Unschooling With Connection And Respect

-Guest Blog Post by Rachel Evans-

This month we are joined by Rachel Evans– Mum and unschooling/life learning facilitator to two boys (currently 9 and 13 years) Both sons are neurodiverse and diagnosed as autistic (variant PDA).  Prior to having the boys, Rachel worked in large companies such as TheAA and Royal Mail within the field of data analytics and modelling.

Rachel lives with her two boys, both of whom are home educated. She also has, what she consider hernon-biological family/community, who are likeminded people and who are unswervingly supportive.

Rachel blogs about her thoughts, learning and experience around education, parenting and life at www.connectandrespect.co.uk and at www.facebook.com/connectandrespect

Welcome to the LivePlayLearn guest blog post series. This series aims to share with you a diverse selection of families who are traversing the paths of life and learning with an unschooling mindset. The aim is to showcase how unschooling principles can be effectively implemented across the broad spectrum of lifestyles and yield a life of peace, joy, and learning. As well as this, participants will be sharing with you the stumbling blocks that have been overcome along they way, and the glorious variety of interests and activities that children access when they are living a life without school. I hope that it brings peace and encouragement to you.

Prior to having the boys, and in my early years of parenthood, I would have described myself as a “tough love” and authoritarian parent. I believed in parental power and authority over children, and I believed in school as THE place where children needed to be to learn. My sister lives in NZ and when she decided to home school her children, I was vocal in my self-assured disapproval; I ended up eating my words.

My eldest son had numerous challenges prior to even being born and these kept building over his first few years. I met these challenges by doubling up on mainstream, control-based parenting advice. Things kept escalating and the household was increasingly fractious and unhappy. I was caught between the societal message of what a “good parent” looks like and the growing gnawing in my gut that this wasn’t working for us. He was diagnosed ASD just after starting school and it was about this time that I heard of PDA. The next three years (whilst he attended school) were truly awful, and it was during this crisis that I was forced to start challenging my own parenting paradigm. The more I read about PDA the more it resonated and the more I started to change my parenting to fit the child I had in front of me rather than the child society told me I should have. By the end of three years in school we were all broken, and I was forced to admit that school was simply damaging to all of us. By this time his diagnosis had been refined to PDA and after some research I decided that Home Education was our only real option and that I was going to make it work.

I became aware of Unschooling, looked into it and decided that it was all well and good, but not for me. I needed structure, there needed to be some parental teaching and control and that it really wasn’t for us. 4 months later I was forced to relook at Unschooling after I received a clear message from my son that my semi-structured approach may well be what I wanted/needed but it really wasn’t what HE wanted/needed.

There then came an intense period of researching, learning, and challenging (even more deeply) my assumptions about parenting, children and learning. It was a personally, both a very challenging and revolutionary time. Almost everything I thought I knew about parenting and education was turned on its head. What was more, the more I embraced the principles of connection, respect, autonomy and put my faith and trust in natural learning mechanisms, the more I saw for myself that it was indeed an efficient, effective, and extremely powerful force.

Some 6 + years on and our home has never been more peaceful and harmonious. It is completely unrecognisable from the time we were in school. Over the years I have continued to challenge many implicit, barely visible assumptions that underpin our society; it is like an onion and peeling back the layers has been truly life changing and enhancing.

We have now been Life Learning (my preferred description to unschooling) for over 6 years. My youngest son has never been to school and never had any formal “lessons” in any society recognised “academics”. All the boys’ learning and time is spent in the pursuit of their interests, and it has been fascinating and privilege to support this and see how their core skills have developed as a by-product of this passion-based approach.

My eldest has always been drawn by stories and today his interests have been driven by, and branched from, Japanese mange and anime. He has an interest in many things Japanese and a desire to live there in the future. He loves gaming (which has also been a driving force in his learning) and currently enjoys Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), karate and personal fitness training sessions.

My youngest son’s interests over the years have moved in very intensive blocks. We have had music, crafts, Lego, role play etc. Currently his passions are around Pokemon, football, gaming, and Harry Potter.

Currently we have several regular activities that the boys have chosen to do each week. Whilst this is the case now, for many years we did not have m/any regular activities. We have a gentle rhythm to our week, rather than a rigid timetable/structure. Currently both boys have weekly activities of karate, DnD, football, personal fitness training. All of these have been instigated by the boys and have been carefully setup by me to meet their needs.

We usually catch up with our closest friends weekly and around this we have ad hoc events, activities, trips, holidays etc. At home we are extremely flexible. We live our lives following our passions, interests and needs. Much of this for the boys revolves around gaming, reading (digitally or physically), accessing You Tube videos, connecting and gaming with friends online.

My role first and foremost is safety, so that no one does anything immediately life terminating. After this, I make myself readily available for discussions, chats, clarifications, help, walks and research … whatever is needed. I take an active interest in what they are interested in, I watch them play, I join in, I ask them about progress/storylines etc.  I am always alert to opportunities to support and expand their current interests as well as offering new opportunities. My role is also to live by, and therefore model, the principles of passion driven and respectful, connected living. I actively follow my own interests via books, courses, videos, just giving things a go, and I share what I am interested in with the boys.

I love primarily that we can live authentically as ourselves. I love that our family ethos is founded on connection and respect and that finding meaningful solutions to problems is central to this.  I love that we find joy and learn through our passions and interests and that we can set our own intentions, pace, and goals. I love that my knowledge is constantly growing as the boys expose me to things I would never have dreamt of learning about.

I think one of the hardest things for me about living life in a unschooling, connected and respectful way is the misunderstandings and misconceptions from other people; be that society, family, friends, authorities etc. Too often it is perceived as “too lazy to educate/parent” or “the kids are just left to do whatever they want”. When you really understand, and embrace, unschooling and connected, respectful living these misconceptions could not be further from the truth. The “work” is not found in authority, forcing compliance and coercion. The “work” is in building relationships, investing time and genuine interest in each other, in valuing the process over the outcome and spending time supporting, mentoring, guiding, and facilitating. This is why I think finding like-minded community is so important.

The thing that has most surprised me is that core skills such as reading, numeracy and literacy really can be learned as a by product of following passions and do not need to be forced in of themselves. That by me letting go of my societal conditioned thinking and creating an environment that meets the needs of my children we could have a harmonious, thriving family. Both things seemed impossible to me during the dark schooling years.

My top tips for those moving towards unschooling are:

#1 Be open minded and prepared to challenge everything you thought you knew about parenting and learning.

#2 Read, research, and seek out families/resources/communities who have more experience i.e., learn, learn and learn some more.

#3 Find a community, be it online, but even better in the real world. It is very hard to swim against the tide alone, community really does make all the difference.

When you swim against the tide of parenting and education it can be exhausting and draining. Creating an environment that is so different from “the norm” creates pressures, some of which can be openly hostile. Yet many of us see it working beautifully and our children and families thriving in their own unique ways. So, my message is to keep the faith, trust the process and continue to be the change.

I am really grateful to those who freely share their stories and contribute to providing a fuller picture of unschooling in action.

If you feel able, or willing, to share your journey, as a way of encouraging and cheering others along theirs, please complete and submit your own guest blog post here

Published by heiditsteel

Teacher turned Unschooler: passionate about autonomous education and supporting our children's natural inclination towards learning through play.

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