Educating Outside the Box: Homeschooling Your Gifted Child

homeschool educating outside box

By Corin Barsily Goodwin & Mika Gustavson

From the time a child is born, parents generally assume that the year the child turns five, he or she will be sent off to kindergarten. The child will use scissors and paste, learn the alphabet, and maybe even learn to read.  Children will sit quietly while the teacher reads stories to them, and use manipulatives to familiarize themselves with basic mathematical concepts such as number recognition and counting. It will be fun, and parents will proudly display the child’s artwork on the refrigerator at home. When the parents go in for their first parent-teacher conference, they will meet the wonderful lady (it’s usually a lady, isn’t it?) — maybe for the first time — whom they have entrusted with their child’s introduction to the world of learning. They will be told how sweet their child is and how well they have learned to play with others. They will have no worries.

It’s a nice fantasy, isn’t it?

In fact, that’s all it is — a fantasy — for the millions of families with children who, for one reason or another, do not fit in well at school. The reasons are endless: they have big personalities; their teachers have expectations that the child can’t or won’t meet; the child’s development isn’t suited for  that particular environment; the child learns in a different style or at a different pace than the other students do or the teacher is prepared to accommodate; and on and on. At some point, parents face a moment or a series of moments, when they have to wonder if the school or classroom their child is attending five days out of seven is the right environment for their child.

It’s Not Working

Some parents face this defining moment early when their six-year-old, who has completed the Harry Potter series, has a meltdown each morning when it’s time to get ready for school, or when their eight-year-old requests a physics textbook for  her birthday, despite her marginal grade in science. For others, their child may appear to fit  into the school environment fairly comfortably before it dawns on the parents that something  is  askew  with  this  picture — that  the  fantasy and the reality simply are not mapping well. And then they ask, what happened? Is it something they did? Is it the child? Has the school failed them? And they wonder, “What am I going to do now”?

Some parents don’t even reach that point. They see their child struggling academically, emotionally, or socially in a school environment, and they do everything they can think of to help. They discipline the child to motivate him to do his homework. They provide tutoring in reading, math, and social skills. They change classrooms or teachers. The child may have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) that is intended to bring the force of law behind needed accommodations. Maybe the child is accelerated or given harder homework, and perhaps those parents still have a nagging feeling that something is not right.

Most of these options involve changes to the child or slight changes in the environment, but they all have something in common: each one assumes that the child should fit into the classroom through effort or force, and that any problems stem from that direction. They all assume that the traditional class- room is the right place for the child. But what if we stopped using the “change the child to fit the environment” model and instead tried changing the environment to fit the child? We agree that schools serve a critical role in our society, but the fact is that not every school is a good match for every child.

What To Do?

There are many alternatives to a traditional classroom environment, and the possibilities are increasing all the time. As the number of families seeking options grows, so do the number of services available to them, and the more services, the easier it is to weave together an educational experience that suits your child. Further- more, as many educational professionals recognize the need for alternatives, they become more willing to work with parents to find creative solutions. Sometimes these solutions are formal programs, and sometimes they are more homegrown, but ultimately, they all serve the purpose of helping the next generation find its way.

Once upon a time, the typical picture of homeschooling involved a mom and her kids sitting at the kitchen table immersed in workbooks. There are still many families who choose to recreate a school-like learning environment at home, but there are many more who have added to or replaced this method with group activities, online courses, field trips, project-based learning, and taking classes at educational centers or community colleges. While California, unlike many other states, does not offer homeschoolers the opportunity to attend classes on a part-time basis, there are independent study programs available through many districts, as well as charter schools and private programs.

Homeschooling provides an educational environment tailored to meet the needs of the gifted child: no repetition of a sequential curriculum; a focus on standards that support individual potential; social relations supportive of gifted children. Flexibility is an important benefit of homeschooling since it allows the gifted child to set the pace of learning and uses a wide variety of educational materials. The focus can be placed on individual strengths and interests while leaving room to work on any weaknesses. Home- schooled children have more time to pursue interests not covered in the classroom or to find experts willing to share their specialized knowledge; those experts may be professors at the local university or the owner of a reptile shop nearby. Homeschooled children often have greater access to like-minded kids of other ages (intellectual peers rather than age-peers, Gross, 2002) and to the many resources online, in the community, and at the library.

There is more freedom to travel for education and for social interaction. From a social-emotional standpoint, homeschooling parents can be more available to help their child navigate difficult situations as they occur. There is no need for a highly sensitive child to learn socialization by the “sink or swim” method on the playground. Homeschooling gifted children reduces boredom is- sues, eliminates comparisons with other students, and allows the children to find themselves, both academically and within their community.

Most adults in the United States today grew up attending school in a traditional classroom; their default assumption is that their child will do the same. The parents who did not enjoy school assume that if they survived it, so cans their child. The parents who loved school would not want to deprive their child of what they imagine to be the same wonderful experience. Others may simply defer to those whom they see as educational “experts” with- out really considering options. It’s true that seeking alternatives requires a great deal of effort on the part of the parents. It can be a paradigm shift—a lifestyle change. Parents are forced into a reexamination of values, priorities, hopes, and expectations. That’s no small project! More and more families are coming to this point, however, with the onslaught of standards-based curriculum and limited resources for gifted children in the school system. As better understanding develops of what it means to be gifted, so does the realization of how poorly society has met the needs of these particular children and that there is much more that can be done.

It’s important to recognize that homeschooling is not a guaranteed perfect solution to all problems. If a child has challenges, those challenges may still exist. Homeschooling will not magically make a gifted child’s learning style compatible with those of the majority of their age peers; nor will it guarantee that their social life will blossom as never before. The child may still have learning issues. Another challenge to homeschooling a gifted child is the continually evolving nature of what learning looks like for them. A packaged curriculum that seems wonderful when previewed at the homeschool exposition might need to be replaced by individual programs and custom lessons for one child, while a sibling in the same family may choose group classes and long visits to the library. Fortunately, there are many free and inexpensive materials available to choose from! Find them at GHF's Favorite Things.

The reasons for coming to homeschooling are many and varied, but the big picture is remarkably similar among families: Parents want the best for their children, and if they can’t find the perfect fit, then they will do what they can to approximate it. This often means the aforementioned reevaluation of values and priorities, and parents worry about the long-term consequences of what has not always been considered a mainstream choice.

One important point to ease the fear for each of these families is the understanding that the decision to homeschool isn’t a one-time choice. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s merely one of the options checked off on a list of “Things to Try.” Children who are homeschooled can and do go to school later. Not every child in the family must be homeschooled. Many families take an a la carte approach to education: they choose what works best for each child at any given point in time. Some children go to school for a while, then they are pulled out to homeschool, then they go back in. Some families have a child who is fully homeschooled, another in a charter or independent program, and a third who attends the public school down the street.

It’s worth noting that decisions about education can be made (or unmade) based on family circumstances. One parent might have strengths in an area that a child is particularly interested in delving into; this person becomes the primary homeschooling parent for a given period of time. In another family, a parent might be the primary teacher until they find they must stop working from home and go to the office more regularly. That can lead to a change in configurations. Other factors, such as illness, divorce, and moving can also cause families to rethink their plans. There is no more a one-size-fits-all approach to homeschooling than there is to learning in a traditional classroom.

Outcomes

If the child continues to homeschool into the high school years, some families might worry about whether they can pro- vide academic excellence in a nontraditional setting. In fact, “...research has shown that homeschooled children reach levels of academic achievement similar to or higher than their publicly schooled peers. These results cut across racial and socioeconomic lines — an accomplishment unique to homeschooling” (Dumas, et al, 2008).

Parents and grandparents also wonder if alternative educational situations might impact college admissions. They need not worry. “It is also important for parents and educators to be aware that students are able to enroll in college without a traditional high school experience” (California Homeschool Network). Many colleges and universities have actively sought homeschooled children for years, while others have only recently joined in the chase. These institutions include Ivy League settings, state universities, small liberal arts colleges, and programs with a strong focus on science and technology. Homeschooled students have shown themselves to be well-prepared, too. “Data show that a greater proportion of homeschooled students go on to college than their traditionally schooled counterparts... and homeschooled adults attained higher educational levels compared to the general U.S. population in the same age range” (Dumas, et al, 2008).

As noted in a position paper on homeschooling the gifted learner prepared by the California Association for the Gifted, “...opportunities for continuous educational and intellectual growth and development must be made available for all children” (italics added). At the present time, the school system is not able to provide all of those opportunities for a variety of reasons: lack of resources to support a diversity of learning styles and differences among students; lack of support from stakeholders; and the slowness of change within an institution. While there are a multitude of efforts underway to reform the system, some parents don’t feel they can wait to see results. The needs of their child are immediate and their options seem limited. While there are certainly challenges with educating gifted children outside of the traditional school system, the flexibility of homeschooling allows parents to see that each child’s unique needs are met, resulting in long-lasting academic, social, and emotional benefits.

Getting Started

As with anything new, there are steps to consider taking when making the transition to homeschooling. Unless the situation is sufficiently urgent to warrant immediately pulling a child from school, the first step is to determine goals. Most gifted children are developmentally capable of providing input and should be included in some of these discussions. Possible short-term goals might be allowing the child to work ahead in specific subjects, delving further into a topic of interest, removal from an inappropriate environment, or simply taking a different approach to learning. These objectives can last for a single academic year or until the child is ready to graduate.

Many children homeschool for a short time and then return to a traditional educational program when one is available; others begin taking college courses early. Many families also plan to homeschool as a temporary measure and end up sticking with it for the long haul. Longer-term goals might include preparing for entry into a particular advanced program, school, or university; increasing mastery in a specialized area such as music or dance; or gathering the breadth of knowledge to start a business or obtain a particular position.

Another important step is researching the state laws regarding homeschooling. Details regarding these laws are listed on the A to Z Home’s Cool website. Each state and many smaller geographic regions have homeschool associations where information is available and questions can be answered. The GHF website also has a listing of homeschool resources and groups specifically related to gifted and twice-exceptional children. These same resources can be similarly helpful for finding a local support group in order to participate in academic and social activities, as well as online support for parents who may be feeling insecure or isolated. The connections formed as members of a community sharing similar issues can provide important information as well as advice and encouragement to new or potential homeschoolers.

It would seem intuitive that a critical step to homeschooling is choosing materials, but that’s not actually the case. If the reason for leaving the school system was trauma-related, the child may need time to regain emotional equilibrium. This may look like a period of “doing nothing,” but is in fact quite critical to rediscovering the joy of learning. Further, traumatic or not, the process of a gaining a school-based education is predicated on many assumptions of how children learn, to which homeschoolers are no longer beholden. For some children, time spent exploring options may be tremendously helpful in de- constructing their learning style and needs. If the child chooses to forge directly along a predetermined path, that’s perfectly fine. For the child who has not yet settled on a specific  interest or approach, however, or for the twice-exceptional child who struggles with particular academic materials, this can be a period of experimentation leading to decisions about what constitutes appropriate subjects, materials, and other educational opportunities.

This article was originally published in Gifted Education Communicator, Summer 2011, vol 42, no. 2.

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