Educational Neglect: What To Do If You Are Concerned About A Homeschooled Child

In the last few months, I’ve had a few messages from concerned grandparents wanting to know about how to handle what they feel is educational neglect of their grandchildren while they are homeschooled. While I don’t see the people they see or know the experiences they have witnessed that would lead to that question, I do admit – my instant reaction isn’t one of concern. It’s usually one of frustration and sadness. Far too often, people who aren’t homeschoolers don’t understand the differences in this method of education and are quick to lay it side-by-side with the plans and expectations of a public school system or compare their own ideas or beliefs behind education to what they see in a homeschooling family.

That being said, I am not ignorant to the fact that abuse can happen in all types of life situations – including homeschooling.  So let’s talk about child abuse, educational neglect, how homeschooling is different, and what to do if you seriously suspect a problem.

Educational Neglect: What To Do If You Have Concerns About A Homeschool Child - Question Mark Bookshelf

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Disclaimer: Please let me remind you I am not a lawyer or a professional counsellor. 

If You Suspect Child Abuse:

In the simplest of definitions, child abuse is the mistreatment of a child by their parent or guardian. This can take the form of physical, emotional, sexual abuse or general neglect.

  • Physical Abuse – when a child’s physical well-being is in danger, such as through being intentionally beaten, physically injured, or put in danger.
  • Emotional Abuse – when a child’s self-esteem or emotional well-being is in danger, such as through verbal abuse, isolation, or rejection.
  • Sexual Abuse – when a child is involved in any sexual activity.
  • Neglect – when a child’s basic needs aren’t being met, such as food, shelter, clothing, medical care, etc.

For signs to watch for in any child, as well as their parents, I highly recommend reading the Symptoms & Signs of Child Abuse list on MayoClinic. At any point, if you are concerned about a child for any of these forms of abuse – whether that child is homeschooled or not – please take the time to report your concerns. (Here’s how to do that.) A child’s safety is the most important thing in this situation.

What is Educational Neglect?

Educational neglect is a little harder to define and explain than the common forms of abuse that we are used to hearing about. Basically, educational neglect is the failure of a parent or guardian to provide a proper education or deliberately interfering in a child’s successful educational development.  For kids who go to school, that could be something such as a record of chronic absences without a valid reason or forcing a child to work instead of going to school. In a homeschooling setting, this could be choosing to un-educate (NOT to be confused with the homeschooling method unschooling!), leaving kids without any skills for academic success. Basically, it’s not giving your child an opportunity for learning at all.

Is Homeschooling Educational Neglect?

In most cases, homeschooling is not neglect. Parents are actively involved in providing their children with a personalized educational experience. They work hard to offer a wide range of learning experiences and curiosity feeding opportunities. Whether that is done by following a traditional school plan, letting a child’s natural interests be their guide, or somewhere in the middle – the key is that children are learning in some way.

From the outside, it can be hard to judge if a child is receiving an education. The only standard that people have to compare to is the public school system, the government curriculum outlines, and their own personal experiences in education. However, since the homeschooling model rarely reflects the experiences of the public system, it’s not really a very good measure of success to compare the two. Homeschooling is highly personalized – and children may or may not be at what is considered grade level for their age. Families often use a variety of tools for learning so expecting to see textbooks or workbooks isn’t a good reference either. Many times, learning revolves around a child’s interests instead of on the curriculum chosen by the government, so again- comparison is a challenge.

Let me be clear, in most situations, homeschooling is NOT the same as public schooling. They are completely different approaches to learning and teaching. Things are going to be different.

  • Just because a child is “behind” in some areas does not necessarily mean that there is educational neglect. There are lots of other possible reasons from learning disabilities to the choice to postpone that skill until a child is older and can master it with confidence.
  • A child who plays outside all day during “school hours” does not necessarily mean that there is educational neglect. Maybe that child is done their work in the morning. Maybe their family does school on the weekend or after school hours. Maybe that child is learning through play, exploration, and observation.

What Homeschooling Educational Neglect Might Look Like

Although for most people who choose to homeschool, it’s not a form of neglect, it doesn’t mean that every situation is the same. Here are some ideas of things and flags that might indicate educational neglect in a homeschooling family:

  • Parents are completely uninvolved in their child’s education. They provide no teaching, guidance, tools, resources, or mentoring to their children.
  • Children are significantly underskilled in core subjects like math and reading, depending on their developmental age and learning abilities, or have shown no progress in developing those basic skills over a period of time. Special needs can make this tricky to define, however, a generally accepted guideline for concern in a neuro-typical children is not being able to read or do basic math by the age of 12.
  • There is no educational philosophy or homeschooling method being used or considered by the parents. (This is hard to tell from outside observation and will require a conversation to learn more.)
  • The children spend their time responsible for an extreme amount of chores, work, or care of other children instead of allowing time for learning and education, or have been left on their own to figure things out.
  • The home doesn’t offer educational value, stimulation, or opportunities. For example:
    • there are no books (or access to books through a library, etc)
    • there are no learning tools, games, toys, or puzzles
    • there are no curriculum or educational programs available
    • there are no conversations answering questions

As with all forms of abuse, it’s important not to jump to conclusions based on one or two things, but instead consider a bigger picture and piecing the puzzle together. For example, a family that practices minimalism will have fewer books and physical resources than other families, so a limited supply of resources doesn’t mean that they are neglectful. A family that unschools may not use official “curriculum” but instead provides opportunities to learn through play, which doesn’t mean they are neglectful. You have to consider all the parts and the best place to start is with a conversation.

How To Help A Homeschooling Family You are Concerned About (What To Do Before Reporting)

If there are no indications of other forms of neglect or abuse in a homeschooling family, but you are concerned about a child’s educational well-being, here are some things to do before you jump to report that family. Reporting a family will cause them to have their lives thrown upside down as they are investigated, and can cause conflict between you and them if they know that you reported them, so it’s important that your concerns are valid before you make that decision.

  • Evaluate Yourself First. Are you making this call based on your own personal expectations of what education should look like or what standards a child should be at? Sometimes, that viewpoint can lead to misunderstanding of homeschooling in general. It also means that it can be hard to accept when things are done differently than what you feel it should be. Before reporting a family, take a minute to see if you are just using your own feelings and thoughts about what education should be or if you are genuinely concerned for the child.
  • Observe. Take time to watch this family and their interactions. Are the parents offering opportunities for learning or do they ignore their children? Are they inviting conversations, having lessons, inspiring learning or are they emotionally detached from their child’s curiosity? Are the children struggling to learn? Are the children always busy working or taking care of other kids? Are there any learning tools or toys in the home? Have you seen any progress in the child’s skills over a period of time? Is the child naturally curious about things or do they seem to just not care anymore?
  • Find Out The Regulations For The Province / Territory. Homeschooling is legal in each province and territory of Canada, but each also has their own set of rules and regulations about it. Find out what those rules and regulations are before you start anything. Assuming negligence and then discovering that you were wrong would be frustrating and damaging to your relationship. Take some time to look over information about the province’s requirements so you are familiar with homeschooling. {Find Resources Here.}
  • Contact Your Provincial / Territorial Homeschooling Association for More Information and Insight. Sometimes sharing your concerns in detail with someone who is knowledgeable in this area might be able to alleviate some of your worries. They might be able to explain more about what you see from a homeschooling perspective or offer advice on how you can help or what you can do if your concerns seem valid. {Check Your Province Information here.}
  • Ask Questions And Have a Conversation. Be curious about homeschooling and what they are doing. Be sincere in your conversation and be willing to accept that homeschooling is completely different than public school. Avoid adding in your opinions on things and do lots of listening. Of course, some of this conversation will depend on how close you are to this family. Grandparents can observe and communicate more personally than the family from across the street, for example. In general, homeschooling parents are more than willing to open up and share their experience with people who show genuine curiosity and a willingness to be open. If they expect a battle or severe opposition, they will probably be on the defensive and refuse to share anything.
    • Some ideas of questions to ask parents:
      • what homeschool method do you use?
      • what curriculum do you use or found the most helpful?
      • why did you start homeschooling in the first place?
      • are you struggling with anything right now?
      • how can I help?
    • Things you can ask a child: – Do NOT throw a child a pop quiz to evaluate their skills! This is not a good judge of educational success in a homeschooling family! 
      • what do you like learning about the best? tell me more about it!
      • what is your favourite book?

If you are concerned because a child seems behind in areas like math or reading, talk to the parent and find out why. Again, use genuine concern and have an open conversation about it. Ask if the child struggles with any learning disabilities and what things are working or aren’t in their homeschool. Sometimes there are behaviour struggles in place and a child just isn’t willing to go along with the learning plan or has to go more slowly than expected.

  • Consider the Bigger Picture.
    • Are there other things at play here? A family dealing with a major life issue may put learning on hold for a while as they handle the challenges that causes – illness or death of a family member, the birth of a new baby, adoption, a divorce, etc. All of these have a major impact on day-to-day life and can temporarily interfere with education. This can set a family “behind” their plans and their kids behind what others might expect.
    • Does this child have learning disabilities or special needs? Often these will cause a child to be under the expected skill level for their age group. Many parents who homeschool their child with unique learning needs will actively seek support, resources, programs, therapies, doctors, and curriculum that will best work for their child, and will adapt their expectations for learning to be at their child’s level.
  • Offer Help. If you are in a place that you can offer support either in the form of coming alongside a homeschooling family as another teacher / facilitator, or by offering more resources and support – that can be a big help to a struggling family. If you can offer to take a child one-on-one to work on skills that you see a child is weak in, that might be helpful too (if the family is open to it without feeling pressured or judged). Offer to provide some fun extra learning opportunities – like field trips or hands-on learning opportunities like baking together. Sometimes, the reason that education is failing in a homeschooling family is that the parents just need support, are overwhelmed, or are dealing with a burn-out. Homeschooling is intense! It’s a 24/7 job to parent and homeschool and a helping hand can seriously turn things around.

What To Do If You Are Genuinely Concerned

So what if you still have concerns after trying all the above? If you are genuinely concerned and have reasonable grounds to suspect educational neglect, then yes – reporting is important. No child deserves to be in a situation that is detrimental to their life.

As with all forms of child abuse, you should contact the local Children’s Protection Agency.  Here is a list of provincial and territorial assistance phone numbers. They might have a suggestion for where else you should be reporting if they aren’t the best choice.

Final Thoughts:

  • Child Abuse in any form is completely unacceptable and needs to be reported.
  • Homeschooling is not educational neglect or abuse.
  • Abuse and educational neglect CAN happen in a homeschooling family.
  • Don’t assume it’s educational neglect just based on a child’s skill level or your own ideas of what education should be like – consider the big picture first.
  • Observation, Conversation, and Understanding are the keys to learning more about homeschooling, that family, their learning journey, and if there are concerns.
  • If you are still concerned, please do what is in the best interest of the child and report your concerns.

4 Comment(s)

  • by Jana Posted November 5, 2018 9:51 am

    After tragicially losing her mother through suicide, he father decided homeschooling was best after bullying incidents at reg school
    After no shown interest or questions maternal grandparent reported to CAS and the blame, shame and games have never stopped. The child has suffered untold stress and anxiety

    • by Michelle Posted November 7, 2018 8:05 am

      Kinda makes you wonder if the mother’s suicide was an outcome of the abuse from her own parents…

  • by Annette V Posted November 5, 2018 10:35 pm

    good article that will hopefully help people stop and think before taking negative action

  • by Michelle Posted November 7, 2018 8:07 am

    You did an amazing job tackling this delicate issue!!!
    Bravo!

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