Why have I chosen the path less traveled and homeschool my children?
Because I feel like that’s the path I was on long before I knew I was walking it.
I began looking for alternative solutions to school when my family stopped functioning like a typical family. Until then, I never questioned what our next steps in life would be. Everything was mapped out for us and I was happy following the crowd. Autism has changed my perspective on a lot of things. Schooling is just one of them.
I’ve chosen to homeschool my children for many reasons. Here are five of them.
1) I fell in love with teaching them. It started with Owen, watching and learning from the various therapists that came into our home following his autism diagnosis. I would ask a lot of questions and look up anything that I didn’t understand. In essence, they were homeschooling me.
During that time, I would watch Owen struggle to do a particular task. In the beginning, there were times that I would think to myself, “He’ll never be able to do that.” Then I’d watch as time and time again, he’d prove me wrong. Suddenly, a task that seemed insurmountable only weeks before would be done effortlessly. Walking with him through his struggles, discovering different ways to help him make the connection and then celebrating his successes is a gift and I feel blessed to be a part of it.
2) Flexibility. On good days we do school work for an hour or more, adding games, interactive play or arts and crafts to the curriculum. On bad days, when Owen is manic and incapable of sitting still; his nervous system is overwhelmed with noises, smells and too many instructions coming at him at once. On those days, everything is a struggle but because we are at home it doesn’t have to be. We can take a break for the moment or the entire day. Instead we can go for a walk in the woods, do a scavenger hunt or watch an educational video and relax. We’ve got all night and the next day and the next to revisit their schoolwork. For Owen, when he’s feeling overwhelmed, taking a break to help regain his composure and to calm the misfiring in his central nervous system is just as important as a child with asthma using an inhaler or a child with a severe allergic reaction using an epipen. With autism, reactions to over stimulation and the techniques used to calm them are so specific to the needs of a particular child that it is very difficult to meet these children’s individual needs in the classroom. With homeschooling, I can address his individual needs immediately while teaching him how to properly calm himself so that he is better equipped to handle it by himself in the future.
In addition, the flexibility of homeschooling allows us to spend more time with those we love at a moment’s notice. If one of the grandparents wants to see the kids for an afternoon, that’s not a problem. They get to enjoy time with one another, I get some time to myself and we still can do school later that day.
3) Time. Homeschooling allows me a large amount of time to spend with my children to grow, evolve and strengthen our relationship. Not just as their mother but as their teacher and fellow student as well. Few of us are lucky enough to have children that are naturally a delight to be around. Most of us have had that moment of realization when the weekend is stretched out before us, with no plans, our spouse is out of town (or out of the picture) and we panic at the thought of spending an entire weekend alone with our children. Been there, it happens. We’re only human and small children in their growing independence are noisy, challenging, button pushing beings much of the time. That’s why my main goal as a parent and homeschooler is to raise children that I want to be around. It takes time, patience, perseverance and love to develop relationships. Homeschooling provides me that opportunity.
Homeschooling gives me the time to focus on teaching life skills as well as recognizing and dealing with behavioral challenges in my children. Life skills and behavioral challenges are the two most important subjects that I will ever teach them. It’s more important to me that my children learn life skills than actual academics. In academics, the most important thing to know is where and how to find information on a particular subject and then incorporating your individual learning style to remember the information. Everything before and after is about life skills and behavior. Responsibility, meeting deadlines, starting and completing projects, following through on commitments, following and maintaining a schedule, and being dependable are all examples of life skills that help make a person successful. Knowledge of the material can make someone a more interesting conversationalist, give them confidence among their peers and make them one hell of a Trivial Pursuits player but without the life skills and discipline to properly apply that knowledge in their lives they’ll continue to spin their wheels for a very long time.
One of the positive things that has come out of Owen’s autism diagnosis is that it has changed my perspective on children and their challenging behaviors. I no longer look at those behaviors as something that needs to be stomped out of them but more as a puzzle that needs to be figured out in order to treat the underlying causes; therefore treating the behavior. Because of his autism diagnosis, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn about ABA Therapy. Briefly, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a process used to objectively collect data regarding a particular behavior in order to determine what happened immediately before the behavior (antecedent), what type of behavior ensued (behavior) and what was the result of that behavior (consequence). Although this type of therapy is most frequently used in children with autism, I have found that applying the principles of the program for both of my children (and even our dogs) has proven to be extremely helpful in identifying the cause of a behavior.
Once again time is a factor and homeschooling provides that for us. It takes a lot of time spent with one another, learning about each other and dealing with each others positive and negative personality traits, in order to become friends. Just because they are my children does not automatically mean that we will enjoy spending time together. Relationships take time. Homeschooling provides us the time to nurture those relationships.
4) Socialization. One of my initial concerns of homeschooling and the concern that I hear the most from others is the perceived lack of socialization in homeschoolers. I was so worried about lack of socialization that I signed my kids up for a variety of activities, joined a local homeschool group and scheduled so many playdates that I didn’t have any time left for school! I soon realized that the opportunities for socialization are endless and just like everything else, we need to find the proper balance between home, school and play. Ironically, socialization is now one of the main reasons I choose to homeschool.
I believe that social skills should be taught at home before our children even enter school. Every time we take our children to the store, the bank or the post office is an opportunity to teach proper social skills. With typical children, it can be done without much thought. They watch you interact with the other adults and automatically try to imitate you. When you have a child with autism, who struggles understanding social cues, it is all that more important to practice proper behavior in social settings over and over and over again.
Having regular playdates is a wonderful opportunity to teach proper social skills. It’s during playdates where the opportunity arises to teach our children how to share, take turns, show empathy for one another, be polite and use proper manners. Once again, with typical kids this can be done with little forethought. A fight breaks out, you discuss taking turns, then go back to your coffee and adult conversation. With a special needs child that presents an opportunity for role playing and practicing taking turns over and over again while your coffee gets cold and your adult conversation is put on hold, indefinitely.
Proper socialization is directly proportionate to the amount of time we put into it. Homeschooling gives me the freedom to take my kids on field trips whenever the opportunity or situation presents itself. Not only are they learning hands on but they are interacting with other children and adults on a daily basis. It’s amazing how much learning happens running an errand to the store, post office or bank. If social situations are overwhelming, which can often be the case for Owen, then we can approach it more slowly until he understands the expectations and gains the confidence to interact appropriately. The goal is to teach my children how to properly handle themselves in social situations in a safe and loving environment. The more practice they have in social situations the more confidence they will gain. So when they are ready to have an unsupervised playdate, they’ll have the tools and confidence in themselves to be successful.
5) Bullying. One of the biggest concerns for parents of children with specials needs when sending their child to school is bullies. Bullying is a very real and very common occurrence among children with disabilities. My stomach turns with every news story I read about a child with autism being bullied. Articles discussing the high rates of depression, suicide and alcohol & drug dependency among autistic teens makes me shudder. Bullying terrifies me; however I believe in facing my fears and not running from them. I always check my motives when making a big decision. I ask myself two questions, “Am I making this decision out of fear? Am I reacting out of fear or resentment?” If the answer is yes to either of the questions then I seriously reconsider my decision. Through the years, I’ve learned that making a decision based solely out of fear only adds to that fear, never diminishing it.
Not wanting to project my fears on to my son I took some extra time to write out the pros and cons of homeschooling. I also wrote a few paragraphs describing why I wanted to homeschool then set it aside. A few days later, I reread what I wrote and was able to clearly see that my decision to homeschool was based on several solid, rational, lifestyle choices and not one made out of fear. My goal is not to keep my children in a bubble and shield them from all of life’s difficulties. My plan is to prepare them for the real world by giving them the confidence and self esteem to know how to handle themselves in many of life’s situations. Providing them with a strong foundation of self confidence, encouragement, faith and love so that they can confidently stand up for themselves and others while standing firm in their convictions. Avoiding bullies in their early developmental years is just another perk of homeschooling.
I love that school doesn’t have to be one thing. It can evolve with us as a family. Homeschooling is not easy but nothing worthwhile ever is.