Help! We’re Homeschooling!

I CAN’T TALK WITH MY MOUTH FULL!

OR….”THE CONFESSIONS OF A HOME-SCHOOLING MOM WHO EATS HER WORDS”

I am a home-schooling mom. We are a home-schooling family.

Even now, mid way through year number two of this journey those words still get hitched in my throat when I profess it. “Why?” you ask. As you may know, home-schooling is very common now days and especially in the state of Washington, where by some accounts, there are upwards of 20,000 students learning at home. Washington’s also one of the first states in the nation to legally support home-schooling (or home-learning as I like to call it), so what’s the big deal if we add two more to their numbers? Why?? I’ll tell you why. Because up until about 15 minutes ago (figuratively speaking of course), I thought that people who taught their children at home were either geniuses themselves or certifiable. No in-betweens. No grey area. And since the kind folks at MENSA always write on the same thing on the back of my applications, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”, and I’ve grown fond of the six brain cells that remain after becoming a parent, I had NO interest WHATSOEVER in teaching my children at home. Ever.

Have I mentioned that our two children have special needs? Who in their right mind would spend ALL day trying to teach one child with sensory integration dysfunction (which for those of you not familiar with the day-to-day life of a child with sensory issues, is on some days, like trying to bathe a cat: it sounds like a good idea at the beginning, especially if the cat is dirty. But in the end, your house is completely destroyed and you just want to drink yourself into oblivion until the memory is distant and your brain is in a blissful fog). But I digress. Our other child, our oldest, is eight and a half years old, has Down syndrome and hearing loss in both ears (which is a VAST improvement after being born profoundly deaf), and has huge cognitive delays as a result of the Infantile Spasms he contracted at the age of six months, (which virtually destroyed all of his previous development and set him back years). They appear to be very different from one another but both require hands-on parenting most of the time. No rest for the wicked, or tired Mommies.

So here I am fifteen minutes later writing about this transformation from dyed-in-the-wool anti-home-schooling parent (especially for kids with special needs) to a happy-and-grateful-we’re-doing-it-this-way parent. (The chewing sound you hear is me eating my words.) Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Let me give you a little background. I wasn’t just pro-pubic school for my kids with special needs (especially our son with Down syndrome), I preached the sermon loud and clear for all families of kids with special needs from where we lived in Colorado. From where I sat on our community’s early intervention council to the preschool oversight committee, and at the state level where my husband and I organized and facilitated parent conferences for families with children with disabilities, the message was loud and clear: children with special needs need to be in a typical classroom with typical kids learning how to do typical things. My philosophy was we as parents must do our part and then some to make the equation work, but the best scenario is that children be surrounded by other children in school. My husband and I had founded the local Down syndrome association in the weeks after Hayden was born and I happily answered our oft-ringing phone to help other parents with therapy questions, systems issues, and how to have successful and meaningful IEP Staffings. We are well versed in the letter and spirit of IDEA and I believe that has served our children well. It is our hope that we’ve helped other children along the way too. And besides, I had plans to join a ladies’ golf league. No really. I passed the local public golf course everyday as I drove my smart and beautiful children to school and I had it all planned out: I would golf on the days I didn’t do water aerobics at the local Y, which I did nearly every morning after taking the kids to school. I was set.

And now here we are: our now seven year old daughter with sensory integration dysfunction is learning at home, and by all accounts is thriving. She built a radio with my dad this morning (she really wants to build a robot to clean the bathroom because she hates that chore, but we’ve managed to convince her to start small), she can tell you more about diamond mining than any seven year old has a right to know (she wants to own a diamond mine when she grows up so she can get the diamonds herself so she’s checked out books from the library on diamonds and has done internet searches on diamond mining), and can tell you why Pluto is no longer considered a planet. She still has sensory integration dysfunction but learning at home has taught her how to manage her environment in a much more positive way (translation: she doesn’t have nearly as many tantrums as before and now sometimes when she has one, it doesn’t even measure on the Richter scale, a HUGE improvement in our family’s overall mental health). She still startles easily, sleeps very lightly and gets over-stimulated quickly but overall she is a much calmer child and is able to attend to things like writing, reading and math for much longer periods of time. She may not think the activity is the greatest thing since sliced bread but she is able to do it for longer stretches. She is also able to have a sensory diet at home which we believe supports her ability to learn. She sits at the table with her feet planted on a stool of some kind, often with a bean bag in her lap. Sometimes when she’s more fidgety and restless than normal, she reads aloud while standing in a bucket of rice or beans. She’s able to take breaks to burn energy and do stretching. I try to incorporate some sort of propreoceptive work into her days. These are but a few of the strategies that we use with her and we are constantly trying new and different “tools” to find better fits. So far her sensory issues don’t appear to have affected her cognitively. On the contrary, her brain seems to work in overdrive and it’s I who feel like I’m hanging on to the tail of the tiger.

Our son is also doing well, and I suppose at the end of the day, that’s the real miracle to me. I’m a self-proclaimed rabid inclusion-ist who has always said that ALL children with disabilities (and DS especially) should be in public schools surrounded by their typical peers.(Isn’t that nice of me to not even know your child but already know what’s best for him/her?) Hayden had been in the public school system for four years before we dared to open our eyes as to finding a different solution for their learning needs. I had always approached the whole education process from the goal that each child with a disability have all the supports and services he/she needs in the typical classroom and that the general education teacher believes that ALL children can learn and that she/he in turn have ALL the supports and resources afforded her, then there’s NO reason why a child with a disability should ever be in a self-contained classroom. I think a big part of me still believes that. I also believed that parents who kept their children with disabilities at home (especially those with DS) were by de facto institutionalizing them. (See, I’m an equal-opportunity-know-it-all. I’ve never let lack of personal experience or knowledge stop me from opining and bloviating about the choices of others. I’m also a romantic-utopian-vegetarian-right-wing-tree-hugging- Christian-just so you know where I’m coming from).

So we’re half way through year number two of learning at home and we’re doing amazingly well, considering I’m the one who’s home with them all day long. I take no credit for this, so please don’t mistake my boasting with self-aggrandizing. Hayden is a wonder. He is a daily walking miracle. Here’s a child born profoundly deaf who’s had so many reconstructive ear surgeries that I almost have to take off my shoes to count. Yet he is wired from the inside out for music: he has perfect pitch, learns a song after hearing it once, plays his guitar EVERYDAY and the violin almost everyday, and has incredibly clear speech when he’s singing (which is most of the time). In Colorado he was in music therapy with arguably the best music therapist in the state and by the time we left he was playing songs on the piano with the help of a finger guide only. Now we have to settle for mom making up songs for EVERY activity of the day. He helps set the table and clear the dishes after every meal and can dress himself (not that he wants to show off that skill too often. I think he worries that I would be bored stiff if I didn’t attend to his every whim every minute of the day). His self confidence is staggering. He thinks he’s the funniest person in THE WORLD and is an extremely good judge of character (in other words he can tell if a total stranger is worth a hoot or not). He is learning his colors, can say his ABC’s as clear as a bell, and can clearly communicate his needs with sign language and words. Granted his needs and wants are fairly simple at this point: to play with water in the bathroom sink and to play the violin. So those signs (water and music) get A LOT of use throughout the day. As does my response: “Not now, maybe later”. And maybe the BIGGEST benefit we’ve realized so far on this journey is Hayden’s health. In that he has a reasonably good level of it!! I had come to think of his runny nose as a part of him like his beautiful chocolate-brown eyes. Wow, a kid who’s come through SO MUCH medically (including MERSA, a central line to battle relentless inner ear infections, and multiple surgeries) without a constant cold or facial drainage. That ALONE is worth the price of admission for us!

The decision-making process of bringing Hayden home for school began when I started thinking in the late Spring/early Summer of 2005, about Hayden’s academic future. By all accounts we had had a brilliant staffing earlier in the spring and everyone at the table had decided that, despite Hayden’s psychologically graded “age” and development of about 18months-2years old, he would be in the first grade class for at least 60% of the school day and he would be “pulled out” for activities/academics where it was appropriate for the remainder of his school day. He was attending a very progressive school in our district that operated on a year round schedule and a majority of the classrooms had children with disabilities in them. A few weeks after that staffing when we were up here on a three week vacation I began thinking to myself, “And then what will happen when Hayden is in this first grade class? Will he actually be learning? Will he be authentically included in all the class activities?” Not only did a peaceful answer those questions not come, the only realistic outcome that I could envision was that Hayden would be on a path of social and emotional isolation without any meaningful scholastic experience. So then I started wondering to myself, “What would be the best possible learning situation for Hayden?” My answer to that was that he somehow have a constant one-on-one para-professional with him….kind of like a private tutor to challenge him and motivate him but not do his work for him (as had been the case during his entire year in kindergarten). It would have to be someone who really knew Hayden and knew when he was manipulating her or when he was genuinely tired/bored/over-stimulated/discouraged, etc….I knew that public schools just weren’t set up to provide a fully inclusive environment on one hand and yet provide constant one-on-one teaching on the other. But I knew through my work with him at home and through our home-based OT’s and ST’s that in that scenario is exactly where Hayden thrived and shined. He really could understand, learn and show what he knew but it hadn’t happened during his hours at school to that point.

So now what to do? I barely gave myself permission to even think of the “H-word”. And when I did, even for a microsecond, my whole body would shudder and I’d start hyperventilating. Back then those nasty episodes were brief but the longer our vacation lasted (that’s another epic story in itself) those pesky “H” thoughts popped into my mind like those obnoxious pop-up ads on the internet. “It’s something I ate”, I kept telling myself, willing myself self back into my reality that I couldn’t POSSIBLY teach my son at home and hope to accomplish anything close to an IEP goal. And there was the “little” sister to think about too. By this time she was due to be enrolled in kindergarten in the Fall but both my husband and I had already wondered how she could possibly handle a typical day in a typical kindergarten classroom, where even under the best of conditions and classroom management, it would be a very stimulating and very busy day for her. How would she be able to cope after school when she couldn’t even handle the two day a week preschool she had attended for two years?

I gave myself permission to think about the BIG “what if”. “What if we taught Hayden at home?” My knee jerk reaction was that the sky would fall in and Hayden wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to learn anything functional, like how to read, write, dress himself, how to really learn how to communicate by sign or speech or how to stand in line, sit with his hands in his lap and not bother his neighbor. After all, that’s what school’s for right? But I didn’t want to be ruled by knee-jerks and my heart palpitations so my husband and I really started talking about what that it could look like if we kept the kids and taught them at home, and we came to the conclusion that 1) We really do know Hayden better than anyone and he loves us and trusts us more than anyone (that seemed like pretty good motivation, and 2) Chances were we couldn’t do any worse than what had already been done with and for him in the previous four years in public school. (I know, I know, not exactly the biggest internal vote of confidence. Where’s the USC Marching Band when you need it?) We could always try it for a semester and if it proved to be too overwhelming, too frustrating, or if we saw that the children were just miserable, we would rethink our strategy. Or if I ran out of serotonin-enhancing pharmaceuticals-that was really the key to my way of thinking.

So here we are: Hayden is more responsive and connected to his environment and the people around him than ever before. He is able to follow directions and respond appropriately when spoken to (whether he chooses to or not is a different matter entirely). He’s eating better than ever (that’s another story for another time: “Food-Based Sensory Issues vs. The Sanity Of The Parental Units), and he and his sister Delaney are so close now: their relationship is rock-sold, tight, tight, tight brother and sister, and he is actually learning new things (colors, shapes, words) and building his skills (fine motor, balance, physical stamina) everyday. Baby steps. Good daily routines that serve the children. I try not to “Build Rome In A Day”. Translation: I tell myself a hundred times a day that every little thing I do with each child is a building block for the next day, the next skill level, the next practical application. On my good days I readily give myself permission to just enjoy the process of creating a learning environment. On my not-so-good-days I call another home-schooling mom of a child with special needs and she tells me to sit down, put my head between, and breathe into a paper bag and stop flogging myself with the wet noodle. And who has time to flog anyway? By the time I put the wet noodle down, Hayden’s walking into the bathroom with the violin…………

Gigi McLaughlin lives in Tacoma with her husband, their two children and two dogs and her father, who often wonders when she’s going to take another vacation.

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