Our reader Sue asked a question about homeschooling and social anxiety in response to our piece, "What About Socialization?" We thought it was such an important question, we decided to feature it as part of our Ask Jeanne column.
What about students with separation and social anxiety? I am a grandparent with limited resources raising two grandchildren. One took to public school swimmingly, but the older one is cheerful at home most days, but the minute we get to school she clings and cries….maybe stays in school three out of five days. I have been told (by the school and pediatrician) that homeschooling would be a mistake and not get to the root issues or teach her how to navigate socially, but I feel like home is her safe haven, and why not use that safe place to let her find her way in the world. Do you have any information on how students with anxiety issues fare being homeschooled?
Hi Sue. I do not know of any research that provides what would be intended as empirical evidence about anxiety and homeschooling. My comments are anecdotal, just based on observations I've made through twenty years of homeschooling and my work as a homeschool evaluator and coach.
First of all - many people actually decide to homeschool because of issues of school anxiety, social anxiety, or their children's refusal to go to school. Sometimes the root cause of social anxiety at school is due to trauma or stress incurred at school. While some kids may be resilient to the same amount of stress and trauma, others are overwhelmed by it.
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When I hear the stories, sometimes I say to myself, "this kid's reaction is logical. I would not leave myself in a position of that much stress or with a person who bullied me." Other times I say to myself, "This seems like a pathological reaction. Something small happened, but there is a distortion in the child's perception about the likelihood it will happen again or how it is affecting her."
And of course there is always a third possibility, which is that the child is not able to or does not want to communicate the whole truth of what happened that is causing the anxiety, so it seems small, but the child's reaction (to something we don't know about) is actually reasonable and could help keep her "safe."
I'm not a therapist, so I'm not trained to know how to tease these differences apart nor what to do in these situations. It makes a layperson's kind of sense to me that if a child is making a big deal over a small thing because her thinking about it is exaggerated, then a surface level assumption about the situation might be that she should stay in the situation.
However, I'm interested in the pediatrician's and the school's concern about "root cause." Are they suggesting actual ways to help your grandchild get at the root cause of her anxiety? Are they providing resources and referral for therapy, or are they investigating the situation to find out if your grandchild's perceptions are accurate or distorted?
Continuing to attend school while in distress, but without any help, does not seem like it would be beneficial. Might a percentage of kids just "get over" their anxiety through continued exposure? I suppose that's possible, and it probably happens to some extent every day, but I do know a lot of parents who begin homeschooling because this approach is not helping their children, and the kid's anxiety is worsening. Furthermore, the parents' analysis of the root cause may reveal bullying by other kids or a teacher, poor fit for school expectations, and other problems that the parent cannot resolve without significant attention and flexibility from the school.
In some situations I've seen, homeschooling has been a good choice for kids like this. The child is removed from an untenable school situation. The child is put into a more supportive environment. The child is able to feel safe more of the time and have more positive experiences. Families may be able to do lots of things that provide a variety of experiences to "stretch" a child socially and otherwise, without so many hours of immersion in the situation (school) that makes her so anxious.
Yes, I do know kids with anxiety who were homeschooled and fared well. Some of them did not exhibit the same level of anxiety when they began attending community college or working, as compared to when they attended school during their K-12 years. Many of these kids did see a therapist to help them deal with their anxiety, so there was help and guidance to the child and parent in learning to deal with the problem.
I also know some kids who have always been homeschooled and who have anxiety. Their anxiety is not related to stress or bad experience at school. Many homeschooling parents help their children with this by providing resources such as therapy, a supportive atmosphere, positive parenting, a palette of experiences that help children gradually increase exposure to challenging situations, and an emphasis on strengths (academically, athletically, artistically, vocationally, etc.).
I have seen homeschooled kids who have anxiety go on to college, work, and entrepreneurship. I have seen some of them successfully return to public school. I have seen some of them really manage to overcome, manage, or reduce their anxiety, because homeschooling did give them time to work on the root cause. I have also known some homeschooled kids who continued to struggle with anxiety into adulthood. I know some homeschool grads whose anxiety turned on them, and they now struggle with depression.
My conclusion, as someone who is not a counselor or therapist, is that homeschooling does not by itself prevent, address, or cause anxiety. My reading indicates that some people are genetically predisposed to clinical anxiety, and neither homeschooling nor traditional schooling is the culprit or the cure. My reading also indicates that some environments and situations contribute to anxiety. Personally, I believe these situations could occur at home or in a school.
I think many professionals, such as the pediatrician and school officials you mention, may mistakenly think that homeschooling automatically limits opportunities for socialization or does not encourage kids to "work through" their problems. While this could be true in some families, again, I believe we could certainly make the same case for some school settings. Kids are told over and over, "You're not at school to socialize," and we hear over and over how difficult it is to get special resources from cash-strapped schools, where one guidance counselor may serve many hundreds of high school students.
In general, homeschooling can offer wonderful social opportunities for kids and plenty of time for them to "become socialized." In fact, the insider joke about socialization among homeschoolers in many locales is, "Do we have a problem with homeschool socialization? Yes, we do: too much of it!"
And of course, there are differences in social opportunities depending on where homeschooled children live, whether they have special needs or unique situations, and what their families are like.
I'll be honest, having a grandmother as the primary homeschooling parent is part of "what a family is like." Parents often network to find supportive social situations for their kids in the homeschooling world, and that is something you would want to do. This does not mean finding a huge group of kids in a homeschool co-op to re-create the school setting. It might be as simple as finding friends in several families or going to park days.
You can read more about homeschooling's potential social benefits in the book The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling (affiliate link).
The truth is, homeschooling can provide a uniquely supportive environment, where anxious kids can be encouraged to try new things, and where their emotional and mental health can take priority over academics when that's helpful. Academic learning occurs in a child's total context, and lower anxiety can certainly be part of that context. They can have time to heal from immersion in stressful situations. Many people who are unfamiliar with homeschooling have not thought about these aspects and only picture children who are "sheltered" at home, perhaps causing anxiety to become more entrenched.
I'd urge you to find a therapist who is willing to take the time to understand homeschooling and who is willing to work with your child and you to truly get to the root cause, whether that be distorted thinking or some kind of trauma or something else that a trained professional knows about that I do not! I'd urge you to explore the balance between safe haven at home and opportunity to find her way in the world, to make sure you are providing opportunities for both.
If the school pushes back, ask them their concrete plans for helping to determine and address the root cause of your grandchild's anxiety. If they're not able to provide an actionable plan for that, but you are able to do that at home, then I think you have your answer. If they have some really good resources that you come to trust, then keeping your grandchild in school might be reasonable. But why haven't those resources been deployed yet? Or if they have, is your grandchild showing improvement?
One other point: public schools today make a big deal out of absences, and excessive absences can lead to truancy charges. This may be different from when you attended school or when your children attended school. In earlier years, schools may have informally worked with families in these situations, not counting all the absences if a child "tried" to attend school or did work at home. Most public schools today cannot make any provision for part-time attendance, and even parents with good intentions can quickly find themselves in legal trouble due to absences. When people decide to homeschool in the midst of such a situation, they need to be sure any required paperwork is filed appropriately.
Finally, listen to your child, and help her feel she has some control over the situation. My reading indicates that having more autonomy lessens anxiety for some kids. I think that's one reason why some kids with anxiety do fare better being homeschooled.
Your granddaughter is fortunate to have you paying attention to her needs. I wish you both the best as you consider her educational options.