Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dealing with Professionals

As a home learning momma, I have joined a growing community of like-minded individuals who understand and practice home-based learning. I have cobbled together my personal support network through online acquaintances (blogs, message boards), participation in local home learning groups, and also through my professional alliances (and friendships) with a number of rebel educators who also have their children at home everyday. It's wonderful to be surrounded by such like-mindedness.

And I sometimes take it for granted.

I have known so many learn-at-home families who have had to access support for their child through a government funded agency, such as the health care system (BC Children's, Queen Alexandria) or mental health, who have met the wall of school-favoured prejudice. The answer to everything, from special needs to behavioural issues to social skills to academic issues, is to put the child in school.

Why is it that these well-intentioned professionals feel that school is the best answer?

Everybody Does It, So Should You

One reason is the old "if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for your child" train of thought. It is a bit ironic, however, because if we were to survey most adults about their school experience, almost everyone would be able to recount some psyche-bruising incidents that are still deeply ingrained in their emotional memories.

I've never been able to figure out that sort of thinking. If something doesn't work, why sign up? Doesn't it make sense to help our children develop a positive self-image by supporting successful experiences in their lives?

I think it's because school-based education is familiar. Familiar feels safe. Safe-feeling must equal good. I even knew of one professional who went so far as to claim that a family was rejecting "Western" medicine because they homeschooled. Now that's a pretty odd assertion..

Socialization Can Only Happen at School

Another reason is the "socialization" concern. It is fortunate that once my generation graduated from high school (or hit the magic age of 16, if we chose to "drop out"), that we no longer had to live with the brand of "socialization" that school offers: raising our hands when we have something to add to a discussion, asking to use the bathroom or to have a drink or to have a snack, standing in line-ups (no wiggling, jumping, or vocalizing), sitting still on hard and gritty gymnasium floors for lengthy periods of time (assemblies), mandatory outdoor exercise regardless of the weather (for 15 minute increments, when most of the "socializing" with other children occurs without adult mentorship), total disregard of personal interests and strengths or unique developmental timelines, no talking during class, no doodling, being bullied (or bulling others) on the playground or on the way home, desperate pressure to fit in with and conform to the peer group (I've seen this start as early as grade 1 - and we're talking clothes and shoes!), shame-based discipline, isolation for 7 hours from our main support networks (our families)... I could go on.

My main concern with "socialization" in a school setting is that children are socializing each other. The influence of a teacher cannot possibly compete with the miasma of peer interactions in the classroom (and playground).

An aquaintance was recently given the old "school will help build social skills" routine by a psychologist, to which he replied, "I don't want the 8-year-olds at the school to raise my child. I've met the 8-year-olds - not really qualified for the job."

Parents are -- especially in the context of natural social settings, which realistically comprise the greater part of an individual's social experience throughout the lifespan.

The "Real World" Builds Character

Some professionals believe that the school experience will help children build resiliency (for some of the reasons I listed under socialization). Others feel that children need to learn to deal with adversary at school in order to deal effectively with problems when they are adults. The argument is that children will become better at problem solving and will develop the ability to be flexible thinkers.

I think it might be tricky, however, to develop flexible and creative thinking while in an environment that celebrates conformity and rewards rule-based behaviour. And schools need rules in order to maintain a safety in an environment where the child to adult ratio is so skewed and unnatural.

In home-based education, children have the room and time they need to learn to exercise flexibility. They can think outside the box without being misunderstood or marked wrong. And they have plenty of opportunities to build character within the context of family life and community-based activities.

One thing most professionals (not all) overlook is that school is a stressor and a leading cause of anxiety for children. Some children dissolve as soon as they come through the door after school and see their parents - usually they get upset or act out. They have held it together all day and then, once they are safe, they come undone. Children who learn at home are usually much more relaxed there than they would be at school. And that's healthy - less cortisol roaming around their little bodies, wreaking havoc with immune systems and metabolic processes. Oh, and cognitive functioning and performance.

Your Child Can Only Receive the Special Support That She Needs at School

This is the one that is hardest for parents to ignore. And yet, I know that this is not the case.

Special Education funding at schools is about the environment and helping the child navigate it with the least disruption to all parties. This means that most of the funding goes towards 1:1 aide time, which a child may have to share with a number of other children (who aren't eligible for additional funding but need support) in their class (principals will often stack classes this way out of financial necessity). There may not be additional funds for helpful support such as Occupational Therapy or Physiotherapy. If a child needs Speech Therapy, a school may not be able to provide the amount of support needed. Often, parents need to supplement what happens at a school with their own money or through a different government funding pot. Many online schools (in BC) now provide an option for children with special needs to access community-based professionals to get their needs met while learning at home - with great results.

Just Say No Thanks.

When dealing with professionals, the best thing to do is to let them know from the get-go that you are a committed home-learning family and that you aren't interested in hearing any school-attendance recommendations. If you are part of a DL program, you can explain that your child officially attends school (the venue just looks a bit different).

If your child is having a psychoeducational assessment, then let the professional know (at the start of the assessment) that you want recommendations that you can utilize within the context of home-based education. They often use "canned" recommendations that are computer generated from the test results entered - but you can ask for a more individualized report that will actually be relevant and helpful for your child.

It's okay to shop around for a professional who accepts and acknowledges home learning as a viable educational option. If you interview someone, be clear that home learning is important to you as a parent and it is also important to your child and it is not up for discussion.

If a professional insists on having the school conversation, keep your sense of humour, smile & nod for awhile, and then let them know that you appreciate their good intentions but that you've thought it through and that you know you are doing the best thing for your child. And now you'd like to talk about the real reason you're there... whatever that might be (usually nothing relevant to school). If they persist, make eye contact and say, "Let's move on." You don't need to convert them and if you try, you'll likely end up feeling unhappy. Better to find that solid place in your belief system and stand on it without explaining it.

I recently had lunch with a couple of teachers (lovely people) and the "why do you [or why would you want to] homeschool" question came up, along with all the prejudices about home learning. Because it was a social visit, I was able to meander around and address the concerns and also frame the examples given as representational of only a very small proportion of homeschooling children (who are in school precisely because it wasn't working at home).

I closed with a comment about our provincial teachers' union being adverse to homeschooling because it takes money away from schools, thus decreasing the number of teaching jobs available. I said, since when did education become about teachers' jobs? Isn't it about children and what's best for them? And if a child is lucky enough to live in a family where they are loved and their parents want to spend 24/7 with them, isn't that a good thing?

Consensus was that it is.

To quote Dr. Gordon Neufeld (not even a proponent of homeschooling):
What is to be gained if, in sending our children to school, we lose their hearts and thus the context in which to raise them.

What is to be gained in if in sending our children to school, they lose their hearts and thus their capacity to be moved.

What is to be gained if, in sending our children to school, they lose their ability to fit into our family, our culture, and our society.

What is to be gained if, in sending our children to school, they lose their desire to learn and their receptiveness to being taught.

© Rebecca McClure 2009