Self-Directed Learning in Action is Really Freaking Me Out!

Children’s intentions on paper and filed away for evaluation later, they began their day… by doing WHATEVER THEY CHOSE.

Kids surged into the HQ room en force, and began playing. Rough housing is for outside, but active play can be done in HQ. Students were climbing on furniture and playing loudly. They were learning in the beautiful self-directed way.

I really thought I was prepared, so why was I FREAKING OUT!

I had a great understanding of self-directed learning…in theory…

  1. Self-directed learning is the child deciding how they will invest their time during the school day.
  2. Students are respected no matter what educational choices they make.
  3. Staff uses gentile guidance when help is requested by the child, directing the child to make their own decisions.
  4. Adults tend to want to control situations and children, but it is best for the child to take control of their own decisions.
  5. Freedom Not License – children are free to express themselves and direct themselves as long as it doesn’t interfere with others rights to do the same.

Knowles describes self‑directed learning as “a process in which individuals take the initiative without the help of others in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating goals, identifying human and material resources, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Manning, 2007).

I understood all of this, and knew this is what I wanted in my new school, so why was I freaking out?!?

I’m sure this is what non-believers in self-directed education imagine self-directed education to be:  Noisy, chaotic and unproductive play with no goal in sight. “They’re not doing anything!” could be the non-believers mantra.

I didn’t want to be freaking out like this; I knew I didn’t want to feel like this; I knew the process… in theory. But the truth was, as much as I didn’t want it, I WAS FREAKING OUT!

Kudos to the staff at Heartwood ALC. When I expressed my feelings, they remained calm and patient and just looked at me with unconditional acceptance as I said several times for the next couple of hours, “This is REALLY FREAKING ME OUT!”

Honestly, the rest of the day until Check Point, which I’ll write about in a later post, is kind of a blur.

20 beautiful children were going about the business of learning in 20 different ways together!  Although it will probably be out of order, I’ll share with you my experiences and hopefully you’ll gain a better understanding of self-direction, and I’ll gain further introspection.

We left the large HQ room by way of the Focus Door. Beyond the Focus Door are 1 large and 2 small rooms as well as a kitchen and restroom. It is an “agreement” that this is the quiet area of the school (agreements are just that, the children and staff discuss what needs to be changed, come up with solutions, test the solutions, and if they work for  several weeks, they become agreements. The children, parents and staff have agreed to follow agreements).

We (the visitors and co-facilitator Julia) went into a smaller room to have a discussion. She explained the program and answered questions. I believe there may have been a student in the room as well, but I was very focused on Julia and the other adults, I think in an attempt to manage my shock.

We took a tour of the building and everyone was welcome to observe and interact with the children and staff.

I went from room to room watching kids, talking to a few. My brain seemed to understand what was happening, but my heart was racing and I could feel my adrenaline levels increase. I’m still not sure why my body was going into what felt like “fight or flight,” but I’m pretty sure that’s what was happening, now that I look back on it. At the time, between trying to remain calm and talking to adults and children, I kept thinking and saying. “This is really freaking me out!”

It took me about 2 1/2 hours to calm down. I don’t know why I felt so threatened, or felt that there was danger (this is what it means to be in fight or flight), because I wasn’t threatened or in danger, and neither was anyone else. The staff and students remained calm the whole time, they talked to me and listened to me with unconditional acceptance while they continued with their daily intentional activities or whatever learning process came to them.

In the late morning, 2 students went with Julia and I to the post office to mail soap orders from soap club. I think I asked to go with them because I needed a moment away from what appeared to be chaos.

We got buckled in and talked about the stamps on the letters (Art Appreciation). We talked about where the boxes were going, and who lived there, describing where South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida were in relation to Georgia (Geography). We talked about where the letters were going, Wyoming, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina. The kids asked many questions, like kids do, and were engaged fully in the discussion.

We arrived at the post office and carried everything in. Julia directed the girls to the line with an explanation that people who need to use the post office stand in line. The girls happily moved to the line and stood calmly waiting for our turn.

When it was our turn, the youngest couldn’t see over the counter, so the older child picked her up.


She got tired after a while and they used their problem solving skills to find a solution:


The littlest one was eventually more horizontal than vertical and said she felt like she was flying.

I didn’t take a “flying” picture because I was so worried the little one was going to fall and smack her face on the counter, I felt I had to be “ready,” but after a few minutes I realized I was worried for nothing.

Kids are careful and learn their limits when they are given the opportunity to explore. The bigger girl knew when she was getting tired and put the little one down, neither pushed themselves physically to keep going because they are respectful to each other’s needs. There wasn’t verbal communication about this, but there was also no whining or begging on the little one’s part when she was put down. At one point the little one said they should put a stool so people could see over the counter. I told her to tell the worker, but she didn’t, so I told him what she said, and he smiled and nodded.

That’s what self-direction does for students, they learn to speak their mind and advocate for themselves, they learn their physical limits by testing them, they learn to love learning and they learn to problem solving skills.

For those who are concerned with safety, kids will test their limits whether or not you try to control everything in their environment – every parent, caregiver and educator knows it is impossible to keep a child 100% safe. Isn’t it better to trust a child to self regulate so they will be safer when you’re not there to catch them? Children don’t learn their limits by you telling them what the limits are, they learn by testing them.

One thing I noticed about self-directed learning is when an adult does want to show them something, the kids are attentive and listen. This behavior stems from the trusting and respectful relationship the learning community has for each other.


When Julia talked about the pricing and keeping track of how much they would owe to send the boxes, the kids were attentive and actively added the numbers. In between adding, they explored their physical limits, enjoyed their sense of community, and were eagerly asking questions about different displays in the post office.

Self-directed children are comfortable in different settings, easily adapt to the situations and are more confident in themselves as well as their decision making and problem solving skills. These are all qualities colleges and employers seek when recruiting.

This was a HUGE lesson for me. By the time we returned from the post office, I was at ease with the actual process of self-direction. My freaking out was over, my body was over the imaginary threat, and my mind was ready to learn and absorb this wonderful way of teaching in action.

*Side Note: I feel kinda bad not knowing all the kids names, so I didn’t use any of them. I know little girl and bigger girl are not very personalized, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by leaving out their name either.


Manning, 2007.  Self-directed learning: A key component of adult learning theory.  Business and Public Administration Studies. Retrieved from:

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