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Child resisting school? Try a sabbatical for kids.

The Washington area has the highest concentration of ambitious and challenging schools in the country, a result of both the quality of the educators and the affluence of the parents. But such educational riches come at a price. Schools that demand so much don’t work for some kids. Parents, including some Post colleagues, occasionally tell me about their bright children who see no point in many assignments and don’t do them, leading to tension and heartburn for the adults.

When it gets too bad, a family may pull the kid out of school to let everyone calm down and see if another approach can be found. The pause in schooling doesn’t usually last long. The student reads on his or her own for awhile--something they like to do---until the parents find a different school or a new year begins with new teachers better tuned to different rhythms.

You might call this a kiddie sabbatical, a break to recharge batteries and reassess values. It isn’t the same thing as long-term home-schooling. The strain on parents is short-term. In the Internet age it is often possible to work at home for a few months. I have found no data on this, but we could be seeing a trend toward sabbaticals for the young and restless. Just published is what could be considered a guidebook for such family adventures, Laura Brodie’s “Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter’s Uncommon Year.”

Brodie is a novelist and adjunct English professor at Washington and Lee University. From the beginning of her fifth grade daughter Julia’s year at home, Brodie had no intention of abandoning the public schools of Lexington, Va. She just wanted a respite from battles over homework and some temporary distance from the pressures of standardized testing.

Within the homeschooling community, Brodie says, these breaks are no longer considered unusual. Home Education Magazine calls them “emergency homeschooling.” Your kid is being bullied. A hurricane has wiped out your city. This year’s classroom teacher is not a good fit. Your spouse gets a sudden transfer. So you teach the child for awhile.

Brodie had an intriguing but dreamy daughter. Teachers would lose her on field trips because she lingered at some sight that was only supposed to take ten minutes. In the same sweet way, Julia resisted certain school assignments. When pushing her daughter to finish her worksheets ruined one too many evenings, and when Julia once hid in a closet to avoid the torture, Brodie figured that by homeschooling she would have at least a year when she didn’t have to dread her life between the time Julia got home and the time she went to bed. She would be the teacher, at least for awhile, and could make sure her nights were free.

Julia was less entranced with the idea. but accepted on these terms: no after school academic work except reading an hour every day and writing one page in a journal, anything she wanted. Freedom of choice in writing appealed to the independent-minded child, but I laughed when Brodie revealed that Julia was initially relieved to return to the regular school because the teachers there did not demand nearly as many writing assignments as her mother, who made daily writing-across-the-curriculum the centerpiece of their year.
Did Brodie fail to teach something important? It turns out that is hard to do. She learned a secret of elementary school known to most homeschoolers. Just keep the kid progressing in math, and she will do fine. In the regular schools, all the other subjects are pretty much the same every year.

By Jay Mathews  | May 9, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Laura Brodie, Love in a Time of Homeschooling,, kiddie sabbaticals, short-term homeschooling  
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Next: AP vs. IB--choosing sides


It seems to me the parent in this case was making decisions not necessarily based on the good of the child, but her own sanity.

Going to school is part of growing up. It's not always fun, or a good fit, or perfect. But the experience is what helps build character, build social skills and coping skills. I'm not sure it sends the right message to remove a child from school simply because they are resistant to doing certain types of homework or act dreamy in class. Parents can help supplement a child's regular education in ways that the child may find more appealing, but to literally take her out of the classroom seems like a drastic step.

Posted by: PhilliePhanatic | May 10, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I very much agree with PhilliePhanatic. I always told my daughter that going to school was her job and that she couldn't quit no matter how hard. Yes, some years were more difficult than others, but she learned how to cope, manage and excel in these classes. If I were able, and most parents aren't, to pull her out of school to home-school her, I would have sent a message that it was okay to quit when the going got tough. She majored in chemistry at the university, and now is a high school chemistry/physics teacher and loving it.

Posted by: CAteacher1 | May 10, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the case cited was clearly best for the parent. I have known people to home school because they "missed" their kids. Jeeze. I too have a "dreamy" child who was ridiculed in elementary school for being too smart--even by her Catholic school teachers. Maybe home schooling would have benefited her. Rather, she focused not only on school work, but also on music and sports. She gets shorter "sabbaticals" every year (a day or 2 here, a week there) to attend special music or sport competitions or training. I guess you just have to figure out what works for each kid and go with that. She would have been bored stiff without other children around.

Posted by: EditorMom | May 10, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

I disagree with the first two posters to a certain degree. I wish that my husband's parents had of been a bit more informed about educational options when he was younger. He hated school from one week into kindergarten (as his mother told me) - the structure and desk work was not for him. While he's successful with an M.S. in a hard science, he honestly does not equate learning for fun with any part of schooling pre-graduate school. Because of this, he went to grad school later in life and is sometimes disappointed he didn't find his niche earlier. The educational system is not one size fits all and different people have different needs to be met.

Posted by: em15 | May 10, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

The posts about quitting are somewhat melodramatic. We're not talking about a sport or a musical instrument or some other specific endeavor, where many children can be taught the value of "sticking with it when the going gets tough." Kids have plenty of situations where that lesson can be learned. To say that it also applies to all 13 yrs of their school life/education is a little ridiculous. Learning/education is a very dynamic thing and looks very different for each individual. It can also morph or change as a child grows and develops. In life, there is also the lesson to adapt or change what is not working...we would never, as adults, stick with something that is working terribly for us for 13 years! That's no longer a lesson, it's misery. With that same logic, if a child who is homeschooled decided to quit homeschooling, would we say "No, you can't quit, because this is the avenue chosen for your education and you have to stick with it"? What an absurd notion.

Posted by: rmroberts94 | May 10, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Well, I will tell you one thing. I would have tried a lot harder in school if the alternative would have been homeschooling. That would have been way more of my mom than I could take.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | May 10, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse


While I'm sorry your husband never enjoyed his K-12 schooling, who ever said it was all supposed to be fun? And if he was that resistant to schooling from Day 1, I am curious as to what your MIL did about this issue.

Oh - and not everyone who gets a graduate degree goes gracefully from K-12 to Undergraduate to Graduate. Many people find their passion later in life after school - he's not alone. My husband got his MS about 10 years after graduating from Undergraduate, and is currently working on his PhD after a 6 year gap in between. Life is what happens when you make plans - that's normal. Your husband should look at the bright side - at least he didn't spend lots of money on a graduate degree in something he didn't love and can't use!

If school is a job for kids (and that's the way it was presented in my family), then kids have to understand that even the best job has parts they will dislike. And that they have to do them anyway.

I was of two minds on the article Jay mentioned. On one hand, yes, I thought this was more about the mother needing a break than the child, and she was lucky to have that opportunity. But on the other hand, it may have shook the little girl into realizing that school with her friends wasn't all that bad.

All kids get tired of school from time to time. I loved school and occasionally my Mom would call me in sick to just let me have a day to sleep in and be by myself. Schooling isn't wholly in the hands of the school - the parents need to figure out what works as well. If an occasional day off helps the overall attitude, then do it.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | May 10, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Chasmosaur1 said: If school is a job for kids (and that's the way it was presented in my family), then kids have to understand that even the best job has parts they will dislike. And that they have to do them anyway.

At a job, you have an understandable command structure that allows you redress if you are harrassed or bullied. You may also have advocates through a union or other workplace initiative to help guide you through the process.

Schoolkids put up with bullying without redress. In my case, the teachers joined in on it because I was "too smart for my own good." In the 9 schools I attended between kindergarten and 12th grade (military family with frequent moves), I had a total of two years where I was not tortured on a weekly basis by my schoolmates.

The option of being able to take a sabbatical, to work at my own much faster pace, would have been heaven.

Posted by: Fabrisse | May 10, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

As a little background that may be useful to know, Laura Brodie did not simply let her kid quit school and hang out all day. While her daughter's only homework was the journal entry and reading for an hour, Brodie created a diverse yet structured environment. They attended university lectures, museum exhibits, live music, etc. And her daughter learned math and science skills as well.

So it's not so much that she allowed her daughter to "quit" school, but that she restructured her daughter's schooling to fit her daughter's (and her) current needs.

Posted by: kg2273 | May 10, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I see too many posters that seem to miss the point. Her daughter was on the verge of completely loosing the point of school. To learn. Our public schools are so overcrowded and so focused on teaching to the SOL tests that they don't actually teach anything. I am the parent of several home schooled children that we have subsequently enrolled in public school and they all have stated that they are learning nothing and they spend all their time at home that could be spent building family values, participating in sports or other activities that build a well balanced child doing pointless worksheets that could and should be done during the "school day". Our home schooled kids have excelled at public school by the way. Our oldest is in the top of his class and he is a year younger than all his peers. He is going back to homeschooling now that we have a workable financial way to do so. He will be taking 2 AP classes his freshman year of high school along with doing Math at his own pace (faster than the public schools by the way). Same for our 2nd and 5th grader.

Posted by: wleeper | May 10, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I like the analogy between school and a job. Now, myself, if my boss was a jerk, my coworkers were bullying me, or the work was mind-numbingly boring, I would get a new job. I suspect that most posters here would do the same. Imagine being told that you have to stay in a job that you despise for the next 12 years? Some people here seem hung up on the old Protestant ideal that "suffering builds character," but I doubt they apply that maxim to their own lives.

The law in the US is that all children must be educated somehow, whether in private, public, religious, or home-based schools. If it is never okay for a child to change schools, then it stands to reason that it isn't okay for adults to change jobs, either.

Posted by: floof | May 10, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Stay at home mom or mom with "pin money job" doesn't have enough to do and rationalizes that keeping her kid home for a while is really all for the kid.

Talk about a first world problem.

What about focusing on bright kids who are stuck in most schools, where eliminating the achievement gap is accomplished by squishing down the top? Or what about talking about bright kids who go to a school that's pushing AP For All, so they are stuck in AP History classes with kids who can't read?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 10, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

For the record - I don't think suffering builds character. And if your school is THAT bad, there are always other schools in a district. My neighbor recently had a well-documented problem with her daughter being made miserable by a truly bad teacher, who was on suspension for her poor standards and rather nasty attitude.

Finally, my neighbor simply moved her daughter to another school in the district for the rest of the year, and she returned the following year. Granted, I live out in Western Wisconsin and our population can support that type of change, but there is always an option. It may not be easy, but there's an option.

It's one thing when there is truly an at-risk child and perhaps a year off will help them - for their maturity level, for them to realize what they are missing so they have the fortitude to stand up to the things that made them miserable. But with the current sense of entitlement I've seen in many kids (not all, but many), I'm waiting for this to turn into a cottage industry and some sort of status symbol.

"Oh, my Andy/Jenny is just TOO smart for school so he HAD to have a sabbatical. Sabbaticals-R-Us set us up the most lovely curriculum!"

Maybe I'm cynical, but I can see it.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | May 10, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

A child resistant to school? Try being a PARENT.

Posted by: Care1 | May 10, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

This would be acceptable for some parents.

I think I'd be more inclined to ask for a teacher transfer or look for a different school. I've always considered going to school and learning to function there as an important part of education.

Posted by: RedBird27 | May 10, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I hated school until college. I was always told by teachers that I asked too many questions, I was stupid, I had no art skills, was "unqualified" (whatever that meant) to take AP classes in high school and I wouldn't go far since in life. I actually had a middle school teacher steal from me. I was a white, middle class kid in So. CA. I would have loved a sabbatical! I learned more from my own parents than I did any school or "certificated" teacher I ever had. Once I got to college, life improved. As a parent, I was very careful with the selection of the school I sent my daughter to. She's thriving...but then again, she is treated well by her teachers and classmates.

Posted by: kodonivan | May 10, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

My greatest regret (so far) is that I didn't homeschool my middle child through the sixth grade. The teasing and boredom, and tedious homework assignments, sucked all the life out of her. She developed insomnia and migraines. When she got out of that toxic (but nominally high-performing suburban middle class school) she blossomed. She sleeps fine and the headaches are almost entirely gone. I wish I would have had the strength to insist on homeschooling for at least 5th and 6th grade. Everything she learned, she learned at home anyway. Except for one thing -- she learned to suffer without recourse. Not a lesson I wanted her to learn.

Posted by: EduCrazy | May 10, 2010 10:53 PM | Report abuse

I find these posts about school's being a job really disturbing. School is NOT a good fit for everyone, and it's not the only way, or even the best way, to get a good education. My 12 years in the public schools were a total waste of time, even though I got excellent grades and went on to earn a college degree. Everything useful I learned, I learned naturally through my own devices. Public schools as we know them have existed only 130 years or so, and they were built in a way to produce obedient factory workers. When are Americans going to wake up and see that system just doesn't produce a well educated populace for today's modern world? Good for that mom to give her daughter time to grown and learn outside the rat race that is public school.

Posted by: ahclay | May 11, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

Why is it necessarily a bad thing to take a homeschool sabbatical for yourself as much as for your kids? And why does the good of the parent and the good of the kid have to be mutually exclusive?

I am biased on this point, because this year I did exactly what Brodie did and called it that: I took a sabbatical and took my middle school kids with me. We homeschooled this year, had a great time, and they're going back to school next year. We did math (my 8th grade son scored in the 81st percentile on the SATs in Algebra last month, so I don't think I did him any harm), Spanish, astronomy, had season tickets to the Shakespeare Theater, went to Boston and Rome, visited Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and wrote A LOT. It was great--for them and me.

I know that a lot of parents don't have the wherewithal to do this kind of thing, but I planned hard for three years to be able to do it. I also won't feel guilty for providing opportunities for my kids that all school systems can't provide for every kid. Finally, the biggest lesson that I learned (and that I hope I taught my children) is that you don't have to do what everyone else is doing exactly when they're doing it. Think, plan, and then do what you feel works best for you and don't let anyone tell you that you can't. That goes for all the adults who think they have to suck it up and stay in a job they hate too--sometimes you do; but most of the time you really don't.

Posted by: kathyrondon | May 11, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Some of you need to get out of the city. In a small city, or in rural areas, there is probably only one public school. My own district has multiple elementary buildings, but students have to attend the one where they live; if parents can make a case for putting them in another building, they have to provide the transportation (and problems with the teacher is not an acceptable reason for changing). The only private school may be a religious school that may or may not be acceptable to your beliefs. It may also be academically inferior; this area has one founded specifically to teach creationism instead of science. In most cases, it isn’t even possible to pay tuition for a child to go to another public school; most of them resist accepting tuition students because of their own student load.

By the way, I suspect one of the things homeschoolers most enjoy about the experience is time off--no assignment given on Dec. 23 to be turned in on Jan. 2 or no long summer reading list specifically to be done during the summer.
If school is a student's "job," let's make the working conditions more like work. (Including the right to quit or change jobs when conditions are unsafe or intolerable.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 11, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

These are terrific comments. I did not expect to get much opposition to Brodie's point of view, so I was fascinated to read what was said on that score. The dissenters have a point, but I think a short break is okay.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 11, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Good for Ms. Brodie for pulling her daughter out for a year! To me it sounds like they both needed a break. A traditional school is NOT a one-size fits all. People learn in different ways, and that's the beauty of homeschooling, being able to tailor the learning to the way each child learns.

Did you know many famous Americans were homeschooled? George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many other Founding Fathers of our country. A more recent one is Thomas Edison. When he was in school, he asked so many questions that he got in trouble with the teachers who kept punishing him. His mother took him out of school, taught him everything she could and when he had learned all of that, he taught himself by experimentation. He even had a science lab on a train he worked on to experiment in his free time during train runs, until he caused an explosion!

Many people who have achieved much like he did learned differently and didn't fit into the mold of traditional schools.

Those of us that do homeschool don't do it because we would miss the kids during the day. One reason we do it so our children will have an excellent, tailored education to be the best that they can be. It would be much easier to send them off to school and have that 6-8 hour break until they came home.

Posted by: dianevt7 | May 11, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

One of the main points of the article is that the Brodie saw that her child needed a new direction, at least for a while. Because she took action, she AND her child benefitted--from the change of pace, from her child's knowledge that her parent is proactive and attentive to her needs, and from release from the stress that was on their relationship.

Guiding their child's education is the responsibility of the parent whether the child goes to a government school, a private school, or is home schooled. Sometimes that means being creative about educational choices to benefit your child.

Posted by: CAS90 | May 11, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

The realization that perhaps - one size does not fit all - is what needs to be emphasized here. Schools and many teachers (I am a public high school teacher) look at groups of kids as being the same - and don't or can't make adjustments to help each child reach their fullest potential. There are lots of challenges to this idea of differentiated instruction and too often there aren't enough resources (time and support) to help teachers who do understand.
HOWEVER - I find the closing remarks of the column to be very disturbing and flat out innaccurate :
She learned a secret of elementary school known to most homeschoolers. Just keep the kid progressing in math, and she will do fine. In the regular schools, all the other subjects are pretty much the same every year.
I can't speak for states other than my own, but if I were to examine the curriculum standards for the elementary grades they would see a highly diversified, scaffolded learning program of increasing sophistication and complexity as a child moves upward in years. The social studies curriculum changes yearly as does science and the focus of language instruction. To think that only math has any sense of progression is to demean other subjects, all of which are vital in helping a child develop into well rounded, thoughtful, informed citizens.
Additionally, I have a serious problem with people who advocate for standardized testing and school accountability (I don't know if Brode is one of them or not) who then want to give THEIR kid a break (private schools and charter school students are also generally excluded in most states from standardized testing requirements) from them.
I also wonder to what degree did this mother attempt to work with her daughter's teacher to make adjustments or accomodations in learning style?

Posted by: fox293 | May 11, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

I am surprised that no one has mentioned the original idea in Jay's column of the "emergency" sabbatical. My daughter did this in 7th grade, more than 10 years ago, although of course we had no such name for it. But it was a combination of bullying plus migraine headaches and uncompromising teachers who would not accommodate the many absences generated by the headaches and the various medications prescribed to supposedly prevent them. After seventeen absences in November alone, before Thanksgiving, she finally just stopped going to school altogether, and went cold turkey on all of the drugs as well. She went back about the beginning of March when her Gifted and Talented teacher told her she might not be promoted to eighth grade. This was no sabbatical for me, I was worried the whole time, but in the end it did not seem to do her much harm. She got all As at the end of the year anyway, which seemed like another problem.
Schools are not one-size fits all, nor are they a job. Sometimes toughing it out is the right thing, but sometimes it is not.

Posted by: janiak | May 12, 2010 1:13 AM | Report abuse

Kids should not be taking sabbaticals from school. That teaches them that the easy way wins. If they want to switch to homeschooling, that is fine, they can keep going to regular school while parents and kid investigate the possibility and perhaps the kid spends a couple of days as the guest of another homeschooling family and helps with the preparation (and if old enough a part time job to help with the expense wouldn't be a bad idea). They need to know that there is no instant gratification, that they need to plan and sacrifice for there to be an alternative to what they don't like.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | May 12, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

I actually take issue with a small point in Nemo24601's comment. A sabbatical as used in the context here is not "the easy way." Although originally derived from the word "sabbath," meaning to rest, the term sabbatical has come to mean an extended break from one's normal work in order to pursue another interest or achieve another goal. Professors at universities often take sabbaticals--they are usually pursuing research or writing a book. A sabbatical in this sense is not easy at all. I agree that instant gratification is not a good value to teach or model, but there was no indication in Mr. Mathew's article nor in Brodie's original work that this was "instant gratification," a drop out year, or play time for the child.

Posted by: kathyrondon | May 12, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

thanks to janiak for the intriguing story.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 12, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

This article is a wonderful example of parents knowing and participating in their daughter's education. As a homeschooling parent who was bored in public school, I can understand the frustration of homework, tests, and fighting. We have chosen to homeschool our children in order to provide a well rounded, skills based education for our children. This allows us to move our children through learning based on their abilities and needs. And sometimes it includes a few weeks of "down time" of just reading and writing.

Learning is an individual process and schools as a whole are NOT set up to allow individualism.

Posted by: mamabek | May 13, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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