Unschooling with Executive Dysfunction: Why It Works for Us

Our family dynamic is unique, I’ll admit it. We unschool, which has been an incredibly positive experience for us. Unschooling is not the same as homeschooling in that homeschooling means that the parent retains control over the child’s education and dictates what will be taught, when it will be taught, and how it will be taught.

Raising our kids according to their needs

This might seem like a lot to take on, but it’s not. We use these needs as the framework for our parenting decisions, which has helped them grow into self-sufficient, successful adults. For example, one of my daughters is neurodivergent and has ADHD. I accommodated her by teaching in ways that cater to her needs, and hired an expert to help me understand how ADHD works, giving me more confidence in what I was doing as her parent. Another child is transgender and while he struggled a lot with it in the past, he is now happy, out and proud of who he is. He wanted to try public school and enrolled at the local high school for 9th grade, where he was continuously bullied by one of his teachers. We had many meetings with that teacher, as well as school officials, but nothing ever came of it. My son decided that his education was worth dropping out of high school for, and now he’s on his 2nd year of college at age 17. Two of our six children have been diagnosed with Autism, which can make life hard because some autistic people have difficulties with executive function. There are times when we need to do things their way, or do things differently than usual, because they don’t process information the same way others do. The important thing is that they feel supported in all areas of their lives, and this includes home too. As an autistic adult, I can relate better to them because I know firsthand what they go through daily. Sometimes there will be things that my kids want to do, or chores they don’t want to do, but I can tell that they’re capable of completing it if they just try. They may have difficulty getting started, but once they get going, the task usually goes much smoother. They also sometimes need to take breaks throughout the day because it’s so tiring for them to constantly be trying new skills. Sometimes it’s helpful if we switch up our routine so it isn’t always a certain type of work or activity every day.

How we manage day-to-day tasks at home

Keeping the home clean is difficult. Even after doing a quick vacuum of our furniture, it’s easy to scatter things again when sitting down on the couch or playing a game at the table. Our list of surfaces we need to clean daily grows exponentially when you include all those places where kids play – like under their beds, and in the corners of their rooms.

We quickly learned that chore routines were a bad idea, because two weeks later, no one followed them anymore (including me). And I dreaded even trying, because of how hectic every day felt already. So instead, I made them responsible for tidying up their own room, and doing their own laundry. Once they reached the knobs on the washing machine with a stool, they were responsible for keeping their clothes clean. The same goes for dishes – each child received their own set, a different color from everyone else, and that was theirs to keep clean. They can now prepare their own meals, and are responsible for planning what’s in them (which also helps with that pesky Executive Function thing we mentioned earlier). All I ask is that they put away the groceries and make sure there’s food for dinner in the fridge. To make this work, it took some time for us to learn about self care. If we become overwhelmed by too many tasks, we just shift some around until life feels more manageable again. For example, if someone has been running errands all day long and then comes home to find out dinner needs to be cooked too? That person will gladly eat a microwaved meal while someone else gets dinner ready. Everyone gets a break now and then! This works well for both an unschooling family like ours and any traditional families struggling with how best to manage responsibilities between parents. It takes some getting used to at first, but it soon becomes second nature…and most importantly, makes living in accordance with your values possible.

What school taught me about raising my kids

I grew up on the autism spectrum, but as someone assigned female at birth, I went undiagnosed. I had plenty of time to study my classmates and their lives, which made me keenly aware of how much we’re looked down upon by society. Kids with autism are outcasts in schools who have been shuffled into mainstream classrooms, where they often get little attention and spend most of their day isolated from the rest of the world. Schools work hard to fit kids with autism into a system that was never designed for them.

The school environment is hostile to children like mine because it’s primarily a place of non-stop verbal and visual stimulation, full of social interactions that they can’t decipher without help. So while it would be great if every child could go to school, it would be better if every child could go somewhere more suitable than a typical public or private school. We found an answer – radical unschooling.

Unschooling is a parent-directed educational path designed to meet each child’s needs. Instead of using grade levels and age requirements as benchmarks, unschoolers use learning goals that can be adjusted based on progress. A homeschooled learner doesn’t need to waste time working on material they already know and they don’t need to sit still all day when they’d rather explore their interests outside. They may take tests and assessments to determine what they’ve learned, but these aren’t graded competitively or weighed against them in any way. Instead, parents act as educators who guide their child through subjects tailored to their abilities. Unschooling is perfect for children with executive dysfunction, because they won’t feel the pressure of being forced to do something they can’t manage on their own. Children with executive dysfunction are able to focus on activities that interest them, so even though they may not achieve the same grades as their peers in traditional education settings, they’ll be happy and engaged instead of frustrated. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to learning styles and there shouldn’t be one set way for people with disabilities to learn either.

Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint

Parenting a child or children can be so challenging. Particularly when those children have unique needs and the type of parenting approaches that have worked in the past don’t seem to work well. As I’ve said before, unschooling has worked really well for us, but it hasn’t been without bumps in the road and learning moments along the way. Learning how to parent my son who has Executive Function issues was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a parent. It required me to learn new skills and relearn old ones while still being attentive enough to support him on his own journey toward healing from trauma he experienced in early childhood. Even though there were times where I felt like throwing in the towel, I’ve learned that this is what works best for our family. We are fortunate enough to live in an area with many resources, which helps immensely. There are also other families that live close by and we’ve been able to form friendships around this experience of unschooling through adversity. The thing about life is you never know what’s going to happen next. You just hope you’re ready for it.

Willow Stevens

Willow is a mother of six who begins to feel the empty nest, with faer oldest child living with his long-time girlfriend in another state, and the next three begin their talks about jobs and the excitement of college and living alone. Willow started couponing in 2007 to save their family some money on the grocery budget. That's how Freetail Therapy was born, so that fae could share their knowledge of saving money with others. Though the site has become so much more since then, and now includes homeschooling and homesteading info, Willow still does it all on a budget and shares how. Willow enjoys snagging freebies, snuggling with their dog, Xander, drinking decaf coffee, gardening, cannabis and of course, their large frugal family.

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