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Home Education Magazine

January-February 1999 - Columns

Older Kids - Decompression - Frequently Asked Questions

Cafi Cohen

"He just won't do anything!" say the parents of teenagers who have just left school. Prior to beginning homeschooling, these parents have high hopes. They envision their older kids industriously attacking thoughtfully-selected curriculum, running a business, publishing a book, graduating early, and winning big scholarship money.

Some of those things may happen, but - in the first days and weeks and months of homeschooling - reality bites. Most new homeschooling families with teens deal with an adjustment period I call decompression.

What is Decompression?
During decompression children and parents detoxify from the deleterious effects of full-time institutional education. To understand the transition period, consider the days of kids who attend school. Most teenagers - with anywhere from 6 to 10 or more years of school behind them - have been conditioned to:

* Do what they are told all the time;

* Work within a schedule of bells and whistles;

* Ignore their interests and talents;

* Attend to meaningless subjects;

* Work for grades;

* Work in groups, and so on.

In short, school has taught them that life happens with or without their participation.

School also has absorbed the best hours of the day, when all of us (teenagers included) are most likely to create, think for ourselves, enjoy life, and learn. At best - with kids who get good grades and please teachers - we are left with good memorizers, good regurgitators, good game players. At worst, we have the shell-shocked walking wounded - apathetic, sometimes hostile teenagers who wake up each morning and just want to go back to sleep.

During decompression The School Experience is all-too-fresh in your teenager's head. Suddenly, your son's or daughter's environment radically changes - from coercive and group-oriented to collaborative to self-directed. Suddenly, adults take him seriously. Suddenly, there is time for privacy, time to be alone.

Many new homeschooling parents - with visions of All They Are Accomplishing At The School Down The Street - panic. Parents have their own decompression experience. They worry about covering enough, college preparation, and altered opportunities for socialization.

What can we expect during decompression?

Physical Release

Almost all parents will see behavior changes as their teens adjust to new expectations and a radically altered learning environment. First among these is a general unwinding, a physical release. Your teenagers may sleep a great deal more. Some kids will lie outside on the grass and watch the clouds roll by for days and weeks on end. Many kids become more affectionate. Those who have seen the world as a Very Serious Place start smiling more often.


Bad habits - everything from nail biting to zoning out in front of television - may decrease. New bad habits may appear. The good news? In both cases, your teenager - minus the constraints imposed by school - moves closer to being his real self. As he tries out various ways of spending his time and evaluates his experiences, he begins thinking more often for himself.

Improved Health

Families whose kids need insulin, ritalin, and asthma medication may find they can adjust dosages (in consultation with a physician, of course). Many teenagers on ritalin completely discontinue its use. Almost all new homeschoolers reduce exposure to junk food, institutional meals, public restrooms, and large crowds, which results in fewer colds and flu.

Different Activities

Some decompressing teenagers drop long-standing activities, like soccer or piano lessons. Just as many dive into previously unexplored academic and non-academic subjects, like computers, reading, dirt bikes, and math games. When our then 12-year-old son left school in the late 1980's, he spent hours each day folding origami animals. Some kids, having absorbed all of the propaganda about the value of schooling, panic and hit the textbooks for hours each day. In all cases, go along, watch, and be patient.

Alone Time

Almost all decompressing teenagers spend more time by themselves. John Taylor Gatto in Dumbing Us Down tells us that the alone time of children who attend school, sadly, averages less than ten hours per week. This is not enough time to reflect, the explore, to think, to fashion what Gatto calls a "private self." Without this private self, too many kids lack a sense of their own identity and look to others for The Life Instruction Manual. Unfortunately, nobody can write a manual for your teenager as well as he can. Many decompressing teenagers know this intuitively, and thus seek more alone time.

How long does decompression last?

Decompression is a period following a major life change. As with other major life changes (moving, birth, death, new jobs), both parents and kids need time to adjust. How much time? My experience and that of hundreds of families with decompressing kids indicates that you are looking at six months to two years or more. Many say that the longer your teenager has attended school, the more time decompression will take.

Parents may panic when they hear the six months to two years figure. Often they have a son or daughter that educationists have labeled "behind". These parents begin homeschooling, hoping to "make up time" and "catch him up." Too frequently, they prescribe a heavy schedule of make-up academics that would discourage most Ph. D. candidates.

Don't worry about the time your teenager appears to be doing nothing. Believe it or not, you do have time - plenty of it, if academics are your only concern. I have seen more than 10 teens - using independent-study materials - complete the equivalent of four years of high school academics in less than 18 months. How? Are homeschoolers smarter than everyone else? No, not really. Homeschooling itself, though - minus schedules and bells and peer-group distractions - can be remarkably efficient. When your teenager has decompressed and is ready, he will do what needs to be done - often at breath-taking speed.

What can teenagers do to ease decompression?

Physical Activity

All people, older kids included, need fun and exhausting exercise. This may be a team sport offered by Parks and Recreation or the YMCA in your community. Our son's primarily physical activity at ages 16 and 17 was the diving team at our local Parks and Recreation department. Other teenage homeschoolers like distance running (anybody can train for and run road races), martial arts classes, bowling, hiking, cycling, and yoga. You don't necessarily even need to think "sports". Some kids prefer gardening and shoveling snow and farm-related physical labor.

Outside Activities/Volunteering

Getting out of the house on a regular basis eases decompression. Most communities boast a host of teen-based activities: 4-H, Scouts, church youth groups, Civil Air Patrol. And there are many adult-oriented groups that may appeal to your older kid, everything from ski club to Toastmasters. Volunteer opportunities for teenagers abound. Check out hospitals, libraries, museums, zoos, radio stations, political campaigns, and so on.

What can parents do to ease decompression?


What you see during decompression is temporary. Eventually your teenager will produce something - although it may not be the product you have in mind! - and become one of those homeschoolers we all brag about. You have plenty of time for academics, so bury that vision of the perfectly-run high school down the street.


Keep a calendar in which you log your teenager's activities, academic and non-academic. Develop abbreviations and code each activity with a subject name (for examples, check out the sidebar, Speaking Educationese). You keep this calendar not for the state, not for an umbrella school, not even for your teenager, who will most likely find it boring. You keep a calendar for you, the parent. From the entries, you will decompress and learn that education occurs everyday, in everything we do.

TV/Mindless Video Games

While some make arguments for allowing unlimited TV and mindless video games, we preferred to limit these activities. I agree with John Taylor Gatto who says that television absorbs far too much time. With my two teenagers, I found that they less they watched television (even good-for-you television), the less they stared at the four walls.


Involve your homeschooling teenager in adult decision making and chores. If he or she has never changed the oil in the car, now is the time to learn. Redecorating or relandscaping? Ask for their help in planning. Considering a major new purchase, like a car, or changing the family budget? Ask for their comments.

Similarly, when and if you choose formal academic materials, select them with your teenager. Avoid large homeschooling conventions with hundreds of vendors. Instead, examine potential materials, at home, with your older kid. Try out material. If your son or daughter deems the product inappropriate, return it within 30 days and look elsewhere. Self-directed learners all share the ability to choose their resources. Certainly, there's no better way (or time) to learn to do this. Of course, you and your teen will make some mistakes. Reduce those mistakes by working collaboratively.

Gradual Academics

Many unschoolers never include any formal academics in their high school homeschooling. You may adopt that approach. Or you or your teenager may select some formal academic materials to work on. If so, consider introducing these materials gradually.

Here is an example. After three to six months of no academics, begin one month with math - say 20-30 minutes daily or three times weekly. The following month, add language arts; the following month science; and so on. This gives you both time to evaluate materials. Also, keep scheduling flexible. Eventually, your teenager may prefer two to three hours of one subject daily, rotating subjects each week.


Encourage your teenager to keep to a journal, a daily account of his activities and family happenings. This need take no longer than five to ten minutes each morning, when he or she describes one or more events of the previous day. Those teens who would rather walk one hundred miles than put pen to paper should consider dictation (onto an audiocassette) or learning to use a word-processor. Separating description from transcription (pen-to-paper) often overcomes writer's block.

Self-Directed Activity

Encourage self-directed activity by respecting your teenager's interests and goals. Self-directed activity is any activity your kid does without your urging. It is what he does on Saturday, when no one is telling him what to do. Support these activities in whatever way your time and resources allow - as an interested listener, with wheels, financially, and so on. Why? It's like learning to walk before you run. Veteran homeschooling parents often describe how self-directed activity leads to self-directed learning.


Go light on the teacher aspect of home education. Don't be the nightmare homeschooling parent, the one who insists on researching the country of origin of every piece of produce in the grocery store. Yes, it can make you - the parent - feel good to point out the educational aspects of everyday life. Your teenagers will probably find such antics more boring than the school they just left behind.

Instead consider spending time on activities both you and your kids enjoy. You have very few years remaining to share the same household. Learning occurs as a by-product of fun events - like travel and playing games and cooking together and outdoor sports. Enjoy - and don't sweat the small stuff.

1999, Cafi Cohen

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