I find myself once more on the precipice of Education. At two other times in my life I have found myself here, at a Crossroads. The path well travelled points to school. It is one which most take without even being aware of other paths; one which most take with a sense of righteousness; one which few take without question. Then there are other paths into the forest, some barely distinguishable from the undergrowth. Some of those paths are those taken by special schools who cater for children who simply cannot learn in a one size fits all environment. Other paths see parents finding schools who have explored alternative learning approaches: Montessori schools, Steiner schools, small independent and extremely individual schools. Choosing a school for religious reasons seems more and more common and in itself is forging a new and visible path through the forest.
Another path open to parents, but little publicised is that of home educating, or homeschooling. Home educating is not exactly one path as each family undertaking this journey will do so in their own fashion. The choices are endless, and not so long ago I did a vast amount of research on the matter. From paid curriculums which provide you with the course material, a tutor for help or advice and marking independently, to “unschooling” which to the uninformed seems much the same as leaving children to their own devices, the variety of approaches is almost infinite.
In June of 2006, Darling Man and I came to the inescapable conclusion that we could not continue sending Eldest to the local school. He was six years old at the time, had recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and was in a terrible state. His fear and confusion each school day was a horror to behold, and he was begging me to kill him on a daily basis. In moments of lucidity, he would sob his heart out asking why he couldn’t be like the other children. Despite all of this, the then special needs teacher could give us no help. His intelligence was a barrier to getting a statement and the help he desperately needed, and the best she could offer was that any statementing process would take at least two years. Zack did not have two years in the state he was in. We could not afford private schooling, nor could I find any school that would be able to meet his needs. Faced with this situation, I decided to bring him home.
This was a decision that was taken over the course of about nine months and was not taken lightly. I was incredibly fortunate to have the utter backing of Darling Man, but I have to stress that the choice to home educate was no choice at all. It was a decision that came from desperation teamed with the knowledge that I am (possibly more than anything else) a teacher. I knew that I could teach him, and I knew that he needed to be with Mummy. His emotional development seems to have hit the “bonding with Mum” stage – about five and a half years late!! His need to be close to me, together with his utter devastation when in school made the conclusion inescapable for us.
It was very hard work. During the first year Eldest was home, I focussed hugely on his mental well being. We did a lot of art, working on BIG canvasses, using clay, playing music. We went ice skating and climbing because this once fearless little boy had become terrified of everything. We worked a little on handwriting by copying poems (this took away the fear of finding words), though I eventually decided to remove writing from his curriculum, preferring to scribe for him. After a while, he began to write for himself, but I still think that this would have taken much longer if I had persisted with forcing him to write. We worked on maths without worrying that he did not remember his number bonds to ten… he could easily do long multiplication and division and we worked on weird and wonderful ways of working around his difficulties with rote learning. We “adopted” a tree on the common and worked out how old it was, what creatures lived in and around it and tracked its progress through the year. We learned all the countries of Africa and drew some beautiful maps. We flattened a globe to work out how maps are drawn. We read, aloud, together.
By the end of our first year, I had my boy back. I also had a little boy who clearly had some considerable difficulties. I made referrals to occupational therapy, and sought help from the local autistic school. They were very helpful, and offered him a place on a specialised speech and language therapy group. Social skills were very very difficult to work on. Zack was so terribly afraid of children his age that any effort at group play was failing. I eventually chose to make him a part of the local community rather than to try and force him into a peer group that was simply non-existent. We want so much for children to be with their chronological peers, but Zack had nothing in common with other six and seven year olds. So we went to coffee shops and grocers, bakers and butchers. Zack learned to place an order, pay and get change. He learned to say hello and in turn, the shopkeepers learned his name. Not only was he beginning to be a part of our larger community, but I was gaining a sense of support. Eldest had and has a tendency to run away when angry, upset or confused. Slowly, I was beginning to feel that if he ran, I could count on community support to notice and act should they see him. Home education was in many ways a huge success. For then, for us, for that particular situation.
But there was one thing I had not foreseen: as I was busy trying to keep my little boy from plummeting off a cliff, I was also supporting Sweet Girl in her first year at school (all the while trying to make some sense of Zack’s situation for her), and I was keeping Little Man going (he had started pre school, but only part time, and his health concerns were as time consuming as ever). While I understood the need to look after myself, I lost sight of that emotionally. In late 2008, it became clear that things would have to change. Eldest was becoming violent and both Little Man and I were at risk.
By January 2009 I knew that we would have to look at some kind of residential schooling and began the excruciating process to get him an educational statement and preparing myself, Darling Man and Eldest for a major change. The paperwork went in on February 3rd 2009. On the morning of March 24th, I broke. There followed six months of awful pain, uncertainty and upheaval for all the family. Most of that is documented in my older blog, The Goings on of my Little Life and is not for here or today. The important thing is that we got through it, and on October 2nd, Eldest changed paths once again, and found one ideally suited to him. I’m thrilled to say that he is doing incredibly well at a very specialised school.
Now I am poised. Waiting and ready to make a similar decision IF it becomes necessary.
Sweet Girl simply will not manage mainstream secondary school. She finds it such a struggle to go into her primary school, one which she has been a part of since she started school. Her anxiety level is sky high and she experiences fierce panic attacks. She notices the slightest change of smell, and finds it almost impossible to adjust to that change. At times she cannot tolerate the feel of shoes on her feet. People… crowds are her worst nightmare. She feels hemmed in, watched and crowded to the point where her brain shuts down all “unnecessary” functions and operates purely at a primal level: fight or flight. The very idea that she might in less than a year be capable of approaching a brand new building, with brand new staff, brand new children (and far more of them), new smells and sounds and a completely different structure to the day, different teaching methods and expectations is laughable. And putting her into that situation is not something I am willing to do.
As much as I understand the need to follow processes, and “play” the system, I do so with enormous awareness of the impact on my daughter. She is in school in spite of her fragile mental health, because the “system” requires her to be. In going along with this, I hope to precipitate the statement that will give her access to an education that she can access. Last year, I reached my line; she was so extremely distressed that she was making herself physically ill. Each morning saw a physical struggle to get her to let me go, and one morning her fierce need to flee resulted in her hand being caught in a door as a member of staff tried desperately to keep her safely indoors. That day I said no more. No more physical restraint, no more closing doors behind me, no more carrying her off screaming. This is no way to treat a young girl of ten who is so distressed that she cannot control her behaviour more than that.
So far this year, school and I have worked within the constraints of the system and within the boundaries of Sweet Girl’s dignity and health. The various agencies that become involved when children are not in school sufficiently also seem to be understanding that she is not truanting, nor is she a school refuser (they haven’t actually worked that one out yet, but they do acknowledge her anxiety). And so I have hope that we will achieve the goal I have in mind: that she access a school where she will feel safe and nurtured enough to allow her to learn. In her case (and each is absolutely and compellingly unique) this has to be a special school. Luckily, fortunately, there is a school not far from home which I believe suits her ideally.
My fear is that the wheels and cogs of the system turn very slowly. Because of this, I am “supposed” to apply for secondary schools this week at the latest. Mainstream only since she does not currently have a statement. Rather than ignore the system, I have written a candid letter explaining the reasons which prohibit me from applying to such schools. I also have the backing of paediatricians and psychiatrists. In an email, the system (nameless) urges me to apply for fear of becoming a “late applicant”. This is mentioned with a considerable dread – though I feel they missed my point that I have no preferred choice of school given that none of the available schools would be able in any way to meet Sweet Girl’s needs.
So I have made a decision. I abhor uncertainty; it fills me with nameless fear, opens the floodgates to panic and generally makes me jittery. IN order to avoid a year of such uncertainty I needed to have a back up option for next September. Having discussed the options with Darling Man (Sweet Girl need not know any of this at the moment), I have decided that I will home educate Kesia in September if we have not yet obtained the right placement for her. I will not stop fighting for her, and I will probably ask the doctor’s help (I would rather not remove her from the school system officially – these are details that I only need to deal with IF the situation occurs). But I will not place her in the dragon’s jaws, and I will not allow her to drown. She must maintain an anchor of safety and stability and mainstream secondary school would cut her off from that.
In a later post I’m hoping to explore the myriad ways in which one can home educate. It is a wonderful and frightening world of possibility – exciting and fabulous, heavy with responsibility and also potential. It is one in which I have already dipped my toes, and though I fear its necessity, I also hold a glimmer of exhilaration at the thought of exploring learning with my Sweet Girl…