A Homeschooling Odyssey: Oh! The Places We Will Go

by Bev Parnell

Our family did not always know that we would

In fact, we sidled up to it, flirted for a while then made a serious commitment. There were long nights at 3 am where the word “homeschooling” would sneak into my brain like a whisper and I would quickly brush it away, judging myself as a mother for “giving up too quickly” and “not giving Liam a chance” at the public school experience, where I had thrived. As an educator myself (I teach gown-ups), I somewhat reluctantly
parted ways with what school meant for me and turned toward what learning experience we were creating for and with Liam.

Our intent in sharing Liam’s story and our family’s journey to homeschooling is to provide others with resources, encouragement and maybe some perspective too if you are considering this option for your child.

What we love about Liam is he was born into this world with a deep love of trains, engineering and math. He is a phenomenal swimmer and even does some of his best learning and reading while soaking in the bathtub these days. He is passionate about numbers; in fact, we often save math as the “reward” for other subjects some days in school. Liam is an incredibly articulate, bright and a fiery, sensitive soul and the why behind our educational odyssey.

Liam’s story also includes more hospitalizations, needle sticks, pokes, prods, assessments, lost holidays to seizures and stolen childhood moments than is fair for any little boy and especially my own son. In early 2010 at age 14 months Liam was diagnosed with partial complex seizures. Since that time, we have averaged adding one additional diagnosis per year and we seem to be in a holding pattern (knock on wood). Liam’s medical chart likely reads like alphabet soup- HFA –ASD; SPD; DD-NOS…..and so to break it down: Liam has Sensory Processing Disorder with extreme auditory sensitivity/defensiveness, Tourette’s syndrome, seizure disorder/epilepsy and high functioning autism. Oh, and the summer of 2015, due to GI issues (common in this population) he also started the Low FOD MAP diet which is gluten-free, lactose-free and fructose-free.

Here’s the thing: we went to all of the local kindergarten orientations—no less than three. And after each one, I felt dread like a hard knot in the pit of my stomach and fear in my heart. I wondered how he would make it; as a mom, I so desperately longed for him to feel successful. We just couldn’t figure out which IEP or 504 Plan would cover which parts of what accommodation as we are often ourselves trying to figure out our enigma who is like a peacock among penguins.

The final straw for us with Liam’s SPD and auditory sensitivity was to know that each day at school began with a 400+ pep rally for school spirit—talk about starting the day with a meltdown….and that was just the beginning. We felt there were landmines everywhere we turned and based on our experiences with 5 different preschools from ages 2-4, knew what we were likely in for now even with the most attentive of educators. We simply have one complex little dude!

Yep-I was ready to buy a cot and just live at the school at this point.

So there came a light at the end of the tunnel that I’ll never forget: the day I met with Vicky McKinney to discuss upcoming support for Liam starting kindergarten; how would we preserve this bright, quirky spark of a child and support him too? Then I mentioned homeschooling, almost as confession, since I personally had so many questions about what this would mean. Vicky said to me “You do what is best for your baby!” And she provided information for the homeschooling conference at the Puyallup Fairgrounds happening that very same weekend.

It was a life-altering moment.

I soaked up the conference, feeling as though I had found a land that finally spoke our language. I was giddy and tearful all day with excitement, relief and…. well, freedom!

What’s working well? We have taken an eclectic approach and mix of curricula for 2015 and Liam’s kindergarten year. Our living room has been converted with a free standing table for handwriting and such; there is a trampoline for “bouncing out” his numbers or alphabet to provide sensory input. And if Liam is having an overloaded day, we can easily do reading in a bubble bath or while he is hanging upside down from the monkey rings installed from our ceiling. We have a freaky looking house now thanks to replicating the OT room and establishing a sensory friendly learning environment.

How about his education and learning? He can now read three primary level books on his own and he (just for fun) creates math flash cards “for mommy and daddy.” He’s enjoyed an out of the box learning approach to include: computer programming so that Elsa would ice skate a specific geometric pattern, cooking gluten free pumpkin cake (measuring is great math) and taking a trip to Colorado where homeschooling included learning all about airplanes for every lesson from handwriting letters to the airline to math that included adding the numbers in the altitude to reading about the history of flight—for a budding engineer this was heaven.

Without a doubt, I know in my heart that he would have been distracted with the sensory struggles in a large classroom, even with the very best of teachers and perhaps his rate of learning would have been impacted too.

The best news though? Liam is happy and healthier than ever. From a “whole child” perspective, his swimming skills are at a whole new level. His GI issues are rapidly resolving…and we are almost a full year seizure free again too.

In online communities, I often read about the struggle to meet IEPs and secure the appropriate level of support with limited resources and it hurts my heart for the parents and little ones out there. I know families are agents of change and teaching our educational system as much (or more) than we are perhaps receiving sometimes—all with the best of intent on all sides with amazing teachers helping.

Liam’s day may come when joins that scene and I feel sure he would help change hearts and minds in the process and public discourse. And for now, it has been a HUGE blessing to our family that we haven’t had to worry about whether everyone in his learning environment: (a) could recognize when a medication complication arose (b) could act when an environment change needed to happen (c) absolutely could pinpoint his signs of seizures and (d) ensure he was remaining diet compliant though lunches, birthday celebrations, snacks and holidays.

We have found such peace, fun and joy in creating his daily schedule, educational mission and vision for our family and the security of knowing that his unique gifts and spirit are honored and developed fully.

What are the challenges? Here are our top three that we found our first year…

Family and friends provided us with mixed reactions. So, ok I know the ONE question that is always there from family and friends: what about socialization? For Liam, his socialization is all about helping him feel successful and comfortable. He swims twice a week with other school-age home-schoolers and this fall did gymnastics with other (neuro-typical) boys his age with great enthusiasm. We’ve connected with a MeetUp community of like-minded home-schooling educators and their kiddos; he takes field trips once a month.

It can be tough for the educator. My husband (Liam’s dad), Graeme, is the primary homeschooler in our family, leaving his career with Microsoft to answer this calling. It is hard work tapping energy and great reserves of fortitude, focus and creativity when Liam gets “stuck” on perfection in the details or needs a recovery strategy after a meltdown. Building in self-care time for Graeme to do Crossfit has been a “must have” in our family to make this do-able. We would highly encourage any family to have the support plan in place and stick to it.

We’ve had to change and sacrifice…and laugh manically. Yes-our home is a mess most of the time…. we are making sacrifices on just one income now instead of two. It requires a totally new negotiation of family roles and goals together—and let’s face it: change is both exciting and challenging.  We had to create a united front and “safe space” to vent as we launched our approach. We also had to be sure as parents we were keeping a sense of perspective, balance and a really nutty sense of humor—which has saved the day more times than I can count.

What gets us through the tough days? In the end, we have this conviction of what is true for Liam and we are gifted with the responsibility to fully act upon it. At the end of each day, what I can say for sure is that Liam is learning, growing and more confident that we have ever seen him.

Oh! The Places We Will Go!

Looking back now, this is the best thing that we have ever done as a family and with Liam. And we are just at the beginning…I know there are others out there who are blazing trails and I am so grateful for them all. For our family, homeschooling meant letting go of some hard-wired expectations of what education had to be and embracing what we could create together to help Liam be his best self.

I’m glad to share more about our resources and family experience: bamawagal@gmail.com

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” (Dr. Seuss)

Here are just a few of our favorite resources:

Washington Homeschool Organization http://washhomeschool.org/

We also purchased our curricula here: http://www.confessionsofahomeschooler.com/ as it was a simple PDF with ample tools. Terrific site!

Two favorite books:

Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner by Kathy Kuhl, which has multiple tips and stories specific to children with a range of disabilities or different learning styles. Available on Amazon.

The Developing Child-which uses the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) approach for assessing/identifying your child’s preferred style and how to align to it for maximum impact.