What it's really like to homeschool my daughter with special needs
Way back in 1984, with much fear and trepidation, my husband and I made the controversial decision to homeschool our children. I quickly discovered that I loved teaching my own children and so as the years passed we kept homeschooling them. But then, in the November of 2000, my two year old daughter Bethany was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Our whole world was turned upside down in an instant. She had the lifesaving brain surgery she needed, but shortly after the surgery she had a stroke and became permanently disabled.
After spending two months in the hospital dealing with life-threatening complications, Bethany was finally well enough to go home, but she has never been the same little girl as before the surgery. She has great difficulty communicating her wants and needs. She deals with right side hemiplegia, which means she is paralyzed on half of her body, as well as refractory epilepsy, moderate autism, significant developmental delays, occasional aggressive outbursts, and partial blindness.
Upon Bethany's discharge from the hospital, we immediately enrolled her in our state's early intervention program and discovered that she was eligible for speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and special preschool education. Bethany and I had developed an almost symbiotic relationship while we were in the hospital, plus she and her siblings were so happy to finally be together again that I didn't have the heart to send her away for her therapies, so it was arranged for her to receive them at home.
When Bethany reached kindergarten age, even though she had severe learning disabilities and developmental delays, I did not hesitate to continue her education at home along with her brothers and sisters.
When she was seven, I began to have doubts that I could teach her everything she needed to know. She was struggling to read: I'd managed to teach her letter sounds but couldn't seem to help her connect how they came together. As heart wrenching as it was for me, I convinced myself that a qualified special education teacher might do a better job of teaching Bethany than I could, so I enrolled her in our local school's special education program. She seemed to enjoy school at first, but after a few weeks, she began giving me trouble getting ready for school and was always angry and aggressive when I picked her up at the end of the day.
I thought she just needed to adjust to the new routine and structure of her day, but after about six months, Bethany's health deteriorated. She began having so many seizures that it became pointless to send her to school, so I withdrew her. We let her recuperate over the summer and tried again the next fall, but the same thing happened and I withdrew her again.
I continued to teach Bethany at home when she wasn't having seizures or recuperating from having seizures. It took about two years, and then I again became worried. I began thinking that Bethany might be bored or depressed being home all the time. This time we would to try a small, homey, private school for children with disabilities. And yet still, no luck. Six months into the school year, she had lost an alarming amount of weight and began having so many seizures that it became impossible to send her to school any longer.
I don't know why it took me so long and so many tries before I realized that my sweet, precious Bethany just cannot handle the stress of attending school. She needs a lot of down time throughout the day and between activities in order to thrive. Homeschooling allows for that.
How I homeschool my daughter
I did learn some valuable lessons from Bethany's teachers, though. One taught me that Bethany is a very visual learner. I have kept that in mind ever since and still work very hard to make all her lessons highly visual. I translate the concepts I want Bethany to learn into visual lessons by using realistic drawings, photos, videos, real objects, and games. When I was teaching Bethany the parts of a flower, we went outside and picked a flower. We dissected it and I verbally labeled each part for her. We examined each part under the microscope. I made flower-part flash cards and she completed cut-and-paste flower-part diagrams.
Errorless Learning is another educational method that I utilize frequently in Bethany's homeschool program so that she won't become confused and remember wrong answers. What that means is that I present lessons to her in such a way that she can't make a mistake. For example, when I was teaching Bethany the color words, I created a work sheet by writing the color names in black on the left side of the paper and in color on the right side (as a fail proof hint). That way, Bethany could successfully draw a line to match up the words correctly. I also used the same idea to create a matching card game.
To teach and reinforce appropriate behaviors, I use video self-modeling. Since we have a YouTube channel, I take my camera with me everywhere I go. I often catch Bethany behaving well in situations where she might not always behave so cooperatively, like at the doctor or dentist, and am able to record it. I then use that footage as a lesson to encourage her to repeat the appropriate behavior again the next time she is in that same situation. I never tape her behaving inappropriately because I don't want those kinds of behaviors to be what imprints on her memory.
We also take advantage of the many wonderful iPad apps and commercially produced games and educational products available that make teaching and learning visually easy to do.
Now at 18, Bethany is no longer legally required to get schooling and is doing well. She loves attending her social club where she has made lots of friends. She loves shopping and going to the movies with mom and dad, riding carousels and roller coasters, going to the beach, visiting her siblings, going swimming at the YMCA, bowling, picking out books and DVDs at the library and attending music class with her personal assistant. It is clear to me that she is happy and healthy, and I am grateful that homeschooling gave us the chance to do what was best for her.