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Thursday, November 3, 2022

Why Microschools Can Be an Ideal Learning Environment for Neurodiverse Kids

More personalized learning models may be especially valuable for students with learning challenges or special needs.

Molly and Noah Stephenson. Photo: Kerry McDonald

A common criticism regarding microschools, learning pods, unschooling approaches and other non-traditional educational models is that they don’t work well for, or exclude, neurodiverse learners, including those on the autism spectrum or those who have dyslexia, ADHD or other special learning needs.

The reality is that these more personalized learning models can work well for most students, and may be especially valuable for students with learning challenges or special needs.

This has certainly been the experience of Molly and Noah Stephenson of Wichita, Kansas. As parents of neurodiverse children who didn’t fit well into conventional schooling, including school-at-home versions of homeschooling, they discovered early on that providing maximum freedom and autonomy for children often leads to the deepest, happiest and most enduring learning.

Their older daughter, who is now 21, still carries with her the painful memory of a kindergarten year in public school that her mother refers to as a “fantastic disaster.” 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 be successful. She felt that she wasn’t smart. It was unacceptable to us to have kids that, just because their brains were different, felt like they were not intelligent. We didn’t want to see the love of learning taken away from our kids.”

The Stephensons withdrew their daughter from school and began homeschooling her and her younger siblings through a virtual school, using a set curriculum and standard performance expectations. That went a bit better, but they soon realized that their son was also profoundly dyslexic and a rigid curriculum didn’t work for him. “He’d run and hide,” said Molly of her son’s aversion to schoolwork.

Frustrated and at a loss for what to do next, Molly and Noah were planning to send their children back to public school after a year of homeschooling. Then, something happened.

During the summertime before their children were due to return to school, the Stephensons unenrolled from the virtual school, put away all of their curriculum and related homeschooling materials and just focused on enjoying their time together as a family. “Our kids started learning organically,” recalled Molly. At a garage sale, her son, who wasn’t yet able to read Dr. Seuss books proficiently, picked up a middle-grade biography about the musician Johnny Cash, and over several days worked through reading it with full understanding. Molly asked her son why he was able to read that book but not do all of the reading exercises she had given him. “I remember distinctly that he said ‘everything you gave me to read was stupid.’ He just needed interests, and so we discovered unschooling through that process,” she said.

As the Stephensons embraced unschooling, or self-directed education that is centered around a child’s individual interests and goals, they connected with other local homeschoolers who shared this educational philosophy. Over the subsequent years, as they realized that all of their five children are neurodiverse, this non-coercive learning approach became a crucial way to support their children’s education.

Experiencing the benefit of small-scale, personalized learning first-hand with their own children, the Stephensons eventually wanted to support more children in their community with a similar educational model. Last year, they founded Wildflower Community School, a microschool in Wichita, Kansas that is part of the national Prenda microschool network. A public-private partnership with Kansas public schools allows local students to attend the Stephenson’s Prenda microschool tuition-free, although that doesn’t fully cover their overall microschool costs. They rely on charitable donations to make ends meet.

The couple currently has 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, welcoming, mini-farm microschool space that Molly, Noah and their two other educators have created, these students flourish. They are granted freedom and respect, are allowed to master academic content at their own pace and have the time to work through emotional and interpersonal challenges.

As the Stephensons discovered just how many of their students have special educational needs, they began working to make their environment and the Prenda framework as neurodiverse-friendly as possible. “We spend a lot of time working on executive functioning skills, fine motor skills, research skills, multiple intelligences and really trying to frame for our students that no matter what kind of way your brain works, that’s fantastic. Let’s unlock the secret to how to make it work for you in a way that you feel good about,” said Molly.

“We also felt we had to do a lot of unschooling and deprogramming with some of the kids who had been unsuccessful in a public school setting previously,” she added.

The Stephenson’s microschool is just one of a wide assortment of microschools, learning pods, homeschooling collaboratives and similar educational models that have sprouted in the greater Wichita area, as well as across the U.S. Within just a few miles of Wildflower Community School, there is an outdoor preschool program that recently expanded its offerings to school-age children; a secular homeschooling collaborative that meets twice a week in a local community center; a faith-based hybrid homeschool program; and two, low-cost private schools that are both bulging at the seams with local demand. One of those schools is secular while the other is faith-based and both emphasize personalized, customized learning for students.

Also in Wichita is the Izora Elaine Dean Education Center, a microschool run by a former public school teacher that began 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 worked with parents to help them withdraw their children from school for homeschooling, granting parents more freedom and flexibility over how their children learn. “We’ve been rocking and rolling ever since,” she added.

McEwen, along with the Stephensons, is a member of a local community group known as WISE, or Wichita Innovative Schools and Educators, that was launched last spring by some of the area’s microschool founders and education entrepreneurs to offer support and knowledge-sharing. Many of these innovative educators are recipients of microgrants from the VELA Education Fund, a philanthropic non-profit organization that supports the growth of non-traditional education options and schooling alternatives across the country. The VELA connection helped these Wichita entrepreneurs to find each other and begin to collaborate.

“Our ultimate goal with each other is to support the growth of our individual schools, but also to create more alternatives, because our district that we’re in is not successful,” said Molly Stephenson. “Parents are looking for something different, and that something is probably not going to be one of the large private schools in the area. We have some really great large private schools. They wouldn’t have been a good fit for our kiddos, and they wouldn’t have been a good fit for a lot of the kiddos that the other education entrepreneurs around here serve.”

These smaller-scale, diverse educational options are becoming more abundant and accessible in communities across the U.S., giving more families the opportunity to choose a learning environment that is the best fit for their individual child’s learning needs and preferences. 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,” said Molly. Jessica Tran agrees. She is the parent of four children who attend Wildflower, three of whom are diagnosed autistic and one who is currently being assessed. “The kids at Wildflower are not expected to be robots or produce anything other than their best whether that means at, above or below grade level. Additionally, the kids are allowed to explore the things that make their hearts happy,” said Tran.

She continued: “As an educator myself, I wish all schools would be more like this and allow more kids to have success in the classroom. Of course some kids do exceptionally well in traditional settings. However, there are at least hundreds of kids in our own district who are drowning and desperate for a place such as this.”

Microschools 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.

Listen to Kerry’s recent podcast conversation with the Stephensons to hear more about their microschool: 

This Forbes article was republished with permission.