This phrase first surfaced in an early book by Ivan Illich [1]
and his use of the term really applied to what we would
now call Natural Learning or Unschooling:
teaching your children in a very unschoolish way.

Like most people’s home education experience, the term ‘de-schooling’ has evolved somewhat over the years. Now it commonly refers to the period of time following a child’s leaving behind a formally structured education – whether at school or a more formal approach to home education.

In a practical context, the term ‘De-Schooling’ refers to the mental process a person goes through after being removed from a formal schooling environment, when the “school mindset” is eroded over time. Deschooling may refer to the time period it takes for children removed from school to adjust to learning in an unstructured environment.

Families who have taken their children out of school to homeschool often find their children need a period of adjustment – learning to live without the reinforcement of grading and regimented learning. It is typically used to describe children who have been removed from school for the purpose of self-directed homeschooling, but technically applies any person leaving school, either by dropping out or graduating. [2]

As more studies are conducted around home education, and more reports surface describing observed phenomena, a time of de-schooling appears to be something that children often need between having all their lessons prepared for them and relocating their own natural curiosities and creativities.

This can be quite a scary process for parents – it certainly was for us.

As described elsewhere on this site, we hit a time where Hayley was completely undermined by the presentation of structure which had formerly been her best friend. In a very short period of time, that structure went from being something that facilitated her creativity to something that sapped it entirely. We could see that if we were to persist in doing what we’d always done, we’d end up with results in her that were far from our goal of her being a life-long learner.

In some ways, circumstances led us down the path that we took. As a family, we were away from our regular routine for several weeks while we moved Brad’s mum from her small villa in a North Coast town and into a retirement village in the same community. We followed that up with a short holiday to Kangaroo Island (wonderful – highly recommended!), and when we returned home, the regular routine had ‘gone with a thousand years’. It was very clearly no longer relevant to who Hayley was or how we would continue with home education.

Thankfully, I had read something about de-schooling a year or so earlier. I read further and discussed what I read with Brad and Hayley, and gradually our new way took on definition and purpose.

Letting Go

When you’ve been used to ‘all the requirements’ of your child’s education being met in a certain, structured way (whether at school or home), to just take your hands off feels mindlessly stupid, among other things. You feel irresponsible. You feel like you’re opening yourself wide to criticism from others (and you are).

That’s why, once again, it’s important to educate yourself about what’s going on. It equips you to answer those who will freely express their shock at your wonton liberality. It prepares you to provide safety, space and freedom for your child while they rediscover elements of themselves that they’d lost.

There are valid reasons for allowing de-schooling to take place, but you won’t find them in the mindset that dictates daycare-preschool-infants-primary-secondary-college-university as the only acceptable path for successful life.

As I read more about de-schooling, I felt much as I had done in my early years of reading about home education in general – somewhat dense for having ‘toed the party line’ in my beliefs about education. The more I read, the more it made sense.

I’m not here to convince you – you need to do your own reading and decide what’s right for your own family. For us, I’m glad I was able to let go my pre-conceived ideas and rigid notions so that this path could be explored and unfolded before us. Scary as it is, uncomfortable as I often feel, we do know that it’s the right path for us.

Expectations of De-Schooling

Most of us have been educated according to a normal school model, so that has understandably played a large role in shaping our expectations of our children and their education. The de-schooling of our children necessarily involves the parallel process of deschooling ourselves.

Your child may appear to do very little at first. There may be a lot of movie watching or Nintendo playing or even reading of books that could never be accused of having literary value, and it’s important to permit that. Julie Bogart, of Bravewriter says this: ” … it takes a willingness to do nothing at first. I remember the few times where after I had pushed for a more schoolish life, I had to bite my tongue and value whatever he did for a while. … And remember – don’t suggest. Spend time alongside …” [3]

The time factor required for de-schooling is somewhat hard to predict. Some writers suggest allowing one month for each year that the child has spent being formally schooled. For us, it took many months before there was any notable result, and a year or more in total. Beverley Paine, of Home School Australia advises, “It often takes many months, and sometimes even a year, for the process of deschooling to unfold. During this time it is a great idea to seek support from families who display a similar style of homeschooling to yourself.” [4]

It is important not to get impatient with this process – the results will be worth it, long-term. Learning does take place during this time – wonderful, liberating, but often very private learning. It just doesn’t look like what a schoolish mind expects to see. Even the child may not think they’re learning anything – but they are. If the most important lesson they learn during this time is to enjoy the person they are, for themselves, that’s worth more than money can buy. It won’t be the only lesson that’s learned – but you do have to be patient while those other signs take shape or are revealed to you.


The results of de-schooling can be hard to measure, especially at first. Little bit by little bit, however, words will start to flutter from your child’s mouth that catch you off-guard and leave you almost breathless with their enormity. Words that reveal a spark of connection with learning that you haven’t even glimpsed in years. Words that betray a resilient self-esteem that you’d almost given up hope of finding. Words that display an excitement about a topic that has completely captivated the imagination in a way you’d forgotten was possible. Words that rejoice in life.

It’s worthwhile having a journal or notebook available during this time, so that you can make notes (just jot things down) of those times that catch you so unawares. At the time, your jaw can be so firmly affixed to the ground that you’d swear you’ll never forget that moment. But you do, unless you’ve made some kind of record of it. It can be a conversation you’ve had with your child, something you’ve overheard them tell someone else, an idle comment they’ve made in passing, something you’ve seen them do – whatever it is, it exposes knowledge or insight or willingness or ability that is far beyond what you’d seen before.

Such a journal (or whatever other type of record works for you) is invaluable, not merely for authorities, but for those times when your child remarks idly that they haven’t been learning anything, or when someone who doesn’t understand de-schooling criticises your methods. Sharing your excitement at what is actually happening will often silence people – they might argue lack of structure, but the joy of learning is something else entirely. Priceless.

As parents, we want to be responsible. It is vital, however, that we don’t confuse responsibility with control. Responsibility doesn’t always involve a burden of obligation – sometimes it’s a duty that involves initiative and unexpected resourcefulness, even the willingness to walk an unknown path.

An internet search will yield a huge variety of articles on deschooling which may be of use to you. Try using ‘kids’ and ‘deschooling’ as your unquoted keywords.

“If one advances confidently in the direction
of one’s dreams, and endeavors to live the life
which one has imagined, one will meet with
a success unexpected in common hours.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

1. “De-Schooling Society” by Ivan Illich, available online courtesy of The Preservation institute.
2. Wikipedia, De-Schooling article
3. Bravewriter Blog, “Family Update”, April 5 2007, original post and subsequent comments and replies.
4. Beverley Paine, “Deschooling Defined”, includes links to additional deschooling articles.