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Accidental Homeschoolers

By John Edelson, Mary Arnold / April 2009

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The media creates an image of homeschoolers as a backward-looking dogmatic group who are withdrawing from mainstream society, but this is far from the truth. Indeed, homeschoolers are often progressive, pragmatic, highly sociable, and enthusiastic e-learning families.

This article will describe the path many parents have taken after placing their children in traditional schools, becoming dissatisfied, and then shifting to homeschooling as an "accidental" change in direction. You will see how the Web and e-learning facilitated the transition and made it feasible for homeschooled families to provide a superior education for their children consistent with today's best practices in education.

Why Do Families Homeschool?
Homeschooling itself and statistics about it are widely debated. However, everyone agrees that while the statistical data is unreliable, the homeschooling population is large and growing. There is no current detailed authoritative study on homeschoolers. In fact the most recent report from the National Centers for Educational Statistics is from 2003 indicating 1.1 million students were being homeschooled the previous year. In that study, participants gave the following reasons as their principal motivation for homeschooling: concern about the environment of schools (31 percent), concerns about religious or moral instruction (30 percent), dissatisfaction with the mainstream school's academic instruction (16 percent), student physical or mental health problem (7 percent), student special needs (7 percent), and other (9 percent).

At the end of the day, there is surprisingly little in-depth information on why perhaps 3 percent of the U.S. population has decided to homeschool. My observation-based on my professional encounters with thousands of homeschoolers-is that a great many of them started and permanently adopted homeschooling as a solution to particular problems with the traditional schools rather than as a deliberate choice.

What is an Accidental Homeschooler?
Accidental homeschoolers is a term I coined to give an identity and voice to the many families that fully expected their children would be educated in the traditional school environment (whether public, private, or parochial), but eventually determined-through a series of unpleasant events-that their institutional school choices would not adequately serve them. Typically, the family adopted homeschooling only after trying to work with the school through a series of meetings. In some cases, they changed teachers or even schools a few times in their efforts to make traditional schools work for their children.

At some point along this exasperating journey, many families concluded that what is best for their child is to stop trying to get the institutions to accommodate their child's special combination of talents and needs and to try homeschooling instead. In many cases, this "accidental homeschooling" experiment for one child evolves from a problem-solving experiment into a new lifestyle embraced by an entire family.

To illustrate this point, here is the story of Mary Arnold, now a homeschooling mother of four boys, three with special needs, who lives in North Florida.

"I Had No Intention of Homeschooling"
If you had told me that I was going to homeschool my children when my oldest son began kindergarten, I would have laughed. Me? Homeschool? I had heard the term "homeschooling," but I did not really know anything about it. However, homeschooling is exactly what happened the very next year! What started accidentally is now the passion of my life! It's almost difficult to remember how scary it was back when we were leaping into something so unknown to us.

Back in 1997, my son Brandon was struggling in his kindergarten class. He had a phenomenal teacher and was eager to learn, but he just couldn't keep up with the others and quickly fell behind. I would work with him after school and on weekends. Finally, as a last resort, I bought a phonics program, kept him home from school for a week, and worked one-on-one with him.

In less than four days Brandon went from struggling unhappily with letter sounds to knowing them inside out and putting them together to read simple words. At that point, I saw for myself that Brandon's problems in traditional school had something to do with him not being able to learn in an institutional context. We decided to learn more about homeschooling and went online to make contacts and gather information. Within a week, I had read about a variety of educational methods, made several helpful and friendly contacts, and joined up with a local support group that matched our family's approach. The Internet allowed me to efficiently research my questions about whether to send Brandon back to school or try homeschooling on an ongoing basis. I had so many questions: "How will my children be socialized? Where would I buy curriculum? How could I teach without a degree?" All of these questions and worries were quickly answered by experienced homeschoolers.

Learning About My Children, Education, and Homeschooling
Something very significant occurred shortly after we began our home education journey. While discussing my children in an online homeschooling forum, I heard about Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) for the first time. It was an enlightening moment. Suddenly, I knew what was troubling Brandon and where to seek guidance. Shortly thereafter, Brandon was diagnosed with CAPD, in that his brain does not organize verbal information as other children's brains do. This is not a hearing disorder, it is a disorder in processing auditory information within the brain. Moreover, I learned CAPD often travels in families. I now know that three of four my sons have CAPD. The good news, as I was delighted to discover, is that in contrast to their struggles processing auditory information, they all have incredible capacities for visual learning. As a result, anything that uses strong graphics engages them and allows information to "stick" in their minds. I sure wish I had understood this from the beginning of this educational odyssey.

Oh yes, I made many mistakes in the trial-and-error process of optimizing my sons' homeschool education. For instance, one big mistake I made early on was insisting that I could make a literature-based program work for us. The premise of literature-based learning is that you replace textbooks by reading authentic literature aloud to teach history, philosophy, science, and even art appreciation. After each segment, your students are supposed to narrate back to you what they took from the reading. Accordingly, each morning I would grab our books and begin to read to my sons, adding plenty of inflection into my voice, pausing dramatically to get their attention, and making exaggerated facial expressions to convey the emotional dimension, only to find them staring at me blankly when it was time for them to narrate back. The problem with this approach was its unsuitability for children who need a strong visual connection. By requiring so much uptake through listening, I was poorly serving my children, since important information was "getting lost" before "reaching the right destination in their brains." This was a costly mistake which wasted a large amount of time and money.

I have continued to use an array of different materials. I am always looking for educational approaches that provide ample visual representations of the material that will allow my children to learn quickly and easily, rather than frustrating them with instructional techniques unsuited to their needs. I have had some success with books that have a highly visual element and deliver information in bite-size chunks followed immediately by questions for reinforcement. My biggest success with the curriculum started in 2007 when my children began using an online interactive multimedia learning program called Because of Time4Learning's strong interactive graphics, my boys can work independently and they hang onto information like never before.

It was at the end of our first year that I truly realized the beneficial impact home education made on our lives. Based on this impact, we committed to homeschooling for the long-term. I now homeschool all four of my children and am active in both online and local homeschool support groups. It is incredibly rewarding to participate in my children's education and the homeschool community.

John Summarizes: Lessons Learned
I hear variations on this story every day. Parents recognize their children are not succeeding in an institutional setting and reluctantly decide to homeschool, more as a last resort than anything else. As they embark down this road, these parents almost always turn to the Web to search for ideas, resources, and community. There they find an array of progressive advice about adapting teaching methods to their children's learning skills, including engaging attention by adopting student-directed study, teaching through hands-on discovery-based projects that bridge the academic and real world, and pragmatically blending online and offline learning tools.

At first parents often create a "school-at-home" environment or model their educational efforts on some other familiar model. Over the course of a few years, parents observe what works for their children and build customized educational programs for them. The crux of the matter is this: Traditional education institutions usually do not systematically refine their approach for each individual student. But homeschooling families do have the motivation and flexibility to do just that. They actively and continually explore new approaches and evolve the best practices for each child through this process of experimentation.

The term "accidental homeschooler" highlights the fact that most of these families had completely different plans for their children's education and unexpectedly concluded that homeschooling was their best option. Due to the wide availability of e-learning, the simplicity of researching and shopping online, the critical mass of helpful homeschooling communities, and the motivation and flexibility of homeschool parents, educational best practices are increasingly available to homeschoolers.

About the Authors
John Edelson is the founder of, an online homeschool curriculum popular with many families including those with children with special learning needs.

Mary Arnold is a homeschooling mother of four in North Florida. Three of her children have CAPD.

©2009 ACM

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  • Tue, 24 Jun 2014
    Post by John E

    I was just sent a link to this article by someone who said that I would like it. Indeed I do! Here is a collection of accidental homeschooler stories available in which people tell how they fell into homeschooling:

  • Thu, 30 Apr 2009
    Post by Linda

    John wrote: Traditional education institutions usually do not systematically refine their approach for each individual student. But homeschooling families do have the motivation and flexibility to do just that. AND "What''s the hardest part of homeschooling?" It''s staying home. With so many local group activities, there''s not much time for the home part. ----------- Yes, John! Homeschooling begins with home. Home is such a powerful tool for growth--both for the children and for the parents. -------------

  • Wed, 29 Apr 2009
    Post by John Edelson

    You mention that you''ve noticed a change in who is homeschooling over the last decade. I think this is true as homeschooling shifted from a fringe minority idea to a popular option. The media has portrayed homeschoolers historically as rejecting mainstream schools either for reasons of religion or "hippyness"; my experience in the last five years is that there is at least a minority, perhaps a silent majority, of homeschoolers who are pragmatic problem solvers. And the media is way behind is portraying how active the homeschooling community is. It''s now an old joke but: "What''s the hardest part of homeschooling?" It''s staying home. With so many local group activities, there''s not much time for the home part.