How Deschooling Can Help Your Child Recover from Painful School Situations


by Kathy Kuhl     As a child, I liked school. As an adult, I know many excellent teachers. But some children and teens have very different experiences. They are miserable in school. That’s one reason some of us homeschool. That’s also why some kids need “deschooling.”

Yesterday, the mother of such a boy wrote me. Her thirteen-year-old has been bullied in school. She just started homeschooling, but it’s not going well.
“It’s like he just gave up and [has] been so depressed and [I] cannot get him interested in anything.”

Here’s my advice for discouraged students leaving toxic school situations:

Get professional help for symptoms of depression or anxiety

First, as I told this mother, get help for your child’s depressed attitude. I urged her to find a good mental health professional quickly, specifically one with experience helping teens who are depressed. This could also be a professional counselor. As a Christian, I prefer counselors that share that worldview, and I would ask my pastor to recommend someone. This may be a good approach for you. My family has also had good experience with the Meier Clinics. (Link below.)

Deschooling to recover from bad educational experiences

Sometimes, students have such a painful time at school that anything associated with the classroom brings memories of bullying, failure, or hopelessness. Sometimes our kids need to “deschool.”

Deschooling is less structured than most homeschooling. It is rich in educational experiences, and detached from school and school-like experiences. It’s a period of unschooling, or relaxed homeschooling.

Instead of worksheets, hall passes, and lining up for the water fountain, try:

  • Trips to the museum
  • Sketchbooks and drawing outdoors instead of videos
  • Concerts
  • Weekly visits to the library
  • Interviewing elderly neighbors and relatives about the past
  • Touring businesses and visiting craftsmen to learn about different kinds of work
  • Collecting tadpoles, insects, wildflowers, leaves

Homeschool Needn’t Look Like School

Some students have had such difficulty in school that as a homeschooler you’ll want to avoid the trappings of school. As one mother I interviewed for Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner told me, “When you are trying to duplicate the school environment in a home, keep in mind that it didn’t work in school; that’s why he’s at home.” (p. 42).

Another woman told me that when she began homeschooling, she bought a bell, a globe, a flag, and school desks, and began school just like the school days of her childhood. Reexamine those assumptions and feel free to do things differently. While it’s important for your child to write at a table and chair of the correct height (so his or her feet can touch the floor and arms can comfortably reach the table top), you don’t need to buy school desks and chairs. Structure and schedule are good, but should be chosen thoughtfully and modified when needed.

Rekindle a love of learning

Kids have two jobs: learning and playing. Kids are born wanting to learn. Chronically difficult school situations can quench that desire to learn. One goal of home education and of deschooling is to rekindle a love of learning. Child-directed learning is an important element of deschooling.

Ask the student, “What would you like to learn about?” Then gather resources to help them learn. Look for books, videos, excursions, and hands-on projects that build on that interest.

A friend used child-directed learning when homeschooling her daughter in high school. As the family struggled with other issues, the girl lost interest in school. She only wanted to learn about Japanese anime, so my friend built a year of high school around anime. The student studied the Japanese language and Japanese history, along with her study of anime. She’s now the graduate of a prestigious art institute.

Burned-out learners

But what about the burned-out children or teens who say they are interested in “Nothing!”? In that case, consider what you know of the child. If he has six skateboards, and thinks of nothing else, build on that interest in skateboarding. Perhaps together you’ll watch Youtube videos of snowboarders for an hour, in exchange for two paragraphs comparing and contrasting the moves of snowboarders and skateboarders. Perhaps that will begin as a discussion.

Or suppose your daughter loves horses. Can you visit a therapeutic riding stable to learn how they help those with disabilities? Could your older teen get a job volunteering to muck out stalls? Can a somewhat younger child make you a chart showing differences between a few different kinds of horses, illustrated with cut-out or downloaded photos?

Deschooling helps parents, too

This less structured deschooling time benefits the parents, too. Beginning homeschoolers can use this time to research curricula and make plans. They can schedule any therapy their children need, and lay important foundations for the future, by delaying formal academics for a few weeks.

New homeschoolers will discover that speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, academic therapy, tutoring, and counseling can be more effective when the child is neither exhausted after school, nor sleepy before school. It also may be easier to book appointments while most of the other clients are in school.

You may decide you like child-directed learning so much that you continue the approach. You’ve become an “unschooler” or a “relaxed homeschooler.” There are plenty of resources out there to help you chart your path.

“What about socialization?” for the depressed or listless student

It’s every homeschooler’s least favorite question, so much that some jokingly call socialization “the S word.” But it can be a serious worry for new homeschoolers. When your child is used to being in a building with hundreds of other kids, being home with Mom and Sis may see pretty dull. It was a big adjustment for my son, compounded by our move to a new state.

Finding new friends takes time, whether you move or leave school, or both, as we did. Your children may be able to continue some friendships, particularly if they see them at their place of worship or in extracurricular activities. But there’s no denying that a child who’s left a school can feel isolated at first. This is often temporary. When my son found friends through karate class, scouts, and church, I was glad because he found excellent ones. It took longer to find these great friends, but they were worth waiting for.

There are benefits to leaving the “socialization” of large schools. Some kids find it a relief to escape ridicule, public humiliation, or bullying. All who struggle academically find it easier to learn in less distracting settings. One mother I interviewed commented that since academics and social skills are both hard for her children, it’s easier to work on them one at a time.

How can you help the newly homeschooled child or teen make friends? Use online and in-person local groups to make as many contacts as you can. Organize play dates and attend park days for younger children. Follow the advice of a pastor I know, and make your home a place where other kids are welcome—not during homeschool hours, of course, but often.

Strengthen good physical habits

Time outdoors, exercise, adequate sleep, and a healthy diet can help your child be better able to resist discouragement. So will limiting screen time. I’m not a mental health professional, but I know several. Once on this blog, I interviewed a psychologist who shared excellent resources for parents concerned about their children’s mental and emotional health. The link to that post is below. I’ve also said much more on this topic in my book Encouraging Your Child.

My handbook will help you

My book, Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner, can help you. It’s a handbook based on interviews with sixty-five parents homeschooling kids with diagnosed learning disabilities, as well as my research and experience homeschooling a son with dyslexia and attention difficulties during grades 4-12. You can download Chapter One free at the link below.

Search for help on

When the mother who inspired this column wrote, I also told her that I’ve written several posts on homeschooling teens with dyslexia that could help her. Whatever your child’s challenge, you can use the search feature on this website to find books, articles, and advice.

Don’t see what you’re looking for? Use the contact form, or write in the comments below to suggest topics you’d like me to discuss on this blog. Thank you.

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