I'm a new homeschool mom with an eight year old who is really advanced in his academic skills. My problem is that the people who run the classes and co-ops we're interested in won't let me sign him up above his age group. This includes our county recreation department, the local history museum, and activities sponsored by our local homeschool group. How can I get them to place him correctly so he won't be bored?
This is one of the reasons we took him out of school. He started reading and writing at an early age, and he got in trouble in school because he already knew how to do everything they were working on in the classroom. I'm frustrated that people don't seem to accept that he is gifted and should be in higher level classes. People talk about homeschoolers being able to work at a customized level, but then they apply restrictions that are similar or identical to school. What gives?
~ Frustrated Mom
Welcome to the world of homeschooling, where everyone is scrambling to create the best possible scenarios for their own children and many are trying to create welcoming classes and activities that work for groups of kids and their parents.
First, know that many parents have shared your frustration. Lots of parents start homeschooling because their child is ahead in school but not learning new material or skills, and they look forward to being able to help their child learn at his or her own individualized level. Frankly it is just as much a problem for a child who was behind in school, and the parents find the child doesn't fit grade level expectations for outside activities in the homeschool world or general community.
I am a strong advocate for the point of view that grade level doesn't matter most of the time, but of course an exception is when you are placing your child in an activity or class that uses grade levels or ages to group children or to qualify for participation.
Let's address a perception problem first. And by that I mean how you as a parent are going to be perceived.
While you may have had to come on very strong when your child was in school as an advocate for your child to be placed correctly in that publicly funded setting, you need to realize that activities run by private individuals, nonprofits, churches, and formal or informal groups of homeschooling parents, are not beholden to you as a taxpayer.
Organizers of these activities have created them either to serve the homeschool community, benefit their own children, use excess capacity (as in a business that discovers the homeschooling niche and offers day-time classes during the school year), and/or earn a profit. If they have been running a class or activity for many years, they have found the formula they want to use. They have refined their class descriptions and age groupings to serve those they want to serve.
These activity organizers may have decided to be flexible, because they are willing to take the time to work with parents on special placement, or they may have decided to hold the line with age or grade groupings, because they have found that this works best for their scenario.
It may seem at first that flexibility is always the more compassionate and desirable approach, but I'll be honest, it's not necessarily true. For example, in the case of activities for older teens, such as homeschool dances and advanced high school seminars or discussion groups, having "advanced" tweens or middle schoolers included may truly discourage the participation of the older teens.
Developmental Readiness Vs. Academic Readiness
Parents of gifted kids may believe that because their children are advanced in skills, they should be included in these groups, without realizing that their presence may dilute the effectiveness of the group for others. Not only will it cause the older kids to stay away, but even those who attend can feel uncomfortable socially or in using their advancing critical thinking skills to explore issues through discussion. They are at different stages developmentally, even if they are at similar stages academically.
While in some ways it's easiest to see in the case of older teens, similar problems can arise down the line in age groups. Sometimes, we parents are paying so much attention to our children's attainment of skills or knowledge, that we haven't given as much thought to how our child fits - or doesn't fit - in other ways.
The bottom line is -- insisting on your child's participation in a certain group that is above or below the stated age or grade level may not get you anywhere and may make you unwelcome. These classes and groups aren't supported by your tax dollars, and you don't have any right to demand flexibility.
That said, many activities are flexible, work well with mixed age groups, or can easily be influenced to be flexible. Many business people or instructors who have little experience with homeschoolers may not know that wide age ranges and flexibility with siblings or advanced students are desired by many homeschoolers, but the businesses actually have the talent and personnel to make it work. In these cases, you can often just make a suggestion and explain the family basis of homeschooling. You aren't demanding; you are providing information about serving the community.
Understand that a lot can depend on your locale. A densely populated area may support multiple homeschool gymnastics classes or writing classes for different ages and grades. A sparsely populated area may have to use an age or grade range to have critical mass to make a single homeschool gymnastics or writing class. Be realistic about what your area can support.
Sometimes a good bet is to organize an activity or class yourself, making sure that it meets your child's needs. You can write a description that explains the advanced nature of the class or announces "flexibility in ages depending on ability level." You can teach the class or hire someone to teach who will aim toward children who have higher level skills for their age or who can broaden activities and expectations for an age range that will work.
Another option to gain flexibility in existing activities is to offer to help. You might volunteer to serve the group in general -- but you might get even more willingness for your child to participate if you offer to actively assist your child in the class. This is a fine line, because you don't want to be a helicopter parent -- and some co-ops actually even use the "if-he-needs-help-to-function-in-the-class-he-doesn't-belong-in-it" criteria.
However, having homeschooled about twenty years, I have been in many co-op situations where one or more moms stayed present but in the background, ready to quietly assist a child who needs redirection or extra support in order to function in a class where she or he "mostly" fits but sometimes needs help. In general, the more formal and school-like an activity or co-op is, the less likely this is welcome -- but there are many co-ops where it's just fine. Many times, the teaching parents have homeschooled using some version of unit studies where different children in their family have learned about the same topic with different skill levels, and they are really comfortable with kids who are advanced for their age, learning a little differently, or a bit behind.
Some parents with precocious kids find benefit from resources for homeschooling gifted children, which may help you find strategies to help them learn besides the usual classes in the community.
When you look into activities for your children, find a pleasant way to ask about the age and grade specifications if you suspect your child will function better in a group that is other than his or her chronological age. You can probe some about flexibility, which may indeed be present, but you'll also benefit from respecting long held policies. Since early academic skills sometimes even out later, you may find that your child will be a good fit for this group in a year or three, and if you haven't burned your bridges, your child will be able to enjoy a future class.
Homeschooling does allow you to skip much of the rigamarole around ages and grades -- but that's when your child is learning at home. Understand that you'll encounter many different policies when you are using homeschool classes and community activities, and being an "advanced" student academically may not enable a child to participate in classes for older kids.