I hear a lot of doubt around whether unschooling can work for children with special needs. Perhaps it’s because many of these children need so much help and support to get through formal education. And if it’s stressful and exhausting even with everyone trying so hard, logic follows that without all that effort and structure, the child wouldn’t get anywhere at all. So, even when the child clearly isn’t thriving, the idea of letting go of formal learning can seem more radical than for a neurotypical child. Yet, the truth is that unschooling works for every child. Because it is created by and with the child, it’s always suited to their needs, whatever those needs may be.
It does take a leap of faith. And at the beginning you can feel like you’re piling more uncertainty on top of an already uncertain future. But, for a neurodivergent child, many of the advantages of unschooling are multiplied. And when these children, who are so often squashed by an ill-fitting system, have a chance to thrive, we all get to enjoy their unique talents.
They discover their gifts and strengths
Unschooling is about letting children follow their interests and passions. They will naturally lean toward the things that are most meaningful to them, and they will naturally learn so much from doing this. Every child will discover what makes them tick, and they are likely to become confident specialists in all sorts of wonderful things. Through their strengths they also develop a lot of knowledge about themselves that will be invaluable all through their lives.
There might be a diagnosis but there’s no label
A diagnosis doesn’t become a label at home. It’s just a part of that person’s unique way of being. In the family mix, there will be many idiosyncracies and needs to accommodate. Each person is defined by so many things. The things they enjoy, what they talk about, what upsets them, what makes them laugh. A diagnosis will bring deeper understanding and knowledge to the family home but it won’t define life.
The environment is safe
No one can thrive if they don’t feel safe. For many children with special needs, school does not feel like a safe place. It’s filled with risks, of getting things wrong, of being made fun of, of being intimidated or even bullied. No real learning can take place when the child’s system is on high alert and their only aim is to stay emotionally safe. For children who struggle with aspects of school life, the anxiety can be crippling.
At home, in a trusted environment, where life is safe and unthreatening, the child can relax and let their guard down. Here, they can be themselves. They don’t need to be on the defence, so they can put their energies into activities that are interesting to them.
There are no comparisons
This has to be the thing I love most about unschooling. Knowledge and skills are acquired because they mean something. There are no tests to prove to anyone that you really know what you know, no comparisons with classmates, no scoring or judging. No winning or losing in the name of knowledge. Just the sheer joy of learning what you want to learn because you want to. The amount of spontaneous learning that takes place when you take away all the classroom stress is amazing.
Sensory issues can be catered to
Home life can be adapted to suit sensory needs. Whether it’s a need for quiet, for moving around a lot, or for being alone, this is all generally doable. Here, over time, everyone has learned to appreciate that we’re all quite different. So, when one child is overwhelmed by the noise of another child playing, we’re generally able to find ways to work it out that are respectful to everyone. Being empathetic to someone else whilst also keeping and expressing our own boundaries isn’t easy, so there has been plenty of tension along the way. But ultimately, this has been a really valuable life experience for us all.
They engage and learn in their own way
An unschooled child chooses to do and learn in the way they want. One child will jump right in and get on with it, while another will observe cautiously for a long time. One child is careful and steady, while another seems driven by wild inspiration. One child will cosy up in their room for hours with whatever project they have going on, while another wants to talk it through for hours. Every learning style is welcome and they’ll always choose the way that works best for them.
There’s no forced socialising
Socialising for a neurodivergent child can be complex. Many autistic children struggle with peer relationships, and forced socialising in big groups can be acutely stressful. Respecting their natural rhythms and personalities, and allowing them to take it at their own pace seems essential to their wellbeing. In our family, each child has activities outside of the house that they’ve chosen to do. They’ve all gone at different paces, but they all prefer being in small groups with common interests. They choose things where they know their individuality will be respected and where they can be themselves. And in those things they are all happy and confident.
Being trusted is powerful
I think that one of the most powerful things about unschooling is that the child is trusted. They are not told that other people know what is best for them. We can offer guidance and advice but ultimately we understand that they have the autonomy to make their own choices. For any child, this is empowering. For a child who is probably aware of the ways in which they are ‘different’, this is an affirmation of their wholeness just as they are, and an invitation to be true to themselves.
It builds confidence in the parents
Unschooling focuses on the relationship. Spending time with your child and seeing what really brings them alive is powerful. This is an entirely different lens. It has nothing to do with fixing all the things that are wrong or lacking in your child or you. It is about who your child is and how you relate to them. You learn a vast amount about both of you and you become an excellent advocate and support for your child. You might engage professional help for your child’s specific needs, but you do that on your own terms, and from a place of deep knowledge. And while other people preach structure and boundaries (nothing wrong with either of these, but i think it’s time we got more creative), you are free to also explore lesser known words, like freedom, trust and collaboration.
Looking at these points, I see each one of them is hugely important to any child, whatever their needs. And I guess that’s the whole point. Unschooling is perfectly suited to any child.