Our Journey to Becoming Accidental Unschoolers

In the same way that The Pioneer Woman, (Ree Drummond), calls herself an “accidental country girl”, I think we have, with Jessie, become accidental unschoolers.

If you aren’t a homeschooler yourself, you might not know what an “unschooler” is.   Even amongst homeschoolers it isn’t always defined the same way.  For the most part though, it probably means you don’t use a full, prepackaged curriculum (we don’t) and often it also means that what you concentrate on is somewhat student lead (according to what their interests are).

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When I was homeschooling my older two kids, we would not have been considered unschoolers.  We used a variety of curriculum that I put together, but we did use formal curriculum that followed a typical “preparing for college” way of schooling.  We followed a schedule (mostly) and if we didn’t complete the year’s work (too many extra-curricular activities) before our last “official” school day, we would work into the summer to catch up.  We weren’t super high achievers or extreme slackers.   We were, I think, kinda your average, typical homeschoolers.

Initially, we came to homeschool Jessie, who has Down syndrome,  for most of the same reasons we homeschooled our other kids and some reasons that were a little different.  I plan to share more in a future post about factors we considered in deciding to homeschool and the resources I found helpful in the early years.

Jessie went to preschool for 2 years when she was 4 and 5.  The first year her small class consisted of only kids with special needs and the second year was 1/2 kids with special needs, 1/2 “typical” students.  It was a good experience; there was nothing negative (other than being sick a lot the 2nd year) about her preschool time, but it did help confirm that homeschooling was the right route for us.

Fairly early on, I felt that I wanted us to follow whatever seemed to be OUR best path in homeschooling, whether that was or wasn’t what is typically taught in whatever grade she’s in.  Typical homeschooler way of thinking 🙂  It was helpful that I had already homeschooled one kid who required me to think outside of the box.  I tend to speak in emojis a lot in texting these days, and my mind just went to all the emojis I would use after that last sentence (imagine laughing till you cry emoji and wide eyed emoji here)!

We used an all in one adapted curriculum for kindergarten. After kindergarten, each year I pulled together a variety of sources to teach from. For quite a few years now we haven’t used much regular curriculum at all.

Jessie relatively easily learned her alphabet and letter sounds by about age 4.  She learned her colors and numbers and began to sight read by around 5.  She learned her letter sounds long (years) before she was ready to blend them into words.  I mostly followed the way of teaching sight reading first, then progressing to read phonetically, as is laid out in Teaching Reading to Children With Down Syndrome.  This is a very good resource for teaching reading to a person with DS at any age.  Later, Natalie Hale taught at one of our DS group meetings.  Although I have not read this book, based on having learned from her, I am certain that her book,  Whole Child Reading: A Quick Start Guide to Teaching Students With Down Syndrome and Other Developmental Delays would be good as well.   Jessie was reading pretty well by the time she spoke to our group or I would have bought her book then.

In the early homeschooling years we concentrated heavily on reading above all else, other than your normal everyday life stuff.  I wanted Jessie to read well, and made my efforts toward that end top priority.  If you can read well, other knowledge is accessible to you.  We did some math, she learned about her body and health.  In the earliest grades we did more of what is considered typical school stuff, just not as much of it and not at the typical pace.

I haven’t done any kind of testing to know what her reading grade level is, but Jessie reads well, what I think is really well. Her comprehension though is a good bit behind her reading ability.  She can read many things that she might not understand.  If it’s a subject she finds extremely interesting (all things WWE wrestling) she is more motivated to understand more complicated words or concepts.  With life experience and continuing to read though, I see her comprehension growing, just slowly.

Jessie’s in the 9th grade now, but she isn’t doing typical 9th grade work.  As she got older, what was usually being taught in her grade just weren’t things that were going to be the most helpful for her over the course of the rest of her life.  Over time, our schooling evolved into what I consider more like unschooling.

I don’t think Jessie is ever going to “typical” college.  I don’t think who our past presidents were, or a study of  history, is ever going to be meaningful for her.  She is capable of learning those things, but I would rather concentrate our efforts in areas that will serve her better.

We work on reading and spelling (in a chill kind of way) and don’t study grammar.   We study in science mostly what seems will have interest or benefit to her in her life.  We prioritize time for her to be active, physically and socially, in Special Olympics and other activities over a heavy emphasis in academics.  I am purposeful to notice any things that happen in everyday life that present opportunities to learn.  We focus a lot on life skills.

As for life skills, what do you need to know how to do in order to live as independently as possible?  It isn’t really our goal that Jessie live on her own, but we want her to be able to take care of : her own body (as much as possible), her own needs (food, house cleaning, laundry), relationships (family and friends, communicating well ) as much as is possible.

If you caught on to my use of “as much as is possible”, that’s really our goal.  In all things, as much as is possible. There’s no exact fixed end in mind.  Jessie will be, as we all are, a life-long learner.  We will just keep working, learning and improving in every area.  When she graduates (she wants to in the same way her siblings did) the only thing that will change is we won’t  report grades or attendance or be part of a cover school.

This way of thinking and feeling and living happened very gradually.  I don’t think we’re short-changing Jessie in any way.  She is smart, capable, learning and happy.  While some might feel our way of doing things isn’t “doing enough”, I find everything about our current lifetstyle to be so freeing and although we have our moments (as everyone does!) really joyful.  I am so grateful to God and my husband for making it possible for me to be with Jessie and enjoy her every day.

Not everyone who homeschools their child with Down syndrome feels the same, so please don’t assume I’m speaking for any other families or other homeschoolers.  I know there are families homeschooling their child with Down syndrome who use a more structured approach and teach more subjects than we do.  It works well for them.  This is just what we do, and it’s working for us.

Each of my children have changed me.  God has used each of them in different ways to grow me and teach me, both practically and spiritually.   Parenting Jessie has taught me to slow down and smell the roses, and then smell them again.

I hope you’re having a great week, smelling all the roses, and thanking God for all the good things.

Till next week friends,


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