First, do no harm: “Unschooling” a Neurodivergent Child (Part 3)

Discovering the necessary tools

Today’s guest author is Ann Gaydos. 

Ann worked in the software industry in a former life, but she decided to homeschool her four children after her daughter Paige was abused by a teacher within the Cupertino Union School District in California, and she could get no help from the administration or school board. Her interests include reading, traveling, cooking, writing, and spending time with her family and their many pets. Today Ann is a volunteer with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.

Unschooling and using standard educational materials are not mutually exclusive if the child chooses to engage with the subject matter. My family has experimented with a wide spectrum of learning tools, and different approaches seemed to work well for different children at different times. Many years ago, when I began homeschooling my children, few virtual options were available. Instead, one could buy “canned curricula” from various private vendors. These typically arrived in a large box filled with books, art supplies, equipment for science experiments, and all the materials required to teach a child through one grade. I bought several homeschooling curricula and materials over the years, and my children engaged with many of them to a greater or lesser degree. I tried to synthesize customized options for each child from the available choices.

Waldorf education piqued my interest. The founder of the Waldorf method, Rudolf Steiner, summarized his philosophy as: “Receive children in reverence, educate them in love, and let them go forth in freedom.” This respectful approach truly resonated with me after my daughter’s dehumanizing experiences in Cupertino schools. With its child-centered, language-rich, and multisensory approach, the Waldorf method has much to recommend it, and children on the spectrum sometimes thrive in Waldorf schools. Apparently, Waldorf-educated children score better than their public-school peers in creativity and moral reasoning tests. They tend to be happier and less bored at school and have better relationships with their teachers. While they don’t score as well on standardized tests as their public-school counterparts in their early years, they generally overtake them by middle school and tend to do better once they get to university. However, not everyone is impressed with Waldorf education. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour sent his children to a Waldorf school because he wanted them to be allowed some individuality, as opposed to being mashed through a sausage machine and forced to become “another brick in the wall.” He felt they received a dismal education there and were “neither happy nor learning.”

I bought some Waldorf materials from Christopherus Homeschool Resources and from Oak Meadow (which is Waldorf-inspired), and we began our new experiment. The former required students to copy and illustrate long texts. While I thought my children would balk at this, one of them, who was dyslexic, found that copying out complex writings by authors such as Galileo markedly improved her reading and writing.

Because homeschoolers are often religious, many “canned curricula” and other homeschooling materials have a religious slant. Some might embrace this, while others might find it off-putting, but one can emphasize or discard aspects of any curriculum at will. From this genre, we had some success with a literature-based curriculum called Sonlight, which arrived with several outstanding works of children’s literature that my kids enjoyed. We experimented with the Catholic Kolbe curriculum, which appealed to me because of its focus on classical learning and academic rigor. Konos provided integrated study units, each of which emphasized a particular character trait. Another resource was Lifepac, which provides an individually boxed curriculum for each subject in every grade, meaning students with a particular interest can easily forge ahead in a chosen subject.

Susan Wise Bauer’s book, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, is the bible of many homeschoolers, particularly those seeking a traditional curriculum.

Classical education stresses “the trivium” and guides students through “the grammar stage” (dedicated to concrete learning, such as memorizing facts), “the dialectic (or logic) stage” (dedicated to abstract processing), and the “rhetorical stage” (which focuses on creative and independent thought). This progression dovetails fairly well with Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of cognitive skills listed, from lowest order to highest, as knowledge, understanding, application, analysis, evaluation, and creation. Bauer’s website contains much helpful information for homeschoolers, including links to some of her educational products. My younger children enjoyed her Story of the World series, four volumes of world history with accompanying activity books. I would read to them from the books, and we would discuss the contents while they colored in maps, tried to write in hieroglyphics, and so forth.  

For math, we tried Saxon Math, a popular math curriculum known for its “spiraling” approach, meaning it constantly revisits elementary topics while simultaneously teaching more advanced skills. This is a good system for “filling in holes” in a child’s learning. My children particularly enjoyed a series of older math texts by Harold R. Jacobs, which include fascinating, engaging background information and fun, recreational word problems. Jacobs’ books include Mathematics: A Human Endeavor and Geometry: Seeing, Doing, Understanding. One can purchase these on Amazon or eBay. We also used books containing entertaining math problems, such as The Moscow Puzzles

We sometimes used private academic classes. Many classes are available for homeschooled students, and my children have taken such classes over the years in algebra, physics, chemistry, art, French, Latin, and German. My autistic daughter took one-on-one Spanish classes through a teacher who came to our home. We also used Rosetta Stone for learning second languages.

For sports and physical education, we had several options. Three to four times a week, my four children and I would take Tae Kwon Do classes at a local dojang, and some of the kids took yoga classes. They took swimming, horse riding, and tennis lessons. Most of our physical activity, however, was informal. My kids were veritable “water babies” and loved to swim at our local club, and we enjoyed hiking and skiing. All four children were certified in scuba diving. One was a nationally-ranked tennis player and went on to play tennis in college.

We enjoyed The Great Courses, video lectures on a vast array of topics from cooking to differential calculus. Today, one can access thousands of these courses online by purchasing a subscription to Wondrium, but back in the day, we bought individual courses on CDs. On one long road trip, my children watched Biology: The Science of Life. They sat in the back of the minivan, watching the videos and listening through their headphones. I noticed they were very quiet, but I didn’t realize how much they were learning until I heard them explaining evolution to our creationist neighbors. My neurodivergent daughter particularly loved these courses and has watched dozens of them.  Her favorites included courses on paleontology, botany, and oceanography.

An increasing number of free online courses are now available. Khan Academy is a wonderful and very popular resource. One can find any number of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Classes) online. EdX offers fabulous classes. One of the best ones we explored was on climate change and gave us access to a tool we could use to process data from weather stations around the world. Many universities freely share classes online. My son has made extensive use of MIT Open Courseware.

Through unschooling, my children were learning abundantly and with joy. However, I worried they were becoming “pointy” rather than well-rounded. They seemed far ahead of their peers in some areas but behind in others. For example, I did not make them cover some basic skills, such as learning their multiplication tables or writing in cursive, both of which they would have practiced intensively at regular school. Minor deficits are not generally a problem, as kids catch up quickly when needed. My son, who was rather vague about his math facts at ten, could, at 20, compute complex arithmetic problems in his head more quickly than I could work them out on a calculator.

After we’d been unschooling for a year or two, virtual public charter schools became available. Today, nearly every state offers a variety of free online schools for students from kindergarten to 12th grade. These provide access to standard public school curricula and help to keep kids on track. I researched the options, and we decided on Colorado Virtual Academy (or COVA) for my two little ones, Colorado Connections Academy for my son, and a third option for my autistic child. Unschooling continued apace, but these programs ensured my kids were, at a minimum, covering the same material as their public-school peers.

COVA (sometimes called “K12”) and Connections are very popular and are available in various incarnations in most states. I found both to be outstanding. In addition to offering core classes in math, language arts, social studies, and science, they both offer a plethora of enriching electives in such topics as marine science, music theory, studio art, and game design. Children can begin learning a second language in grade school, much earlier than would normally be in a “bricks and mortar” school.  COVA teaches literature, history, and art in thematic, integrated ways that my children found very engaging. Connections Academy offers a high-quality and thorough curriculum that is very convenient to use and offers many opportunities for enrichment. I switched my youngest to Connections Academy in middle school so she could access the amazing Junior Great Books curriculum her brother so enjoyed. Students in this program meet weekly online to discuss the Junior Great Books they have read and to share their creative responses. My youngest was able to take several AP classes through Connections Academy and seemed well-prepared, particularly in writing, when she began college.

These virtual schools also organized field trips and get-togethers, such as proms, where students could meet in person. I will always remember a particularly fascinating field trip with my son to the Denver Art Museum. An art docent led us around the museum explaining Incan, Mayan, and Aztec art.

Virtual public schools, like regular public schools, provide services to neurodivergent students and ensure these students have IEPs.

One of my children received speech and orofacial myofunctional therapy through her online school. My autistic daughter’s online school (for the year she attended) provided high-quality occupational therapy from a private company, which helped to address some of her sensory sensitivities. Most such services, however, we accessed ourselves.  One of my children had severe auditory processing disorder, which led her to try an in-home program from Integrated Learning Systems. It was a lot of work, but she persevered diligently and made enormous gains. She became a strong student after completing that program, and her enunciation improved markedly.

Alas, I found it extremely difficult to keep my neurodivergent child on track with her online school. I could not get her to stick to a schedule. She was quite math-averse at that time and resisted her school’s math program. In her “special day class” in public school, she and her teacher butted heads over math worksheets. My daughter spent hours in seclusion for refusing to complete math worksheets, and her teacher violently “restrained” her for the same reason. Also, her teacher sabotaged her math lessons with the sympathetic aide described above. My daughter had significant PTSD around math. She tried online school for a year, after which she returned to unschooling. Another of my other children had very serious health issues that disrupted her progress. She was often unwell, and her many appointments with specialists, scheduled procedures, and occasional hospital stays made virtual school problematic. She also returned to unschooling. My other two children, however, forged ahead and excelled.

The community college has been another great resource for my family. Toward the end of 10th grade, my son was eager to take college-level astronomy classes. He joined a local astronomical society and enthusiastically attended its star-gazing sessions, and he worked long hours to buy himself a powerful telescope. Because of this interest, he “dropped out” of high school to attend community college, where he was able to take three astronomy classes during his first semester. His college has a small observatory, and the astronomy professors held regular star-gazing sessions there. My son was usually the only student to attend, and his professors would take him out for coffee and chat with him about astronomy. Later, he was able to transfer to a STEM university, despite his lack of a high school diploma.

By this time, my neurodivergent child had begun what has become a lifelong love affair with community college. Classes in studio art were, for her, a good way to get her feet wet. She was a bit “fidgety” and restless, but art classes allowed her to mingle with other students and listen to her instructor while simultaneously being absorbed in creating art. She took classes in painting, drawing, ceramics, jewelry and metalwork, stained glass, photography, and color theory. As she became more comfortable in the college setting, she added several other classes in such subjects as Japanese, philosophy, and art history. Although interested in science, she lacked the formal math that would have allowed her to enroll in certain classes. Eventually, however, she felt comfortable taking a low-level math class. After she transferred to a university, she had to complete some math requirements as part of the core curriculum, and she gradually began to enjoy math again. Today, she has a resurgent interest in math. We are currently both taking a course in multivariable calculus, and I am mystified by how she understands the material so quickly and intuitively. Between her university degree and her community college classes, she has taken about 300 undergraduate credits.

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