenage Liberation Handbook. It was written for teenagers as a guide to building an educational experience outside of high school and is full of advice and information both you and your child will find useful as you navigate the switch to a non-compulsory education.
Research education options in your community. If you have a high school student, they may be able to take the GED and start college as young as 15. Are there charter schools in your district? Often these are smaller and more student-centered than regular public schools. My daughter's school anxiety was eased when we found her a small, project-based charter school to attend. Is there a private school that your family can afford and that might be a better fit?
Making education non-compulsory in your family doesn't negate the need to follow your local laws. In the United States, each state has their own requirements for notification of home schooling. Some require more official oversight than others. Visit the Home School Legal Defense Association website for a state-by-state listing of education laws. If you live outside the US, take the time to research what needs to be done legally to remove your child from public education.
Consider yourself the facilitator of your child's education. When your teenager shows an interest in learning something, make sure they have access to the tools they need to learn it. Sometimes a traditional public education is the best tool for their learning, but sometimes it's not. Flexibility and trust are the keys to a successful non-compulsory education.
If your child leaves public school, especially if the circumstances prior to leaving were stressful, expect a period of decompression. During this time, you may become completely convinced that all your teenager will want to do for the rest of his life is eat and play video games. Make sure you offer a wide range of educational experiences, and try hard not to make your home into a smaller version of the school that was a bad fit in the first place.
All children, even teenagers, are born learners. Given the opportunity to find their own way, your teenager will recover that natural love of learning.