Classroom Culture Shock!

by Sharon Haag1

Much of this material was taken from a parent workshop done in Cameroon by Ko Spyksma, a middle-school teacher.

Culture shock well describes what many home-schooled children experience when they enter a classroom setting! If a traditional school placement is in the near future for your children, some “cross-cultural” preparation could make that transition go more smoothly.

A group of seventh and eighth graders who were adjusting to a classroom after being home schooled most of their elementary years gave the following responses when asked what they liked the most about home schooling:

  • can sleep in
  • finished by lunch time
  • personal freedom/flexibility
  • can have special rewards, like days “off,” for hard work
  • one-on-one instruction
  • can “do my own thing” (in a good way)
  • don’t have to listen to lecturing for hours

Their parents would probably agree in appreciating the flexibility of scheduling and the opportunity to design the learning situation according to individual and family needs, interests, and values. They might also list the advantages of being more intimately involved in every area of their children’s lives, of having more time to build family relationships, and of being able to exercise more control over the influences affecting their children’s development.

But, there comes “a season” for most families when a school setting can offer important growth opportunities to their children, particularly in the area of finding the place God has for them beyond the family. The same students mentioned above listed the following as what they liked most about the school setting:

  • people, people, and more people!!
  • social activities with friends
  • doing more “neat projects”
  • hearing others’ points of view as they worked together
  • sports and other extra-curricular activities

In order to gain the advantages of the group setting, however, some of the things students like best about home schooling have to be given up. A school setting comes with more formality in structures, processes, and interactions. If students can be prepared for those, they may not come as such a shock. It can help considerably if students come expecting that they will need to behave differently in a classroom than when they were taught at home, and that this can be good preparation for their future.

More Formal Setting

Students need to understand that schools have to operate with more structure (and, therefore, less individual freedom) so that they can manage larger groups and meet goals within a limited time frame. Students coming in from home schooling often struggle with finishing work within a prescribed class period, setting it aside and completing it later, and knowing how to use their time appropriately if they finish “early.” They can struggle with setting up an organizational system that is portable, so that they are prepared with whatever materials they need both at home and at school in each class to which they go. Some don’t know what to do if they get “stuck” on an assignment and the teacher is not immediately available to answer their questions. Others have never had to keep track of their own assignments, taken formal “tests,” or learned how to study from textbooks. Many may not have paid much attention to neatness in written work, given a home-school focus on content and understanding, and/or they may have been used to expressing understanding orally more often than in written form.

Responding to a New Boss

Students who have had mainly their parents as teachers can have difficulty adapting to the authority of other teachers who have different values, priorities, and ways of doing things. A big maturation task is to learn to respond respectfully when one does not understand the reasoning for doing things a new way, or if he truly believes the way he prefers/knows is better. An individual needs to learn when and how to express concerns to a new boss appropriately.

The style and freedom with which students express their opinions at home may not be acceptable or appropriate in the school setting. It would be good to encourage young people not to judge quickly—to learn how to question respectfully and appropriately, and to listen well so they understand fully the teacher’s perspective. If students still disagree once they have gotten all the facts, they need to evaluate whether the issue is truly one worth debating. If it is, they should know how to respectfully and appropriately request an alternative, communicating with the teacher outside of class.

Working With Peers

Having a group of peers is the change home-schooled students appreciate the most, but learning in a group may be the most difficult adjustment they must make. Because peers will have different learning styles, different learning needs, and different rates of learning, a previously home-schooled student must learn many new skills in order to be a positive contributor and successful learner in a group.

A basic attitude of honoring others in the way God made them seems to be key. Honoring one another means giving up personal preferences for another’s good; it means listening well and responding with encouragement in group discussions, not just giving personal opinions; it means being patient when things don’t move as quickly as one might like; it means not being proud nor being downcast because God did not create one with the same gifts as his or her classmate.

Questions to Ask – Clues for Cultural Training?

The following questions can give clues to areas which might need focus for your child. How might you add some “formality” to your home schooling the remainder of this year in order to build adaptation skills in these areas?

  • How does my child respond to me and/or my spouse when he disagrees?
  • How does my child respond to brothers and sisters when he disagrees or prefers a different choice? Does he say “no” appropriately?
  • How well does my child listen to others and stay on track with a topic?
  • Does my child express himself effectively in a group?
  • Does my child perform both leadership and “followership” roles gracefully?
  • Is my child expected to independently keep his work tools, space, and materials organized for quick and easy access at the appropriate times?
  • Does he keep track of duties/assignments and meet deadlines for completing tasks without external prodding? Can he put something aside before he is finished and complete it later?
  • Does my child have a solid foundation in basic reading, writing, and math skills? Can he express himself clearly and effectively? Does he know his math facts so he can work quickly and efficiently?
  • Have I recently evaluated how he will fit in academically with age peers in the school setting? (Have I used some kind of standardized measure, and do I know what the standards are in the school he will be entering?)
  • Is most of my child’s work neatly and accurately done? Does he have experience being required to put identifying information on his papers (e.g., name, assignment, date, subject)?
  • How well does he study for and perform on different types of tests?
  • Does he know how to study effectively from a textbook?

Launching Out

The most difficult change for parents when sending home-schooled children to a school setting may be the loss of intimate involvement in their learning process and less control over the influences in their lives. It can be hard to take the step of trusting God in a broader way for His protection and allowing children the opportunity to test out the attitudes, skills, and values they have been taught at home. Parents will have to expect some stumbling as their children learn to stand and walk without them right by their side. But, by allowing their children this opportunity, parents express confidence and trust that they will be maturing into the persons God created them to be…and also be blessings to others in the broader community.

Permission to copy but not for commercial use.

  1. Sharon Haag grew up as a third culture kid (TCK) along the northern border of Mexico. She received her K-8 teaching degree through Biola University and an MS in school counseling and School Psychologist’s credential through Cal State Long Beach. She joined SIL in 1974 and taught TCKs in southern Mexico, piloted the Field Education System (FES – a support program for homeschooling families) in Guatemala, and was an itinerant teacher in Cameroon. She later worked from the United States supporting homeschooling families overseas and doing educational evaluations and consultation. She is now retired.