By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach
Deschooling is the process of allowing a student to abstain from any school or learning-related activities. The objective is to allow the child’s intrinsic motivation to learn to return.
Deschooling is necessary when a child has experienced school trauma — any intellectual, social, mental or physical harm within the school setting. The nature and length of the trauma the child has endured impacts the amount of time he needs to deschool, from a few months to a few years.
Deschooling differs from unschooling but works nicely with it. Unschooling is a method of schooling that follows the child’s interest in connection with real life and the real world around them. It can include travel, cooking, watching documentaries, having a mentor, and even traditional instruction and classes. Both unschooling and deschooling involve a break from the traditional school setting and assume that the child has an intrinsic desire to learn. There usually isn’t one magical day when deschooling ends: there is an art and science to knowing when and how to introduce education again. Unschooling works well with deschooling because there is room to understand when to back off, when to drop seeds of thought, and when to allow the child to rise to a challenge, but it can be accomplished in any educational setting with willing adults.
Not feeling like you belong to a group, not feeling capable, in addition to related issues such as sensory issues, can cause a child to act out in rage or feel deep depression. So many of the kids I help are in the midst of this. It takes parents and teachers to believe in them in order for them to believe in themselves again. Deschooling with trust in the process is a large piece of this puzzle.
In my experience, deschooling causes more anxiety for parents who are new to homeschooling or alternative schooling than any other factor. Because twice-exceptional students are often misidentified as being “behind” the performance level in some or all areas that a traditional school expects, to the parents, the prospect of deschooling seems to be going in the wrong direction. Additionally, these students can have challenges such as autism, ADHD, or sensory issues. Deschooling inherently involves a big leap of faith. Paradoxically, the most important element in allowing the child to heal and to come to learn on their own is the adult’s trust in the process and in the fact that the child has an intrinsic desire to learn. Sometimes the stress or doubts the adult has about the process can impact the child’s own faith in their shooling or in themselves. (Especially the sensitive ones.) When ready and motivated, gifted children will catch up on any topic they are interested in, in a shorter period of time than the typical child. Especially when taught in a way that suits them. (Often there is no stopping them!)
In my work as a coach to parents of gifted and twice-exceptional children, many who are homeschooling, I have found deschooling to be effective. More often than not, certain topics continue to be a struggle until deschooling has occurred. While I have many examples of children who have been successfully deschooled through homeschooling and at alternative schools, here is a timeline of my own son’s progression through deschooling math. Math is the subject that is most commonly lost to creatively gifted children.
1st Grade: He is doing Montessori math and enjoys memorizing simple math multiplication and division problems, sometimes asking me to quiz him while we are driving. (Montessori school is not working for him for other reasons, however. While he enjoys doing math in his head, he does not like writing them down.)
2nd Grade: He is back in his traditional school where he went to kindergarten, he dislikes math worksheets and asks why he has to do the same problems over and over. Math homework eventually becomes a shouting match nightly in our house. By the end of second grade, I have pulled him out of school to homeschool him for various reasons.
3rd Grade: I am homeschooling him and am learning that most curricula I try out for him (and tutors I obtain), work for about a day before he loses interest. He has success in some other topics but I can only find a “spark” for his love of math when YouTubing things that he brings up such as “infinity” and something called “Gold’s number.” I use this year to address his sensory issues and only have him learn what is interesting to him. (See my article on sensory processing, linked below.) This year is also about connecting with the gifted homeschooling community.
4th Grade: By fourth grade, my wish comes true and we find a school that understands 2e and highly to profoundly gifted learners, especially those who don’t do well in traditional schools. This school, Big Minds Unschool, deeply understands deschooling. My son is still resistant to math, and they know to back off. The teachers talk about math concepts in terms of other topics, in non-intrusive ways. His first math “spark” is as follows: One obsession he has this year is flying. As part of this, he wants to figure out how fast he has to run in order to make a non-motorized flight suit take off. In order to measure how fast he is running, one of his teachers teaches him how to calculate his running miles per hour. He comes home and is excited to show us how to figure that out. He remains resistant to doing the math on paper and writing it down formally with a math tutor. The school continues to offer him individual math tutoring, which he continues to resist.
5th Grade: In fifth grade, his interests are politics, economics, and government. For most of the year, his math tutor creates new problems related to these subjects such as figuring out the GDP of a country. My son stays engaged as long as there is a real-world relationship to why he is doing math, and if it is related to one of his areas of interest.
6th Grade: This year, another teacher, (the one who helped him calculate his running miles per hour back in fourth grade), sees an opportunity and asks if my son would like to work with him. He thinks that my son is probably ready for more formal math: for writing down equations and doing more basic math on paper, without needing a real-world problem each time. My son is now “doing worksheets” again, but because of the strong relationship he has with this teacher and his teacher’s impeccable timing, this approach works.
7th Grade: He continues to have a great relationship with his math tutor, who is able to go at lightning speed for the kids who are ready to excel. By the end of the school year, my son is asking for additional math tutoring so that he can get ahead.
8th Grade: He is now at a different school and taking his first group math class. He is requesting additional math tutoring in his free time. If you had told me when my son was in third grade that he would be asking for extra math tutoring by 7th grade, (or any math at all, ever), I would not have believed you.
Is my son looking like a typical 8th grader now? Not by a longshot. This was never the goal. This is perhaps the hardest part for parents of 2e children to accept, and what I help parents to understand in my parent groups and my practice. He still has “challenges,” that don’t look like other 8th graders, such as spelling and writing, but he doesn’t let them get in the way of his interests and classes. His friends have various challenges and areas they excel in, and this contributes to his ability to judge himself less by comparison. Big Minds created a culture of understanding for him where the students’ abilities and disabilities were discussed openly and with respect. I see this in the gifted homeschooling culture as well. Not only does it help children and parents to understand weaknesses, it surprisingly opens doors to accepting gifts as well. This duality is difficult for many to comprehend, but these children understand it on a deep level when it is nurtured in them. (It’s harder for the adults!)
Parents need to “deschool” as well. And it is harder for some than others. My husband, who is an economist and values math, tells me that it was like jumping into the void for him, and very anxiety-inducing. It required a big, uncomfortable change in him, which included letting go of expectations of what he had assumed our son’s education would look like and questioning what is really important for a child to learn. He had to deal with a lot of his own worry and fear about our son’s future.
Contrary to how he was beginning to perceive himself in second grade, my son holds his head high because of this change in perspective that deschooling allowed him to find in himself again. He uses what is at his disposal to accomplish what he wants. He has friends who he writes articles and screenplays with. He hunts and pecks and doesn’t mind that his spelling is off. He uses technology to solve some of his problems – things that I could never have known would be available when he was younger, such as sharing a document with a classmate in real-time while both are in their own homes. (Like online gaming, but in document form.) His favorite class is History, a topic that was kept alive while he was deschooling. What is important is that he can accomplish what he wants. When the time is right, he may ask for more help. Or not. And that’s ok.
I know that many families need to work within the traditional school’s paradigm. To these parents, I would use the information learned from gifted homeschoolers and alternative schoolers to inform how you frame your child’s struggles. There is a lot that can be done outside of school. The most important thing you can do as a parent is to have faith in your child.
Deschooling is about teachers and parents being able to see the whole child and having faith in their abilities and their desire to learn, which includes understanding when to back off, when to drop seeds of thought, and when to allow the child to rise to a challenge. The overall goal is for the child to internalize this faith in their desire to learn and create that has been lost or injured. A faith that will last them a lifetime.
© 2019 Teresa Currivan
Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, and coaches parents at Help My Child Thrive Coaching. Teresa has been published on sites such as TeresaCurrivan@gmail.com., Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education. She specializes in giftedness, twice-exceptionality, educational fit, and family dynamics, as well as gifted adults. She runs parent support groups both privately and for Big Minds Unschool. She lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. You can find more articles on this website. She offers free 20-minute phone consultations for new families. She’s here to help. Contact her at
Big Minds Unschool is a K through 8 school for twice-exceptional learners. It is located in Pinole, CA and is opening an additional campus in the Fall of 2020 in Dublin, CA. http://www.bigmindsunschool.org/
This is part of a blog hop over at Hoagies Gifted Education Page, go check out other writers on the topic of Deschooling Your Gifted Child.
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