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"Learning at Home" - One Family's Story

Mother and son learning at homeWhen our son (now 7) was 4 he spent some time in playschool and didn’t enjoy it, so we tried another and he didn’t like that either.  Our bubbly, engaging, happy little boy at home would become timid, clam up and come away feeling frustrated.  He disliked what, to him, was a chaotic environment.  On his very first day at Montessori, I stayed with him, having been given permission from the teacher.  The first session was only going to be a couple of hours.  After a half and hour or so, the teacher said ‘Would you mind leaving, actually.  I feel he’ll open up to us more if you go.”  I explained to my son that I’d been asked to leave and that I’d be back in an hour.  He cried and said he felt scared.  After I left, I felt awful:  a) the teacher had let me down, b) I had left myself down (we’d had an agreement that I could stay - “No problem at all” she had told me.  I should have been more insistent, but c) and worst of all, I had let my little boy down.  I had promised to stay for his first session and didn’t….. I swore to myself I’d never let him down in that way again.  He stayed for a term or so, but never really got into it.  Teachers loved him, he was very well behaved, did what he was told etc. but he wasn’t enjoying it at all and was bored there. (The teacher did later apologise unprompted – I’d never complained – for asking me to leave on his first day).  He thrived in more intimate settings – play dates, day trips etc.  We could see that he was like a sponge in terms of accumulating information.  We’d never formally ‘taught’ him anything about numbers, colours, alphabet etc. yet he knew them all through, well, living really; interacting with the world around him and people he encountered, asking questions (always lots of questions!).  I was keenly aware that ‘big’ school, through necessity, would be a more rigid environment.  At the time my husband still wasn’t fully convinced about the home-educating route, especially worrying about the social aspect.  He feared our son would be isolated.  He’s now very happy with the choice.  We moved house the summer of when our son was 5.  Ironically the house we bought is near a school.  We wanted to be able to walk.  Little did we know.  That summer, we made some contacts (now friends) through swimming classes and mother and child outings organised locally.  We decided that we’d home-educate for a year to see how it went.  This would give us time to settle into our new location without adding any extra pressures.  He also attended an after-school club a couple of days a week.  Not far off three years later and he’s never gone to school.  He can go if he chooses, but assures us this will never be the case (we’ll see…).

At this point I was gathering all the information I could on home educating.  I loved the John Holt books I read (Teach Your Own, Instead of Education), his philosophy being: a child will learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it (given a rich, stimulating environment with an adult at hand to ‘facilitate’ and provide opportunities to follow their interests).  It certainly holds true for our son.  He’s an autonomous learner. We go on trips each week to places of interest.  His current favourite is Blackrock Castle and Observatory in Cork.  He can’t get enough of it, and of course we can go when it’s quiet and have it all to ourselves if we choose.  If he’s really interested in something, he has time to immerse himself in it, sometimes for lengthy periods.  We’ve bought some books and workbooks from the school curriculum (I must admit they have, on occasion, served as an ‘is he learning?” barometer, when he’s completed the exercises). 

From a legal standpoint, under the Education Welfare Act (2000), children not attending school must register with the National Educational Welfare Board.  Their guidelines for registration can be downloaded from their website http://www.newb.ie/  The home-page has a Home Education link which has a lot of other information and links to useful websites.  After we completed and returned our application form, we were contacted by an assessor to arrange a date for the assessment.  We found them very nice to deal with.  The assessment, although thorough as you’d expect, was relaxed and pleasant.  The assessor was very complementary and encouraging.  This occurred when our son turned 6 years.

You could say that home educating is a lifestyle that we’ve chosen and it works for us.  However, believe me, it does have its downsides.  Though very rewarding, it presents many challenges.  Financially, we are at a disadvantage.  I had considered working part-time when our son went to school.  That had to go out of the window.  Another challenge I have is finding ‘me’ time.  Being together so much can be exhausting (along with looking after his baby sister).  I’m not always immediately in a position to research something with/for him and sometimes this has to wait until the evening when my husband gets back from work.  As he gets older his need for longer one-to-one time during the day is increasing because of the ever-growing complexity of the subjects he’s interested in.  As a result, we’re now considering having a babysitter for a few hours a week to take care of little sister. Another problem we’ve encountered is criticism from both family members and friends.  I have found this very hard to deal with.  It’s already difficult enough going ‘against the grain’.  I’ve read somewhere that a ‘thick skin’ is necessary if you decide to home educate in our society.  I still have to work very hard on this, my husband, far less so and my son’s blissfully oblivious.

On the social front he has friends with whom he has regular play dates.  There are weekly home-education gatherings, which we sometimes attend.  There’s a very definite requirement for him to meet other exceptionally able children, though.  We’ve only recently discovered the world of the exceptionally able and are looking forward to him attending CTYI classes to meet other kids with whom he can feel relaxed.  His current friends aren’t interested in having in-depth discussions about the planets, war, history of football, FIFA… 

Some questions we tend to get asked (that I haven’t given any information about so far) are:

Are you a qualified teacher?  The answer is ‘no’, nor is it a legal requirement.  (By the way the Irish Constitution is very home-education-friendly in that it acknowledges the parent/guardian’s role as the child’s primary educator.  It clearly states that a parent/guardian may home-educate a child.)

What about subjects that he needs more help in than you can give (maths, Irish)?  Both my husband and I have been through the Irish education system.  Along with books, internet, library and all the usual sources, we can, in the future get grinds for him if he needs them, help from friends and family who have specialist knowledge in these areas is another option, along with evening classes etc.

What about Junior Cert., Leaving Cert., University?  Firstly, he may go to school at some point.  If not, other routes I’m aware of are: arrangements can be made through V.E.C.s, Adult Education Classes or the Dublin Tutorial Centre.  For Junior and Leaving Cert, you can register with a secondary school in the January of that year if you wish to sit the exam (more information see http://www.examinations.ie/ ).

Now, when I reflect, and try to reframe the past with this new understanding (of him being ‘exceptionally able’), a lot of things are suddenly making a lot more sense.  It was on this (Giftedkids.ie) website that I first encountered the list of characteristics associated with the Gifted Child and it was such a Eureka moment.  A very good book review (also on this website) that I liked, for Guiding the Gifted Child, resulted in me buying this book, which I’ve only just received and started to read.  Preceding the first chapter, there’s a quote by Stephanie Tolan:

“These children are like plants that need stakes
to grow against, with gentle ties where necessary
to support their natural growth, instead of being
rigidly espaliered to a stone wall in artificial
designs someone else devised.”

This struck a chord with me.  Even without knowing about giftedness, we were aware that we wanted our son to grow and learn in his own unique, sometimes topsy-turvy, yet natural way.  I’ll never forget the day he would have started school (in September after his 5th birthday) and he was telling me that his favourite number was a “septillion.  It has 24 zeros” he exclaimed excitedly, and this led to a discussion about bigger numbers with even more zeros, leading on to a chat about infinity.  I figured, no matter how lovely his teacher may have been, discussions about infinity with our little boy in a class of 27 or so would very unlikely have taken place.

By "Jingy"




Disclaimer: This is not an expert site, it is run on a voluntary basis and as such is based on opinion and experience but we hope that it acts as a signpost for educational resources and other support services for Irish families with exceptionally able children. By using this website you accept that any dependence by you on such information, opinion or advice is at your own risk.

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