Trusting the Unschooling Process for Gifted Learners: Getting to the Light at the End of The Tunnel

By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach

For some of us, when we finally realize our children are somewhere in the highly to profoundly gifted range, and that they need a different education, we cross a line. We must let go of what used to be. We must let go of our own expectations of what our kids’ lives would or should be. We may need to let go of certain hopes and dreams we had for them, like sports or whatever we parents thought was important. Most of us have to let go of the idea that our school system will support them (and in turn, us). More importantly, I think, when we let go of the school system, and in the words of my son, “the Prussian military education”, we are grieving an old way. We are agreeing to trust our children’s innate drive to learn, trusting experts on the highly to profoundly gifted, and the experiences of others – adults who have been through it, the parents working their way through, and especially the voices of our own children.

For most of us, going off the beaten path toward finding an education involves embracing some form of unschooling that suits our child. Unschooling is another term, like “gifted”, that can be easily misunderstood. I like Wikipedia’s description:

Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction.”

Learning and trusting this path is a process, especially when our culture-at-large, often including extended family and close friends, does not support that. We hear about what is working “over there”, our neighbor’s kid, or read an article from an expert on how to discipline and hold boundaries, or where our child should be in math at a certain age, and we start doubting our choices again.

This is where things can go wrong. Some parents start and stop the process. Some hold so much doubt that it can sabotage learning, especially from our sensitive kids who sometimes know how we, their parents, feel before we do. In agreeing to unschool, we are agreeing that there is an organic drive to learn, grow, explore; we’re trusting in our children. Since most of us didn’t have that trust extended to ourselves when we were learning, this can be a hard one. Part of our challenge is in making the space, while also providing what is needed for them to keep growing and learning. This is an art and a science. The relationship with the child and understanding them is the most important thing here. You are providing space: the room for them to figure things out and learn as they want — maybe on their own some of the time, depending on the child. And in addition to providing exposure, you’re providing scaffolding, so they can have what they need to grow, much like a plant on a vine needs. Scaffolding is the support for areas where the student is weak, so that they can continue to learn and create at the level they are at. Without this support in a traditional school, they would need to wait, which would stifle many of them.

An example of scaffolding is the child who has difficulty writing, but who has a large capacity for storytelling or journalism. Allowing this child to dictate is a form of giving them space to explore their talent as a “writer” while supporting their challenge of not being able to “write” with pen and paper. (This can also happen to the engineer or musician, where finding ways to keep going without writing or learning to read music may need to be an option, at least for a while and for some, always). Translating the creative (science or art) to the linear (writing or even verbal), or vice versa, for some, can be debilitating.

My husband is a typical linear learner. He excelled in typical school because his linear way of learning fit the mold. He’s also smart and a hard worker. So, in our home, when I had to shift away from traditional education for our son because he was struggling, my husband, a Yale-educated, Ph.D. economist, had a really hard time. For years. This was painful. He had to trust me as I trusted the process.

When I homeschooled my son, I came to learn through trial and (lots of) error and through hearing stories from other gifted homeschoolers, that unschooling is all that will work for him. It helped to have him assessed and for me to be validated in what I found to organically be true: a typical education will not work for him.

We eventually found a school for highly to profoundly gifted twice exceptional learners. I could tell it was going to work when my son didn’t want to leave after our first visit. And because I knew from experience that unschooling from someone who deeply understood him was the only thing that would work. Notice the “Unschool” in the title. My husband still cringes at the word. He associates school with learning, and therefore hears “not learning” in “unschooling”. (Whereas I associate unschooling with allowing learning to happen.) Basically, we were going to have someone else unschool our son. The money struggles aside, this was so helpful in building the trust my husband needed.

In the example I gave above of scaffolding, that is my son. To an outside observer (and still, often to me), he can look as though he is doing nothing for months at a time. It can be difficult to watch. There just isn’t any tangible product coming home. Nada. I like to compare it to a plant taking root in the earth. We can’t see it, but we learn to trust over time that it is happening.

Recently my son started writing a novel (by dictation, but he rereads in bits to edit) about pirates. The wording exceeds grade level (he is 11), the relationships are interesting, he uses humor, and you are compelled to continue to read. I am not surprised. I’ve heard him tell me stories; I hear his humor. While I’m glad he got his story on paper, it feels natural. For my husband, it’s as though this novel came out of the blue. I can tell he is surprised and a little verklempt. Suddenly in this product, he can see his son’s talent, hard work, and even trusts this crazy unschooling process a bit more.

Trusting the unschooling/scaffolding approach can be especially challenging, because there isn’t much validation from the world-at-large, especially when you hit a rough patch. For many of these kids, going for months without seeming to want a new challenge can be hard to watch. The urge to “make” them learn can be strong. Watching their process non-judgmentally, while perceiving what is really going on can be helpful. Just remember, these kids keep learning on the weekends, evenings, and during the summer. Once hooked on an interest, they sometimes learn in a few days a curriculum that is planned for a year or more. Trusting the larger picture process is what will be helpful, as well as trusting other parents who have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, their stories, what worked and didn’t work, as well as administration and experts who DO get it.

Lately, I’ve been comparing the process of grieving to the process of learning. In my own process of writing this article, I have found myself returning to deep feelings of grief. You see, my sister died six weeks ago. She had been fighting cancer for a few years, and as valiantly as she struggled, this was a battle she wasn’t able to win. For some reason, I feel deeper in my grief than in the days after she died. I don’t understand why. I feel there are ways our culture expects us to grieve, and I try to check myself against that expectation, trying to live up to some idea of “normal” grieving. My mind wants to understand it all, but mostly my heart asks for less judgment. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I allow myself to grieve. There is nothing wrong with me. There is some voice inside that wants me to trust the process, as painful and as confusing as it is, to give it space, to nurture and love it as it comes out, and let it go. I can’t help but make the connection to the trust our children need from us in their innate desire to learn.

Allowing our children to have their space, where we parents step back and get out of the way, is hard. We mourn and grieve the old, traditional ways, we periodically question ourselves. But if we trust that our children have an intrinsic desire to learn and create, as well as the process they need in order to do this, and keep a watchful eye with love and allow the natural process to happen, the light at the end of the tunnel will come.
© 2018 Teresa Currivan

Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, author, school therapist, and coach and consultant Headshotclearat Help My Child Thrive. She is the author if My Differently Tuned-In Child: The Right Place for Strength-Based Solutions, and has been published on sites such as, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education. Teresa also developed and uses The Currivan Protocol™ Assessment tool in order to more precisely assess and address the needs of differently wired learners, and is currrently adapting it to be used in the public education setting. She has connections to San Francisco Bay Area schools, including Fusion Academy, Big Minds Unschool, The Academy of Thought and Industry, and the San Franciso Unified School District. She specializes in non-neurotypical learners, twice-exceptionality,  educational fit, and family dynamics. She gives talks to parent groups and teachers. Follow her on Facebook at

***Need help figuring out your out-of-the-box child? Teresa offers free 20-minute consultations by phone for first-timers. Email her, or fill out the form, below to schedule your time to talk. She’d love to hear from you. ***



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HoagiesBlogHopHomeschool This is part of a blog hop over at Hoagies Gifted Education Page on the topic of homeschooling gifted children. Click here or on the graphic to see other articles by Hoagies Bloggers on the topic.