Parenting an Acton Academy Child — Be Prepared for an Interesting Journey!

Laura Sandefer

February 16, 2018

If you are a parent of a child or teen at an Acton Academy school, chances are good that you have heard one of these types of comments from your children:

“Mom, you really shouldn’t say ‘never’ because that’s not actually true, is it?”

“Dad, you do know ‘That’s impossible – it’s not going to work’ is a fixed mindset, don’t you?!”

“I really don’t like that you’re telling me what to do. Can we please process map this?”

Yup, some of our students actually talk this way – even the youngest ones. It can be quite challenging parenting a child when you feel they’ve got one up on you! I know how that feels because I have two Acton hats: one as an owner/ Head of School and another as a parent of a child in this program. My two children are enrolled in our Acton Academy school, called Infinity School in London, ON, Canada.

At the request of parents who were both smiling and making a grimacing face at the same time, I agreed to address this question: How do we parent an Acton Academy child?

In addition to learning academics in a self-paced, modular way (versus a curriculum set to a calendar), our Acton students develop many non-academic intelligences. It appears that it is this type of learning that is throwing our Acton parents the biggest curveball.

Here are some of those types of skills your child is learning along with some suggestions and resources to stay in tune with your ever-growing child:

We engage in Socratic discussion

Acton Guides provide a few opportunities throughout each day to grow critical-thinking skills by facilitating Socratic discussions.

The website ReadWriteThink provides a good definition:

“Socratic seminars are named for their embodiment of Socrates’ belief in the power of asking questions, prize inquiry over information and discussion over debate. Socratic seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic seminars and implies their rich benefits for students:

The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)

Israel, Elfie. “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.” In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom. James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.”

Perhaps you can continue this at home by asking your children why they’ve come to a certain conclusion and get them to defend their words.

We answer questions with questions instead of providing the answer.

For the most part, Acton Guides respond to questions with questions. For example, if a child asks, “What time does core skills end,” we might respond like this: “What tool can you refer to that will have this information?”

We’ll also smile and nod at statements (which can frustrate the kids) and wait until they realize that a statement isn’t going to get them anything: they have to construct a question. For example, if a students shouts, “This KHAN Academy program isn’t working” we might smile, nod, and wait until he or she says, “Can you please help me understand why I’m not getting this mastery challenge right?”

Your child is going to get used to not having answers handed to them, thereby experiencing both the joys and frustrations of having to use their good judgment, resources, or help from others to get what they need. We suggest continuing this practice at home.

We allow chaos to be a teacher of valuable skills.

Jeff Sandefer, the co-founder of Acton Academy said this about getting involved when students are not upholding the studio guardrails: “Step back from the situation. Let them try to figure it out, and then step back again.”

It is REALLY challenging to step back when a child is having trouble like an outburst, not getting himself ready on time, or forgetting to put his stuff away. It’s very easy to just jump in and say something like: “You’d better pack up now or you’re going to be late for Quest time,” but doing so robs them of developing valuable skills. In this case it is the skill of being aware of the time and knowing what to do in order to be on time for the next block in the schedule.

The students in our school were having trouble getting themselves where they needed to be on time, so we did a process map of the problem. The funny thing was that some of them blamed their parents for always telling them when to stop and get ready to go as the reason they haven’t learnt how to be on time!

Process Map

Instead of telling the kids what to do, doing things for them, or rescuing them, we allow them to make mistakes, face their frustrations, and make themselves do things that are hard.

We foster the development of a Positive/ Growth Mindset.

I can imagine that your child has already called you on saying something with a “fixed mindset.” My kids feel like they’ve got me when they catch me doing that! To avoid frustration all around, I recommend reading Carol Dweck, PhD’s book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Here is a graphic with some explanation of this concept:


We facilitate the growth of conflict management skills.

It is common to see a “peace table” in an Acton Academy school or a conflict resolution process posted up on the wall. We guide our students in the process of understanding each other, the real root of the problem, to think of some options available, and what will be tried to resolve the problem.

I imagine that this might be quite challenging for families who are not used to calmly sitting down to resolve differences. If you are interested in learning more about what your child is hearing about the brain, the calm-down process, and conflict management skills, I suggest looking more through Dr. Dan SiegelDr. Tina Payne Bryson’s work, following my Parenting Educator page, or asking your child to try to explain these to you.

We expect a lot from children and view them as equals.

We have a fundamental belief that children are more capable than they are usually given credit for and give them opportunities to prove this to us. The students are not viewed as inferior to the adults – we’re all on a journey together.

This may require breaking out of our accustomed role of providing answers or steering the conversation into familiar territory.

Generally, I’d say that being an Acton parent requires a lot of courage, patience, and openness. The types of skills our children (and us, too,) will develop are phenomenal in helping them reach their highest potential, however; there will likely be learning bumps along the way. These are the kinds of bumps that provide us with truly helpful experiences that will make a positive difference in our lives. If you have any questions, I invite you to visit our Infinity School Facebook page to post a comment there.

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