Musings on unschooling and yardsticks - Mothering Forums
Unschooling > Musings on unschooling and yardsticks
moominmamma's Avatar moominmamma 11:43 AM 09-17-2011
So my 14-year-old always-unschooled ds has started public high school part-time this month. He's very bright, but he is somewhat right-brained and avoidant rather than being a motivated overachiever like his older sister. He prefers to tinker, to find workarounds, to stay in the background. He has some anxiety issues, lots of perfectionism paralysis, interests (like computer-gaming) that tend to be associated culturally with slackerism, and a procrastination streak a mile wide. He's also quite profoundly dysgraphic and still struggles even with writing his name. So he doesn't exactly present himself as stereotypically gifted. In an unschooling situation his avoidant, procrastination tendencies haven't exactly lent themselves to achievement. For instance, he avoided doing any formal math study until he was almost 10. At the point at which his younger sister was clearly beginning to outstrip his knowledge and skills, he asked me to "force" him to do 20 minutes of math every day. Within 6 months he was finished pre-algebra. Satisfied, he dropped it.

Fast-forward four years. He decided to attend school part-time. Same reasons as with elementary math: he was looking for someone to force him to do some learning work that he felt was important but that he wouldn't otherwise stick to. He's small for his age, a little shy and sometimes emotionally fragile. I worried how he'd cope, thrown into high school courses with no experience whatsoever with school, tests, assignments, evaluations, homework. 

He's taking 10th grade academic-stream math, english and Canadian History. (He's also doing a lot of other stuff as a homeschooler still, so his days are pretty full.) For the first time in his life he has the yardstick of teacher expectations and classmates' performance to measure himself against. Those are two things I was really happy to help my kids avoid as unschoolers. I wanted them to learn for learning's sake, not to get grades, please a teacher or prove themselves equal to or better than others. But it's turning out that at least a small dose of this yardstick orientation is a really good thing for my ds right now. 

He came home from yesterday school saying "I'm really good at math! I catch on way faster than the other guys. For them it's review and for me it's totally new, but in two days of math I already know it better than they do." Jumping directly from 7th grade math at age 10 to 10th grade math at age 14 has been absolutely no problem. He is also feeling really good about his ability to assist everyone -- whether teachers or students -- with tech issues on the computers, and about his ability to work efficiently and capably at whatever is thrown at him. And he is realizing that he is an excellent writer! Although he can't use a pencil or pen easily, his critical thinking, creative and composition skills, spelling, grammar and keyboarding are excellent and his English teacher has asked him to please, please join the advanced writing class. He's flattered, and coming on board with this. 

I wonder if this is one of the down-sides of unschooling: it can be difficult for kids to gauge the strength of their skills and abilities in a realistic way. For young children those things are all in flux and dependent on developmental timetables and I think it does kids an incredible disservice to compare them and make them believe that they are, for example "good at spelling, but suck at math and science" or whatever. But as teens a little of that can be very helpful as they begin looking to discover their place in the world.

I thought my ds was getting enough affirmation from the real world, but he tended to compare himself to much higher, unrealistic standards. He lives in a family of very bright high achievers and when he socializes he prefers the company of older people, and in the absence of school that's formed his frame of reference for competence. For instance, in working to learn math he compared himself to the person (me) who was helping him learn, and I of course already understood it all clearly. No matter how much I tried to make it clear that he shouldn't be expecting himself to master things at a first glance, he viewed it as a personal failure when he didn't. With his writing he compared himself to his immensely talented older sister, or to the writers of books and articles he read. He didn't really get the chance to see how he "measured up" against age-peers. In retrospect I think he always guessed he would be a bit of an academic loser in school. And so this little bit of direct comparison with the performance of other 14- through 16-year-olds has worked wonders for his confidence.

Having said that, it's not just school that is making a difference. I've seen changes in him over the last several months, increased confidence, more interest in risk-taking, more leadership. There's a sense in which the improvement in confidence is as much the cause as the result of him beginning school. Kind of a chicken and egg thing. Still, it's fun to see it all coming to fruition in the school environment.

I expect he will continue in school part-time through graduation. It is serving him well in his need for structure and affirmation. He is registered as a half-time homeschooler under their umbrella program and they'll be granting him credit for various parts of his unschooled learning -- science, digital media editing, choral singing and PE. The flexibility is working well.

I'm not feeling guilty or second-guessing myself, but I suppose I do wonder what I might have been able to do differently to help him appreciate his strengths better prior to entering school.


rumi's Avatar rumi 09:25 PM 09-17-2011

Fascinating.  I am especially impressed with his ability to "jump" as you say, along the math course.  So he really did not 'study' any math during that 4 year interval? 


I do wonder what I might have been able to do differently to help him appreciate his strengths better prior to entering school.


How do you think that would have helped?  Do you think he missed out on certain things because he thought he was "not good" at them?   It seems like he had very high standards - not the same as thinking that one is "a loser."  I hope I am not misunderstanding.


Speaking for myself, sometimes I find that a little under-confidence can be productive. 


Honestly, I am just thinking aloud and offering what might be a different perspective.  But it is encouraging to read how it has worked out for your ds.

moominmamma's Avatar moominmamma 10:13 PM 09-17-2011
Originally Posted by rumi View Post

I am especially impressed with his ability to "jump" as you say, along the math course.  So he really did not 'study' any math during that 4 year interval? 



He did have a 9th grade math text available (by his own request) last year but did very little work in it. Probably covered about a tenth of the content. And he did some khanacademy work intensively for a few days before starting school. 

Originally Posted by rumi View Post

Do you think he missed out on certain things because he thought he was "not good" at them?   It seems like he had very high standards - not the same as thinking that one is "a loser."  I hope I am not misunderstanding.

Yes, I think he did give up on a number of things, and avoided others, out of fear of not being good at them. I was struck by how stunned he was by his abilities relative to those of his classmates, how energized and optimistic he has become. It didn't seem like it was just a pleasant realization that he has strong academic abilities -- it was almost like his world was turned upside down, like he has been able to completely reframe his view of himself. 


I agree that a certain amount of underconfidence can be a good thing. My ds is reserved and tends to absorb a lot by watching and thinking, only venturing forth when he is sure of himself. That means that when he does venture forth he tends to find success. But he has been so avoidant the past few years that there have been precious few successful situations upon which he can anchor his self-esteem when waves of adolescence doubt assail him. School is giving him a touchstone of "success."


His most recent blog post describes the change he's felt since the school year started:

Life has being going dramatically, and awesomely different this year. I've loved almost every minute. The biggest change is me, more than anything else: I've started dressing nicer, working academically, found some neat hobbies, turned Atheist, started a blog, quit video gaming, raised a kitten, started fitness watch, and I feel f***ing fantastic, I have opinions, interesting things to talk about, amazing people to talk to, self esteem, and a pretty sudden change of life priority.



purslaine's Avatar purslaine 07:33 AM 09-18-2011

I am happy he is doing well.  smile.gif


My son is also in school and doing well (although nothing quite as dramatic as your son and he does find some of school boring).  This leads me to wonder if some of it is the age - I do not think early adolescence is easy for anyone.  


I also think high school is a good time to move into the school world.  DS has some choice in classes and stream - none in the earlier grade.  There are different teachers and kids per class.  Some classes are not so writing focused (my Ds has drama, english, native studies and woodshop - only 2 are writing focused) whereas in elementary school it was all writing all.the.time.  They also seem less inclined to try and "fix" issues and more inclined to try to work around them (example - dysgraphia).  This has pros and cons but is certainly less frustrating for the child, and more likely for them to actually learn some of the content than get bogged down in writing issues.  This has been my experience - and my son does have some writing issues and did go to school part time for some years in elementary school, and has chosen to go full time now.


I remember a post from your about 1 year ago where DH threatened to send them to school and your Ds was so upset by the idea.  He wasn't ready then - and forcing someone to do something they are not ready for, IMHO, rarely works out.  


One thing I have done over the years is look at school kids work if they let me or ask their moms what they were working on.  I did this in front of my kids bag.gif.  It was important to me that my kids realised they were perfectly capable of doing what the school kids were doing - just that we did not choose to.  


Lastly, your family is very successful in some regards - some of his feelings might have happened no matter how you did things.  Having brilliant sibling is hard on a kid.





SweetSilver's Avatar SweetSilver 09:19 AM 09-18-2011

You cannot predict which yardstick a child will want to measure himself by.  You cannot predict which situation will give them a clear--and positive--view of themselves.  It is a wonderful thing that he had this breakthrough.  Some individuals don't find it until well into adulthood--if ever.


Some kids are prone to this way of thinking about themselves from an early age.  It can be hard for a parent to watch this type of personality unfold.  You can try to set up situations in which the child's bright nature could shine through and reveal itself to him, but you can never be sure whether this one or that one in particular will finally work.  Sometimes kids just need to find it from outside the family.  That's not a weakness of unschooling, just a foible of human nature.  


Unschooling--his choices, your choices--have brought him to a place where he is excels and sees that he is excelling.  I honestly think that it has nurtured and honored his particular quirks.  What I find particularly amazing is his transformation.  One this sudden and profound cannot happen after years of poor grades and exasperated adults.  

purslaine's Avatar purslaine 09:34 AM 09-18-2011

Originally Posted by SweetSilver View Post

  One this sudden and profound cannot happen after years of poor grades and exasperated adults.  

wise words.