As students return to school, these first couple of weeks can be so exhausting and difficult, especially for families with disabilities. For many, this can be a season of needing to reconsider education and what school looks like for your family.  Some may be considering homeschooling or distance learning, and I wanted to share my thoughts about how our family made distance learning work for us.

Back when my children were little, homeschooling was still a bit more radical than it is today given the shifts in our society and our educational system during the height of the Covid pandemic and now two years later. For those of you who don’t know me, I was raising two daughters mostly alone after an early divorce. Elizabeth was profoundly disabled, blind and wheelchair bound, intellectually impaired and nonverbal. She was a 29-week preemie and very medically fragile. She was funny and sweet and loved butterflies. Diagnosed with a life-limiting mitochondrial disease at age 2 ½, we unfortunately lost her when she was 17.

Then there was my youngest daughter Caroline, who I don’t talk about or write about too much because frankly she doesn’t like it.  However, I do sometimes share her experiences as well as siblings of children with disabilities face their own sets of challenges.

Caroline was a beautiful but intense child, as many special needs siblings can be. She was also very funny and artistic and loved to make movies and sing songs. But, when Caroline was younger, she struggled enormously. She was always that kid in the corner playing with something else while all the other kids were listening at story time. Homelife was busy and tragic. Caroline had a lot of different caregivers, lacked consistency and seemed to go from one crisis to the next and I just couldn’t seem to slow the pace down. Many of you single moms out there are nodding your heads right now because you know what I’m saying is truth.

But then there was dance. And it was her thing. And she was pretty good at it. She wasn’t the best in the group and as usual she awkwardly struggled to make friends, but she found her way to the middle of the pack and I thought this would be okay. Elizabeth was getting more medically complex just as we were getting more involved in this dance community and Caroline was approaching early tween years. We were learning that some in the group were homeschoolers and it sounded like a great idea to us at the time, so we dove into the deep end to learn more about it.

Our Introduction to Homeschooling

Caroline was in a group of homeschoolers who were homeschooled because they were training in the arts or sports. This would include dance, actors, athletes like Olympians. Ever wonder how those 15-year-old gymnasts or skaters train all day? Or how those little kids can be in the musical “School of Rock” on Broadway? Homeschooling is how they do it.

But actually, I was finding out there is a big difference in homeschooling techniques, which has a lot to do with what is going on today with families still reluctant to return to the public school system after the shifts during the height of the pandemic. Homeschooling and distance learning are two very different things. Homeschooling involves the caregivers (or parental) lesson plans and distance learning is still a school or teacher and tutor led and approved curriculum that is facilitated on a distance learning platform. Our old correspondence style coursework of the past, now made more possible by computers and many different learning platforms!

Opting for Distance Learning

There were not many homeschooling or distance learning programs to choose from back then. We opted for distance learning and used an approved curriculum that was actually affiliated with a public school in our state because that made it free. Most of the other programs came with hefty price tags which we could not afford.
Our choice was called K12 (this is not an advertisement for their program) and although not too well known back then I see them advertising all over the place now. That gave Caroline access to an online classroom, a free computer, free books and materials as if she were in public school, because after all my tax dollars were paying for it anyway, and also a classroom teacher. Most importantly, I was her facilitator and I got to spend time with her. I got to see where her strengths were and where she was challenged. My fondest memory was when we worked on a history project together about the Trail of Tears. We built a board game about the perils of the road west because she was a visual learner like me.

Caroline was on her computer joining her class for about an hour or two each day around her dance schedule. The rest of the time was done on our own. The teacher would grade her work that we turned in. This format for distance learning is essentially what is happening today.

Participating in Our Children’s Learning Allows Challenges to Become Apparent

That brings me to my next point about special needs. Caroline’s learning challenges became clear to me during her time of distance learning.  Being able to participate in those lessons with your children and their educators, you can see what they can do, what they cannot do. You can see how to present materials to your blind students, how to stretch your child for physical therapy, and how to break up a lesson plan for someone with executive function challenges.

However, during the challenges and shifts in education these last two years, some of you found that your children did not make progress at home and that is okay too. It’s all information that is useful and helps us know what will work in the future. Perhaps neither distance learning or homeschooling are an option for your son or daughter. Or at least those programs must be designed very differently than what is being presented right now.

Confronting the Stereotypes of Homeschooling

Tragically, many educators and the general public look down on homeschooling due to cultural bias, stereotyping, misinformation and a lack of understanding about concepts and outcomes. Just before the pandemic hit, Harvard Law School announced an event to discuss homeschooling. “The focus will be on problems of educational deprivation and child maltreatment that too often occur under the guise of homeschooling.”

I myself had many discussions with friends and family alike, as well as my school system, about educating Caroline. There is a strong bias that homeschoolers are inferior, do not learn basic skills and are indoctrinated with scary ideologies in the backwoods of America. I kid you not – the articles are out there for example by Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet and you only need to read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir to be convinced of it.

The Covid pandemic gave us an opportunity to look at our educational system for all children with fresh eyes, but particularly for our children with special needs. Let’s put all our preconceived notions aside about education, wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Here are only a few things to consider if you are thinking about homeschooling your child:

  1. As the parent/caregiver, do you have the ability, desire and time to create your own curriculum for your child?
  2. As the parent/caregiver do you require special training that you don’t yet have to teach or care for your child?
  3. Does your child responded well to less social stimuli at home?
  4. Does your child regress without interaction from their peers?
  5. Does your child have a low incidence disability such as blindness, deafness, etc.?
  6. Does your child require special equipment that you can only get at school such as a vision room or a standing frame?
  7. Does your child have a medical condition that will make it too risky to return to a classroom without a vaccine or herd immunity?
  8. What else needs considering?

It costs a lot to educate our children in the system that we have. We may want to think through how we rebuild our special education system to be responsive to the educational needs of children and families. Let’s actually include families voices going forward.