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What Kids May Be Teaching Us When They Opt Out of School

When a child opts out of school, it can be a very unsettling experience not only to that child but to the entire family. We are programmed to believe in cycles of life that may just not hold true for everyone, and when those societal values are called into question, it puts one or more belief systems into jeopardy. In this case, we’re forced to examine such things as the role of school, definitions of success, and standard practices for preparing our kids for adulthood and the working world. It makes us uncomfortable.

Kids Who Challenge the Standard Norm

As most parents learn at some point, there’s got to be room for flexibility along the way, and oftentimes we find ourselves behaving in certain ways (giving into food preferences, for example), or accepting certain behaviors that previously may have seemed forbidden territory (allowing more computer time than you are comfortable with, for example). When a child refuses to go to school, though, we tend to insist on their return. Many parents are convinced by school administrators and mental health professionals that a child suffering from “school refusal” (the accepted diagnosis) must return to school as soon as possible.

Depending on the age of the child, the degree of anxiety and the adherence to standard norm, parents may choose to medicate said child, or to place child in one form of treatment or another, until the child is ready to return to school.

Or you can choose to learn from it.

There are many reasons that kids don’t want to go to school, whether it’s test anxiety, bullying, a sense of helplessness, or a lack of engagement. As the range of issues one child experiences may include both curricular and social challenges, parental response is not necessarily as straightforward as standard treatment plans may indicate. This is exactly one of those times when parental flexibility must kick in and looking at the whole child should take precedence over a set of symptoms.

What Happens to Learning When Kids Opt Out?

We know that 2-5% of kids are diagnosed with “school refusal” at some point or another. We also know that 1.2 million kids per year are still dropping out of school each year. What can we learn from these phenomena and from the kids undergoing them?

  1. When kids leave school, it does not mean they don’t like to learn. Rather than forcing a child back into the school environment, parents in these situations may be better off supporting alternative learning routes. There are a broad range of options, including more traditional ones as well as those that may be considered radical. Some schools may offer at-home instructional alternatives for short periods of time; or you may decide to homeschool. There are also free or fee-based online alternatives once a child is ready to school again. Unschooling alternatives support a higher degree of self-directed learning, which may be the right choice for the child who has opted out.

  2. Leaving elementary or secondary school does not mean that a child will not make it to college. Peter Gray’s study on families who unschooled their kids revealed that in 83% of families surveyed, their kids went on to college. Other studies show that kids who are educated at home tend to score higher on college placement tests and are more apt to complete college than other students.

  3. Many kids who leave school either already have or develop a passion that directs their learning in a way that a general educational curriculum cannot.And oftentimes, following that passion leads them to study many of the related subject areas in a more meaningful context than can be provided in a traditional school.

  4. Your opting out child may choose to seek credentials or return to a more formal school at a later time. Or your child may take community college courses or consider an early college program that does not require a high school diploma. There are choices out there these days.

  5. There is a groundswell of activity around homeschooling and unschooling now such that parents are no longer flying solo when it comes to support, advice, and community for re-engaging their child in the learning process. These families are ensuring that learning still takes place. Support includes academic resources, classes and tutoring, as well as mentorship to help students achieve their learning goals.

At the very least, we should learn from these kids that wanting to learn and being able to do so in a traditional school environment may not be the same thing. As our schools continue to undergo transformation, and we continue to advocate for meaningful curriculum, we cannot leave behind those who decide to opt out.

Diversity of Learning Styles and Alternatives

Opting out is not an easy choice for most kids and their families. And it’s not for everyone. It takes strength of character and a willingness to engage with children and their learning in ways that bust the current paradigm. At the end of the day, education these days should be about alternatives.

As I wrote last week regarding some of the great work being done by teacherpreneurs these days, there’s a growing body of evidence and related tools and processes for helping kids with different learning styles engage in their learning. Acknowledging neurodiversity and building tools that enable educators to account for it is one big step toward further engagement for kids who might otherwise be dissatisfied with their school experience.

It’s true that not everyone who claims to not like school needs to opt out. But as parents, educators, and entrepreneurs, we need to be open to the possibilities that some kids will leave school and will benefit from doing so. We need to both observe and learn from this movement and to direct some of the resources and innovations being poured into traditional education to support learners outside of “the buildings.”


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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