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Parents’ Toolkit

Choosing the educational path for your children is a monumental decision — perhaps one of the biggest parenting choices you will ever make. There are a lot of options, and sometimes it can feel impossible to know which one is right for your child. When two parents disagree on the way forward, this can make the challenge seem even greater and can cause incredible strife.

We talk to parents regularly who are very interested in The Open School because we are an alternative model of education. But at some point in the conversation, we ask about their spouse’s view on education and hear a loud sigh.

“He is much more traditional than I am.”

“She thinks our kids won’t be able to get into college if we go an alternative route.”

“He’s worried the kids will fall behind.”

We get it. There are a lot of concerns when it comes to your child’s education and alternative models are pretty unfamiliar to most parents. It’s completely understandable to react with some degree of suspicion about a model you don’t know much about and didn’t experience yourself.

So, to help you navigate this unfamiliar territory, we’ve designed this prospective parent’s tool kit. In the articles below you will find self-evaluations, invitations to help begin an open conversation, and additional resources to help you find the right model of education for your family. Whether you are curious about whether The Open School is a good fit for your family, or you are having a disagreement with your partner over the merits of an alternative education, we hope these materials will be of some assistance.

Why Is This Conversation Important?

We all love our children and wish the best for them. Let’s not argue about that. Our choice of where to send our children to school has no bearing on whether or not we love our children. The important question is, what is the best thing for our children? How can we best help them? Although we all love our children, our answers to these questions are specific to individual families and are colored by the personal cultures of each parent.

These personal cultures deeply affect how we think about the world. It can be hard for us to question them. Hearing someone criticize (or even second-guess) our personal culture makes us defensive. This is normal. But it’s important to think about where your personal culture comes from. Are you acting with intention? Or do you believe what you believe just because you grew up with it and never questioned it?

Thinking about how you and your spouse parent, as partners, is the key to understanding where you should send your child to school. When you send your child to school each morning, you should know in your heart that what your child experiences at school is in line with how you parent. This protects your child’s brain from cognitive dissonance, that is, mixed messages about how to behave, what to think, and what to value.

As parents, we want to make sure our children experience a unified message from both parents. When that doesn’t happen, it can threaten the balance of the family and even the health of the marriage. Imagine a father telling his child that the most important thing in life is to be a cunning and strategic leader, while the mother says that life is about giving everything you have to the poor and not caring about material goods.  Just as it is confusing and stressful to a child to receive mixed messages from each parent, it is confusing and stressful to hear one set of values at home, and a different set at school.  Your parenting values have a direct link to your educational values. To protect your child from cognitive dissonance, your values must be mirrored by the school. Ultimately, this is why this conversation is important, because a brain that is experiencing cognitive dissonance learns very little, no matter what model of education it is in.

Educational choice is not just about the child, and it’s not just about the parents. It’s about your family as a whole. It’s about knowing and being confident in your values and extending them into your child’s education. What kind of family do you want to be? First ask yourself that question, and then ask which school will support you in that intention.

Identifying Educational Values

In our last article, we established why it is important for parents to be on the same page about their family values and how those values should be reflected in their child’s education. If parents disagree about their educational values, or if the family and school are not aligned in their values, the child will experience cognitive dissonance, which becomes an impediment to learning. Whether you think you are on the same page with your partner regarding educational values, or know that you aren’t, this process should help you find common ground.

Let’s first acknowledge that this is a difficult conversation to have. It’s difficult because we care deeply about our children’s futures. It’s also difficult because it requires us to be vulnerable, to reveal our true beliefs as parents, and to critically examine our own personal histories. So now that we’ve established the inherent difficulty in this conversation, let’s set some ground rules.

  1. No one is right and no one is wrong. Each person is entitled to his or her opinion. We will listen without judgment, in order to understand the other person’s perspective as if it were our own.
  2. Honesty is the best policy. No one is helped unless each person is being honest. Because we have established that what is said will be heard without judgment, let us not be afraid to say what we need to say.

Let’s Talk About It

In our last article, we invited you to engage an exercise that was designed to help you identify your educational values. Before we talk about our answers, let us again remind ourselves that no one is right and no one is wrong, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. If you want to ask a question, phrase it as inquiry (Such as “Why do you completely agree that children and adults deserve equal respect”) and not as criticism (Such as “Why in the world would you ever think that children and adults deserve equal respect? That’s just absurd!”) Asking questions is great, but only if the reason for asking is to understand the other person, not to argue or belittle.

In order to ensure that this conversation is productive and respectful, we invite you to use a process we use at The Open School called ‘circle.’ We’d like to emphasize that this is an invitation; if you just don’t feel comfortable doing it, then share however feels right to you. That being said, we find that using circle helps people listen when difficult conversations arise.

To aid in facilitating this process, you may want to click here and print off this article to keep the steps and prompts handy during your discussion.



Pick a talking piece, which is an object that can be held and passed back and forth. It could be something special or not; it doesn’t matter. Don’t stress about the talking piece.

Each partner should take turns answering the questions below, using the talking piece to remind each other whose turn it is to listen. Honor the rule that when one person is holding the piece, it is their job to be fully honest and to speak directly to the question (no long, meandering monologues). Whoever is not holding the piece has the job of listening with an open heart, not thinking of how to respond, and not trying to argue or interrupt. This exercise is more about listening than it is about talking. Culturally, we are not trained to listen well; even with people we love, it can be challenging. That’s why it’s important to begin by reminding ourselves of how to listen from the heart.

When you are holding the talking piece, talk about your own experience, not what you think the other person is thinking, or trying to analyze what the other person has said. Don’t talk about abstract ideas, don’t talk about what the parenting magazine said, or your mother, or Oprah, or anyone else; just talk about how you feel and about your own experience.


*Using the talking piece, each partner should answer each of the following prompts.

  1. As a way of beginning, say something you are grateful for in your family life.
  2. Which 3 of the statements on the questionnaire are really powerful for you? Which statements do you think define your vision for your child’s education?

*At this point, both partners may trade questionnaires. Read your partner’s answers silently, without comment. Read it without judgment; read it like an ancient text, with an active curiosity about what it contains.

  1. Comparing our answers, which answers did we agree on? Do those similar answers reflect some of our shared values?
  2. Are there any answers where we really disagreed? If so, ask each other why they marked the answer they did.
  3. What is sticking out for you that your partner has said? Without judging what was said, did anything surprise you? Did anything explain something to you about where your partner is coming from?

Is The Open School Right for My Family?

In our last article, we explored what educational values you shared with your partner. Now we are going to talk about how your answers to the questionnaire can help you determine if your family is a good fit for The Open School.

Before we begin, let’s be clear that we don’t expect all applying families to always be in perfect alignment with our educational philosophy. We know that parenting is a process and that parenting is about creating intentions. You are the only people who get to make intentions regarding your parenting and your child’s education. If you enroll at The Open School, your child will be learning to be independent and self-directed at the same time you will be learning how to support your child in that process.

As a staff member, I can tell you that practicing this kind of relationship with children is difficult. It just is. We’ve been conditioned to think that children should listen to adults and do what they’re told. We’ve been taught that our opinions have greater value than those of children. When people ask me what my job is, I tell them it is to respect children. Sometimes people scoff at this, like it isn’t a difficult thing to do. But if you have ever been around children, you know how strong the desire to make them do what you want them to do can be. So, if you are struggling with being the kind of parent we are talking about, we can help. That is also a big part of The Open School’s mission.


To make this self-evaluation really simple, all you need to know is that The Open School identifies itself as a ‘5’ for every question in the questionnaire. Below you will find our reasoning for why we fully agree with each of those statements.

  1. Respect: Respecting children seems like a hot buzz phrase, but we really mean it when we say that we treat children with equal respect. That means we don’t judge them or coerce them into anything. We aren’t going to decide when they can go to bathroom or when to eat or what to do with their time or what and when to study. We do this because feeling respected is essential to a child forming the opinion that they deserve it and the skill necessary to reciprocate it.
  2. Responsibility: Children who are self-guided learners know how to do work without someone making them do it. That is the epitome of responsibility. In addition, our students help run the school and create the rules, and so they learn that the culture of their community is in their hands; they are responsible for creating and abiding by the social contract of the school. Once students go off to college, they will need to know how to be responsible, self-sufficient adults in order to succeed. We help them get there.
  3. Risk Taking: Neuroscience studies show that risk-taking is critical for building resiliency and confidence. Part of having a ‘Yes I Can!’ attitude depends on cultivating a healthy relationship with risk. People who are afraid of risk rarely motivate themselves to take on significant challenges and limit their own potential in doing so. Of course, we don’t simply let anyone do anything risky just because they want to. Part of being allowed to take risks is to first work with an adult to practice risky skills, like tree climbing or fire tending, and then progressively being certified at a higher level in order to practice these skills independently.
  4. Independent Thinking: Most of our artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial heroes all share this trait. Seeing the world from one’s own unique perspective is what allows someone to bring new ideas into the world and it is a powerful gift. We believe there is incredible value in creativity and the ability to think differently than others.
  5. Ambition: We believe that the best work for any individual is the work that inspires them. For us, there is no better metric of success. Encouraging kids to focus on their passions builds confidence that they will need later in order to make their passions financially viable. We also provide an entrepreneurial environment where students can have real experiences starting businesses and learning from those early successes and failures.
  6. Compassion: Competition is best when it is with oneself; we should always be challenging ourselves to be the best we can be. To be competitive with others invariably creates feelings of inferiority, or conversely, feelings of superiority. Neither of these feelings are particularly healthy. Compassion creates friendships, which are inherently important, but also work as educational bridges. We believe people who work well with others have far richer experiences than those who are only concerned with being the best.
  7. Courage: In a democracy, it is the will of the people that governs. Standing up for one’s beliefs is critical in maintaining the integrity of any democracy. We create space for children to know what this feels like and to know that rules should not simply be obeyed, but questioned and debated to determine their merit.
  8. Intelligence: Sometimes people think because The Open School is a free learning model that we are anti-intellectual. This could not be less true. We simply think that intelligence begins with self-knowledge and that self knowledge leads people towards their own intellectual pursuits. All the basics, like reading, writing, and math, get covered in a diversity of ways, all specifically aligned with the child’s interests. The more specialized subjects become a focus for children when they experience a moment that inspires them and they choose to pursue a subject in depth.
  9. Learner Centered: We think that the whole point of education is to become capable of teaching yourself. If a child can teach himself, then he can learn anything. If he can only learn by instruction, he will always need more education.
  10. Experience Based: As far as the brain is concerned, information that is tied to real-life applications is far more valuable than knowledge that is only abstract. When the brain learns something that it deems useful, it stores that information in its’ long term memory while other non-useful information is purged. We think that learning should be efficient and so we believe that it is better to learn something through hands-on experience than by reading about it in a textbook. Part of this comes from what we call ‘World Schooling’ where we go out into the community and learn from the places and people who know the subjects best. One of our favorites this year was learning about tide pool ecosystems from a docent at the beach.
  11. Play: For both children and adults, play can be an intense learning process. There are rules, there are relationships, there is movement, strategy, and language. Some games involve a lot of math, others involve art or building things. Not to say that it is the only way to learn, but we endorse the idea that until students are ready to learn more formally, play is the most efficient way to learn everything they will need to know down the road. We think it is better to allow a child to move at his own pace than to make him feel that learning is stressful.
  12. Self Discipline: We associate self-discipline with having a good conscience. Instead of compelling students to obey, we assist them in having the capacity to know what is right and what is wrong intuitively. This includes the discipline associated with hard work and the high degree of competence that is the result of not having an adult do everything for you.
  13. Restorative Justice: We don’t subscribe to a strictly punitive system of justice because we want children to be adept problem solvers. Being punished does not help the child overcome whatever struggle she is having, it only conditions her to fear asking for help. When there is interpersonal conflict at The Open School, we do not focus on who did what; instead, we create space for people to be heard and to explore how we behave when triggered. This cultivates a sense of self-awareness that enables children to regulate their own emotions.
  14. Social/Emotional Health: We believe that the academic success of a child is completely dependent on their social and emotional health. If the emotional needs of a child are not satisfied, the child’s brain is not meeting its’ highest potential. We believe that laying solid groundwork for children’s emotional and social health predisposes them for academic success at The Open School and beyond. This success may or may not translate to prestige and wealth, but we are confident that our students will lead happy, healthy, socially enriching lives either way.
  15. Staff Participation: Sometimes people wonder what the staff do if they are not teaching classes. Beyond their administrative roles, the adults are modeling what respect, responsibility, and compassion look like. The staff are not there to force others into anything, since that would be modeling disrespect and hierarchy. Instead, by modeling democracy and respect, the staff are helping students develop these qualities as well.
  16. Time For Family: Developmentally, it’s important for families to spend time with each other. This becomes very difficult when a child is given a mountain of homework to finish each night, which studies suggest has little to no academic value. Homework also transforms the relationship between parents and children into one where parents often become the enforcers of school expectations in their own homes; ultimately, this can damage relationships between parents and children.


Generally, if you marked mostly 1s and 2s on the questionnaire your educational values are consistent with traditional education models such as the standard public education system, parochial schools, and on the far end, military academies. If your answers were mostly 3s, then pay close attention to the values you did feel strongly about. If, for instance, you value experience-based learning, a Montessori or Waldorf school might be the best fit for you (we’ll cover this more in a later article). If you marked mostly 5s, you are probably looking for an alternative school or considering unschooling.

If you and your partner both marked mostly 5’s, we definitely want to hear from you!  That indicates to us that your family’s educational values are consistent with ours and that your child will thrive at The Open School.

If you did not have mostly 5’s but are still wondering about whether The Open School would be a good choice, stay tuned for more articles on this page or call us today to talk with a staff person about the model in further detail.

Most importantly, ask yourself what will be best for your child? What kind of school will support your child’s unique development? After all, you know them better than anyone else in the world. If you can, try not to dwell on your expectations of your child and see them as a growing human being who is capable of making his or her own decisions. If you can trust that your child knows best who they are and where they need to go, then you belong at The Open School.

The Future Is Open.

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