Tips for ‘Homeschooling’ Your ‘Special Needs’ Child

Yesterday, I shared my Top Tips for Homeschooling drawn from over three decades, twelve years of experience, in two countries, with five children from three ethnic/cultural backgrounds. Just a quick review of those:

  1. It doesn’t take as long as you think.
  2. Reasonable chunks of time – never more than 45 minutes per session.
  3. Realistic expectations
  4. Co-learn with your little human
  5. Let’em game.

Follow the link at the top for more details if you missed it.

But today, I want to focus on my area of interest and expertise – ‘special educational needs.’

Let me start by saying I hate that word. Grammarly thinks I should change that to ‘I am not fond of.’ No, hate is the right word.

Why?

Because everyone has ‘special’ needs.

In some circles, that is being modified to ‘additional’ learning needs, but I am not much fonder of that word.

Then, what do I call our little humans (and myself, by the way)…

Neurodivergent.

If you have not heard that word before, it basically means ‘a brain that does not think like the societal norm.’ That includes conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, ASD, and the learning challenges associated with some physical disabilities (not fond of that one either) like Down’s Syndrome and my son’s neurofibromatosis. It also encompasses some mental health conditions such as schizophrenia. For a detailed explanation, if you’re curious, I like NeuroCosmopolitanism.

One of the reasons I prefer this term is that it does not compartmentalize a person into half-a-dozen different labels. My daughter@PanKwake is neurodivergent, and her needs, educational or otherwise, are not compared to others or some checklist of criteria. As her parent and learning support worker, she is simply a unique individual. To use a familiar analogy especially relevant to our @HomeCrazzyHome, her brain runs Linux in Windows world.

That changes completely what my role as both that parent and learning facilitator is. In a way that no school environment, at least that I have seen, can meet. It has revolutionized how I feel, behave, and react.

Of course, we have been at this for almost a decade and are in it for the long term. As the parent of a neurodivergent young person, how might you apply some of that more temporarily during these school-closures and lockdowns?

The first thing I would suggest is…

Don’t Focus on Behaviors

All of the advice we are given as parents, whether our children are neurotypical or neurodivergent, focuses on behaviors. If your child is neurodivergent, then the first label they usually got stuck with was ‘naughty.’ And of course, in this society especially, their behavior is a reflection of your parenting. They are naughty because you are a terrible parent.

It may have been years before someone, usually an ‘expert,’ such as a doctor, teacher, or social worker, suggested that it might be more than your fault. That there might be some underlying ‘condition’ that was responsible for those ‘bad’ behaviors. Of course, you sighed with relief and jumped at any explanation other than your parenting.

And, yes, this is an improvement, of sorts. But it does not go far enough. ADHD, autism, SPD, and others do not CAUSE those behaviors. Any more than the Covid-19 virus causes a fever. The fever is an outward sign or symptom that our bodies are trying to fight off the virus. Attempting to return to ‘normal’ or homeostasis.

Meltdowns – no matter how bad – are NOT the problem.

They are only a sign or symptom that something is wrong inside our little human. Not with our child, but rather something is distressing them. Instead of needing to ‘control’ the behaviors, our task as a parent is to find the cause and, where possible to fix it.

With this radical paradigm shift, the parent goes from restraining, shaming, and ‘correcting’ ‘bad’ behaviors to being a detective. What about this situation is harming/painful to my child? Why is something fine yesterday, but not today?

Of course, if your little human is younger or non-verbal, this is a monumental task. One of the most significant accomplishments of home educating @PanKwake has been helping her to become a high self-monitor. These days she usually knows what is wrong, can communicate that to me in words, and sometimes even offers solutions.

Of course, the ‘I’m bored’ is a genuine but difficult one to manage. But other things, like too cold, too bright, too loud, too scratchy, or too tight, no longer cause those challenging behaviors as they once did. That comes from almost a decade of focusing on enabling her to recognize her feelings, put them into words, and us, as parents, taking those needs seriously.

One of the first steps on this path to self-monitoring was a simple tool that you can make and use at home. For the first couple of years that I home educated @PanKwake, we did not leave home without this necklace we made. It is based on The Incredible Five Point Scale by Kari Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis.

Five Point Necklace
Our 5-Point necklace

It assigns a number 1 to 5 to feelings. One might be happy or calm, and five is meltdown, explosion, or similar. Number two to four are increments between those extremes. You and your child then begin to become more aware of those feelings. The numbers make it easier to communicate.

At first, I acted as @PanKwake’s guide, noticing when she started to get excited or agitated. I would then prompt her, ‘What number are you?’ This encouraged her to think about how she was feeling. Then, what might help her to ‘calm down.’ Sometimes that was a sensory toy, and sometimes that meant removing ourselves from the situation.

Eventually, we did not even need the necklace. We could use numbers to communicate feelings. Sometimes when she was a four, that meant fingers because she could not use her words by that point.

It has been a long journey from absolutely needing to restrain her during a meltdown, just feet from a busy London street, to not being able even to remember the last time she melted down or why. And a few weeks of ‘homeschooling’ during lockdown isn’t gonna get you there.

But this time, one-on-one with your unique, wonderful, and amazing little human might give you a better understanding of their neurodivergent brains. And that’s the first ingredient of Tara’s Recipe for Happy Neurodiverse Children and Parents.

But it’s just the first ingredient; you also need to…

Listen

Of course, all that training her to recognize her emotions and put them into words won’t do a hill of beans worth of good if we don’t listen. If we, the adults in their lives, don’t take what they say seriously.

‘Just two more minutes.’ I am not talking about them and gaming here. I am talking about us and putting them off, pushing their limits. Not listening when they say they have had enough or need something NOW.

Yeah, I understand. That is what the ‘experts’ tell us. That we should force them, stretch their limits. That’s the only way they will learn or become acclimated to this world. Besides, there are sometimes that you just can’t drop what you are doing. When the food will burn, or you need to pee, or the school calls or…

And honestly, I have fallen into that trap myself. More than once, when @PanKwake was younger, I have tried to stretch it for those two more minutes, one more bus stop. Usually, the results were disastrous. I caused meltdowns.

I should have known better. I have been a fan of attachment parenting for years. Its primary premise is children will strive for independence – when their needs are met and they feel safe. That is a pretty easy concept to grasp with babies and toddlers. But when your child is six, nine, or twelve, and still needs you intensively, I understand how overwhelming that can seem.

But it is true. When I started to truly listen to @PanKwake and accept that when she said she needed something, she needed it, our life became so much less stressful. Yes, I was still getting up in the middle of the night to fetch her water or make her food. Once or twice, I even had to take cabs to the shops to buy her the food she was craving. But I realized that it was still quicker and easier for both of us than an hour or more of a meltdown.

And something else happened. As @PanKwake began to recognize that I was listening to her and doing my best, she started to push herself. Knowing that I really would stop the cab, get out, and walk the rest of the way, reassured her that she had control.

I remember the first time that she asked to take a cab. We had gone to the local Christmas parade and then Winter Wonderland. There were loads of people, and it was cold. She was definitely a four, and I feared we were headed for a meltdown. We stopped in front of a shop, but it was closed. We waited a while, twenty minutes or half an hour. She calmed down a bit. I was expecting to walk home forty-five minutes or so, pushing a twelve-year-old in her Maclaren Major buggy. Instead, she asked, ‘can we try a taxi?’ I was shocked and delighted.

Three years and a couple of lockdowns later, those lessons have extended to even her foods. She can finally accept if we don’t have something she likes and understands that we can’t get it immediately either. Of course, her visual menu helps a lot with that. Most of her favorite foods are on it. It has made her decision-making much less stressful.

It is all about control, especially if your little human is demand avoidant like @PanKwake. When she is given choices, not alternatives that serve the adults’ needs, but genuine options that meet her needs, she can make good decisions. Independence and autonomy are the ultimate goals of parenting. That is no different for our little humans. They just need more support to…

Enable & Empower

Enable has gotten a bad rap from social science. That word and its mate, co-dependent, have been demonized by psychologists for a quarter of a century. But if you look at its meaning:

– give (someone) the authority or means to do something; make it possible for.

Google

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Even at fifteen, my primary role in @PanKwake’s life as a parent and learning facilitator is still to enable her. It is the how and sometimes the whats that have changed in our decade of home educating.

@PanKwake is severely dyslexic. She may never ‘read.’ In schools, that would be synonymous was ‘unteachable.’ @HomeCrazzyHome, we merely work around it. We enable her to learn in the ways that work for her, primarily through technology. We are incredibly blessed that Alan is a techie insider who continually seeks out technology to assist her. We are also fortunate to have the means to acquire those things. We recognize this middle-class, white privilege and don’t deny that it gives @PanKwake advantages that others do not have – but should.

In the past year, since that first lockdown began, she has gone from someone who ‘feared’ books to an active member of the Wattpad community. She devours books, reviews, and comments, engaging with creators.

‘Wait, but you said she couldn’t read?’ She does not in the conventional sense, but Wattpad has a text reader. She listens in a week to more books than many teens ‘read’ in a year. And we seek new ways of providing her access to other reading material. Alan bought her a pen reader for Christmas to enable her to ‘read’ print material.

But that alone is not enough. We will not always be here for her. I think that may be the deepest fear of all parents, especially those of neurodivergent and differently-abled people. So, we go beyond merely enabling to empower.

The first definition of empower is word for word the same as enable. But it is the secondary meaning that I have always favored:

– make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

Google

These days, @PanKwake is a rebel extraordinaire. But when I de-registered her from school almost a decade ago, she was broken. Due to bullying, my four-year-old child’s self-esteem was so low that she asked me several times a day, ‘Mommy, am I dumb? Am I ugly? Am I stupid?’ In these intervening years, she has lost contact and forgotten most of her school friends’ names. But she can still recall her bully – and is quite vocal about her feelings towards him.

How different that little girl is from the social butterfly and extrovert, whose biggest struggles this year has been not getting enough people-time? How did we get to this point?

Despite those misconceptions and myths that ‘homeschool’ children as isolated, one of our early goals for home education was socialization. I tried everything to enable @PanKwake to have positive social interactions and overcome the bullying she had endured. If it was sunny outside, we were usually found in the local parks – sometimes all day. If it was rainy, as it often is in London, we still regularly went to indoor play facilities. We tried trampolining, guides, and council play facilities. Other than parks, none of those were appropriate or held her interest for long.

I remember feeling as if my job was to be an ‘interpreter’ for my child. I bridged the communication gap between @PanKwake and neurotypical, as well as other neurodivergent, little humans. I was the adult playing tag, hide-n-seek, and duck-duck-goose.

Most children are wonderfully inclusive until the age of about ten, with a few exceptions. For many, we played for some time before they realized that @PanKwake was ‘different.’ For instance, we would have recruited random children to play tag. I was always the one who had to ask at this point, and yes, this raised eyebrows and concerns with other parents.

Eventually, we would get a good game going. Then @PanKwake would just run-off, without saying good-bye or explaining. Perhaps she was bored? Maybe it was sensory overload? But I was the one left to explain to these other children in a positive light that my daughter was different. Considering the lack of ‘education’ on inclusion in schools, I considered this a public service.

By the time she was about ten, @PanKwake was pretty darn good at explaining her differences to the other children all by herself. I would just stand back, smile, and answer any hard questions the other young people had. Now, @PanKwake not only has the best social skills of any autistic person I know, but she is the most empathetic person I know. Period. Full-stop.

As I said at the beginning, I understand. When your neurodivergent little human is in school, you are bombarded with ‘experts’ telling you what to do, how, and when to do it. Teachers, SENCos, Ed Psychs, SALTs, and occupational therapists. They do not tell you the whys and the history behind most of those therapies and techniques. The bottom line is much of it is motivated by the desire to ‘fix’ your child, to ‘make them normal.’ As much or more, for the benefit of schools as the child. But if you spend time listening to the #ActuallyAutistic community, you will hear the horror stories of the long-term psychological damage done by many of the therapies.

Yet, when you are in that system, you, the parent, have little say in the matter. Oh, some try. And they are made to feel as ‘broken’ as their child. Right now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you. Those teachers, SENCos, and all the rest are not in your home. You have the unique chance to reconnect with your little human, learn what is driving those behaviors, listen to them about solutions, and enable them to do the things that they can do. Rather than focus on the things they can’t. Who knows, given a bit more time, you might even be able to empower them to communicate those things to the school.

Or maybe, a few of you will discover, as I did, that you are the best ‘expert’ and resource your little human has. Some of you may see such stellar results during this time that you decide this ‘homeschooling’ thing ain’t as bad as that meme made out. You may choose to de-register from school and give home education a real go. Or maybe you decide to restructure your home to be more enabling and empowering in the evenings, weekends, and school holidays. But whatever path is best for your little human…

Tomorrow, I’ll end this series with some free or low-cost resources whether your child is neurotypical or neurodivergent. And these are not just my favorites. @PanKwake was excited to share hers with you as well. As always, I was shocked at the quantity and quality of those YouTube videos most people dismiss.

Published by Tara Cox

Writer of Literary Erotica Real-life, hot sex, deep meaning... In my day job, I am homemaker, home educator, urban farmer, and homesteader at our @HomeCrazzyHome.

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