One Size Does Not Fit All: When Homeschooling Is Your Best Option
How Can A Child Learn When They Are Full of Anxiety?
I was scared she would walk out of school and disappear.
I was cleaning house, dusting probably, when the phone call came. I checked my cell and was shocked to see it was my fourteen year old daughter calling. Figuring she must be sick but wondering why she was calling from her cell when the protocol would be to phone from the school's office, I answered, the anxiety already poking at my gut.
It was my daughter alright but I'd never heard the tone of voice on her end of the line before. Her voice was emotionless, dead. She said, "Mom, I need you to come pick me up. I left school."
Left school??? To say I was stunned would be an understatement. Maddie was (and is) an awesome student. A beautiful girl inside and out, she has many close friends and a busy social life. That year she was not only in the marching band, but also the drama club, plus she took part in the Science Olympiad and was constantly bugging me to let her join even more clubs. All the while maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Overachiever? Uh, yeah. That was my girl and I was amazed, because my own school performance was, shall we say, lacking?
But that day my normally cheerful, upbeat, brilliant girl was talking to me in a voice that sounded like it came from a corpse. "What's wrong? What do you mean you left school? Where are you?" The questions flew from my lips and mama tiger got ready to pounce. I didn't know what had happened, but I was ready to do battle if need be to protect my eldest offspring. (have I mentioned that I'm completely mad?)
"I'm at the diner downtown. I just left. I walked out. I can't take it anymore." I hated that dead voice. I told her to stay put, I would be there as soon as possible. I don't even remember driving to the next town over where she attended school. It was a fine school, we'd taken her out of our actual home district after she nearly failed the fourth grade and moved her to the next district where she thrived. I could not imagine what had happened.
When I got to the diner she was waiting for me, her face blank and calm. There were no tears, no sobbing, no yelling, no anguish. Just pure calm and a blank stare. I took her to the car and on the way home we talked. I didn't yell, I wasn't mad, I was just confused. What she said scared me. She said she couldn't handle school anymore. That when she went she felt dead inside. That she felt nothing. Not a single thing, just not alive. This was not my child. This was not how she did things. My child was successful at every single thing she did. Teachers loved my child, they called her their "super star". This child could read complete sentences by the time she was three years old. This child was amazing.
This child was in trouble.
I could relate to her issues. As a child, teen and now as an adult I have had episodes of severe anxiety. I was painfully shy as a kid, I never spoke in class if I could avoid it. I often wished the floor could open up and swallow me whole. I felt like everyone was constantly staring at me (they probably were, me shrinking inside my clothes, looking like a turtle hiding in it's shell!) There were times in high school I would "zone" out. Just go somewhere else away from the constant chatter and noise. I also started writing and that saved me in a way that nothing else could. In my stories I could escape from a world where I was too scared to talk and turn myself instead into a brave heroine with balls of steel!
As an adult I struggled with my anxiety, especially after having children. Post Partum Depression hit me with the birth of Maddie but I was too proud to ask for help. I soldiered on and things gradually got better. But after the birth of my twins it returned and I literally felt paralyzed, unable to breathe at times. I remember standing at the changing table, changing one baby while the other screamed from it's cot. And I just "left". I was there but not there. I felt as if someone had drenched a heavy duvet in cold water and thrown it over my head where it was suffocating me to death. It was one of the worst feelings in my life and I knew I needed help. I went to my doctor and was prescribed medication that I take to this very day with no regrets.
So I sort of understood what Maddie was experiencing but I hesitated to put such a young girl on medication, especially when there are such dire warnings for children and teens who take them. There had to be another way to help her.
What followed was two months of struggle. We worked with the school to find a solution. We let her drop band, the drama club, the science club. We altered her school schedule so that she would have 45 minutes at the start of the day in a special class where she could read, or de-stress. We got her into therapy and encouraged her to sleep more, see her friends more, anything to get our girl back.
She did bounce back briefly. When the new marking period started she went back to a full school schedule and asked to join the FFA. We agreed as long as she could handle it. And things went well....for a bit. Then one day I got another phone call.
The same dead voice, the same blank stare, the same "I can't do it anymore."
At that point I knew something had to be done. My husband and I sat down with Maddie and talked. What did she want to do? What did she think would help? She had the answer and it was firm. She wanted to be homeschooled.
My husband immediately said no way. In his opinion home schooled children were "weird" and unsocialized, and not prepared for the real world. He insisted that everyone hates school but that you had to go because it taught you about life. While I wasn't sure myself whether home-school was the answer, I was more afraid of what would happen if we forced her to stay in public school. Would we lose our beautiful, bright girl? I could well remember the desperation and helplessness I had felt myself in school. I would have given anything to have been homeschooled but back then it just wasn't "done".
I was able to convince my husband to reluctantly agree to home-school. I felt it was the only chance we had to make our daughter happy, and to keep her alive. I didn't want to hear that dead voice again.
Luckily in our state (Michigan) the home-school laws are pretty lenient and it was an easy enough process to take her out of school and sort things out at home. (Not all states are the same, some have stringent rules so be sure to check out what is required where you live before you take the leap!)
There were two options: Public School Online or home-school. While Public School Online was attractive because it wouldn't cost us anything it is what it says it is: "Public School". There was a strict schedule for attendance and the number of hours Maddie would have to be actually in front of her computer participating in a "class". That kind of structure didn't seem like it would be any better than what she'd left.
I knew that Maddie needed to be able to set her own schedule, to work at her own pace and to have what breaks she needed if things got rough. People will argue that this isn't preparing students for "real life", that when you get a job you can't just work when you want to. Well, I would argue back that you can do exactly that in some lines of work and we're talking about a CHILD, not a grownup. She has years to learn to be an "adult". Why not give her time in the meanwhile to figure out how to cope? The "sink or swim" concept is not practical nor advisable in today's age. Why would anyone want their child to sink when they could FLY??
But I digress and step gently off my soapbox.
Luckily I found a good site for secular homeschoolers that was enormously helpful. A common misconception is that all parents home-school for religious reasons. This could not be further from the truth. Homeschoolers come from all walks of life, all religions, or no religion, races, and creeds. The common denominator are parents who want the very best for their child, who recognize that a one size fits all education is not what's best in some cases.
I knew my limits, while I love learning new things and consider myself fairly intelligent, I am no teacher. I was able to find a wonderful online home-school site called Time4Learning which had everything we needed for Maddie's high school curriculum, all online! (there is a fee but it is very affordable!) In addition to Time4Learning we found another site, Khan Academy, which is totally free. We have had great success using this site to supplement Maddie's schooling. (If you want to design your own curriculum there are numerous resources online, it IS possible to home-school and not spend a dime!)
Since Maddie began homeschooling one year ago, she has completed the 9th grade with flying colors and is still maintaining a 4.0. She is happy now, nearly every single day! (we still have teenage drama, sorry, home-school does not solve that!) We've had field trips and art projects, she gets her P.E. from our weekly visits to Planet Fitness. She's added numerous other studies to her curriculum, such as Spanish, Sign Language, World Religions, the list just goes on. I am teaching her how to cook and do crafts, make jewelry and work with polymer clay. We'll be starting sewing next. (this is all stuff they no longer teach in school because public schools now put the most emphasis on Math and Science which is really sad!)
She still gets her music in, soon we'll be signing her up for guitar lessons, she has her own key board and clarinet. Our local community theater welcomes newcomers and Maddie has expressed an interest in working backstage.
Her love of learning has not been diminished at all, in fact it is growing in leaps and bounds. While before I couldn't get her to stay in school, now I can't get her to stop her lessons! Many a time I've had to threaten and cajole her to STOP studying and go do something else.
She still sees her friends on a regular basis. She goes to school dances and homecoming games. She is hoping to get her first part time job soon. She is not "weird" or non-social, or a mama's girl. She is growing into an even more amazing young lady with a thirst for knowledge that cannot be quenched in public school.
Maddie is now well into the tenth grade, much farther along than her peers at her old school. Her goal is to graduate early then explore her college options while working. She wants to work with animals one day and I know she will eventually achieve anything she wants.
My two younger children still attend public school in the second grade. They have wonderful teachers and I am very pleased with their progress. I have nothing against public school, but now I also have nothing against homeschooling either.
Our children need what is BEST for them, whatever that may be. Sometimes it's not easy to figure out what that "best" is, but if you listen to your child and to your heart and block out all that other noise you will make the right decision in the end.
I know we did.