David is the father of three children. While pushing his kids on the swings at his local park in Ottawa, he confesses to other parents at the playground that he’s concerned about putting his kids back in school because of COVID-19.
However, he’s also worried about keeping them home in case they fall behind.
The idea of parent-led home education has become markedly more popular in the pandemic. But it’s still an uncomfortable idea to parents steeped in the view that going to school is the gold standard for their children’s development socially, emotionally and academically.
Parents struggling with these questions might be relieved to read a recent article from one of Canada’s preeminent developmental psychologists, Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Published earlier this month, Could Home Education Be More Than Just A Backup Plan? provides evidence that school isn’t actually a developmental need for children.
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I followed up with Neufeld to understand his work better.
“I have spent the majority of my professional career as a developmental theorist studying these issues and attempting to isolate the conditions that are conducive to the spontaneous unfolding of human potential,” Neufeld writes.
His four-decade career spans clinical practice and research, including co-authorship of the bestselling book Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. The Neufeld Institute offers courses for parents, professionals and educators on attachment, separation, anxiety and bullying among other subjects.
So why might the traditional school setting not provide the ideal environment for some kids?
Neufeld explains children have four irreducible needs in order to grow up into emotionally secure, independent adults. These needs are often poorly met in schools, making learning at home an attractive option.
The first need is for children to be attached to the adults responsible for them. Attachment, Neufeld writes, “fosters socialization – predisposing [children] to emulate us and empowering us to impart our values to them, shape their learning, or inspire them to assume a contributing role in our society.”
Learning is at risk when curriculum precedes relationship. Where once the teacher-student relationship was paramount, this relationship-based understanding of the role of the teacher is less accepted today.
The second need, he says, is for children to feel. If you think of Mr. Rogers, the children’s program creator, and the pains he took to teach small children about their feelings, we may begin to understand what this could look like.
Feelings for students of any age are more easily expressed in safe relationships with caring adults. If attachment to teachers is on the wane, feelings are also less likely to be met appropriately.
“The reality is,” Neufeld says, “that many children find school stressful and our culture is less likely to provide the safe spaces for our children’s feelings to bounce back.”
The third need is rest. A silver lining to COVID-19 has been the minimizing of hectic schedules. Children need rest to learn, says Neufeld, particularly rest from competition and outcome-based activities.
Those who believe going to school is necessary are often more likely to believe work is essential to learning, “hence the constructs of schoolwork, homework, and the centrality of tests,” writes Neufeld.
The centrality of outcome-based learning in school contradicts the fourth and final need of children, play.
“What has been discovered is that true play is a form of activated rest, bringing all the benefits of rest to our brains and bodies. We also know now that play is truly ‘Nature’s school,’ that learning is optimized in the play mode, that play is the leading edge of maturation, and that play is the womb of socialization,” he writes.
“It could well be argued that the superiority of the Finnish school system is due not to its curriculum or its teacher training, but to the fact that it incorporates so much play into its daily structure.”
How well students can rest in school remains a question.
Of course, some parents aren’t thinking through outcomes at all. They’re thinking of the family finances, the need to work and the need for children to be watched. This is understandable.
“It isn’t hard to understand that children need to go to school for the economy to recover,” Neufeld writes. “Nor is it hard to understand that some children may need to go to school to give their parents a break, or if coming from troubled homes, to find some safety and stability.”
This reasoning, however, is neither condemnation nor praise for schools. It’s rather a recognition of reality, not what’s ideal. Some parents are on autopilot, going forward with schooling because there’s historic precedent for it and it’s paid for by our taxes. Here, COVID-19 provides an opportunity to be more deliberate in educational choices.
“Home education shouldn’t be seen as parents having to teach something if that is not what they want to do,” Neufeld tells me. “Home education is about taking back the responsibility of one’s child’s education. It should be an exciting opportunity for all to think outside this box we have built for ourselves.”
An exciting opportunity may not be what parents are thinking when a pandemic thrusts the idea of home education on them out of the blue. But for those who are considering it, it’s helpful to know there’s no developmental reason why going to school is better.
David, the father in the park, decided to take some additional time off work and keep his kids at home. How helpful for him to know, then, that this decision need not keep him up at night.
Andrea Mrozek is a senior fellow with Cardus Family.
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