Alternatives To Mainstream Education For Children

Depending on where you live, the mainstream school system might be very high quality or borderline dysfunctional.  But no matter how good it is in your area, there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about how it operates. 

There is a huge focus on testing and meeting targets, some of which are arbitrary, and this creates huge pressure on both teachers and students. 

If you’re somebody who is interested in, or has already decided to raise your children differently, then you might already be aware of this and will be looking for alternatives to mainstream education for your children.

Alternatives To Mainstream Education For Children

Problems with mainstream education have led many people to wonder whether there isn’t a better way to educate young people, prepare them to be active participants in society, and allow them to fulfill their potential.  Thankfully, alternatives do exist. 

In this article, we’re going to look at some of them in detail so that you can decide which, if any, of them is right for your child. 

We’ll first discuss one of the best-known alternatives, homeschooling, before moving on to the principle of democratic education, and then two different types of schools: Steiner Waldorf Schools and Montessori schools, before finishing with a brief summary.

Alternatives To Mainstream Education For Children


One of the best-known alternatives to mainstream education for children is to home school them.  How exactly this works depends on where you live. 

In the US, for example, every state has different regulations and requirements on how homeschooling should be organized, some of which are stricter than others. 

For example, some states mandate that you’ll need to follow a curriculum for at least some subjects, while others will allow parents more freedom on how to teach their children.

However it’s done, homeschooling has the advantage of allowing you to put the principles of positive, natural parenting into practice in the context of your child’s education, by always being present to nurture them and being more involved with their development. 

With all that being said, there are still several alternatives to mainstream education for children available, though of course you’ll have to think about how they gel with the state regulations.

Traditional Programs

With traditional programs, the idea is to mainly stick to a similar program to what the student would learn in school.  This means following a curriculum, using textbooks, setting assignments and tests, etc. 

However, there is a lot more flexibility if you do this yourself with your child than there would be if your child simply attended school as usual and is a good alternative to mainstream education for children.  Lessons can be arranged around other family commitments.  

Teaching your child this way will require a large commitment of time and effort, of course.  You will need to have knowledge of or to research everything that you are going to teach them, and invest a lot of time into lessons, testing, marking, and so on. 

You will also need to keep good records of what your child has studied, their progress, and their marks.  If you think you might need assistance with all of this, then you might want to consider getting help from an accredited home school academy. 

These can provide help with designing a curriculum, keeping records, and so on.

Online Homeschool Programs

There are now several accredited programs for online homeschooling, which can be very useful for reducing the teaching workload of you, the parents. 

However, you will likely sacrifice some flexibility for this, as many online homeschooling programs will require students to be online at set times for classes.  

Others, however, use pre-recorded lessons, so that your child can access them whenever it is convenient, including watching them as many times as they wish, with the caveat that this means that they won’t be able to access a live teacher for the class if they have questions.  

Similarly, some online homeschooling programs will allow you and your child to receive the results of tests and quizzes immediately, while others might have some of them marked by real people.  

High-quality online homeschooling programs won’t just leave you to figure all of this out by yourself, either.  Good ones will offer an academic advisor to talk you through using the program and to give advice on your child’s development, as well as general academic help.

For these reasons, online programs are a good alternative to mainstream education for children

Blended Study

Simply put, blended study is a mixture of both the traditional and online options.  This gives you the maximum possible flexibility by allowing you to mix and match online classes with classes taught by you, giving you the best of both worlds.  

For example, you might feel very confident teaching your child history but be worried that your understanding of chemistry isn’t sharp enough.  You can then teach the history class yourself and find an online teacher to handle the chemistry.  

This allows you to focus on teaching what you understand best and also allows the most possible adaptations based on the way that your child learns best.

Blended study is the perfect mix between a traditional approach to learning and the alternatives to mainstream education for children which are available.


The word “unschooling” was coined in the 1970s by John Holt.  Holt was an educator and is widely regarded as the pioneer of the unschooling movement. 

Unschooling is based on the idea that children learn better when they are the ones who choose their own learning experiences, making it a style of homeschooling that does not have a curriculum or lessons in the traditional sense. 

Instead, children learn by exploring their own personal interests and derive “lessons” from anything and everything from play to social interaction and many other things as well. 

Its advocates believe that children are more likely to retain information learned in this way than through attempts to drill things into them in a classroom setting.

While these can be considered the four main outlines of how homeschooling can be done, there are, of course, many different variations and combinations involving all four of these. 

That’s the great thing about homeschooling – it can be adapted and customized based on your own circumstances and your child’s needs and shows that there are plenty of alternatives to mainstream education for children available.

Democratic Education

What Is Democratic Education?

Democratic education is a huge concept that contains a wide range of different ideas and practices. 

There is no central figure or organization that represents or speaks for democratic education as a unified idea, but it generally operates on the principle that the students’ voices, ideas, and concerns are equal to those of the teachers.

Schools organized on the principle of democratic education generally allow their students to decide for themselves on all topics related to their own learning and to other aspects of everyday life and is a good alternative to mainstream education for children.  

This includes what they will learn, how and where they will learn it, with whom they will study, and what rules and regulations are necessary, if any. It also includes having a voice in how their institutions of learning are run in a general sense. 

Any kind of decision on these questions might be acceptable as long as it doesn’t affect the rights and freedoms of the other students to choose their own arrangements.

Students can choose to take any particular course that the school offers or not to.  This usually means that the students aren’t divided by age, meaning that they get more chances to mix with people of different ages than students in mainstream schools do.

Democratic schools do not test their students, believing that every student’s education is personal to them and that testing actually disrupts, rather than improves, the process by stifling their self-direction and motivation. 

However, students who wish to go to college will need to take either the ACT or SAT and it has been found that students from democratic schools who choose to do this have been able to achieve good results.

Benefits Of Democratic Education

Advocates of democratic education point to various benefits of the practice as an alternative to mainstream education for children. 

One of these is that democratic education is more geared to producing inquiring minds who are capable of considering ideas for themselves, solving problems collectively, and collaborating with others in a fair and democratic way.   

For those of us who live in the US (or most of the rest of the modern West), our culture places a huge value on democratic institutions and practices, and rightly so.  

However, this is unfortunately not often reflected in our mainstream school system, where there are only limited chances for students to work together as equals, and often none at all where their relationship with teachers resembles democracy in any way.  

In democratic schools, students actually put the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of association into practice rather than just studying them from textbooks.

There is sometimes a natural amount of skepticism about democratic schools and the principles of democratic education. 

There is often a tendency for adults not to trust young people to be able to make reasonable judgments about important educational matters, either for themselves or the school as a whole. 

However, a sizable number of democratic schools do exist and have shown to be successful.

This 1986 study follows up on graduates of the Sudbury Valley School, one of the most famous democratic schools in the US and the world.  It was founded in 1968, is still in operation today, and is often used as a model by democratic schools elsewhere.  

The study, along with subsequent studies conducted by the school itself, show that the students generally went on to have successful careers in a range of fields. 

They also reported that they felt the experience of having had a democratic education had given them strong democratic values, a lifelong love of learning, and a strong sense of personal responsibility and motivation.  

Steiner Waldorf School Movement

What Is Steiner Waldorf Education?

The Steiner Waldorf movement is an alternative to mainstream education for children based on the ideas of the 20th century German philosopher Rudolf Steiner and has the goal of educating children in a way that allows them to be their true selves, and contribute to their society by doing good.  

To do this, schools following the Steiner Waldorf philosophy vary the style of teaching depending on the age groups of the children being taught.  

To achieve this, Steiner schools usually divide the children into four groups by age: early years (3-6), lower school (6-11), middle school (11-16), and upper school (16-18). 

There is a focus on learning through imitation and play to begin with, artistic activity next, and cognitive learning in later stages.

Another key feature of the Steiner Waldorf approach is that it values artistic elements of education alongside the more traditional academic and intellectual ones.  The visual arts, drama, storytelling, music, and much more are all given prominence.

How Does Steiner Waldorf Education Work?

In the curriculum of Steiner Waldorf schools, the day typically starts what’s called a “main lesson”, roughly two hours in length.  This will be on a broad topic, for example math.  The other lessons in the day will be shorter than the main lesson, but will link the topic to various other areas of study.  

For example, math might be linked to lessons on physics, economics, consumerism, and so on.  Main lessons keep the same topic for around a month before moving on and taking one of the side lesson’s topics as a new main topic. 

This approach ensures that everything that the students learn about it is linked, rather than being considered as separate and unrelated topics, as in  a mainstream school.

The overall focus is on the holistic development of all the children, rather than only on their academic progress. 

For that reason, tests are not usually given and students aren’t graded until they range around 14 or 15 years of age and is a great alternative to mainstream education for children.

Results Of Steiner Waldorf Education

There is a lot of evidence that attending a Steiner Waldorf school improves the likelihood of positive outcomes for students. 

One study found that students were far more enthusiastic about learning, more likely to enjoy school, and to have good relationships with teachers than students at mainstream schools.  

Another study found that students from Steiner Waldorf schools are more likely to become doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists, and scholars in humanities fields than average.  

Others have shown that Steiner Waldorf students tend to achieve higher scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking Ability, can draw more accurate, detailed and imaginative drawings, and can come up with richer images than non-Steiner Waldorf students with whom they were compared.

These reasons all highlight how alternatives to mainstream education for children can be beneficial.

Montessori Education

What Is The Montessori Method?

The Montessori method is an alternative to mainstream education for children named after Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and educator. 

It places a great emphasis on independence and encourages children to develop and pursue their own interests rather than using the traditional teaching methods of mainstream education. 

Though the name Montessori is not trademarked or regulated in any way and lots of different practices exist under that name, there are several that are common to nearly all Montessori schools.

These include having mixed age classrooms, so that students can form friendships with other students without artificial restrictions preventing them from doing so.  

Another commonplace in Montessori schools is that students are allowed to choose their own topics of study and work in long, uninterrupted blocks of time. 

There are some similarities to democratic schools here, though Montessori schools don’t emphasize the importance of student equality with teachers or democratic votes for all matters concerning the school. 

Many Montessori schools often have teachers who are specially trained in the Montessori philosophy.  

Part of this philosophy is the belief that education plays an important role in improving the world.  In her 1936 book Education and Peace, Montessori wrote that “preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education”. 

Accordingly, she believed that allowing students to learn in a way that allowed them to follow their own kinds of individual self development would ultimately result in a more peaceful society.  

Most studies of the outcomes of Montessori education have been positive, finding that the outcomes of Montessori schools are at least as good and often better than those of mainstream schools.

This further highlights the fact that sometimes alternatives to mainstream education for children can be a better choice for your child.

Final Thoughts

For somebody who is looking for an alternative to mainstream education for their children, there are a range of different options. 

Naturally, the biggest concern is that your child should be treated as an individual and given the absolute best kind of education for their personality and needs, whatever those are. 

You also need to be able to trust that any institution that you trust to educate your child is going to do a professional job of it and allow them to flourish.  

This is not an easy decision, or one to be taken lightly, but it might be one of the most important that you ever make. 

The approaches listed in this article are all good ones that are worth considering, but you should of course do some more research into them before you commit to them to ensure that they’re right for your child. 

In addition, you might want to look into other alternatives to mainstream education as well as these.  

The choice to parent your child in a way that sometimes conflicts with mainstream society’s expectations can sometimes be a challenging one, but with alternative education methods in addition to your own principles, it is possible.

Joyce Bailey
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