Should You Try Homeschooling?
Should You Try Homeschooling?
Let’s face it, school can be really tough for many autistic kids and as their parents it can feel like an exhausting never-ending struggle to get them what they need.
If this sounds familiar then at some point you’ve probably wondered whether homeschool might be a better option... and then you hid under the bed because the thought of being wholly responsible for your kids’ education is scary as hell.
So how do you decide whether to take the plunge?
We’re two years into our second shot at homeschooling and it’s made a huge difference in our lives. But the decision to get here was really, really tough and everyone has a different set of factors to take into consideration when deciding whether homeschool is right for them. So my goal here is not to convince you to do it, but rather to give you some things to think about that might help you make the decision either way.
Forget about your skills as a teacher
One of the first things that parents worry about when deciding whether to take their kids out of school is “how will I teach them everything they need to know?” Well relax because this is actually the least important place to start. I could write a whole blog post on this alone, so here's the short version... you don't have to. I'll come back to this at the end.
How do your kids learn best?
Some kids really respond to the way learning happens in school - the structure and routine, sitting and listening to an instructor, taking tests. Others don’t. Maybe they need more one-on-one instruction time than school can provide, or they have to walk around while they think and talk things out rather than writing them down.
Can you cope with being around them all day?
You have to be completely honest with yourself about this one. It’s perfectly okay if the answer is no, it doesn’t make you a bad parent... but it does mean that homeschooling is likely to drive you all nuts, especially if your kids are very young. Which leads me to...
Can they learn independently?
Are there going to be any times of the day in which your kids will be able to sit and do activities alone? Burnout is one of the main reasons that homeschool programs fail, and if you have to be the constant and only source of instruction then you’re in more danger of that happening.
Are they getting free therapy services at school?
Regulations will differ depending on where you live, but for most people access to any support services like OT or speech therapy which are provided by the education system will stop once you start homeschooling.
How do your kids feel about school?
Not all kids hate school, even those that might be having a hard time there. What would they miss most if they left, and can you provide that for them at home? Conversely, what do they hate most at school? Is that something you can overcome if they stay?
What are your kids interested in? What are they good at?
Sometimes school is the best place for them to be if their talents and interests lie in things that are difficult to provide for at home, like chemistry or athletics. Other times home is the best place to be if their future lies in an area that schools aren’t equipped to teach - programming is a really good example of this (and is a large part of the reason we homeschool).
Can you work with the school?
What’s the general attitude of the people you need to deal with - helpful or obstructive? There’s a big difference between a school that isn’t yet prepared to meet your kids’ needs and one that isn’t willing to.
Is sleep an issue?
Do your kids go to bed late or wake during the night? Do you have a hard time getting them up in the morning? If so then you all might benefit from a more relaxed schedule that allows you to start later in the day.
How do they cope with the sensory environment of school?
There are some aspects of classroom life for which it will always be hard to compensate, like noise and fluorescent lighting for example. Both of these can cause significant levels of discomfort for hypersensitive kids, and nobody learns well under those conditions.
Are they learning anything at school?
For some kids, it takes all of their energy and focus just trying to stay afloat in the classroom - transitioning between activities, adjusting to breaks, winding down again afterwards, coping with the sensory onslaught and social confusion... there's very little left over for learning.
Do they spend a lot of time out of school?
If you're taking the kids out of class to attend appointments, or they have a lot of sick days or time off from anxiety or meltdowns, then it makes sense to look at whether staying home might be a better option.
Are there safety issues at school?
For me this is where the decision becomes a no-brainer. Bullying, wandering, a lack of awareness or inadequate supervision can all create a less-than-ideal environment for your kids when it comes to their protection.
Can your career and finances cope?
This is the reality of homeschool - it requires at least one parent to be at home all day every day. Even if you can manage to work from home, there'll be less time and thinking space for you to do that so it would have to be part-time at best.
Are you trying to escape standardized testing?
This is a common reason for people to start looking at homeschool, but depending on where you live you may not be exempt from the requirement to undergo standardized tests.
Are you able to provide the social experiences they want or need?
The most common concern that people have about homeschooling is the perceived lack of socializing... but that implies that throwing kids together with a group of kids their own age is a positive and useful social experience. For many it’s nowhere close to being that. And it makes huge assumptions about the kinds of relationships that kids need - whether they even want friends, how they like to interact with others and who they feel most comfortable doing that with. So if you’re worried about whether your kids will miss out, step outside this rather narrow view of friendship and take a good look at their individual needs.
How do you feel about taking risks?
Homeschooling is a gamble. You don’t know whether it’s going to work out until you dive right in and try it, and some people just feel better sticking with something that they know. You also might not be emotionally in the right headspace for being bold and taking risks at the moment.
If it doesn’t work out, would going back to school be an issue?
There’s nothing that says homeschool has to be forever, but for some it’s a riskier proposition than others. Maybe you’ll be giving up a place at a school that will be hard to get back into, or the change in lifestyle would just be too difficult a transition for your kids to make.
Are your efforts better spent elsewhere?
Are you spending so much time trying to figure out which supports your kids qualify for that you’ve lost track of what they actually need? Are you so exhausted from trying to help them survive their day in a classroom that learning has become a secondary concern? This was one of the main reasons we opted for homeschool. I decided that all of the time spent training teachers and fighting bureaucracy and asking and fixing and trying to squeeze the kids into a round hole was better spent teaching them in an environment that let them be square pegs.
How will you teach them everything they need to know?
And we're back to our first question. Hopefully by this point you have a fairly clear idea of whether homeschool is the best learning situation for your family... in which case this question pretty much becomes moot. Because the goal of this decision isn't about finding a way to teach your kids everything they need to know (that comes later), but in discovering the optimal environment in which to learn.
The bottom line
For me, the hardest part of homeschooling was actually making the decision to do it. And I suspect it’s that way for many families, because it’s terrifying and feels like jumping off a cliff without a parachute. There are lots of different reasons for and against taking that plunge, but hopefully these questions will help you to focus your thoughts a little if you’re in the hot seat trying to make this decision.
But there’s one thought I want to leave you with - homeschool doesn’t have to be something you choose because school isn’t working out. Even if your school experience has been great, homeschool is a legitimate and awesome way to learn in its own right.
Postscript: A realistic snapshot of homeschool life
Homeschooling isn’t easy. It’s mentally taxing, the kids are with me all the time, money is non-existent and I constantly worry that I’m not doing enough. But there’s one thing that makes all of that worthwhile... the changes in the kids.
They're happy. Their lives which have been so full of challenges to this point are now filled with stress-free days. They get a lot more sleep and a lot less transitions. Attie is enthused about learning and finally believes that he's smart and capable. He doesn't have kids telling him that he's weird and annoying, and I don't have to worry about him being a target for bullies.
Max, who spent every day not talking to a single soul, is now relaxed enough to voluntarily start (and enjoy) conversations. I have time to teach them all the things that don't get taught at school, the things that their peers learn intuitively like self-help skills and how to catch a bus and blow their nose and read facial expressions. We have time to talk, really talk about the things that confuse and worry and fascinate them. And I don’t spend a single minute of my day fighting to get them what they need. It is in every single way easier than school, for all of us.
So even though it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, it’s one that I know I will never, ever regret.