When my kids were young and I was new to homeschooling, self-directed learning was so easy for them. They played video games, had fist fights, and set things on fire.

The person who had trouble with self-directed learning when my kids were young was me. I was scared other parents would think I’m neglectful. I worried my kids would never stop playing video games. I worried the research about self-directed learning being the best might turn out to be wrong.

My worries were unfounded.

I should have been worrying that self-directed learning is a lot harder for kids as they get older. Bigger kids have bigger goals and bigger goals take a lot more self-discipline to accomplish as a self-directed learner.

So today most of the problems my kids have as homeschoolers are around self-discipline. I know they’re not alone because teen anxiety is higher than ever before. Sure, a ton of that anxiety comes from school, which is not relevant to our house, but there’s still a lot of anxiety left over even once you account for no school.

My older son is 15 now, and he needs to pass a lot of AP tests to show that he measures up against the high ranking private school kids he wants to compete with to get into college. He’s very good at school work — I think maybe he was born to take standardized tests. But he’s not nearly as good at focus, and at this point in his life productivity is really important.

I surreptitiously shadowed him all day adding up all the time he did nothing. Picking at his socks. Petting the dog. Showering for the third time, snacking for the fifth time, checking CNN.com for the thousandth time. It all adds up.

I would know. I’m on ADHD medicine and when it wears off, I’m right there with him. Picking at my socks. So I made it my job to help him focus.

People told me that if he is not focusing then he’s probably not interested. I don’t believe that. Because I have a kid who chooses to practice music five hours a day and I still have to force him to focus.

So I am trying to get to that with my older son. Surely after learning all the focus skills for music I should be able to apply it to something else. But it wasn’t so easy.

I think that’s because when you play an instrument you are always moving. So I was really excited when FluidStance contacted me about their new product the Grade

We have had things to stand on before in an effort to help with focus. We have had the ones that are so hard that I nearly broke my neck. And we’ve had ones that are easy and you have to focus to reach your core, but really, if I could focus then I wouldn’t need to be standing on the thing for focus, so those didn’t work either.

The Plane we received is the perfect amount of needing to balance combined with being able to concentrate on something else. It didn’t surprise me that kids took to it — because really research shows kids should be on something like this all day long if they are going to be in school. The kids use it so much now that we started keeping it in the middle of the living room. But then something crazy happened.

Every single person who comes over tries it out and they all love it. It really surprised me that adults loved it as much as the kids loved it. Then I realized that adults are drawn to things that help them focus because focus is about calm.

For a while I was feeling like a failure that our unschooling had morphed from nature-centric free-ranging to by-the-book test-taking. But now I can see that letting kids play when they are young is brain stimulation and teaching kids focus when they’re older is self-regulation. And I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t love to have more ability to self-regulate.

I always say the first thing I had to do to homeschool is unschool myself. I had to really understand at a deep level how irrelevant school is for kids so that I could let my kids do what they need to do as kids. The same is true now — I’m still having to unschool myself. So just like I didn’t know early homeschooling would mostly be playing video games, I didn’t know later homeschooling would mostly be practicing focus.

I thought my job would be to get the kids the opportunities they want for college/work/life. But it turns out that they can get their own opportunities, they just need help learning how to focus.

15 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’ve been missing your education blog posts so I’m very happy to see this one today. “Proof that homeschooling works.” – by the NY Times may be my favorite attribution to you. When I read – “I always say the first thing I had to do to homeschool is unschool myself. I had to really understand at a deep level how irrelevant school is for kids so that I could let my kids do what they need to do as kids. The same is true now — I’m still having to unschool myself.” – I know I’m spending quality time reading this blog. As for the large amount of time playing video games early on, I have read this may be more prevalent among children who have been schooled. That is, those children whose natural learning instincts have been suppressed, childhood play and creativity limited, and conformity to what the school wants and the teacher says. Actually, it’s a theory by Kerry McDonald (who also unschools) where instead of video games she says basically tech gadgets, software, and social media.
    I looked at FluidStance’s ‘The Plane’ on Amazon. It’s a top-rated product with 5/5 stars. What I also noticed is they’re answering customer’s questions there. That’s a good sign they have good customer service which is important. The focus benefit you describe here isn’t readily apparent to me although I can see how it can be with use. Most of the reviews point to physical benefits. What really caught my eye was this statement from one review – “But best of all is what the deck has done for my back: I’ve had horrible back problems my whole life… and when I spend the day on my Fluidstance deck, at the end of the day, I feel nice and loose – no back pain, no tightness, no painful spasms or shooting sciatic pain.” My brother injured his back lifting weights when he was young. It’s important he does his back exercises. Otherwise, he has this sciatic pain. So I’m going to tell him about this product.

  2. Bos
    Bos says:

    It is nice to see another education post here. I imagine that the prohibition from Juilliard affected not just PT’s ability to write about her kids’ education, but her feelings about writing. Best of luck to little Z. We’ll just have to google to hear how he’s doing, but shh don’t say anything. It’s interesting to hear about #1 Son too, and I thought the comment about writing his ideal profile and working backwards could be expanded into a post all its own.

    I’d like to comment on this sentence: “He’s very good at school work — I think maybe he was born to take standardized tests. ”

    One of the ways in which my son and I are wrestling with schooling right now has to do with this sentiment. How central to college work is, or should be, taking standardized tests? It’s not that he does poorly; to the contrary, he takes after his old man and smashes them. But so what?

    My son, some will recall, is fascinated by science and has long hoped to study science at university. I did not study science at university, despite having taken courses at nine or ten different colleges and universities (in three countries and in four languages). See, I’m more of a languages and literature type guy. That’s my jam. His jam is math, music, and science.

    Oh, great fun is college. But standardized tests? They’re just gating moments – you take one before you enter, you take one between undergrad and grad.

    My actual college work involved little testing, none of it standardized. When I think of actual college work, I think mainly of reading, researching, and writing, and arguments! Even for languages (of which I’ve studied seven), I think more of speaking and reading than of memorizing and testing. For me, testing was just not central to college work. Sure, classes had tests, but I considered them more of a formality than anything.

    My son is (still) attending a public school of no small reputation, and I find myself dismayed by how little reading, researching, and writing goes on there, compared to how very much memorizing and testing. I guess it is practically impossible for teachers who see 150 kids daily to read essays rather than just rubber-stamping worksheets, but as part of our applications to get him out of there we were requested to submit an essay which had been handed in and graded and handed back, and we discovered that, in a year and a third, this has never yet happened. Not once. We may have to make a special request of a teacher to pretend that he assigned and graded an essay.

    The schools he is applying to for next year (so that he can be one of those “high ranking private school kids” with whom Son #1 must compete) all foreground how much their curricula depend on reading, researching, and writing. The higher you go in the hierarchy of prep schools, the less they talk about tests and the more they talk about discussions (all hail the Harkness Table!) If I were homeschooling my son for high school, reading, writing, research, and discussion are the things we would be doing a lot of (science would be outsourced). But the school he goes to now is firmly rooted in the tradition where a history class is graded on nothing more and nothing less than memorizing chapters from textbooks and spitting them back up again on tests. Every class, every subject, is about memorizing lists of thematic factoids, and keeping worksheets in order. Many of the tests, in class, are multiple choice!

    We see two very different theories here about what is most important in a college prep education. Having not studied science in college, I wonder if the memorize, regurgitate, repeat cycle drilled at my son’s public school is more important in sciences than it is in the humanities. I think two years of it is enough, and next year he should do the other kind of school.

    I was amused to read about the Plane. We have a similar balancing object made out of wood. We would not be able to use the Plane, as it has a weight limit of 200 pounds. Tiny people, I scoff at your compactness.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      “My son is (still) attending a public school of no small reputation, and I find myself dismayed by how little reading, researching, and writing goes on there, compared to how very much memorizing and testing. I guess it is practically impossible for teachers who see 150 kids daily to read essays rather than just rubber-stamping worksheets, but as part of our applications to get him out of there we were requested to submit an essay which had been handed in and graded and handed back, and we discovered that, in a year and a third, this has never yet happened. Not once. We may have to make a special request of a teacher to pretend that he assigned and graded an essay.”

      I haven’t found this to be true of my oldest’s schooling. Do you think this is because the difference in focus? Your son’s school enjoys the reputation of being one of the top (if not THE top) feeder school into the Ivy League. My daughter’s school focuses on the whole-child and less on teaching to the test (although they consistently get high marks on said tests). As a result there is a lot of reading, research, critical thinking and writing being done. However, I do sense a dichotomy of learning when one is more specialized and ambitious versus others who go a more generalized route.

      I’m very curious about your son’s school. There are several top math and science schools out here, but they are very focused on testing and getting high scores on those tests to keep a high ranking. Forgive me, but that doesn’t seem like the best way to achieve optimal learning.

      • Bos
        Bos says:

        Hi YMKAS.

        The “focus on the whole child” idea is common in 21st century pedagogy. I believe it would be an improvement if my son’s school made it up to the 20th century. They’re still grappling with Horace Mann, and don’t dare bring up that rabble-rouser John Dewey. They don’t believe that all children, even the ones who test into the school, deserve to succeed. If you slip there, teachers will kick you while you’re down instead of helping you back up. You know, grit, perseverance, and we won’t talk about the ones who didn’t make it, the old school is getting too soft don’t you think.

        My son’s school remains the top feeder school to Harvard, but the rest of the Ivy League not so much. I’m beginning to suspect that there is a legacy phenomenon going on in more senses than one: perhaps Harvard grads who went to BLS send their kids to BLS and then the kids get into Harvard as legacies. That would be a more innocent explanation for Harvard’s Asian problem. Working like a dog, amid vicious competition, with no interaction with your teachers, might also be a good preparation for what they do across the river.

        The part about rubber-stamping is sadly literal. Thirty kids open their binders on their desks, and the teacher walks down the rows with a rubber stamp, bonk bonk bonk on the day’s worksheets. And that’s one of the better teachers; at least he’s organized.

        Trying to find an example of an essay really threw me. I remember writing essays when I was in middle school in rural Kentucky. My teachers there couldn’t spell, but at least they expected me to.

        I think teachers are trying hard to avoid having to grade essays. In seventh grade they do something called a “capstone project,” which is pretty light on research or writing. Lots of pictures and a foldy board.

        It’s multimedia! It’s team work! And a teacher can just look at it and give three kids a grade in three subjects, rather than anyone having to sit down and read something.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          ” I’m beginning to suspect that there is a legacy phenomenon going on in more senses than one: perhaps Harvard grads who went to BLS send their kids to BLS and then the kids get into Harvard as legacies”

          I would be curious to know the legacy admissions numbers from BLS as well as the top ten feeder schools to Harvard for a comparative analysis. I would also be curious to know the early decision numbers vs regular decision numbers. I find this stuff curiously interesting.

          • Bos
            Bos says:

            Nobody is ever going to get that information. Harvard is very close with their admissions information, just ask the Justice Department.

            Publicly available information suggests that Harvard’s freshman 2017 class is around 33-41% legacy. But Harvard is unlikely to release more stats even if it gets them off the hook for anti-Asian discrimination. Early acceptances were about 53%.

          • Cáit
            Cáit says:

            It is interesting. I went to Harvard and then worked there. Another thing people overlook is that Harvard has a priority to preferentually admit a certain number of local (to Harvard) students too. Like rando public high schools in Medford. They probably just have a special relationship with BLS. They have relationships with lots of private schools.
            I have to say, I guess I’m biased, but I don’t think Harvard can really be said to discriminate against Asians apart from a larger mission–debatable but nearly universal in high ed of getting a diverse class, geographically, socially, academically, etc. It’s such a complicated question– how to parcel out admissions to elite schools, but I think generally Harvard and American universities seem more democratic meritocratic and accessible than UK ones. By a certain logic Harvard is also discriminating against students in NJ, CT and MA who need much higher SAT scores than students in North Dakota. There is a lot more to Admissions than SAT scores.

          • Penelope Trunk
            Penelope Trunk says:

            Now that we are talking about feeder schools to Harvard, I’m going to sneak this comment in where it won’t be so noticeable, but I can’t resist saying it: early admission acceptances just went out. Fifteen kids from Juilliard applied to Harvard early. Ten accepted, five deferred. No rejections. Harvard is not a place renown for launching professional music careers. Makes me wonder if Juilliard is one of those Harvard feeder schools as well.

            Penelope

  3. Erin
    Erin says:

    This is comforting. Phoebe’s iPad broke. 2018 goal: make enough money to buy my kids each an iPad so they don’t fight over them. Bc right now all anyone wants to do in this house is argue over who got more time on my iPhone.

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I can’t begin to describe the positive effects that unschooling/homeschooling have had for my kids. I’m in the same club as you and Bos as a non-science parent with a highly ambitious, science-focused kid.

    All the time that my kid has had to focus on what was important to her while unschooling (primarily with programming and robotics) has led to her having a huge advantage over other kids her age and she has already created a name for herself in our new community. The robotics coach of the middle school is giving her the only open spot on the team for next year, before she is even enrolled there. Her current team made her the lead programmer and the one who will present before the judges. Unschooling has also helped her understand and appreciate that she will typically be the only girl on her competition teams, like she is currently, but without it bothering her like I think it might if she had been in traditional school this whole time.

    All this to say, that while standardized test scores are one component to getting your son on the path he wants, it is not singularly the most important. He needs to be actively participating in science competitions at a minimum, like right now. This is much harder to do as a homeschooler, I know this from experience. It may even require you coaching a team if you can’t find one outside of the local schools.

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      Science competitions can be fun. It’s also a good way for a science-focused kid to meet people who are into science, whether they be other kids, professors, or graduate students.

      I’m glad to hear that your daughter has found peers and support for her spirit of scientific inquiry!

      My son is participating in the CERN Beamline for Schools experimental design competition this year. He’s been loving the particle physics class he’s taking as preparation for the competition.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Oh the CERN Beamline competition sounds really interesting!

        Yes, on top of how fun the competitions are for science minded kids as well as meeting other kids who share interests, if a kid wanted to be admitted to MIT or whatever top school is being considered by Penelope’s son for general admission, I would suspect that they want to see a heavily spiked resume in the sciences outside of AP classes.

  5. taomao
    taomao says:

    You’ve done your kids no favors setting an example that taking speed long term is a viable coping strategy. Believing you have an immutable problem is as good as having one. New evidence comes out every day about the plasticity of the human brain, even as we age.

  6. 123essay
    123essay says:

    Self-learning has a lot of obstacles indeed. In fact, when I made a choice and started with homeschooling (then Steven was only 10), I was in panic, cause he never understood why he should leave school. And another question was how his fellows would react to that. He was scared, of course. And directing himself to the process of home learning was the hardest thing. But we did it together. We managed to overcome the barrier of self-distractions.
    Regards,
    Leticia Vincent

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