👋 I’m Nicola, mum to Isaac (17) & Heidi (14), unschooling in rural Oxfordshire for over 9 years now. A traumatic start point launched us into this lifestyle, when my then 8 yr old son was kicked in the head by a horse, was knocked out, rushed to hospital and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Isaac returned to school a couple of months after his accident, because he really wanted his old life back, but in retrospect this is the decision I regret the most. I knew perfectly well that he was not the person he had been, but I had no appreciation of the wider implications. Isaac had previously felt very comfortable in school, but now it was overwhelming in unimaginable ways. His speech, memory and comprehension were impaired, and he was tired. He clearly found school torturous, but he also lacked the words to explain why. His desire to attend school faded very quickly, but in my ignorance I continued to push him to attend.
He attended school for six months for two days a week, taking us up to the summer holidays. During those months I desperately communicated with his teachers and his neuro-psychologist, but neither showed any depth of understanding about what Isaac was experiencing. I would explain that Isaac was emotionally all over the place following a day at school, that sometimes it took three hours to even get him into the car after a school day. At home he would be upset and destructive, breaking toys, shouting, banging his head on his bed.
The neuropsychologists and teachers were of the opinion that since he was quiet and calm at school the problems weren’t there, but were home based. They offered no support, suggested longer hours in school & their attitude impacted my mental health and seriously compromised Isaac’s recovery. They reached all the wrong conclusions.
Isaac was so overwhelmed in school that he stayed rigidly composed. He did his best for the hours that he attended, but this was putting him under internal stress and paving the way for a complex psychological breakdown. The discrepancy was that he seemed to become more relaxed and happier the longer he wasn’t in school. Easter holidays illustrated this, and then during the summer holidays it became clearer still. Given a calm lifestyle with no obligations or expectations finally allowed Isaac to begin to rehabilitate from his traumatic brain injury.
My husband (now ex) was also on the side of the teachers and Dr’s and thought that Isaac needed to be in school. He also conveyed a message to both my parents and his, that Isaac was doing well, and that it was me that was struggling. It became so hard to advocate for Isaac when I got so little understanding from both professionals and family. September rocked around and Isaac was unwilling to return to school. It was obvious to me that he had been healthier and happier during the summer holidays, his nervous tics lessened, and his speech and motor skills improved, he had become calmer, more flexible and a lot easier to be around. I had to bribe Isaac to get him to the school gates, and the head teacher physically pushed and pulled him out of my car and into the school.
I hold profound regret that I allowed any of this to happen. I damaged my relationship with my son and I contributed to his mental health struggles. I have forgiven myself, and I can see that I was in an impossible situation. No-one was supporting me. My son had fallen apart and no one was capable of offering the compassion, kindness or understanding that we needed.
A very touching moment happened three days into the September term, when Isaac, Heidi and I made wishes after reading a fairy book together. My son passed me a piece of paper with his wish written on it, with the comment ‘I don’t think my wish will come true’. His wish was ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore’. A tear sprang to my eye, and I made the decision then and there. After a few hours of consideration I realised that my daughter would need to leave too.
Heidi had always hated school, and nursery prior to that. She managed six weeks of 2 hours twice a week at nursery, but actually, it’s just that it took 6 weeks for me to recognise how much she hated going, and that it wasn’t going to improve (despite the staff insistence that she was fine). School was equally turbulent; as many stops as starts, lots of anxiety, an emerging mental health problem. In reception she attended for one month in the September, and then for a month after her 5th birthday at the end of the summer term. She so wanted to enjoy it, but she really didn’t.
In year one, she had 50% attendance, and it was always a struggle, even when I became a class reader and attended school with her. She was at the beginning of year 2 when I made the decision to keep Isaac at home, and it was never going to work to coerce her into attending school.
School was an incredible disappointment for my family, it did far more harm than good, and we needed to turn our backs on it. My story is so traumatic, but I want to say that we made it. It has taken years of rehabilitation for all of us, and a complete re-writing of our family paradigm.
My personal journey of recovery took a circuitous route via studying brain injury, unschooling, low demand parenting, autism, art therapy and creativity. Back in 2019 I took an 8-week course in mindfulness, and was so energised by it that I enrolled on a MSc in Studies in Mindfulness and trained as a Mindfulness teacher in summer 2022.
I am now a proud mum with 2 really incredible kids. Isaac has ups and downs, but enjoys friendships, playing games and now designing computer games. Heidi is now diagnosed autistic, is a creative genius and oozes personality. They wouldn’t have found their personalities and style in school, they would have struggled with their sanity in school.
An interesting reflection is that I can now see that I suffered school trauma as a child and teen and that I went on to suffer years of mental health issues myself. I have a strong autonomy-seeking personality, just like my kids. Back in my childhood neither my mother or the schools I attended could see or respect my needs. My childhood developmental journey was compromised by an authoritarian family and an inflexible, dogmatic school system.
I am proud to have provided a very different childhood for my children. They are both blatantly intelligent, charming and talented. They needed to develop trust in themselves by having agency, autonomy and freedom. I love them so much, and they adore each other.
In the name of healing and sharing, I am now designing some workshops in Mindfulness, Acceptance, Self compassion and Healing, specifically for the unschooling world.
Keep an eye out for ‘The Mindful Home Educator” My four minute film about Isaacs accident can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=us_nBk5z9rI&t=122s