Unschoolers, homeschoolers and worldschoolers, your teen has freely chosen to enroll in traditional high school? This might be why.

Unschoolers, homeschoolers and worldschoolers, your teen has freely chosen to enroll in traditional high school? This might be why.
August 21, 2015 Lainie Liberti

Developmental Stages: The teen brain, unschooling, worldschooling, attrition to high school and much more.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post about our journey into learning, growing up, travel and the teen experience. But I felt inspired.

This post may appear to be a mish-mash of thoughts, but hopefully by the time you reach the end, you will see how they weave together and offer some value to you in your life, especially if you are the parent of a teen.

At least I can hope.

I sat down to write this article: “Why do some unschoolers, homeschoolers or world schoolers trade in their freedom lifestyle and independence for a traditional high school experience?” But soon realized this post was really about the teens and their developmental stages and how those changes inform their decisions. Understanding those changes may answer the question, “why do some unschoolers, homeschoolers or world schoolers trade in their freedom lifestyle and independence for a traditional high school experience?”

Attrition to high school.

I get it.

Right now, I am flooded with posts across my timeline including many on the subject of “back to school”. As an unschooling mom active within the unschooling community, I have also read several posts from parents who are in disbelief that their teen has chosen a more conventional path.

As parents, (especially those that follow the unschooling philosophy) we stand in support of our children allowing them to guide their own path (and even allow them to make their own mistakes). We empower our children to direct their own learning and trust they are learning exactly what they need to learn. As an unschooling parent, if our child chooses high school as their path, we stand in support this decision too. But aren’t we thinking, “How could a child who has been given complete freedom about their life, decide to go into a system that takes away their freedom?”

I am grateful Miro has never expressed the desire to go back to a traditional school setting. I think one reason is his love for travel being that our world schooling experiences are rich and immersive. From the academic perspective Miro feels satisfied directing his own learning experiences and does not feel he is lacking in that area either. From a social perspective, since we started Project World School, he’s had those needs met too. But you know what?

I really do get it.

I understand why many teens who were either once unschoolers, homeschoolers or even world schoolers would freely choose to the path of a traditional high school school during their teen years. Just as peer pressure is an important element that may have some influence in a teen’s life, so can be society’s ideals. Society says one “must get a good education to make something of them self”.  A teen may not fully believe that message but during this stage of their development, they may not necessarily believe in themselves either.


With the onset of adolescence, there are many developmental changes taking place. I am inspired to share some of the research I’ve come across over the years as I’ve committed to expanding my understanding of this stage of life. This is very important to me, as I’ve been working with teens for the last three years and as you know I’m the parent to a wonderful sixteen year old who is empowered to make his own choices.

There is no denying, teenagers develop new preferences as a way to meet their the physical, intellectual, emotional and social needs. I’ve read numerous articles and books on the subject, but in no way can claim any expertise. From working with numerous teens over the last three years, I recognize that during these three stages of adolescence, the brain is making new connections defining how they relate to the world.

Equally, researchers believe that these new connections are happening at the most alarming rate, defining new neural pathways unlike any other time in a human’s development. Adolescence is the time of development that humans form one’s own identity and begin to prepare for adulthood.

Because of these changes, I can understand why some teens may choose a more conventional path. But I wanted to share with you some of the amazing insights I’ve come to understand through my journey of becoming more understanding an empathetic to the teen experience.

Physical Development

This aspect of adolescence is the most obvious. We all know puberty is defined as the process of physical changes through which a child’s body matures into an adult body capable of sexual reproduction. Puberty is initiated by hormonal signals from the brain, within girls to the ovaries, within boys, to the testes. And the teen starts to develop a new sense of sexuality.

Let’s face it, we all knew that. But let’s look deeper into the teen’s other changes:

Referenced from an article about adolescence on the HeathyChildren.org site: 

Intellectual Development

As teens enter into early adolescence it’s common for them to perceive the world around them in concrete terms, either right or wrong, awesome or horrendous, in or out. Younger teens generally experience the world in the moment with out much sense of long-term consequences to their actions.

Later in adolescence, many teens develop the ability to appreciate subtleties of situations and practice the refinement of complex thinking and gain a better handle on projecting consequences into the future. But because teens are still relatively inexperienced in life situations many teens can still act impulsively without thinking thinking about future consequences.

Emotional Development

Emotional development can be seen as the single greatest challenge during all three stages of adolescence. Self awareness around emotions begins to occur, but sometimes teens have a difficult time reconciling their emotions with their life situations. This is a time when teens begin to identify and name their own emotions and many feel they are on shaking grounds doing so. From the emotional perspective, teens become more socially aware. One of those aspects can be recognizing emotions and feelings in those around them, and when encouraged, teens can develop a deep sense of empathy for others (thus expanding worldviews ). Many may not trust the support system around them as their emotional development demands a different communication of support then they needed before adolescence set in.

Part of the emotional development includes the adolescence’s sense of self. It’s a time when teens begin to explore and assert their personal identities (and how those identities fit into the world). From time to time, it is common for teens to experience an unstable sense of self and try out new labels or identities and associate with variety of peer groups, movements, trends during their exploration.

Identity is made up of two components:

Self-concept – the set of beliefs about oneself, including attributes, roles, goals, interests, values and religious or political beliefs
Self-esteem – how one feels about one’s self-concept

This is no easy task. I am grateful for my own personal struggles during my own adolescence which give a greater sense of empathy through those going through it now.

Looking for ways to support your teen’s social and emotional developments? This article offers some great suggestions:

In addition to the challenge of developing one’s own identity, teens are establishing their own sense of autonomy. For unschooling, homeschooling or world schooling teens, this may be one of the reasons teens might seek out public school. Remember, we are conditioned to think of teens as rebellious, but in actuality, it’s an expression of autonomy. I grew up watching the TV show Growing Pains and I remember the wonderful liberal parents somehow birthed the staunch conservative, Alex P. Keaton . Was it an act of teen rebellion? No, it was an act of identity and autonomy.

Intimacy and sexuality are two of the driving developmental stages as well. Perhaps for a home-educated teen, it may seem like traditional high school may have more to offer in these areas. I am not saying it is a fact, but it may be one of the ideas surrounding the decision to leave their current life style for the dream of another.

Finally, along the lines of the adolescence experience, accomplishment is a big part of their emotional development. High school provides an external structure in which one can measure their “learning” or “accomplishments” no matter how manufactured they may be. It may or may not be a part of your teen’s decision making process, but it’s certainly something to consider.

If you wish to explore these ideas deeper, here’s a great article exploring these issues with some support suggestions.

It’s easy to see how an unschooling, homeschooling or worldschooling teen would see traditional high school as an option or a forum to explore those themes. We must be supportive understanding parents.

Social Development

One of the greatest social changes for adolescents is the new importance of their peers. If you have been following this blog for a while, you know we’ve written about Miro’s changing social needs, thus the birth of Project World School. Like the emotional need for autonomy and developing an identity outside of the family, teens start to identify with their peers and have a greater need for this sort of interaction.

This is where we can provide the biggest support as an unschooling, homeschooling or worldschooling parent. We can balance these needs by redefining the definition of “peer” to not be solely based on age groups or learning styles (homeschoolers vs. high schoolers) or gender or any other arbitrary division. Rather defining the idea of a “peer” as someone who has a similar interest, say perhaps in organic farming, creative writing, science, sports, etc. That could satisfy the social needs of the teen, who otherwise may be considering going to school.

One researcher I’ve come to resonate with is Dr. Dan Siegel (no relation to me or Miro). He wrote an incredible insightful book called Mindsight, in which he talks about our human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others. Although his research is not focused specifically on teens, I can see the value of his work has when trying to understand the teen mind.

“Mindsight is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, integrate the brain, and enhance our relationships with others. Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us get ourselves off of the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses. It lets us “name and tame” the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them.”

My only advice to you if you are an unschooling, homeschooling or worldschooling parent whose teen has decided to enroll into a traditional high school, be understanding and supportive. It’s not easy being a teen.


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