Looking through Instagram makes a CM homeschool life look amazing. The Pictures are so beautiful and the aesthetic that links the various homes together is filled with aspects of simplicity, bibliophile pride, artistic beauty, natural wonders, faith that is grounded, and relationships that matter. It’s easy to get caught up in the fever or to begin to feel the itch towards doing it “right” and in the process lots of parents start searching for more information. That’s when the road becomes difficult.
There are so many moving parts to a Charlotte Mason Education, that picking up the method is daunting. The best way to really understand the Philosophy behind a Mason education is to read Mason’s 6 volumes… but there are Six of them!
I’ll be honest here, I’ve never read them cover to cover. I can’t keep focused on them. I’ve tried the modern language ones and I’ve tried the originals and, well, there’s a reason that two of my four kids have ADHD. I’ve never been Diagnosed but the two that have it are exactly like their mother. I have read, well skimmed through some parts, almost all 5 of Mason’s works after four years of homeschooling this way… it just wasn’t in order. I’ve been a part of a local reading group, I’ve tried online groups to help keep me accountable… and I just couldn’t read them cover to cover. I listened to every podcast I could find, I read every blog post I could come across, I read every part of every online curriculum I could find. I asked questions in every forum or Facebook group I could join. Honestly I hyper focused so much on Charlotte Mason that it’s almost all I talked about for two years. I knew I was getting a fractured or partial idea of CM’s actual philosophy, so instead of reading the works from cover to cover, because every time I tried my mind wandered ridiculously fast, I would use my computer to search for topics and then get sucked into rabbit trails that would consume me. Four years later and I’m still missing Ourselves, but my oldest is starting Form 3 soon and I’ll probably read that with him.
I know for some this would put me in the “not an expert” or even “amateur” category, and here’s the thing, I am not an expert. I am not claiming to be an expert, in any of this. I am a mom of four neurodivergent children who has been trying to homeschool them for going on seven years. I’ve been trying to figure out how to accept my own neurodivergency while also trying to find an effective homeschooling style that actually works for my 2E kids. I am a friend to several other moms with neurodivergent children who are also neurodivergent themselves and also homeschool with many of the same struggles that we have had. I am an aunt, cousin, niece, granddaughter, and daughter to neurodivergent people. I am a neurodivergent person and I am still figuring things out as I go, but so are the moms I know who have been doing this for 20+ years!
I am writing this series to explain CM and help newcomers with neurodivergent children, or who are neurodivergent themselves, because I found, through trial and error, that the whole CM approach, like other approaches, just didn’t work for my family. Or for local and long distance friends of mine who live with neurodiversity, because if you approach it as a curriculum or method you are setting yourself up for failure. The people who I’ve read and listened to were so inspiring and yet when I followed their “how to’s” the fit was just not there. Many of those other people love CM, they are amazing! I am not bashing them at all. I still love reading these blogs and listening to these podcasts and watching videos of people discussing CM things because they are a wealth of Information and they are always so kind and caring when I meet them in person. This is nothing against them, it’s just that sometimes things that work for the general population need to be tweaked when being used among the neurodiverse community. While much of what is written here can apply to anyone, it is the difference between success and another failure for a neurodivergent family who is struggling to make anything work. We see the world differently and because of that we need to approach things a little differently too. Homeschooling is no different. Our homeschools are going to look different, because we are different.
SO, How do you start a CM based homeschool when both the parents and children are differently wired?
Maybe, you can’t sit down and read all 6 volumes, maybe like me it’s hard to focus on things or you hyper focus and have a hard time moving out of the planning phases and into the implementation phases? Perhaps, the whole thing just has too many moving parts and you are overwhelmed with where to start. Perhaps perfectionism is keeping you from starting at all because you can’t start until you are able to start perfectly. Or there are some who can’t start because the anxiety of being in charge of planning everything out is too overwhelming. I know many who are gifted themselves and this looks like a great option but choosing the right books to use becomes a gargantuan task because this book is historically inaccurate, but that one is too dry and this one is highly recommended but the language is highly problematic due to the way they speak of indigenous people and others… all of which are very real concerns!
The thing is that before you get to choosing books, before you get to planning out terms, before you get to any of the moving parts, it is important to know what the backbone of a CM education is. Charlotte says,
“‘Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life.’ By this we mean that parents and teachers should know how to make sensible use of a child’s circumstances (atmosphere), should train him in habits of good living (discipline), and should nourish his mind with ideas, the food of the intellectual life. These three we believe to be the only instruments of which we may make lawful use in bringing up children. An easier way may be found by trading on their sensibilities, emotions, desires, passions; but the result must be disastrous. And for this reason, that bits, ideas, and circumstances are external, and we may help each other to get the best that is to be had of them; we may not, however, meddle directly with personality of child or man; we may not work upon his vanity, his fears, his love, his emulation, or anything that goes to make him a person. Most people are in earnest about the bringing up of children; but we are in danger of taking too much upon us, and of not recognising the limitations which confine us to the outworks of personality.” Charlotte Mason, vol 3, pg 218.
There is so much goodness in the simplicity of this.
Step 1: Nurture the Atmosphere of your home through circumstances. In other words, live your life together. They will learn from the situations they are in and if you are using that to your advantage then you are crafting an atmosphere that is rich and abundant.
- For the neurodiverse parent this means that we must embrace our own neurodiversity. Whether that means outings every day or only a few times a month. Whether that means Outside explorations are something to be built upon until your own anxieties or sensory responses can handle them, or whether you do school outside everyday because you physically need the vitamin D to stave off lows. Whether that means school in pajamas or school in a library or coffee shop… wherever works for you and your family. Whether that means books being read to you, the parent, at three years old or twelve years old. Whether that means lessons at 9pm or 9 am. You have the freedom to make an atmosphere that is rich for your family based on your family’s individual needs or circumstances!
- This atmosphere is about circumstances but environments help make circumstances that aid to learning and if there are things that are necessary for you or your child to make the atmosphere one that encourages learning, then do it. Some children need a desk. Some need a tire swing. Some need calming colors. Some need bright lights, while others need dim ones. Some need computer screens and some do better with none. If you need calm in a space in order to function then create a space where you feel calm. I can’t focus on reading to my children if there is clutter in the place where we are at. It’s too distracting for me. Probably for my children as well, but I realized that I was less likely to even try if there were messes. For me the atmosphere of circumstances could not even start until the clutter in that room was cleaned up. Take stock of what your needs are before your Child’s needs are even considered. You can’t help them if your own needs are not being met.
- Live your own life purposefully and your children will learn as you live. If you create an atmosphere of understanding and calm in your home then your children will feel respected and be more engaged. If you are busy and hurried your children will be busy and hurried. If you are scatterbrained and all over the place then your children will create their own systems of organization whether or not you understand them. If you are an adventurer, then your children will be. If you are a homebody, then they will be too. Not one of these things is bad in and of itself but if you live your life without thought, the circumstances that your children face will still be a part of their formation. By the way, that list above describes me and I have had to sit down and take stock of how/why I do things in order to figure out where I was going next. The Atmosphere is the most important aspect of the homeschool, and it is based entirely on the parent creating it.
Step 2: Focus on the Discipline in your home.
- This has nothing to do with punishments! Discipline is habit training. It is learning how to be accountable to yourself and how to live in a way that helps you move through life with the least resistance. Habits like Attentiveness help all people remember things and focus on important situations. A habit of Observation helps a person to see the details in the world that we would otherwise walk by. A habit of Perseverance helps a person of any age deal with hard things.
- In a neurodiverse family the process of developing good habits is going to take a longer time and look different than in a NT family. In many cases the habits needed will be more basic than what you will read about in other parts of CM and in some cases the habits are already apart of a person’s personality. For example, in a differently wired home the habit of attention could take decades to work on and even then will never be a habit of consistent focus. In the case of a family dealing with ADHD, like ours, the Habit of Attention is less the habit of paying attention and rather learning how to focus your own ADHD and live in a way where this is not a deficit but a superpower. For a family that deals with sensory issues the habit of Perseverance could be learning how to communicate your own sensory needs rather than trying to force a child or parent to live through a physically demanding or painful situation and claiming that it was in an effort to build perseverance.
- While CM has a lists of habits and virtues that are supposed to be trained, I would posit that in a family that lives with neurodiversity, habit training is going to include life skills that help us live in a world that is not made for us. For some, that is learning social skills, for others it has more to do with managing a diagnosis or medication, for some it is working on creating structure in a world of chaos. It’s not that we don’t need CM’s lists, we probably need it more than the general population, but usually we have basic things that are more important than Obedience, Attentiveness, Patience… For example, you can’t focus on Obedience or Patience if your impulsivity is hard-wired to override everything else. First you need to focus on controlling your impulsivity.
- Habit training can not be done extrinsically. You can not force your child to pick up a good habit. They can go through the motions of picking up a habit but if their heart isn’t in it then it will not be theirs. Nancy Kelly addresses this superbly in her second podcast episode for The Sage Parnassus Podcast, if you get a chance to listen in please do. It was so reassuring for me to listen to that episode. For the differently wired parent, usually we have our own habits that need training and we are painfully aware of these. My recommendation to other differently wired families is that rather than focus on your child learning a new habit, focus instead on yourself. Tell your children that you are working on adopting a new habit, invite them to join you, and as they see you living this out they too will be more receptive to change. My children started trying to be attentive during lessons because I worked on attentiveness for myself. I told them that I was working hard to just focus on what was happening during lessons and nothing else. Then they saw me put away my phone, put down my crochet, and I looked at them. Sounds simple right? No, two years later and I’m still working on this and they are too, but, they can actually sit still for a set amount of time and narrate now where they couldn’t in the beginning. Just about every habit can be imparted this way. If you want observant children, then be an observant adult around them. Spend time with them outside and point out the things you both know and don’t know. If you want a habit of curiosity, question things in front of your children and then look them up together. Paint with your child and point out the many colors that go into what you see, or Draw with them and point out the many shapes you see in the world that you are trying to capture. If you want an Honest child, be truthful with them, don’t sugar coat things or dumb them down. Use big words and define them. Show them harsh truths and help them find grace and peace in ways where they can make a difference. If you want an Obedient child, then you’ll need to be an obedient parent. Show them where your authority comes from and that you are also living by the rules of the world as well. Children learn more from our actions than from our words.
- Habit Training comes behind Atmosphere for a reason. Habits are important, they make the lessons and the home run more smoothly. They help us deal with issues that are larger than us… but the atmosphere that you create for your family and your home is more important. If the atmosphere for a life of learning is not there, learning will not be there, however, habits are a work in progress. We can learn without certain habits, but we cannot learn without an atmosphere of learning. So, if at any point the habit training starts to get in the way of the atmosphere, scale back. Refocus on the atmosphere and try again. Habit training is life long learning, don’t be discouraged. Small successes are still successes.
Step 3: Nourish the mind with ideas for a full intellectual life.
- Regardless of ability. Regardless of diagnosis. A life full of ideas, is a full life. Mason calls us to put in the way of the child the ideas which will sustain a life of abundance. For the child and the parent! Most neurodiverse adults that I know already live a life full of ideas. They chase ideas. They devour them. Include your children in your chase and if the subject matter isn’t appropriate for them then at least let them see you on the chase. Your feasting on ideas will inspire them to feast on ideas as well.
- Spread the feast. Hyper-focusing is a very real thing. Challenge yourself to spend a few minutes every week on something that you’re not hyper focused on. Then add to that list until you have a variety of subjects that you are learning for yourself over the course of the month. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on each one, ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there… If you can spread the feast for yourself, then it will make it easier to spread the feast for your child. Spreading the feast is about integrating ideas from various parts of our combined social learning through living, rich means – do not force your family to conform to the list created in Victorian times, it’s a fabulous starting point not a checklist. Chances are there are ideas outside of that original list that you or they find fascinating…explore them.
- When it comes to Spreading the Feast for your child I already wrote a blog post specifically about that here. You don’t have to hit every single subject, start with what is fascinating to your family but whatever you do, do not just do the three R’s, there is so much more to life than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even for a child who has a weakness in those areas, especially for a child with weaknesses in those areas, learning comes to life when you branch out. You don’t have to spend 20 minutes on every subject, you could spend less but please don’t spend more. Keep the lessons short so that the child both grows interested in the subject matter and remembers what you discussed. You don’t have to use living books for every subject, they are one of the best ways for most people but there are living audiobooks, living documentaries and plenty of experiences that can make a lesson come alive. Talk about everything. Talk about the math. Talk about the book you just read. Talk about the stars in the sky and bugs on the ground. Narration is just a child describing what they know about a thing. Let them narrate. Children are natural narrators if you stop to listen and don’t interrupt. This is your life, it is not just whatever books you read between 9am and 11am, it’s how you spend your time in the world and with each other. Live your life exploring new things at a pace that is right for your family based on your own wiring.
- Go deep. This is not a Mason thing. This is a neurodivergent thing. Mason says to go wide and we naturally go deep, do both. Allow yourself to also go deep. Allow your differently wired child to also go deep. My family has had Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy as rotating science subjects in addition to everything else we do for the past four years because my son has hyper focused on the intersection of all three. He reads a bit from an Organic Chemistry Book and Particle Physics Lego book every night before bed… after reading mythology, literature and whatever comic book he has nearby. You can do both. Your family has needs that must be met, so meet them. If movies are your Childs thing, then make time for movies. If trains are an important part of your Child’s life, incorporate them. If your child loves computers, then by all means add computers into the feast, because this is important to your child. If you start here and question the world, so many new ideas can develop out of these deep dives.
Step 4: Do not meddle with the Childs personality! Most resources stop at the definition of life but I kept in the entire paragraph because this last part is especially important for differently wired families.
- Neurodiverse people are by definition different. We think differently, we see the world differently, we process information differently. Sometimes we need medications and sometimes we need therapies and sometimes we need understanding grace. There are aspects of who we are that will never change and we should not try to change them. Learning to live a life that is full and abundant and rich because of our differences does so much more to help us move through this world successfully than trying to change who we are so that we fit in more easily. Embrace the neurodivergency or wiring in your household. You and your child were made with purpose, you and your child are not an accident, you and your child are exactly who you should be. Embrace it.
- We can only do so much, so know your limitations. When Mason says, “we may not work upon his vanity, his fears, his love, his emulation, or anything that goes to make him a person” this relates to anything that is trying to change the Childs personality. We can offer things up, we can put a child in the way of things, we can listen to things that we want to listen to so that they hear it too, but do not manipulate your child into doing things. This doesn’t bring about learning, it doesn’t help your relationship bloom into a mutually respective one and it doesn’t help the child learn the ideas behind what you are doing. Changing a Childs personality through manipulation to meet your expectations of what a child of a certain age should be like, doesn’t actually change the child. Instead, this just shows a lack of respect towards the personhood of the child and a lack of understanding regarding the child as a whole. There is a difference between behavior and personality. Behavior is a form of communication, as issues are communicated and worked through the behavior will change but the personality will always stay the same.
- Don’t meddle with your personality either. As a neurodivergent adult is it is sometimes easy for me to see all of the wrongness in myself. To loose my own personhood in my own sight as I try to conform to the expectations I believe others have of me. I have in the past tried to coerce myself by playing on my own vanities, fears, loves and emulations. In denying myself the privilege to get to know myself, I was denying my children the chance to get to know their real mother. They dealt with the shell of who I thought I should be. When I respect my own personhood enough to embrace my personality, then quirks or no, highs or lows, intensities or impulsivities or not… my children are able to learn that our humanity is flexible. They get to see me grow as I implement new habits or add new dishes to our feast or stop everything to focus on our home’s atmosphere and through it all they get to know me. Late mornings, junk food, book obsessions, hyper focussing, rabbit trails, silly voices, random adventures and all.
At the heart of a CM education is the relationships you build, the habits you work on and the ideas you feast on. This is where you start. With Life. Living your life.
This is not unschooling, the children don’t learn explicitly through experiences based on their interests, but we don’t discount their interests either. The curriculum we use is so interwoven with our life that it is living in and of itself, because the curriculum is ideas. Ideas that we gather from books and experiences. From living books that suck us in and make us feel at home within the worlds created by the words across the page. Where the ideas are as varied as our own neurodiversity. Where we get to know humanity by studying its history, our history, the languages of others and ourselves. Where we explore how things work and why it does, where we see the beauty of man visually and hear it. Where we learn how the world is ordered and how to make sense of it all. Whether we do this through documentaries that make us feel like we are in the far reaches of the world, or field trips that take us to new places, or museums that show the treasures of the past, or audiobooks that make books come alive for a young developing reader.
There is time to figure out how CM did it. There is time to figure out exactly what will work for you. There is time to figure out all of the different parts. You do not need to implement everything at once. You do not need to perfectly recreate Ambleside in order to give your child the best education. You do not need to read all 6 volumes before you start living a life that begets learning. You just need you. As you are. Willing to explore. Willing to build relationships. Willing to walk alongside your child as they discover the complexity of the world outside your door. All you really need is love, curiosity, discipline, and maybe a library card. So if everything else is overwhelming and there are too many parts, Start Here.