Learning environment

For neurodiverse children, micro-schools can be an ideal learning environment

A common criticism of micro-schools, learning modules, unschooling approaches and other non-traditional educational models is that they do not work well for or exclude neurodiverse learners, including those on the autism spectrum or those with dyslexia, ADHD or other special disorders. learning needs.

The reality is that these more personalized learning models can work well for most students and can be especially helpful for students with learning difficulties or special needs.

This was certainly the experience of Molly and Noah Stephenson of Wichita, Kansas. As parents of neurodiverse children who did not integrate well into conventional schooling, including home versions of homeschooling, they discovered early on that providing maximum freedom and autonomy to children often leads to the deepest, happiest and most lasting learning.

Their eldest daughter, now 21, still carries with her the painful memory of a kindergarten year in public school that her mother describes as a “fantastic catastrophe”. According to Molly, “We realized at the end of kindergarten that she had dyslexia and our public school system was not well equipped at that time to help her succeed. She felt she was not smart. It was unacceptable for us to have children who, just because their brains were different, felt like they weren’t smart. We didn’t want to see the love of learning taken away from our children.

The Stephensons pulled their daughter out of school and began homeschooling her and her younger siblings in a virtual school, using a set curriculum and standard performance expectations. It got a little better, but they soon realized that their son was also severely dyslexic and that a rigid schedule wasn’t working for him. “He was running and hiding,” Molly said of her son’s aversion to schoolwork.

Frustrated and unsure of what to do next, Molly and Noah planned to send their children back to public school after a year of homeschooling. Then something happened.

During the summer before their children were due to return to school, the Stephensons unenrolled from virtual school, put away all of their curriculum and related homeschooling materials, and focused on getting through time together as a family. “Our kids started learning organically,” Molly recalls. At a yard sale, his son, who was not yet able to read Dr. Seuss books proficiently, picked up a mid-level biography on musician Johnny Cash and for several days worked at the read with understanding. Molly asked her son why he was able to read this book but not do all the reading exercises she gave him. “I vividly remember him saying ‘everything you gave me to read was stupid.’ He just needed interest, and so we discovered unschooling through that process,” she said.

As the Stephensons embraced unschooling, or self-directed education centered on the child’s individual interests and goals, they connected with other local school children who shared this educational philosophy. Over the next few years, as they realized their five children were neurodiverse, this non-coercive approach to learning became a crucial way to support their children’s education.

Realizing the benefits of small-scale, personalized learning with their own children, the Stephensons ultimately wanted to support more children in their community with a similar educational model. Last year, they founded the Wildflower Community School, a microschool in Wichita, Kansas, which is part of the nationwide network of Prenda microschools. A public-private partnership with Kansas Public Schools allows local students to attend Stephenson’s Prenda Microschool tuition-free, although this does not fully cover their overall microschool costs. They rely on charitable donations to make ends meet.

The couple currently have 35 students enrolled in their microschool, with only about four of their students considered “neurotypical”. Most have specialized learning needs, several are on the autism spectrum and more than 20 would be characterized as having ADHD. They had to turn away many more students due to capacity constraints.

In the warm and welcoming space of the mini-farm that Molly, Noah and their two other educators have created, these students thrive. They enjoy freedom and respect, are allowed to master academic content at their own pace, and have time to deal with emotional and interpersonal challenges.

When the Stephensons discovered how many of their students had special educational needs, they began working to make their environment and the Prenda setting as neurodiversity-friendly as possible. “We spend a lot of time working on executive functioning skills, fine motor skills, research skills, multiple intelligences and we really try to get our students to understand that whatever your brain works, it’s is fantastic. Let’s find out the secret to making it work for you in a way you love,” Molly said.

“We also felt we had to do a lot of deschooling and deprogramming with some of the kids who had failed in public school before,” she added.

Stephenson’s Microschool is just one of many microschools, learning pods, homeschooling collaborations, and similar educational models that have sprouted in the greater Wichita area, as well as across the United States. Just a few miles from Wildflower Community School, there is an outdoor preschool program that recently expanded its offerings to school-aged children; a secular homeschooling collaboration that meets twice a week at a local community center; a faith-based hybrid home-schooling program; and two low-cost private schools that are both jam-packed with local demand. One of these schools is secular while the other is faith-based and both emphasize personalized and personalized learning for students.

Also in Wichita is the Izora Elaine Dean Education Center, a microschool run by a former public school teacher that started as a tutoring center and evolved into a full-time educational program during the pandemic response. “Our parents didn’t want to go back to school when remote learning ended,” said founder Pam McEwen. She has worked with parents to help them pull their children out of school for homeschooling, giving parents more freedom and flexibility over how their children learn. “Since then we have been moving and rolling,” she added.

McEwen, along with the Stephensons, is a member of a local community group known as WISE, or Wichita Innovative Schools and Educators, which was launched last spring by some of the microschool founders and education entrepreneurs of the region to provide support and knowledge sharing. Many of these innovative educators are recipients of micro-grants from the VELA Education Fund, a philanthropic nonprofit organization that supports the growth of non-traditional education options and school alternatives across the country. The VELA connection helped these Wichita entrepreneurs find each other and start collaborating.

“Our ultimate goal with each other is to support the growth of our individual schools, but also to create more alternatives, as our district that we are in is not succeeding,” said Molly Stephenson. “Parents are looking for something different, and that something probably won’t be one of the big private schools in the area. We have very good large private schools. They wouldn’t have been a good fit for our kids, and they wouldn’t have been a good fit for a lot of the kids that the other education contractors here serve.

These diverse, smaller-scale educational options are becoming more abundant and accessible in communities across the United States, giving more families the opportunity to choose a learning environment that best suits their needs and preferences. their child’s learning. For neurodiverse children and those with special needs, this educational variety can be even more beneficial.

“Kids, and especially neurodiverse kids, are going to find different rabbit holes that they want to go down and chase,” Molly said. Jessica Tran agrees. She is a mother of four children who attend Wildflower, three of whom are diagnosed with autism and one who is currently being evaluated. “Wildflower kids aren’t supposed to be robots or produce anything other than their best, whether that means at, above, or below grade level. Plus, kids are allowed to explore the things that make their hearts happy,” Tran said.

She continued: “As an educator myself, I wish all schools were more like this and allowed more children to succeed in the classroom. Of course, some children do exceptionally well in a traditional setting. However, there are at least hundreds of children in our own district who are drowning and desperately looking for a place like this.

Micro-schools and similar personalized learning models can create more space for those important rabbit holes of exploration and discovery, while supporting each child’s intellectual development and personal well-being.