No questions asked: kids need structure

If you have a kid that functions better at school than they do at home, this is the phrase that will make you believe not only that you CAN’T homeschool, but that you SHOULDN’T–for your child’s sake (and maybe yours).   I hear this a lot… about how “kids need structure”.  I don’t disagree with the concept although I may have a different perspective on how that manifests in real life.  My son and I do NOT function without structure.  Seriously.  Train wreck.

Structure:  “something arranged in a definite pattern of organization” (thank you, Merriam-Webster online).  So how do you create this when you homeschool?

In this post, I’m going to sometimes refer to “people” and sometimes to “children” but the reality is that they’re pretty interchangeable on this topic.  I say this with 28 years of therapy, more than the average parent’s level of research on social-emotional development, having participated in the raising a broad range of children (by way of foster care) and observing not only their parents and transformations–but having lots of good observations of the lives around me.  Still, I’m not a professional so take from this what you will.  ❤

Every child is going to respond to their families and environment differently and unfortunately, you may not know about a disconnect between what that environment offers and what the child receives until the damage is done.  There is absolutely no question that children do better when they have a set of things that they can rely on–that are predictable for them.  Actually, most humans feel better this way.  There is a significant comfort in the “known”–even if the “known” is not particularly healthy.  As humans, we gravitate to this because it makes us feel safe to be able to know what will happen.  It’s a major component of how people get involved in unhealthy relationships or behaviors: it’s a system they can predict.

When a person (or little person/child) cannot predict what will happen next, it breeds an underlying anxiety.  Depending on the person or child, this can be insignificant to very significant; and if it’s significant, it can manifest in lots of difficult behaviors.  Sometimes adults cannot even recognize that their symptoms are borne of underlying anxiety that may have started somewhere in childhood and just never resolved.  Kids can’t always articulate their feelings (hell, we adults can barely do it sometimes)–so even if they had the forum, they may not have the ability to get the root cause resolved.

Schools are certainly a model of predictability.  Same building, same teacher, same kids, same schedule each week, same rules, things are all in the same place all of the time…  But does that mean a child needs THAT much predictability to function?  If you have a child that functions great in school but not at home, that doesn’t mean they need school to function well.  It means you need to find out what the problem is at home.  That could really be anything.  Poor behavior is a cry for attention to a bigger issue.  Whether that issue is a physical problem (I see this in my practice often) or an emotional or relationship problem or even an environmental problem… that is your job to figure out because you’re the parent.

Because really, if the problem exists at home then school isn’t actually helping your child learn to be or behave differently–it’s just giving you a break from dealing with it all day if they were at home.

And seriously–if your child is functioning great in the school environment and not at home, then what kind of job WILL they be able to do in life?  If they need things to be THAT uniform and rules to be THAT rigid–what kind of work ARE you preparing them for?  The post office and manufacturing line work immediately come to mind.  Suddenly all that talk about how schools funnel the lower classes into functioning better in the prison system doesn’t sound so ridiculous when you think about it.  (feel free to research how children at lower socio-economic statuses are delivered different education for more on this topic)

Personally, I am Queen Inconsistency.  No joke.  I function way better with a job and deadlines and what-not.  At least that’s what I said because that was my experience.  When I look at the bigger picture, there was a lot of stress attached to having a job at a company and deadlines, etc.  Although I excelled in my work externally, I didn’t handle any of it well internally.  So from the outside, it would look like I did best in a corporate job.  But now, as I’m at home with my children, I’m doing worlds better on the inside even if I’m not as productive-by-cultural-norms externally.  Unfortunately the culture I live in doesn’t see raising children as “productive” the way they saw my former 6-figure income (despite the fact that they had zero involvement with what I “produced” when I made that income… hmmm).

But let’s talk about structure.  I really prefer to drop that term because my kids have a structure: their skeleton.  What I provide for them is a solid foundation and a set of predictable things in their life that builds a sense of security.  Predictability provides a sense of security.  In my house, which is ruled by someone that doesn’t love adhering to rigidity, that looks like this:

  •  A set of routines around getting up in the morning and meals.   There’s no “set time” for these things, but there is a set of protocols that we follow when those things happen.  Whether my kids wake up at 6:30am or 8am, they will go through the same set of routines each morning.  Whatever time we eat our meals, there is a set of routines that will be executed with each (if we are eating at home–which is a lot of the time).  My kids know that “this is how it is” for those things and those things happen daily for them.
  • A set of traditions around different events.  They know that the day after Thanksgiving, our take on the Advent calendar comes out and that each day until Christmas they will do the same set of activities to honor the season.  They know we won’t get the tree until Dec. 21st.  They know the birthday person gets to choose dinner (even if it means going out to eat) on their birthday.  They know we go to visit our friends in Minnesota every year at Labor Day weekend and that involves going to an amusement park for an afternoon.
  • My son is now doing a formal, for-credit online math course.  He knows that if he does an assignment without writing out the work–I’m not going to care that he got 95%.  I’m going to make him write out the work.  He’s currently adjusting to this.  It’s not fun.  But new rules in school aren’t always easy or fun, either.  When you guys leveled up to that teacher that wanted things “just so” even though every prior teacher didn’t require it–that sucked.  It can suck at home, too.  Honestly, I wouldn’t be this way if it weren’t actually required for my particular kid (and it might not be necessary for both of mine).  But when he submits an assignment and gets a 70% BOTH times he submits it and then I make him write it all out and he submits it and gets 100%, I think the case is clear.  As a result, he doesn’t usually complain.  And he can take that rule to the bank.
  • We have some strong social rules in our home that our kids know will never change. They know that certain foods cannot happen because of specific health problems.  They know that if they ask one parent and get an answer they don’t like, asking the other parent will result in them being reprimanded.  They know that if they come and tattle on the other, I’m going to send them back to try to deal with their sibling first.  They know that neither of their parents will force them into a situation where they are truly afraid.  Ever.
  • One that we are working on rebuilding after 5 years and 7 moves with many things in boxes during a lot of that time is their physical environment and cleanliness.  :/  But for me, as a child that moved every year until I was 12, my grandmother’s house was the place where I knew where to find things–always in the same place all of my life.  The iron, the canned goods, the pencil sharpener… I didn’t have to ask or hunt. They were always in the same place.  This is the final frontier for my kids now that we’re in a final place.

When you stop to think about what people really mean when they say “kids need structure”–when you pick it apart and analyze it–you start to see opportunities to recreate it at home.  It’s much like when people talk about how kids need to go to school for the “socialization”.  When you sit down and really look at what that means, you start to see how school may not be the requirement (and feel free to read up on my short version of that).

You don’t need to have a rigid lifestyle to provide your kids with “structure”.  You need to provide a level of predictability to help them feel secure.  That might differ with the child; but if your child needs a LOT of structure to function well, being in the schools will never be the answer to transitioning them to living under less rigid circumstances like you can work on through homeschooling.  Consider the longer-term scenario.

And if you have a “structure” challenge, feel free to post it here to get some input!


10 thoughts on “No questions asked: kids need structure

  1. This is well written and important.

    I have kids with varying needs for the amount and intensity of structure necessary for them to function at ‘productive’ and ‘healthy’ levels. My oldest, very special needs child (nearly adult) would thrive in 24 hour structure! He does well in a highly structured school program and I expect him to need this level of support throughout his life.

    My next oldest, through trial and many errors, has established that he feels better and is highly productive with a good amount of laid plans and expectations. He is learning to create to do lists/daily plans/long term goals and keeps a busy schedule full of things he likes – including academics.

    I thrive on routines and ritual and my home is highly organized. I would consider our home to be strongly structured (sorry for the overuse of the word – it is the theme here, right?) and despite all this, we recently made the decision to send my third child school! After many months of deliberating, watching him closely, making lots of changes, we still suspected that he needed a routine that our household could not supply. We KNOW that the public school is no optimal, but we are using it as a ‘tool’ right now. We are using it as part of our ‘assessment’ process of what might serve him in the coming years.

    I agree with you that if we cannot build in more flexibility and a new skill sets, he would be groomed for a very narrow range of lifestyles and job opportunities or worse. It is where we are today and I hope to write about it myself as it unfolds.

    It is such a fascinating process to walk this road with each child in our home.

    I am so glad that you brought this up. I don’t know how many people consider this as the cause of some of problems they may have at home. I recognize that not all kids require the same intensity, but your examples are an great starting point.


    1. Thanks, mama!! I think your approach to using school to fill an interim gap with the understanding that there’s another skill set that needs to be developed is exactly what is needed. We need to NOT be on autopilot. We need to deeply consider the choices we’re making–and more importantly, the alternatives. We need to think about the hard realities rather than cover them up with excuses that allow us to be comfortable where we are. In the end, the decisions might not change–but the motivations and understandings will. ❤


  2. I’m struggling with this myself, trying to make the decision regarding whether to put my eldest in public kindergarten or move him home, when he ages out of his integrated preschool program at the end of the summer. Diagnosed on the autism spectrum, he is one who thrives in situations of extreme structure. His rigidity and anxiety are the two biggest challenges he faces right now, and they are juxtaposed, in a way. We can provide him with the reliability of a quiet setting at home, which would lessen the sensory triggers to his anxiety, but we struggle to accomodate his rigidity about things having to be done exactly a certain way, in a certain order, all the time. On the flipside, a classroom setting would provide him with the predictability that his rigidity craves, but would also provide an increased amount of chaotic sensory input which spikes his anxiety immensely (which we have seen the fallout of on particularly busy days at his preschool, even though he only attends that for two and a half hours, versus the full day he would experience in kindergarten).

    I, ahem, get more done, when I abide by a structure to my day, but left to my own devices, I like a fairly free-flowing day. I feel less stressed. It’s the polar opposite of my son. So I need to figure out if we can both accomodate one another and thrive, versus just surviving. Similar to the previous commenter, I view the district as a tool. My husband was homeschooled all of his life; I was homeschooled for my final two years after attending a tiny private school prior to that. We always assumed we would homeschool. And then our son and his craving for predictability and rigidity happened. O.o I think my biggest challenge is questioning whether utilizing the district as a tool at this point would do too much to squelch his zeal for learning, even if we only used it while trying to work on his flexibility and then pulled him. Or would he become too “set in his ways” and we’d be doing more harm than good by not pushing him to accept the flexibility of a home setting.

    The irony here is that I say I do better with a more free-flowing day, but that’s relative. I am very much an introvert and have never been particularly bent toward extroverted spontanaeity. So even our “free-flowing” days are actually not that chaotic. It’s more the freedom to spend the time invested in something without HAVING to move on to the next thing or HAVING to do it in a specific order. If that makes sense. If our relatively quiet and predictable home setting is too chaotic for him… How can we adapt that without completely stifling the other four members of the family?

    Sorry, I’m thinking out loud here. And I should probably stop assuming that whatever educational decision I make for the autumn is going to ruin the rest of his life if I make the “wrong” choice. O.o


    1. Think away! But I think you nailed it at the end: no educational choice is a life sentence. I brought my spectrum guy home and wanted zero part of it (there’s an entry on this blog about back-to-school pictures where I relay the torture of even the thought because of his behavior).

      I will say that I’m glad that I did it. That first year wasn’t easy but wow–did things change. Like you, I function better with structure although it gives me a bit of anxiety and therefore I don’t love it.

      I can tell you without question that my son has far exceeded what any of us thought he was capable of. We still have our challenges, but he could have been mainstreamed after two years of being at home and I don’t think anyone ever imagined such a thing. I don’t think that would have happened if he’d been in a classroom; and my poor guy’s curiosity and creativity would have been squashed by being forced to learn how to follow directions.

      There is a relatively big physiological and developmental milestone that happens in the ballpark of age 7. As a result, there are things they can’t test or diagnose until kids are 8. So if you take the leap–keep that in mind… that there is a leap that will happen and things will be different afterward.

      Hugs to you, mama. It’s a stressful decision before you make it!


  3. I have loved reading your articles. I began with the deschooling article and followed links to here.

    My son 14, though has no diagnosis yet, has gone to school for the socialization. We have moved to a community that does not have a lot of homeschoolers his age and this was horrible for him. He thrives on friends, however he does struggle with socialization a bit-‘bubbles’, justice, people not working together- and he gets extremely frustrated.

    School, though filled with socializing, looms like a big dark cloud in front of him each day. He doesn’t want to learn, he struggles with the work and sitting down, workbooks, the lack of respect from teachers and how they demand respect from the students. His marks are not good and he is disruptive in class – which gets him out of class and the work.

    I feel so stuck. But reading your articles have left me feeling a bit hopeful. I like the idea of deschooling and totally get how beneficial it is. The structure that you write about totally resonates.

    This is my question: when asked by a therapist about homeschooling he said he didn’t want to because it was the same thing-workbooks and not enough social. What would it look like if we didn’t do workbook type learning? But had him in lots of activities for the social. ‘Structured’ his days so he would know what to expect with things to look forward to…would this work?

    All I see right now is him struggling and failing. He is unhappy at school which is most of his day. This does not translate to a wonderful future.I just feel that I am at my wits end I need any help anybody can give me.


    1. Well, deschooling would be a must. My oldest is a social ANIMAL (there’s a post on how insane it is somewhere in here) but that also provokes problems in school where it needs to be work time often.

      After deschooling and setting up structure, feel free to offer up some fun things with zero pressure. If he fights it, don’t despair. Instead, find ways to connect. It may mean learning about something you detest and really embracing it because it’s important to him. But do that. Get into his head and REALLY make that connection. With that in place, the conversations become different and the trajectory changes. It’s big.

      And you don’t need other homeschoolers for socialization. But you do need to get out and about. Think about what socialization really IS and then think about where that is best learned.

      Hugs to you, mama!


  4. I am so so grateful to have found your blog. You sound so much like myself (in regards to structure, or lack thereof). We are just starting te homeschooling process and we have hit a huge wall. Your deschooling post has saved me/us. Thank you!! I am excited to read more.


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