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Forging Our Own Path: The decision to homeschool

This is the second of three blogs today from New Jersey mom SarahG. Her first was on worrying less, while her third — to post later this afternoon — will focus on diagnosing Tourette Syndrome.

When my son, O, was 3 years old, our pediatrician advised me to put him in preschool, because “95 percent of children attend preschool,” and if O missed out on the preschool experience, he would forever be at an academic disadvantage.  Naturally, I did not want my son to start school at a disadvantage, so I placed him in the best preschool I could find.

At the time, O’s first tics already were beginning to manifest themselves, although it would be several years until we realized exactly what was happening.  All we knew then, though, was that he was “a real handful.”  Even if he did not learn anything in preschool, there was something to be said for getting that little bit of a break from parenting the human tornado.

Two years and many headaches later, my husband and I removed both of our children from preschool.  As it turned out, O’s teachers had little patience for the challenges he presented and no visible interest in learning why he was the way he was. At first they attributed O’s differences to my lack of parenting skills.  Once my younger son, B, a model student, enrolled in the school, the teachers decided the problem simply was that O was a bad kid.  For O, that meant that his situation went from bad to worse.

When I picked O up each day, he either was in a rage or was sobbing uncontrollably.  He was sent out of the classroom when there were visitors so he would not reflect poorly on the school; when he misbehaved, he was put in the janitor’s closet in the office or confined to a chair and not allowed to move.

Disciplinary policies such as modeling good behavior were suspended for O.  Respect for privacy and confidentiality went out the window, as the teachers publicly mocked O and complained loudly about him to me in front of other parents.  One day, I stopped by the school at lunch to pick up my younger son.

From the other side of the school, I could hear an adult screaming and a child sobbing ; a parent volunteer was unloading her wrath on O for something he did not do.  The school staff defended her actions because O was “so difficult.”  That was our last day of school.

I spent a few months exploring other preschools and elementary schools in the hope of finding a less toxic environment for my children.  I also spent several years kicking myself for listening to the pediatrician in the first place and for leaving my son in a setting where he was miserable.  I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself for that. Since it was the middle of the school year, all good programs and most not-so-good programs were full.

Meanwhile, O’s mood stabilized a little.  He began to read more voraciously, and his academic skills went into overdrive as he tore through elementary-level materials in just a few months.  I soon realized that I was dealing with a child who was not old enough to attend public kindergarten in our state but who had already exhausted the elementary school curriculum.  All of a sudden, we were homeschoolers.

Many people, when they think of homeschoolers, imagine a conservative religious family spending its days studying the Bible and reciting verses.  Others, perhaps, think of extreme portrayals of homeschoolers in the media.  If you are among those people, take a moment to think about traditional media portrayals of people with TS.

Guess what? The media are no more accurate when it comes to portraying homeschoolers.  As for the religious homeschooler stereotype, while it is true that for years homeschooling largely was the realm of religious fundamentalists, the homeschooling population has been undergoing a transformation for a number of years.

Homeschoolers now come in all colors, political affiliations and religious beliefs – or nonbeliefs.  Many parents now homeschool their children because they are unhappy with their local schools or they were not able to find a school that could meet their child’s needs.

I never had considered homeschooling my children.  I enjoyed spending time with them when they were little; I liked going to the zoo or to the park or the beach.  But I also was looking forward to the time when my boys would start school and I would be able to resume my career.

When we removed both boys from preschool, I was in the middle of establishing a plan for going back to work. I will not pretend that I do not miss having a career – I miss it terribly. Parenting a child with TS, severe ADHD and OCD is not easy in the best circumstances, and I admit that there have been many days when I wished I could get a break while my son was at school.  There have been many other days when I would have liked to know that I was not the sole person responsible for my son’s education – what if I screwed up?

Over the years, I have tried a few times to put the boys in school; a description of our interactions with school officials probably should be saved for another post.  In brief, the fact that O is twice-exceptional – profoundly gifted in addition to having TS – means that he presents an educational challenge that few schools are willing or able to undertake.

There are therapeutic schools that could handle his TS and ADHD but lack the academic curriculum he needs; other schools might be able to provide a stimulating academic environment, but they are neither equipped nor inclined to handle having a child with O’s issues in their classrooms.

And so, we continue homeschooling.  O now is in 10th grade.  Each year, we have evaluated our choices to determine if homeschooling remains the best solution.  As long as homeschooling is the “least worst” option, we feel compelled to continue.

At this point, O’s tics are less frequent but more violent than they were in the past.  Without warning, he will lose control of his legs, or he will be flung to the ground, where his entire body convulses for a few minutes, or his epiglottis will slam shut over his trachea until B or I administer the Heimlich maneuver.

These episodes are inconvenient for all of us and painful for O.  But, were O in school, he probably would have to use a wheelchair and/or have an aide with him.  As a homeschooled student, O is able to continue with his normal activities – running, swimming, drawing, birding – without restrictions and without feeling stigmatized for his tics.  O also is able to move at his own pace academically, which is important for all of us; keeping his brain stimulated and settled actually eases his physical symptoms.

Homeschooling a high-schooler with ADHD is a challenge. Right now, I am typing this while I remind O to stay focused/ come back here/ no, really, come back here/ show all of your work/ keep track of time/ please come back here! Managing the increased workload while trying to cultivate study skills and time management skills is difficult for both of us – but we are optimistic about the future.

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