Unschooling: To Test or Not to Test

My son has atrocious spelling. He always has, and for the most part, I have attributed it to his overall impatience; the fact that he doesn’t pay close attention to how words are written, even though he reads during 90% of his free time. But when we started this school year, and he told me he didn’t want to continue working on the story he started last year, or work on computer coding, or learn more about programming- all things he has been enthusiastic about- because it took him so long to spell simple words that he couldn’t focus on the tasks- I began to worry that something deeper was going on. In truth, it wasn’t the first time I had worried about his spelling problems (of course it wasn’t!). When an 11-year-old has to ask you how to spell “what”, “read”, or even “was” repeatedly, there is clearly a problem. It was just one of those problems I had thought would work itself out naturally, like so many snags in the homeschool road. But now I wasn’t so sure.

A friend had recently told me about her experience homeschooling her son, in which he struggled with reading and writing for many years before she finally took him “in for testing”. As a result of the test- though I had no idea what kind of test she referred to- he learned that he had a mild “learning disability” affecting reading and writing, which in turn helped him to feel less ashamed and frustrated. It also meant that when he decided to go to public high school, he was given extra time to complete his answers. Her story had stuck with me, so, when my son started showing signs of being affected by his writing troubles, I decided to do some research about these enigmatic tests, and whether or not they might help him as they had her son. But tests, I knew, can be a double-edged sword, and they can be extremely damaging if you happen to grab the wrong side.

Unfortunately, my friend had changed her number and I haven’t been able to get a hold of her, so I was on my own. And although I did learn a few things in my search, it was also the kind of quest that leads to an equal number of questions, and quite possibly, more. The first thing I learned was that I didn’t know where to start. Not being affiliated with any school, there was no one I could turn to that I felt had more authority or knowledge on the situation. I didn’t know where to get a test, what I would be testing for, or what types of tests are used. So I turned to the resource most of use to research anything these days, – google. With so little understanding of what I needed, searching the vast world of google was like venturing into a foggy jungle with a very poor flashlight. I stumbled along, following clues, and eventually came to understand a few basic things.

First, I discovered (to my mild surprise) that learning disabilities are essentially administered by a variety of private companies, some of whom operate independently (Sylvan Learning is an example I had at least heard of), and some of whom work within and together with a school district. When I read on one blog that the parent must find a testing center they trust and research their credentials themselves, a feeling of panic began to take hold. That meant I needed to ask so many more questions, and each question seemed like it would lead to a new snake den of unanswerable, often philosophical questions.

How could I evaluate the credentials of a test or system I knew nothing about? How do we know what to test for, and what the right questions are to get accurate answers? Worse, how do I know if the tests will reflect anything of value about my child, or whether it will simply make him feel more self-conscious about his difficulties? Does labeling someone help them to identify their issues and work on them more effectively, or does it just make them feel labeled? These are some of the unanswerable questions I felt rising as I delved further into this journey.

Around this time I realized I needed to talk to another homeschool mom, one who had been through a similar situation. I finally decided to reach out to the director of the homeschool cooperative we participate in part-time. I didn’t know if she had ever been down this road with her kids, but since she has several ( 6? 7? I couldn’t be sure), and interacted with homeschooling families all day long, it seemed like a place to start. Her response was helpful in several ways- she told me of a location that was likely to have reliable tests (whatever that means), and that she had considered and decided against testing one of her sons. She felt that it wouldn’t actually help them work with the problem, and having a diagnosis didn’t seem useful enough to be worthwhile, for them. She also introduced me to a phrase I had been unfamiliar with- dysgraphia- a learning disability that affects handwriting, spelling and the writing process. That gave me at least a possibility of something to test for.

So, now I had a place to go for testing and a possible place to start testing for. Her decision not to have her son tested made sense to me and left the door open to make our own decision without fear of judgment. During this process, I had spoken to a friend who worked part-time as a tutor (and had homeschooled 7 kids, incidentally) and she had offered to try working with my son, although she didn’t have direct experience with his particular situation. I knew it was time to talk to my son about it. I am not the kind of parent that makes decisions for my kids without consulting them, at least ones that involve and affect them as much as this would.

Before even approaching the topic of testing, I asked him about spending time with my friend to work on handwriting and other language skills. His response surprised me a bit. He didn’t seem to feel ashamed, as I thought he might, or angry. But he was completely opposed to the idea of getting a tutor, or to admitting that he might have a “condition” that made spelling and writing more difficult. We have talked a great deal in our family about how all brains work differently, and so-called “disabilities” are no reflection on intelligence ( in fact I suspect that their exposure to Rick Riordan books have convinced them that people with dyslexia are actually demi-gods with supernatural powers), so I didn’t think there was a need to worry there.

Although I tried to convince him that recognizing a difference in his brain could be helpful to him in the long run and ease a lot of frustration, he seemed convinced that his problem had more to do with him not trying hard enough. Without punishing himself, he made a commitment at that point to work harder on spelling and handwriting and has been practicing a list of spelling words every week since, something he had been previously opposed to. I have seen improvement in his writing, although he still doesn’t know how to spell what or was. We have an agreement that he doesn’t have to worry about spelling when writing essay questions, so it doesn’t disrupt his flow. And that is where things have stood for the last month or so.

I don’t know if we will ever go through with a test or not, but for now, I feel ok with the fact that he is recognizing the issue and putting a more concentrated effort into improving it. He doesn’t seem to have shame or guilt about it- he and his brother get a lot of laughs from his outrageous spelling attempts, so I don’t feel like a diagnosis would help a lot in that regard. If the problem persists, and especially if it continues to get in the way of his other academic pursuits, however, it may still be an option. Like most other things, we will try to make the decision together.

Although our journey into the world of so-called learning disabilities hasn’t come to any definitive conclusion, I did find a few good resources along the way I want to share. The first is an article by Very Well Family that broke down the system of tests in a way I found particularly helpful. The next is a website called Lexercise, which offers free, quick, parent assessments online. I must caution though, I have not done much research about Lexercise, though they claim to use research-based tests. As well, the parent assessments are far from conclusive and are meant only as a starting point.

The term “Learning Disability” is heavily loaded, and a diagnosis can make a huge impact on a child’s identity and self-perception. Especially when getting into terms of ADHD or emotional problems, there are a lot of judgments and values involved. If you decide to go through with testing, I trust you will make sure your child doesn’t feel ashamed or labeled or feel that the label needs to change anything in your relationship or homeschool plan. It is simply one option for gaining information and insight, and every family must find the path that supports their needs best. Good luck!

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