Schooling and the Highly Sensitive Child Interview Series: Why I Am Moving My Child to a Democratic School

In the third part of the ‘Schooling and the Highly Sensitive Child’ interview series I spoke to Lucy* about her decision to move her son out of the public schooling system in the United States to a private school in a different state. Lucy is a school psychologist, who had always agreed with the public school system and the curriculum, until her own child started going through the education system. She sums up her views on the public school system by saying:

“I’m not so thrilled with it. I have really begun to question everything about traditional schooling, why we teach what we teach, and how to best prepare our young people for their futures.”

Schooling and the Highly Sensitive Child Interviews- Why I Am Moving My Child to a Democratic SchoolHSK: When did you realise that you needed to make a change to your son’s schooling?

Lucy: My son is 10 years old. Not only is he highly sensitive, but he is also gifted and has developmental motor coordination issues such as fine motor difficulties. He was a very happy go lucky kid until kindergarten started. He is still very happy-go-lucky at home however school has not been good to him. His difficulty started with his kindergarten year. He loved preschool and I told him if you love preschool you will absolutely love kindergarten. I did not realise how kindergarten has become more of a structured learning environment rather than about play and developing social skills.

HSK: What were the issues you/your son faced in kindergarten?

He was made to sit at a desk and write with pencils and crayons, which he absolutely hates. He did make a very good friend in kindergarten, however, the little boy that he is still friends with today did like to say some naughty words once in a while. He also liked to talk when he wasn’t supposed to be. My son thought this was great fun and would laugh with his newfound friend so the teacher would constantly put my son in timeout. My son had never been in timeout before. The teacher did not inform me any of this was occurring.

All I knew was that my son had stomachaches before school, often said he did not want to go to school, and said that he didn’t know what bad things would happen at school that day.

I talked to the teacher about this and she said there were no problems. It wasn’t until the first teacher conference that she reported that he did not talk in class above a whisper, and that he usually did not complete his work.

Since I already knew he was gifted, I thought he would take kindergarten by storm. I thought the teachers would sing his praises. This kindergarten teacher told me that he was delayed and wanted to put him in some remedial classes because he did not even know his alphabet. I told the teacher he has been saying his alphabet since he was two years old.

Needless to say, this kindergarten experience has affected him in every grade since. He said to me, one month ago, before he went to sleep that he wants to do well in school because he does not want to be the bad kid that he used to be when he was in kindergarten. We had a huge discussion about that!

HSK: Did you talk to the kindergarten teacher about the highly sensitive trait?

Lucy: Yes, I had talked to his kindergarten teacher about him being highly sensitive and that a timeout would not work with him. I let her know that she was causing a great deal of harm to him and to his self-esteem. It came out in stress and physical complaints.

She told me she was the teacher of the class and she would punish any child whenever she saw fit. I should’ve pulled him out of school then but I continued on. My son had it in his head that good kids go to school and he wanted to have the school experience.

HSK: What changes did you make to your son’s schooling?

Lucy: For first grade we moved him into a charter school – a school with a small close knit group of parents. I knew all the students in his class, and they were all exceptional students.

In first grade my son had a teacher that had traveled the world. I read before that world travelers make the absolute best teachers and she has been the absolute best teacher. She was kind and considerate. However, she had the attitude that kids are to be managed. There were a few things I was not for, but overall it was a good experience for my son.

In second grade, he stayed in the same charter school, however he got a very poor teacher who had anger management issues. She would constantly belittle the students, tell them that they were worse than kindergarten students, and that they were not going to go on to the third-grade unless they started behaving.

My son began to have night terrors where he would scream out in his sleep at night saying “she is so mean, I’m so scared, I’m so scared mama help me please.” Needless to say, that was not acceptable to me. Again when I talked with the teacher, I got nowhere.

I decided he was attending a school of choice, and that was not the experience I chose for my son. I received no help from administration. So back to public school.

To finish out second-grade he had a substitute teacher. She was an older woman that loves nature. She was exceptional and my son loved her.

However, I did notice that he was very nervous all the time about going to school. Once he was there it seems like he did well but he began to dread school on Sunday evening.

HSK: So you moved from a charter school back to a public school and things improved?

Lucy: Not really. For third grade, I talked with the administration and told them that my child was highly sensitive and he needed a teacher that could respond accordingly to him.  My son received a drill sergeant for his third-grade teacher. She is one of the meanest people I have ever met in my life.

We struggled through third-grade and I told my husband this is it, we are moving out of the state. I had read about democratic schools and that is what I wanted for my son. However there were none in our state. It has taken a year but my husband has now received the transfer to move to a city in another state that did have a democratic school.

Meanwhile, for the fourth grade, my son’s current year in school, we lucked out big time. He has the best teacher ever; she is calm and collected. She is highly organised, loves children, and is very understanding of individual needs. It has been a fantastic year.

Having said that, he still has concerns that he has been a bad kid in previous years, and still has some nervous energy surrounding the whole idea of going to school. However, he does not want to be homeschooled, and wants to continue to attend school.

We are currently in the transition of moving so that my son can attend a Democratic school.

HSK: Can you elaborate on the idea of a Democratic school and why you think it is right fro your son?

The Democratic they allow the children to do throughout the day what it is they would like to do. They feel that children know best what they’re interested in what they want to learn, and what is a good fit for them. This is very similar to unschooling, except that it is done in a group setting.

The school my son will be going to has 30 students. We are very excited about his new school. My son is over the moon at the thought of being able to explore the things that he loves.

“Democratic education is an educational ideal in which democracy is both a goal and a method of instruction. It brings democratic values to education and can include self-determination within a community of equals, as well as such values as justice, respect and trust. Democratic education is often specifically emancipatory, with the students’ voices being equal to the teacher’s.” Wikipedia

“A democratic school, as the term is used on this site, is a school where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning, and for the school community. At such a school, students choose their own activities and associate with whom they please. If courses are offered, students are always free to take them or not.” Alternatives to School


Lessons from Lucy’s Story

  • Don’t underestimate the damage a negative school experience can have on your child  and how they feel about themselves. Bad teachers do damage.
  • Don’t be afraid to explore all the alternatives.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo – many highly sensitive children simply don’t fit in the mould created for them by the traditional school system.
  • Finding something that works for your child may mean upheaval and a huge change.
*Name has been changed

Schooling and the Highly Sensitive Child Interviews: Why I Am Moving My Child to a Democratic School


About Amanda van Mulligen

Mother, writer, author, blogger. Born British, Living Dutch. I have three Dutch sons and a Dutch husband and I blog about Turning Dutch and raising highly sensitive children.
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2 Responses to Schooling and the Highly Sensitive Child Interview Series: Why I Am Moving My Child to a Democratic School

  1. DeeDee says:

    Wow! Really interesting interview. Thank you to Lucy and HSK for sharing it. I’m really interested to know what her son’s experience is like at the democratic school. I pulled my son out of public kindergarten for very similar reasons and he has not been back to school since. I remember too well being blindsided by public school kindergarten and being shocked at what a hostile, controlled, illogical environment it was. My son’s teacher showed me a test she did with my son where he performed poorly. For the test the teacher would point to a letter on a worksheet and my son was to say the name of the letter and then she would circle the letter if he knew that letter. Well, even the letters of his own name weren’t circled. I said, he’s known the letter E is since age 2- it’s the first letter of his name! How could he have gotten that one wrong?! When I started volunteering in the classroom I found out she does these one-on-one tests during free time when all the kids are playing busily and making an insane amount of noise. Then she’ll pull each child aside for 5 minutes to administer the “test.” I could barely hear myself think let alone take an arbitrary test. That was just one issue in a huge list but the bottom line was that public school was damaging my child emotionally AND he wasn’t learning anything. We are now unschoolers but I’ve wondered at times how a Sudbury or other democratic school would be just to have a regularly scheduled team approach. Because my son is an only child he spends a lot of time around me and other adults, which he likes but I wonder for his teen years if he’d prefer more of his peer group. Thanks for sharing! I’m looking forward to reading more in this series of interviews.


    • The standard one size fits all approach in schools needs to be history but I’m not convinced that time will come whilst my children are in school. It’s a fact that some children do not perform well in one to one tests, or noisy environments, or with pressure on them to perform. And yet the system keeps requesting our children to operate in these conditions. Your own experience shows how damaging that can be – we end up with children who believe they aren’t clever enough to pass tests, whose self esteem plummets when actually these kids are incredibly bright.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your story – it helps us all!


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