Deschooling is crucial for setting your family up for homeschool success – but most new and prospective homeschoolers have no idea what it is. They pull their kids from school on Friday, start homeschooling on Monday, and by the end of the week they’re going crazy and wondering why nothing is working like they’d expected it to.
If you plan to homeschool long term, then deschooling is a “must do” for both you and your children. It will allow you to start your homeschool journey on the right foot and save you a lot of headache, heartache, and hassle down the road.
So, what exactly is deschooling?
Well, it’s a few things, actually:
Why is deschooling so important for students?
If your child has spent any time in the conventional school system, either public or private school, then chances are they’ve lost a few things besides pencils and glue sticks.
They’ve probably lost sight of what actually interests them. After all, how often do schools allow students to decide what they want to learn about? As a result, many children, particularly older children, no longer know their own interests and passions. Since their natural curiosity has been allowed to atrophy, they just learn whatever they’re told they have to learn instead of seeking out things that might excite or interest them more.
They’ve also most likely lost their intrinsic motivation to learn. They were born with it – we all are – but years of being told what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it have squashed any desire to learn for the sake of discovering new things. Education has become something that happens to them without their consent, rather than something they can engage in because they’re actually excited about the topic.
Kids who have spent a lot of time in conventional school also most likely don’t know how they like to learn. Why would they? They can only learn one way at school. All they know are textbooks, workbooks, and lectures, and as far as they know that’s the only way people can learn academic information.
So what happens when you start homeschooling a child whose natural curiosity has been crushed and who doesn’t know how to engage with new information in the way they’re actually wired to?
Frustration all around! Their previous school experience has led them to believe that learning is boring, irrelevant, and drudgery. Just because they now get to do it in pajamas on the living room couch doesn’t make the proposition any more appealing. At least when they were at school they got to see their friends – now they have to be home all the time while they read those textbooks all day long. And lucky you – you get to deal with their sullen, unmotivated, irritable attitudes all day long.
How is that a good setup for your homeschooling adventure? It’s awful! And it’s only part of the reason why homeschooling before deschooling can be so miserable.
Why is deschooling so important for the parent?
When you take on homeschooling, you’re embarking on an adventure that is, most likely, completely different from how you were educated and how the world around you educates their kids. Not only that, but you’ve been indoctrinated to think about education in a very specific way: teacher talking, children taking notes, workbooks, textbooks, homework, and tests.
But it turns out that this is one of only eight different philosophies of learning and education, and chances are good there’s a different one that would suit you and your children much better.
Now imagine what will happen when you launch into your homeschooling if you haven’t taken the time to deschool. All you know is the conventional approach, so what is your homeschooling going to look like? Like conventional school at home! And even if you try to fight against that, whenever the going gets tough, you’re going to revert to what you’re most familiar with: the conventional approach to education.
Now, depending on your reasons for homeschooling, that might not be a big deal to you. But if your child doesn’t do well with that approach, then homeschooling is going to be just as miserable for them as public school was. And if there’s an approach that would suit your children and you better, then you’re robbing yourself and your children of the opportunity to truly enjoy learning and education.
Think of it this way: Let’s say you want to eat better, but you only know how to cook food that’s bad for you, so you decide to just drink protein shakes. They do the job, right? They give you energy and sustenance and they taste decent enough. But then your friend, who is also trying to eat better, invites you to dinner and serves an absolutely amazing meal: a beautiful garden-fresh salad with ten different ingredients topped with a mind-blowing balsamic dressing, a juicy chicken breast in a light, zesty lemon sauce, and a delicious risotto side.
Which one sounds more appealing?
A conventional, school-at-home approach may get the job done, but is it enjoyable? Is it something your children look forward to? Is it a method that is going to build the kinds of habits, confidence, and skills that they really need to succeed in the world? Is it an approach that works with their natural learning personality? Or is it just a means to an end so you can check the boxes in your own way and not in the school’s way?
THIS is why deschooling is so important. Because for their entire school-aged life, every waking moment of your child’s life as been dictated by The Conventional School System. The concept of learning has been poisoned in their minds because it has been associated with control, rigidity, boredom, frustration, and general misery for however many years they’ve been in school. And since your beliefs about education are all tainted by this same experience, you don’t know how to do things any differently.
Detoxing – deschooling – allows both of you to separate the concept of learning from the shackles of the conventional education philosophy and approach. It allows your child to rediscover their own interests, their own natural learning personality, and their own intrinsic motivation to learn. And it allows you to gain a true understanding of what education really is, to discover all the different ways that information can be learned and taught, and to create an approach to learning and education that is actually tailored to your child instead of just being a home-based version of conventional school.
Deschooling puts your child in a much more receptive mindset for learning at home – and for learning at all – and prepares you for true homeschooling.
How do you deschool?
Deschooling is characterized better by what you don’t do than what you do do. Just like a physical detox typically requires that you remove unhealthy things from your diet, an educational detox requires you to remove things, too – namely anything that looks remotely like school.
That’s right: no formal academic work during the deschooling period. No curriculum. No lessons. No assignments.
(If you live in a state that requires you to take attendance, teach certain subjects, teach for a certain number of days, etc. – you can still deschool. Keep reading and I’ll touch later on how it works in high regulation states.)
Remember the freedom you felt that first day of summer vacation when you were a kid? The ability to sleep in, the whole day stretching before you with possibility, the chance to fill the time however you wanted. That feeling is what you’re aiming for for your kids when you deschool – except this time, the specter of the next boring school year isn’t looming on the horizon. Those days are gone. Never again will their life be ruled by the decision of some school board somewhere!
Let them sleep in. Let them lie around and be completely unproductive. Let them watch TV and play video games and read whatever they want to – within the boundaries that you family sets for these things, of course. This is an entirely new kind of freedom, and it can take a while to really sink in that the burden of school as they’ve always known it is officially off their shoulders.
You can (and should!) invite them to join you in activities – painting a bedroom, organizing the garage, going to a museum, watching a documentary – but don’t try to make any of these activities “educational.” Just let them be what they are, and let your child take from them what they want. (You’ll be surprised how much they learn anyway!) There will be plenty of time later for intentional academic work. This isn’t that time.
And you should certainly expect them to do chores, and even follow some kind of routine for the day if that’s something you value. This isn’t about removing all boundaries and requirements from your child’s life. It’s about freeing them from the expectations of school and education as they know it. Establishing a routine and encouraging the formation of new habits is a good thing, and they can be easier to start and maintain when your plate doesn’t have as much on it. Then, once you do start homeschooling, those routines and habits are already in place. Starting one new thing at a time is easier than transitioning to lots of new things all at once.
Eventually, at some point, your child is going to get bored with doing the same old thing day after day. That’s a good thing! Boredom is not something children should be rescued from. They’ll start itching for something new, and this is a great sign, because it means they’re shifting into the next level of detoxification: rediscovering their own interests and natural curiosity.
Maybe they’ll want to start a project of some kind – build something, pick up a new skill like sewing or coding, learn how to paint with watercolors or write calligraphy. Or maybe they’ll want to learn more about something: a period of history, a particular person, archaeology, interior design.
It can be easy to slip into “education” mode at this stage. Do your best not to do that. Facilitate, yes, but don’t instruct unless they actually ask you to. And even then, try to guide them to resources rather than just straight-up telling them how or what to do.
And while they do these things, take some time to watch them. Ask about their process or why they decided to learn in this way instead of that way. This is your opportunity to learn how your child likes to engage with new information, which you’ll want to know when you start looking at curriculum and planning out how you’ll approach homeschooling.
But remember, they’re not the only ones who are deschooling. While your children are rediscovering their own interests, you should be learning about all the different ways learning can happen and all the different ways education can look. This is the best way for parents to deschool themselves.
I always recommend that parents begin by learning about unschooling. Unschooling is about as far on on the opposite side of the educational spectrum from conventional school as you can possibly get! And when you discover what learning looks like when it’s completely divorced from formal academics, compulsion, curriculum, lectures, and lessons, that is when the walls of that little aforementioned box start to crumble.
From there, learning about the other methodologies will help you continue to gather new ideas about how learning can happen and help you start to form your own philosophy of education. My article on methodologies will give you an overview of the different options and provide resources to help you deep dive on the ones you really like.
Want some guidance for your deschooling journey? Download my free deschooling guide here for ideas on activities for you, for your child, and for you both to do together to detox from the conventional school mindset!
Want to turbo-boost your deschooling journey? Check out the Deschooling Experience, which offers a step-by-step deschooling plan to help you you each those “Ah ha!” moments faster and be set up for homeschool success more sooner!
How long does it take and when should I start?
There’s a very unscientific rule of thumb that gets thrown around in the homeschool community: one month of deschooling for every year your child has been in school.
Now, before you panic, let me say that I don’t necessarily agree with this, because the amount of time it’s going to take will depend on what your child’s educational experience has been like and how intact their natural curiosity and love of learning still are.
However, I do tend to think it takes longer than most parents expect it to, so planning on it taking that long is probably a good idea just to keep your expectations reasonable.
There’s one more “rule” that actually does hold true: summer break doesn’t count as deschooling time. Neither does spring break or Christmas vacation. Why? Because when everyone is off of school, the time feels no different to your child. It’s not until everyone else goes back to school and they get to stay home that it really starts to sink in that they’re finally free.
I know what you’re thinking. “We can’t just not do school during the school year. They’ll fall behind!” To which I say, “Behind whom?” To whom are you comparing them? Why does that comparison matter? And what makes you think they won’t catch up?
You see, the concept of grade levels don’t actually apply to homeschooling. When you homeschool, you teach your child at whatever level they’re at in each subject, rather than just saying, “You’re 12 so we’ll use 7th grade curriculum this year.”
And when a child is motivated to learn and is being taught in a way that syncs up with how they’re naturally wired to learn, they can learn a lot more in a much shorter amount of time. It’s like paddling with the stream rather than against it.
Plus, since you’re not working with 20+ children, you’re able to cover a lot more information in shorter amounts of time, which is why homeschoolers usually only “do school” for 3-4 hours a day.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you take three months to deschool. Over those three months, you child is recovering their own natural interest and curiosity. Meanwhile, you’re learning about the different methodologies for learning and deciding which one you want to use as the framework for your homeschool adventure. You’ll then select curriculum that is written to align with that method. (This article on our website can help you with that.) You’re also learning how your child likes to learn and what they want their learning environment to be like. So when you start homeschooling, you have a more engaged learner, curriculum that suits their learning personality, and you’re using an approach that is going to set all of you up for success. Once you crack open those books, you’ll be able to go through curriculum at a much quicker pace and make up that time that you “lost” because you have everything working for you rather than against you.
So when should you start deschooling? Well, if you plan to start homeschooling in the next three months and your child is currently in school, then I’d say pull them out and start deschooling now! Remember, you don’t have to have anything planned, any curriculum on hand, any schedule figured out – Phase 1 is going to be a chance for them to unwind while you deschool yourself by researching other homeschool methods.
If you’re not ready to start homeschooling that soon, then I’d suggest figuring out when you do want to start, and then schedule a minimum of 2-3 weeks’ worth of deschooling time for each year your child has been in conventional school before you plan to start officially homeschooling. The longer your child has been in conventional school, the longer it will likely take them to deschool, although if your child has managed to maintain their love of learning and is excited for the chance to finally pursue education in their own way, then it may not take long at all.
Don’t be surprised if, after a few days, your child is asking to “do school.” Resist the urge to invest in some generic workbooks to tide you over to when you’ve chosen actual curriculum. What you’re seeing is a child who is uncomfortable with unstructured time, who doesn’t know what to do with themselves, and who has forgotten how to entertain themselves and self-direct their time. Instead of “doing school,” put a routine in place if you haven’t yet, and make sure weekly visits to the library are a part of it. You can also ask your child what they’d want to learn about if you started “doing school” and then help them to learn about that on their own without textbooks and workbooks.
Make sure you throw in as many outings as you can reasonably take. Visit new parks, go fishing at a local pond, go to museums and zoos and exhibitions and classes at the library. Look for local homeschool meetups and join them on their social excursions. Pack a picnic and some books or art supplies and hang out at the local university Quad or some other people-watching place. Look for “behind the scenes” tours at local factories, fast-food restaurants, etc.
And don’t forget projects at home! Refinish that table together. Have them help you organize the pantry. Enlist their help with installing shelves in your closet. Help them deep-clean their room. Organize the attic. Move the furniture around in the family room to see if a different configuration breathes some new life into the space.
And remember, don’t turn these into “educational experiences.” They’re educational regardless of how much you deliberately teach through them! Just let them be what they are: a chance to hang out, to do something new, and to learn through life.
And after you’ve learned more about the various approaches to education, start talking with your child about what homeschooling can be. Get their input about how they’d like to learn or what classes in the community they’d like to take when the time comes. Especially with older students who ought to be taking more responsibility for their education, these talks can not only help you figure out if your child is ready to finish the deschooling phase of your homeschool journey, but they can help you figure out what the next phase of that journey should look like.
“How am I supposed to do this when my state requires me to ________?”
If you’re struggling to see how this can work in a higher regulation state, then this section is for you. All states have different homeschool laws, but deschooling is possible in all states, although the “how” of it might be difficult to wrap your head around until you’ve done some deschooling yourself.
Since there are literally fifty different sets of homeschool laws in the United States, I can’t tell you exactly how to deschool in your state. In order to be that specific I’d have to address the specific homeschool reality that is created by your state’s unique collection of laws. But what I can do – and will do – is tell you how some common homeschool laws can be satisfied while deschooling. I’ll also tell you how to figure out exactly how to deschool in your state!
What constitutes learning and education?
When we unpack this simple question it becomes much more clear how one can deschool even in states where there are more stringent regulations. So let’s unpack it, shall we?
All of life is an education. We are so trained to think of school and learning as looking a certain way and requiring certain tools that we forget that learning happens all the time, merely by living – especially when one is a child and doesn’t have decades’ worth of life already under one’s belt. When you’re still young, then cooking and baking is an education. Watching your cat stalk a bug is an education. Going fishing is an education. Making various kinds of paper airplanes and trying to figure out why one flies straight and another one loops is an education. Sorting your great-grandfather’s coin collection while listening to his stories about being stationed in Europe during the war is an education. You’re surrounded by learning opportunities!
Unfortunately, schools (and politicians) have a tendency to separate real life from learning. They strip out the concept they want to teach, and then teach that concept devoid of context. (Except for those word problems in math. Because, you know, every kid can relate to having a crate of nine seedless watermelons and a crate of twelve regular watermelons and trying to determine how many watermelons he must have altogether. Insert eye-rolling here.)
They also assume that skills have to be taught in a particular order – that unless you already know how to add and subtract and multiply, there’s no way you can start learning division, much less fractions, and that you can’t write a story if you can’t yet write a sentence. (Many homeschooled kindergarteners have proven this theory wrong, however.)
But when you start looking at everyday activities and what skills your child is applying or learning when they engage in them, then you start to see how learning can happen all day, every day, without ever cracking open a single workbook.
If your child uses a recipe, then they’re reading and most likely also using math (especially if, like us, you always seem to be missing half your measuring cups and spoons and have to do conversions to make due with what you still have). If your child writes a letter to a penpal or relative or friend, they’re practicing composition, vocabulary, spelling, and handwriting. If they watch an episode of Wild Kratts, they’re learning science. If they watch an American Girl movie or read an American Girl book, they’re learning history.
Think for a minute about the activities your child likes to do. Think about the skills learned in the core subjects. How many core subjects are they touching on with those activities?
And remember that when you’re deschooling, you’re not just sitting around at home every day. You’re going to museums, the library, the park, taking day trips when possible. Reading, art, science, geography, map skills, physical education, social studies and more would all be covered in those activities.
So, in light of that, let’s think about the most common state requirements:
(And here’s a quick and easy way to ensure you’re getting in some of the subjects that your child’s activities don’t naturally touch on: audiobooks. Chances are you spend some time in the car at some point during your week, so spend that time listening to audiobooks that allow you to tick off the subjects your child tends to miss in their own activities. Many libraries now have a way to check out audiobooks just like regular books. Just get the app on your phone and listen as you drive!)
And remember, this isn’t what your child’s entire homeschool education is going to look like. This is just how you’re going to handle this single deschooling season. Once you pick up with regular homeschooling, whenever that may be, then you can look at the time you’ve spent on education so far and what subjects have been covered well or not-so-well and spend the first part of your homeschool journey rounding things out however you need to in order to fulfill your state’s requirements.
How to stop deschooling and start homeschooling
At some point it will be clear that your child and you are both sufficiently deschooled. So then what?
The next step depends entirely on what method you’ve decided to use as the framework for your homeschool adventure. Unschooling, which I mentioned earlier, is basically deschooling that never ends, so if that approach of learning through life and allowing your child to steer their education appeals to you, then things aren’t going to change very much!
If you have chosen one of the Rich and Rigorous or Conventional methodologies to follow, then you can talk to your child to see how they’d like to handle the transition into formal lessons. You can start all your subjects on Day 1, or you can start with one or two subjects and roll the rest out over a week or two. If you have multiple children, then I’d recommend launching them all individually so you’re less likely to get overwhelmed. Alternately, you can launch them all at once but only start with one or two subjects, and roll the other subjects out over a couple weeks so everyone has time to find their footing and you can figure out how to best organize your day.
If you’ve decided to follow one of the Holistic methodologies, then the transition will vary based on the specific approach you’ve chosen, as some of them have more structure and formality to them than others. Generally speaking, however, you may want to identify one particular element of your approach to add into your day for a week or two, then bring in another, then another, until you’ve fully transitioned.
Don’t be surprised if you still find yourself slipping into that public school mindset, even if you’ve spent a lot of time deschooling yourself. You have literally decades’ worth of indoctrination to undo, and realistically that can take years to complete. The important thing is to make yourself stop and think about what is driving your decision to do something in a conventional schooling way. Is it your values that support that move, or are you just defaulting to that “setting” in your brain?
I would encourage you to continue working on your own deschooling even once you’ve started formally homeschooling. Even just hanging out in unschooling groups on Facebook can be incredibly enlightening! The more non-conventional education input you receive, the more deschooled you’ll be come, and the easier it will be to let your values guide your educational decisions and not your default settings. And eventually your default settings WILL be your values!
Don’t forget to download my free deschooling guide here – or turbo-boost your deschooling journey with a step-by-step program in the Deschooling Experience!