Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our Road to Homeschooling

The hardest about starting a blog is where to begin. My plan is to blog about homeschooling my son with Down Syndrome so probably the best place to start writing is to tell you how we started homeschooling.  First of all, you should probably know that I homeschool my child with Down Syndrome and public school my typical child.  It's sort of like having a foot in each camp.  A lot of my public school friends don't really "get" the homeschooling thing and some of my homeschooler friends can be sort of suspicious of public school.  For our family though this works great.  Our typical child is in one of the best public school districts in our state.  She gets to take advanced classes where she needs them, she is getting musical training in orchestra and gets to participate in school sports.  Our child with Down Syndrome is getting the one on one attention he needs from a devoted teacher.

Probably the very first step toward homeschooling for us was NACD (National Academy of Child Development).  If you don't know, NACD is an organization that promotes a neuro-developmental approach to helping children with developmental issues.  In a nutshell, they teach parents how to train the brain.  We started Sam with NACD when he was 5 months old.  I'm sure I'll blog on NACD at a later date but for now I'll say that NACD really started me on the idea that the parent is the teacher.  They helped me realize Lesson No. 1:  No one cares more about my child's development and education than my husband and I do.

As Sam got a little older, we started thinking pre-school.  Our daughter Caroline's pre-school was in a beautiful facility, it was top of the line, so, of course, we wanted Sam there too.  When Caroline was in her last year of pre-school and Sam was two, we enrolled him Caroline's pre-school.  He was in the baby room and that was fine.  He didn't walk until he was 27 months and wasn't potty trained so that was where he needed to be.  He was maybe the oldest child but not by much.  It wasn't a bad fit.  When the school year ended and I went to re-enroll Sam, the school director approached me and said I really needed to provide Sam an aide for the next year.  Excuse me, THIS IS PRESCHOOL!  What could 3-year-olds possibly be doing that he would need an aide for?  I went home and cried and prayed and cried some more.  I knew we couldn't afford to provide an aide but mostly I felt like they were rejecting him.  That this was their way of pushing him out the door.    Lesson No. 2:  If they don't want my child, we don't want them.  I got on the phone and I found a wonderful pre-school at a less beautiful facility but with beautiful hearts and that is so much more important.

Sam's second pre-school was a great experience.  He had loving teachers and he did great WITHOUT an aide.  One thing I learned from this second pre-school experience was Lesson No. 3:  Sometimes God's plan isn't about me, it's about someone else.  At first I wondered why we had that bad experience with the other school and why God led us to this 2nd school.  I'm sure there are lots of reasons but I have one sweet anecdote to share with you.  Sam had a teacher there that he really loved.  Her name was Miss Kim and everyday when I would go to pick him up, they would be in circle time and he would be on Miss Kim's lap.  The problem with that was Miss Kim was several months pregnant with her 3rd child and there wasn't much room on her lap but she didn't mind, she always had room for Sam.  Two or three years after Sam had left the pre-school, Kim called me to tell me she was expecting her 4th child and the doctors had determined that the baby had Down Syndrome.  She also said that having Sam in her class had helped her deal with that unexpected news because she had such a closeness with Sam.  That was a cool moment.

Our final pre-school step was a Montessori school.  This was suggested by Ellen, Sam's NACD developmentalist.  Ellen thought the emphasis on fine motor activities you find in Montessori classrooms would be good for Sam.  Although at the age to be starting kindergarten, we didn't really feel like Sam was ready for public kindergarten.  At the Montessori school we chose, they had a kindergarten class so I thought, that's perfect.  We tried that for two weeks.  Unfortunately, the teacher basically didn't want Sam in her class.  The director said sometimes a teacher and student don't have good chemistry.  I'm sorry,  Sam LOVES everyone, that was her problem.  Lesson No. 4:  You can't make people be accepting, you just have to move on (pretty much the same lesson as No.2).  Fortunately, this story has a silver-lining.  One of the pre-school teachers in the school approached me on a field trip and said please, put Sam in my class, we really want him.  I didn't want to do it because I had my head stuck in "age" mode and her class was younger.  Lesson No. 5:  Age doesn't matter!  It's more important for the child to be in a developmentally appropriate spot.  Anyway, Carre the teacher that wanted Sam, was wonderful for him.  We're still friends, 6 years later.  There again, what seemed like a dark period in our lives, turned into a blessing.

Public kindergarten wasn't a bad experience for Sam.  He enjoyed it so that was good.  He made friends, he liked his teachers both regular and special ed.  My husband and I didn't really like the IEP process.  That seemed to me to be more about the teachers than the student.  They would put goals down and say we know he'll make that one because he's already almost there.  I didn't really get the point of how that helped Sam.  Since kindergarten was only a half day, I could still work with him when he got home on his NACD stuff.  At that time, I still felt like he was making progress and was having a positive experience at school.

All that changed with first grade.  His special ed teacher changed and he was spending much more time in the special ed classroom than the regular classroom.  In itself, I don't have a huge problem with that.  I believe that kids need to be taught at the level they're at and if we push inclusion too much, then kids are going to be spending time in classrooms where information is being given at a level they can't process.  That doesn't do them any good.  That leads to zoned out kids.  That would be like putting me in a graduate level physics class.  We'd be speaking the same language but not really.  I'd spend that time redecorating my house or wondering what I'd do if I won the lottery.  I sure wouldn't be thinking advanced physics.  But back to Sam in first grade, it became apparent to my husband and I that Sam's special ed teacher didn't believe in him.  I would take a book in that Sam could read (we'd been teaching sight reading through NACD for years by this time) and she would say, oh he just has that book memorized.  Or he took a spelling test got the words all correct and then they made him take it over immediately afterward because they thought he had just memorized the letters in order.  Of course, he failed the second test, not because he had memorized the words in order (because that's not how I taught them) but because they didn't believe him the first time.  Poor kid was probably totally confused by that.  The final straw came one day when Sam lost his recess for something he did and the teacher wrote us a note that she hated to take away his recess because he probably wouldn't remember the next day why it got taken away.  This is the same teacher who thinks he memorizes books and lists of words.  Anyway, that leads to Lesson No. 6:  Kids need to be taught by someone who believes in them and who has high expectations for them.

All this led to my husband one day saying to me, "why don't you homeschool him?"  That was so great because I was thinking it but was afraid to voice it.  I needed that vote of confidence from him to get me going.  I could probably think of many reasons for why I think homeschooling is such a great idea for my child with Down Syndrome but here are a few of the major ones for me.

1)  No one cares more about my child's development and education than my husband and I do.
2)  Kids need to be taught at a developmentally appropriate level, no matter what their age.
3)  Nothing beats one on one attention when kids are struggling.
4)  Some kids need to be taught in an environment with low distractions.  The home is perfect for that.
5)  Homeschooling helps maintain a positive self-image.  He's not comparing himself to kids that find school easier.