How do you spot learning difficulties when you are unschooling?

by Shae on May 6, 2016

Disclaimer-I’m not an educational psychologist, a teacher, a behavioural optometrist, a tutor, or any kind of specialist in learning disabilities. This post is purely what I, as a parent noticed, which prompted me to seek a professional opinion. This post is in no way diagnostic.ย 






It can be a tricky one. When children have their own timeline and a bunch of interests that probably don’t fit into rote learning, the difference between a child not being at a similar level as their peers and having some difficulties is not always obvious. And when you take away the expectation to perform while seeing all interests as valid opportunities to learn, it can sometimes mask a problem.

Many unschooled kids read and write later than schooled kids. In fact, I would say that most do. Lots of unschooled kids have a really broad knowledge base, but it often doesn’t look like reciting the times table. None of these things necessarily mean that a child has a problem or a difficulty in that area, and we all know that types of intelligence are not limited to “being good at taking tests” (don’t we? I hope that more people do), but for some kids, they might need a bit of extra help.

One of the best bits of leaving the school system, in whichever way you may choose to do it, is that you can tailor the education to meet the child. For some kids, it might all come really naturally and organically. And some kids might need a tutor, or more structured approach, or at least to practise a little bit more. Does this still make it unschooling? I don’t care. Call it what you want. I guess we are currently “eclectic, Waldorf and Charlotte Mason inspired natural learners who do some bookwork”. Whatever. The longer I do this the less I get hung up on needing to make other people more comfortable by fitting a label.

One of my children has a bunch of learning difficulties that range from dyscalculia and dysgraphia, to problems with working memory and processing speed. It doesn’t mean she is any less awesome, but that she does need specific strategies, and support to make progress.

So what things did I notice?


That she was not progressing.

This is not always easy to spot when not using a linear curriculum. It was, however, obvious to me that she was “stuck” for a very long time on a concept or reading level.

Poor memory.

Words that were read one day, seemed forgotten the next, or not recognised if seen in a different font. Unable to recall multi step instructions or remember what was happening the next day, despite being told several times.

Getting frustrated.

So much frustration! She was so keen to master reading-and it took so long! Even with a tutor. All of her hard work would often still result in confusion or lack of understanding.

Not understanding basic concepts.

The level of explanation and repetition on things like 30 coming after 29 and that 3+3+3=9 and 3×3 also =9 were obviously extreme.

General poor gross motor skills.

Not something I knew linked up before-but it is a major red flag.

Difficulty with comprehension.

Not always understanding what she had read, and losing interest in long chapter books with small font as would lose place in the story.

Just generally noticing that everything was hard.

Pretty much across the board picking up concepts, written words, and moving forward while retaining what she had learned was a struggle.


We ended up doing a full educational profile with a psychologist. This was not without problems as they don’t often see children who are not using curriculum, but it gave us a lot of answers and now I feel more equipped to help my kiddo.

Which is what it’s all about really. Tailoring the education to fit the child.




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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dorothy May 6, 2016 at 11:50 am

I’m glad you were able to spot the differences and get a diagnosis, which now means you have a bunch of strategies to help her.

It also occurs to me that what you do and what all unschoolers do is what should be available to all children via the education system. Child-driven personalised education. This is what all children need. Such an education system would cost the government and therefore tax payers a lot of money, but this is what is needed. I wish I could give my kids that.


Jess64 May 7, 2016 at 8:09 am

Overtime I would suspect that learning difficulties are spotted earlier in home schooling because you can give them close observations. My nephew at 13 has only just been diagnosed with learning difficulties, because is low level of work was put down to bad behaviour. Your daughter is very luck to have you.


Ingi May 10, 2016 at 7:01 am

Great post Shae. It’s even trickier when your kids are twice-exceptional! Gifted/bright but with added learning difficulties. For us, reading was the easy part, but writing…oh my dear lord! The tears over writing! It’s still going (both now back in school and Yr 11) – but as you say, those diagnoses help to understand your child and how you can help, so worth their weight in gold!


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