Guest blogger, Geralyn Spiesz, shares her thought-provoking journey of homeschooling her son with Down syndrome:
In some ways I feel as if I have always been a homeschooler.
My eldest son had an insatiable desire for more information, so evenings and weekends were spent reading, trips to the library, projects, and museums. My next son followed suit and although he did well at school, I couldn’t help notice his interests were not in the books but in experiences. We spent time doing all sorts of things to augment time spent sitting and listening in a classroom.
When Lucas was born with Trisomy 21, I was fortunate enough to find literature very early on from The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. It changed my entire perspective.
I was sold on the fact that I could teach my son to read at 1 year, since reading is sensory and not academic. I could create an environment where every movement he made, every intention he had, would result in success. I could get him to walk and crawl miles everyday to improve brain cross-patterning and speech. I did, and by age 3 it was clear to me that whatever we were doing was working. Lucas was growing, developing, learning, and was very happy!
The idea to homeschool started to take shape and I had a huge advantage. Lucas could already read, spell and count.
Lucas turned 4 on August 30 and I had decided that we would embark on our “Kindergarten homeschool year.” I had nothing to lose. He wasn’t old enough for real kindergarten. If it went horribly I could send him to school the following year.
I poured over homeschool books, blogs, and curriculum, but I never consulted the special needs resources. I figured, all children’s needs were special and homeschool is about tailored education. I just picked and chose materials that I knew would be a good fit.
So, that first trial year, I chose mostly 1st grade curriculum for reading and math. We also did interesting things from history, science, and lots of art and music. Lucas worked on handwriting, as well as his neurodevelopment program and running daily. By the end of that year it was absolutely clear this path was necessary.
I was worried and conflicted about things like socialization. But here’s the thing, inclusion for us is the goal not the method.
Lucas’s academic ability is high, but his processing ability requires improvement to allow him to sit in a classroom and listen. His ability to maintain attention and switch attention must improve before he can sit at the lunch table and follow a conversation. If I forewent teaching Lucas as I knew he needed in a distraction-free environment, while focusing on improving neurodevelopment, he would never truly be integrated into a class.
As an OT I realized that Lucas could certainly learn routines by being in a classroom. Things like staying in line, keeping hands to himself, following the leader, etc., were certainly very important, but when the questions morph from “What color is this?” in kindergarten, to “Why do you think the artist chose that color?” In 3rd grade, the wheels would fall off the cart. Not because he couldn’t learn, but because he wasn’t neurologically ready for that level yet. It would have been like putting a 3-year-old in 3rd grade. I could not sacrifice a relatively good academic trajectory waiting for his visual and auditory attention and processing to improve.
When the year passed Lucas could handily complete all of the 1st grade work (he was not yet 5). But he still bolted away from me at the supermarket and was not able to attend in a busy environment, further solidifying my decision to homeschool. It would allow me the ability to continue teaching him academics and work on neurodevelopment.
Socialization happens in tons of places.
At parks, at the the grocery store, at home within the family unit, at parties, etc. Socialization is exposure and opportunity. Lucas takes skating lessons, and plays baseball for the town. He is at the park most days of the week and has a huge extended family.
In addition, Lucas attends a learning center for homeschool families twice a week where he takes science lab, Latin, history, and literature. I attend his groups with him as he still is unable to learn in an auditory environment, although we are making progress!
At the time I made the decision to begin homeschooling, I would have been fooling myself to think that my son was neurologically wired for a same-age peer relationship.
Homeschooling with Lucas went so incredibly well, that I pulled my middle son (the one who couldn’t sit still…had a ton of energy…and asked a million questions) out of school and homeschooled him as well. He went from barely proficient in math on the fourth grade standardized test to the 98th %ile the following year. Turns out he was bored. I chose a very aggressive math curriculum that goes quickly, with repetition built in, and he took off. He is going into 8th grade and this will be our last year of homeschooling. He will go to the same high school as his older brother. He needed to learn the way he was wired to learn, the same is true for all children with or without an extra chromosome.
Lucas and I work very hard in school and his neurodevelopment program. He is just finishing 3rd grade. In some areas he is working at a late 4th grade level, and others at a late second grade level. If we’re honest, this this actually pretty typical of all of us. we are really good at some things and some things take more effort.
Our goal is to homeschool until 8th grade and for Lucas to sit for the entrance exam to the same private high school his brothers attend.
We would like to see him graduate with an academic diploma. We want Lucas to have neurodevelopment to understand sarcasm at the lunch table, and attend to the ping ponging conversation in a noisy cafeteria. Our goal is for him to learn by listening to a lecture instead of having everything in print for him to read. We want him to be happy and achieve all he can to do all he wishes.
The decision to homeschool a child is massive and it’s effects should not be underestimated.
I worry when it takes a long time to get a concept. But I’m getting better at realizing it isn’t Lucas’s inability to learn, it is my inability to teach it using the right method and I need to change my approach. This would not be possible in a classroom situation with multiple children. I also realize that at some point in the future we may have to make a different decision, but for now we wouldn’t change a thing.