Laundry is overflowing in the hampers, the sink is full of dishes, and a mess of incomplete school work is strewn across the dining room table. Cuddled together under a warm blanket, my son Ethan and I embrace the joy of reading a book together.
It was all that could make that otherwise miserable January afternoon bearable. It had not been a happy morning and both of us were exhausted. The laughter and shouts of children walking home after a long day in school filled the air outside. I was convinced in my gut that they all had a productive day.
In our home no measurable academic learning had taken place, and that old familiar feeling of utter failure started to creep into my heart once again. These feeling and thoughts were fleeting though because I was quickly reminded that despite a difficult day my son knew that he was loved and he was valued. Yes! We were both a success today in loving one another. Some days that is enough.
Homeschooling a child on the spectrum presents unique challenges, but with those challenges there are amazing rewards. When your child consistently struggles with simple daily activities, when they must fight against the onslaught of sensory overload and cope with the anxiety that lurks around every corner, just living life can be overwhelming for them. So often at the end of the day they are not able to do all their work.
Still, if they know that they are loved and valued, then hope can motivate them to keep moving forward. After particularly frustrating or exhausting days, we parents often feel defeated. I attack those days by reflecting on what amazing people my sons are becoming.
The world is a battlefield for them and at times my youngest must struggle against his body and mind to even function. Real life milestones are just as important as academic success for our children, but we often feel that we have failed if they do not progress as we or others think they should. We doubt ourselves and question our ability to meet their needs.
How can I know I’m doing what is best for my child? How can I document the immeasurable and untestable aspects of homeschooling my child? What can I use to motivate and encourage myself and my child when nothing goes as planned or expected? Facing these challenges requires a plan.
There are many choices when it comes to our children’s education. Yet the choice to homeschool is as much a lifestyle choice as an educational one. Therefore, merely setting educational goals holds us back from the fullness of what homeschooling can be.
I have listened to the sorrow and disappointment of so many parents who gave up on homeschooling only to find themselves even more upset by how horribly things are going back in public school. It’s heartbreaking.
Parents often find themselves in situations where they have unattainable expectations for themselves and their children. I fell into that trap when I started homeschooling my oldest son 12 years ago.
I tried to recreate a traditional school in my home, I used a rigid curriculum, and I filled our whole day with frustration and tears. With a deployed husband and a recently regressing toddler at home I eventually broke down and put him into public school.
After eight excruciating months filled with bullying, neglect, and endless IEP meetings, I finally realized I could not possibly do worse than they were doing at my local school. So I pulled him out to homeschool once again. Only the second time around I gave my son and myself additional space and lots of grace.
Overextending and burning out our children in attempts to help them is another mistake many homeschooling parents make. When my son Ethan was a preschooler, he was in four different therapies for approximately three hours a day five days a week.
This insanity started when he was 18-months-old, and three years later his life was still full of miserable heart-wrenching frustration.
Despite all our hard work he was falling even more behind both developmentally and academically. I felt defeated and he dreaded each session. The therapy had helped him some, but at what cost? He was miserable, angry with himself all the time and I just wanted to rescue him from all the emotional pain. I finally realized that although some therapy is necessary for our kids and can be helpful when used correctly, it is not the answer for everything.
I decided the emotional and mental cost of the therapies was too much for the small advances he was making. My son is not a robot, he does not fit into a neat little box and his worth cannot be measured by a standard evaluation form. He is a human being of great worth.
After putting everything into perspective we came up with a plan. Listing the most important long term goals first, I came up with my list of ten in order of importance. Having our goals written out to refer to and use as a basis for planning changed everything. Every family needs to make their own list to meet their priorities, and it should be periodically evaluated for needed changes or additions.
Looking at the goals before planning or when things get really difficult can be the difference between giving up and being successful. My list of goals/priorities is as follows:
1. To have a healthy marriage and strong support system. We need to take good care of each other and ourselves to be able to give our children what they need.
2. To raise compassionate independent men who love God. We hope our son’s will live out their faith in love, be able to care for themselves, and to live independently.
3. To foster a loving relationship between everyone in our family. A goal like this helps us prioritize things like putting off a math lesson to allow our boys to continue playing a game cooperatively. Every prolonged successful interaction builds a stronger and more loving relationship.
4. To show my sons how to build lasting relationships with others. We use consistent examples and guided interactions showing them how to communicate, how to compromise, how to forgive, how to ask for forgiveness, etc. These are skills they will need for future relationships in their family, with friends, and in the workplace.
5. To help my sons find their calling. It is easier to succeed in an area someone is well-suited for and passionate about. It may take a long time, but once you find it other goals can be adjusted to cultivate success in that area.
6. To nurture the gifts and skills my sons already have. Giving your child the space to find and explore their natural gifts is crucial for their motivation and self-worth. When constant academics and therapy get in the way of what they enjoy and are good at, what comes naturally to them is not valued over what is a constant struggle. I do not limit their time using their gifts to only after therapies and schoolwork. Making it a priority, they know how much I value what they do well and it decreases the focus on where they struggle.
7. To create in my sons a love of learning. We use family reading time, science experiments with no seat work just to enjoy the process, field trips to fun or interesting places, and most importantly a lot of interactive games (board games, card games, outdoor games, etc.)
8. To teach my sons how to learn. We use a classical education approach, focusing on the stages of learning and the methods of teaching in those stages.
9. To ensure that my sons learn how to master the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. These are the most important skills academically a person will ever need. Everything else is built upon these foundations.
10. To enrich their education with other subjects. Subjects like history, foreign languages and science are important, but take a back seat to our bigger academic priorities when need be.
Having these goals and my overall priorities in order has transformed my homeschooling journey for the better. It is still a struggle at times and as always requires hard work, but more often than not the tears have been replaced by laughter and joy.
This article was featured in Issue 50 – The Autism Homeschooling Revolution