Is this kind of thinking limiting your homeschool?

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One thing I've noticed over the years about those new to homeschooling is the depth and breadth of institutionalized thinking. 

Even veteran homeschoolers fall back onto old habits of thinking without realizing it.

  • age-graded curriculum
  • focus on tests
  • comparing our kids to others their age
  • mimicking traditional classroom methods

It sounds rather alarmist and paranoid to say that schools have institutionalized us to the point where we have trouble thinking for ourselves. "Here come the black helicopters!" Most of us were in traditional classrooms for at least 12 years, and we don't consider ourselves that much the worse for it. After all, we are Homeschoolers - we are totally kicking the status quo in the derrière, right?

However, let's take a look at what it means to be 'institutionalized'. 

The purpose of institutionalization is to control a large group of people with the smallest staff possible. Any organization has rules, and the larger and more complex the organization, the more rules become necessary for its orderly operation. This is not a bad thing in and of itself.

But when it comes to educating children, there are side effects we must consider.

Here are four tenets of institutionalization and what they often look like in our schools:


When a child enters a school, they are subject to certain security measures reinforcing the idea that they are no longer respected as an individual. While many procedures serve to keep students and staff safe, the trade-off is the child is now under their complete control. Parents fill out forms giving schools permission to act in loco parentis. Children are photographed, given physicals, labeled, and indexed. There are often strict rules about appearance and the kinds of items allowed to be in their possession. One's 4th Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure are more relaxed in school setting, so their lockers, belongings, and even their person can be searched without a warrant.   

The standard for the Fourth Amendment is different and considerably lower in the school context. The criminal standard requires law enforcement officials to demonstrate that they have “probable cause” that a crime has been committed. . .On school grounds or when students are within school district care—like a field trip—the standard is “reasonable suspicion” and no warrant is necessary. While privacy is still a factor, that relaxed approach allows school officials to conduct a search when one might be prohibited by the police. Center for Public Edcuation

They are also not allowed choices adults take for granted - there is a certain amount of class time in which a teacher must accomplish a certain amount of work, and individual concerns and needs simply cannot be taken into account. 


Children in schools are kept isolated from the real world. District school students are from the same neighborhoods, and so generally come from similar socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. They are further segregated by age and remain seated in classrooms for a significant percentage of their day. Their interactions are limited to this same group of people every day, and cliques often form among various groups, excluding some children who become even more detached and depressed.

Visitors, including parents, are generally not allowed, and those who are given permission to come into the school do so under supervision, and must also submit to the school's security protocols.

Unquestioning obedience

Children are expected to practice unquestioning obedience. Punishment for noncompliance can be physical, from isolation to being placed in handcuffs. Consequences can also be of a more psychological nature, using humiliation to shame the student into obedience. If students disobey too often, they may be labeled and treated with disdain by the staff and other students for the remainder of their time in school. The intent of most of these punishments are to break the child's will.

When staff crosses the line into abuse, they may not face the same punishment as would a student for a similar act, but instead these incidents are swept under the rug, with offenders getting jobs in other schools where they can continue to abuse children in their care. This reinforces the idea that the institution has unlimited control and places the interests of the organization over those of the children under their authority.    


Every minute of the student's time in school is under the control of the staff and school schedule. They have little, if any, self-determination. Everything is governed by strict rules and guidelines. Children must ask permission to get a drink, relieve themselves, ask a question, put something in the trash can. They learn to respond to the ringing of bells which signal them that it is time to change classes, eat lunch, or leave the premises - all of which are supervised. The schedule is repetitive, and over time conditions the child to ask permission before doing even the most mundane task. Even lunch is regulated by the government, with homemade lunches being inspected for their nutritional value, some allegedly being confiscated for not meeting FDA guidelines.

After school, students must still focus on fulfilling the requirements of their classes, regardless of how much time this takes from family activities or from an adequate night's sleep. Students who do not accomplish their work on time are penalized and sometimes stigmatized. There is an enormous amount of pressure to conform to the school's ideas of academic progress, regardless of the child's physical and mental development, talents, interests, or other achievements.  

 homeschool goals photo from stocksnap using pablo

Is it any wonder that when we start to talk about homeschooling and treating children as self-determining individuals, people have a tendency to disconnect? They simply do not understand why traditional brick and mortar schools and classrooms are not the only way, or even the best way, to provide an education for children. Those of us who spent many years in these classrooms don't realize the effect it had on our long term thinking and habits. In spite of evidence to the contrary, we continue to look at public schools as the paradigm by which we measure educational methods and academic success.

We have been effectively institutionalized.

When we step back and start looking at our children as individuals instead of a national program to be regulated by federal standards, we realize the harm done to children who develop and progress at different rates, even when they are only months apart in age from the other children in their class. A child labeled at a young age seldom lives it down - and why, may I ask, is it appropriate to label young children in the first place? Aren't they in their formative years, with so much learning and growing and changing in their futures?

Children can be gifted in one area while struggling in another, but with everything in graded classrooms are averaged out, the twice-exceptional student feels like a failure. It's time to question whether or not it is sensible or helpful to bring age-grading into our homeschool.

The constant emphasis on national standards and ubiquitous standardized testing has conditioned us to believe that if we give every child in America the exact same books and then the exact same test, we will learn something about our children. Our common sense whispers to us that this is a patently false idea, but the mantra is repeated loud and often - we need a paradigm shift in order to move in a different direction. Homeschoolers self-select for those who are willing to think outside the institution, but with so much conditioning to overcome, we struggle, sometimes for years, to find our homeschool stride.

The answer to our institutionalized thinking is deschooling. We have to let go of methods used in schools that only serve to maintain order over a large group of children and do little to actually educate them. We must re-learn what it is to learn, explore, discover, create - and then find ways to meet the individual needs of our children. We can encourage our children to be creative thinkers, compassionate human beings, and responsible citizens. We can nurture their souls while broadening their minds. This is how we prepare our children for a future in the real world.

But none of that will happen if we continue to think we have to raise our hand and ask the school's permission to teach our own kids.

Time for real world homeschooling! How can I help you deschool? Share your questions in the comments below -