Does unschooling work for special needs?

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What is the goal of unschooling? If it works, can it work for special needs kids? Sandra Dodd, perhaps, puts it best in her new book, Sandra Dodd's Big Book of Unschooling (Lulu, 2009), under the heading of "Special Needs."
"With unschooling, the goal is for a whole person to stay whole, and to move gently toward a greater facility with and understanding of the world around him."
Ms. Dodd's goal of unschooling fits within a larger picture of unschooling as a life approach that works for everyone regardless of "special" needs, diagnoses (ADD/ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder), learning differences, "gifts," etc.

Special Needs

Sandra Dodd points out that "special needs" is a school term, which parents might not need even if their child would have fallen under the definition within the school setting.

In Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2005), Richard Louv shared the experiences of ADHD children who function normally when outdoors in natural settings. (See the Special Needs section at the Unschoolers' Bookstore.)

Labels and Diagnoses

Labels or diagnoses may serve as a starting point to help parents begin to understand a child's perspectives and responses to particular situations. However, in the long term, labels can influence and limit the way people interact with the child.

Children often regard themselves through the eyes of others. Identification with a label given by someone the child trusts might limit the child's potential. The question, then, is whether or not labels or diagnoses help the child move gently toward greater facility with and understanding of the world.

Unschooling can work for special needs children, because it can work for anyone.


  1. I tend to disagree. Granted, I don't unschool, but I have nothing against unschooling either. I have a daughter with Aspergers, ADHD, and sensory issues. If I had not had her diagnosed, I wouldn't know how to teach to her strengths or to see the beauty in her uniqueness. I would still be sitting here frustrated as heck that she couldn't get math after 30 times of doing it. And while unschoolers might not like that I am "teaching" her math, I have learned how to present math in a better way so that my daughter will use it. The biggest things I've learned from a diagnosis is how to teach to my child, how she learns best (visually), and how structure is key. I won't speak of unschooling since I'm not overly knowledgeable or versed in it, but having a routine and schedule for my daughter has made all the difference in the universe. Do I care about labels? no. I hate them. But in one way I love them. They have made me take a new stance on learning more about my daughter and because of that, I'm thankful. I do agree that schools are the ones that like the labels so they can place a child where "fit". Homeschoolers don't need to cram a child into a box. They can let them live, breath, explore, and be nurtured and its the teacher (us parents) that are the ones that have to change. If anything, a label has helped me to understand and change who I am so I can allow my daughter to bloom.

  2. I think I get what you're saying. One of my kids could probably be diagnosed if I'd chosen that route. Even without a formal dx, I sought out and learned a lot about doing things in ways that better served kids with sensory issues or Asperger. I got a lot out of books like Kurcinka's 'Raising Your Spirited Child' and Bolick's 'Asperger Syndrome and Young Children.'

    I don't disagree that you can learn a lot from a diagnostic assessment, but I didn't want my child to feel disordered. She has individual needs, as we all do.


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