The Home School Court Report
Vol. XXVI
No. 5
Cover
September/October
2010

In This Issue

SPECIALFEATURES
REGULARCOLUMNS
ANDTHEREST

Cover Story Next Page
by Kaylyn Carlson
- disclaimer -
Homeschooling with a chronic illness or disability.

ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON when I was about 16 years old, I sat at a long folding table in the cool basement of our church, explaining to a church member why my mother hadn’t come to church or the potluck that day, how she was feeling lately, and generally how her multiple sclerosis affected her daily functioning. As I answered the familiar questions, the woman made a comment I've never forgotten: “I’m sure you wish your mother didn’t have MS.” I was a little surprised—both by the bluntness of her assumption and by my own slowly formulated answer.

Robert and Suzanne Broadhurst with their children Grant and Winter.
Courtesy of the Family
Robert and Suzanne Broadhurst rely on organizing and prioritizing well as they homeschool Grant (17) and Winter (15).

No, I realized. I don’t wish that. Not in the grand scheme of things. No, because of how my family had learned to love one another. No, because of how our struggle to keep up with daily life had weeded out so much of the busywork that distracts modern, ambitious, overachieving families from the truly important aspects of life. No, because of how I grew up, came to embrace responsibility, and learned about service and compassion. That moment and those realizations have become a touchstone for me as I remember my own homeschooling experience and encourage the homeschooling families around me now.

You Aren’t Supermom.
But You Can Homeschool.

Homeschooling advocates talk a lot about the benefits of being able to customize your educational program to the needs of your children. Struggling learners can progress at their own rate; gifted students aren’t held back by the average classroom pace. But customization benefits homeschooling parents as well. You, as a parent, have the opportunity to shape your homeschooling program based on your own needs, strengths, and special circumstances. This is a critical concept for parents who deal with a chronic illness or disability to grasp and implement.

For many parents, the greatest obstacle to homeschooling success in your unique situation is an unreasonable expectation about what it means to be a “good” homeschooler. It is your responsibility to provide a good education for your children—but there are many ways to do this.

Mark and Susan Knight with their children.
Courtesy of the Family
Mark and Susie Knight’s children David (16), Naomi (14), Joshua (8), and baby Isaac have learned to appreciate each other by helping one another.

Even healthy parents struggle to keep up a life filled with every extracurricular or elective possible. Back in 1988, homeschooling pioneers Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore wrote a book addressing a common problem: Home School Burnout. Options for over-commitment have only increased since then!

The supermom image is an insidious enemy of all moms, not just moms with health struggles. But when getting through daily life itself requires a consuming effort, worrying about how many extracurriculars you can shuttle your kids to or whether you maximized every suggestion in the curriculum teacher’s guide can overwhelm and distract you from the essentials of a good education at home. For some parents, simply getting dressed, keeping the kids on track with their schoolwork, and clearing the dishes out of the kitchen sink before dinner is a good day. Co-ops, field trips, clubs, classes, music lessons, and sports—are these pipe dreams for such families? Consider a different question: what are the priorities for your family’s homeschooling program?

Every homeschooling parent can benefit from evaluating curriculum choices and activities to figure out the best way to achieve those priorities. If you face health challenges, you probably need (but may feel unable to sacrifice time for) this discipline even more than most. Suzanne Broadhurst and her husband, Robert, homeschool their two children, ages 17 and 15, in Jacksonville, Florida. In addition to the complications of her daughter’s combination of rare genetic conditions, Suzanne herself deals with what her doctors call “neurological events,” in which she loses partial consciousness.

Their family has compensated, Suzanne says, by prioritizing. “Is it so important for me to be on the run and have them involved in all these different activities, when that just creates more stress, more problems? I really adjusted by cutting back my expectations, and that has been beautiful.”

The Carlson family.
Courtesy of the Family
KarenAnne Carlson has been living with multiple sclerosis since 1983. She and her husband, Cameron, homeschooled Kaylyn and Curtis through high school.

Adjusting your homeschool could mean several things. For my family, it meant cutting back on the number of trips out of the house that interrupted the school day. Outside extracurriculars and classes were usually limited to one activity per child (in a family of two children) per semester. We rotated through individual or choral music lessons, theater, foreign language classes, and sports. You may try planning extracurriculars that your child can attend without you—if he’s old enough to drive or has a consistent ride—or your family may discover that a consistent routine with everyone staying home most days works better.

Mark and Susie Knight both have cerebral palsy and have homeschooled their four children in the Sacramento, California, area for 12 years. On tough days when pressures mount, Susie finds that examining the attitude behind her emotions can help to temper them and give her more reasonable expectations for the family’s homeschooling:

There are times when we just can’t make the activities we scheduled, or I have to rely on other people to take our kids. Our network is mostly homeschooling families, and they don’t mind helping. But I’m the one that feels guilty—I don’t want to depend on other people. There’s a little bit of pride there because I don’t want my kids to be affected by my disability. It’s my concept of how I view myself as a mother. I think, am I inhibiting them, am I preventing them from experiencing everything? I have to take a moment and say, “Today is today. My legs aren’t working well. There’s always tomorrow, and there will be another activity.”

There’s also the aspect of high-pressure academics. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to soberly evaluate whether the more demanding homeschooling option is attractive because it will truly be better for your children or because you want to prove something. Is the curriculum that demands the most from you as a teacher necessarily the one that will best benefit your student?

“So many moms push themselves so hard, especially when there are medical issues involved, because we feel like there is something extra that we have to prove,” Suzanne Broadhurst says. “But we don’t have to prove anything. We only have to work before the Lord.” It’s not shortchanging your children’s education to recognize that the most teaching-intensive curriculum may not be the best fit for your individual needs—especially if it means your student won’t get the most out of his lesson because you were unable to prep adequately.

The bottom line, Susie Knight explains, is that homeschooling is not just academics—it’s the way you live in your home, how you conduct yourselves in public, how you teach your children to be well-adjusted and independent. “It’s a way of life.”

Reading in Bed: How to Adjust Your Plan

There are a variety of ways that you can make your life more homeschool friendly. Only you can determine what works best for your family—but thinking ahead and following some general principles of organization and planning can help you to maximize your time, strength, and abilities.

...
IT CAN BE TEMPTING
TO BELIEVE THAT YOUR
JOB IS TO REMOVE
HARDSHIPS FROM YOUR
CHILDREN’S LIVES.
...

The importance of planning ahead is a point that comes up consistently from homeschooling parents who deal with a health challenge. Susie Knight explains that with her cerebral palsy, daily life requires a great deal of foresight. Simple errands become complicated, she says. “It’s a no-brainer for you to get up and go to your car and get a Starbucks coffee. You just go. I have to plan ahead. Whether it’s at the dinner table or on the road, we have to plan ahead. If I plan well, the kids plan well. It’s a lifestyle.”

Whether or not getting out the door and to the car requires a concerted effort for you, planning and organization are essential components of homeschooling well—especially if you face physical challenges. Suzanne Broadhurst’s first recommendation to other homeschooling parents is to buy a planner.

I got a real, live, store-bought planner that has a goal section, an address book, and monthly/daily pages. If you have chronic health issues and medications and medical appointments and, with us, medical travel—it’s just too complex and too hard to keep up with. Write it down.

Suzanne suggests having a separate homeschool notebook for each child, plus a three-ring binder for anyone in the family with special medical needs.

In addition to using organizational tools for the areas of your life that are more complex or demanding, make your daily schedule serve your needs. The time of day you set aside for schoolwork will make a big difference if your energy ebbs and flows during the day. In my family’s home, the “look” of our homeschool day at any given time was shaped by a combination of my mother’s health constraints and her children’s academic requirements.

My mother, KarenAnne, recalls a stretch of several years when the MS dramatically shortened her functioning day: “I used to stay in bed during the early years of child rearing until 11:00 a.m. because of poor muscular strength and nerve pain in my legs. If I had a poor day, it sometimes meant spending the entire day in bed. Then I would have the children spend the day reading on their own or to me while I rested.” Many of my favorite early childhood memories are of crawling into my mother’s bed in the morning with a stack of books and having read-aloud time until she could get up for the day.

During other seasons of homeschooling, the best stewardship of my mother’s limited strength required getting school done in the morning and early afternoon, with frequent rest breaks for her while we children worked independently. Activities outside the home were particularly taxing for her, so we not only limited our extracurricular activities but also avoided scheduling them late in the afternoon when her strength for the day had been depleted. If having a normal-day plan is helpful, having a plan for rough days is critical. Homeschooling mom Kathryn Frazier suggests a practical way to plan for “down” days in her article, “Homeschooling When Mom Is Sick”:

Post a regular schedule and an alternate schedule where they can be seen by all family members. Don’t label your schedules “well” and “sick.” Attitude is half the battle! Design your alternate schedule to pick up anytime during the day. That means wake-up time, meals, snacks, nap, and playtime are all the same as the regular schedule. If the morning goes smoothly but the afternoon is a challenge, you can just announce, “We need to go to the alternate schedule now,” or you can pick up the regular schedule in the middle of the day if your morning was rough.

The alternate schedule is just the basics: care for the small children and keep the home in running order. If you can’t do both, just take care of the children. Whether I have to go to bed for a few days or just need to rest a while, my kids know what to do on our alternate schedule, and they kick into gear and do it without me. I am still in the home and available if needed, but they can usually manage to follow the schedule without my help. The older children help the younger. Of course, if you only have very little children, you may need to call Dad or Grandma to help out. If you have a schedule posted, it will be that much easier for them to step in at any time.1

Heather Laurie, a homeschooling mom with lupus, suggests in her article “The Chronically Tired Parent” that you include low-maintenance options in your lesson plans. “When you make your lesson plan, be sure to add in tired days. Items or small projects that your child can do while you are resting. Be clear with the directions for your projects so that you are not having to remember and then rewrite them the day that you are exhausted.”2

Adjusting the way we homeschooled to compensate for health challenges did not mean slacking, though. My mother worked hard to cover all the academic bases, diligently planning and documenting our schoolwork.

Suzanne Broadhurst emphasizes that sickness should not be an excuse for not giving children an education. “Saying ‘I’m not going to teach them reading or writing or math or any of that because I’m just too tired to do it’—well, that’s not homeschooling.” Instead, she urges homeschooling parents to plan ahead and maximize the teaching and learning time they do have.

Calling in the Reinforcements

Involving others in your homeschool—or just in the work of daily life—can be difficult and humbling, but also full of grace and hope. Reconsidering your response to assistance—and the emotions and desires that motivate you—can enable you to accept help graciously. Kathryn Frazier says,

Let family members and close friends know of your needs, and accept help from them in whatever form they offer. If someone has a gift that can minister to you, there is no need to feel embarrassed or guilty about letting them serve you in this way. It is part of God’s grace. You have gifts that you can use to bless others also. Even if you think you can do it yourself, if help with shopping, cooking, or laundry is offered, take it. You may not see this as a part of your homeschooling, but ultimately anything that can lighten your load helps you to homeschool.3

For readers who are wondering how you can graciously offer help to families you know who may be struggling and need a hand, Suzanne Broadhurst offers a practical suggestion:

Keep offering help. One-time offers are so awesome. We’re so thankful for that. But sometimes we feel like we’ve used up that offer to help. And you’re still thinking, “Well, that was an unlimited offer.” But we don’t really know that, or it’s so hard just to ask.

Try to offer specific assistance. Does their lawn need to be mowed regularly? Does a long day at co-op make it hard for Mom to go home and fix dinner?

One means of help and encouragement that came up with every mom I talked to is simple—be a friend. Listen. My mom notes, “Going out of the house to large gatherings takes lots of stamina that I often do not have,” so phone calls or emails from friends particularly sustain her.

Susie Knight appreciates other moms just sharing their time with her. Mark, Susie’s husband, adds that it helps when other homeschoolers are willing to share about their own problems “so we don’t feel odd or crazy or out of sorts. We realize that we’re not having difficulties because of our disabilities, we’re having difficulties because homeschooling is challenging!”

Suzanne Broadhurst says lending a ready ear is a practical way to encourage homeschoolers facing challenges: “Let us talk about the hard things in life, not just the happy stuff. We like happiness. But we do have hard things, and many times we keep the hard stuff buried in our heart and just share the happy, because that’s what people like to hear.”

Sometimes, it may seem like no one is around to help when you need it. Suzanne remembers that in the first several years her family homeschooled, they didn’t find a lot of understanding and support in the homeschool community.

Because we couldn’t do normal activities, the attitude toward us was, “Well, this is the way our system is set up; if you can’t do our system, you just can’t participate.” Those were hard years, but they were also growing years because we learned how to be self-sufficient with God’s help, not lean too heavily on people. But by the time that I was exhausted and ready to just throw in the towel, then it was like the Lord sent people into our lives, and we found a church that doesn’t freak out about chronic illnesses, that’s really supportive.

If your family is lacking outside support, pull back your social and academic expectations to what you need to do and can realistically accomplish, and focus on building a strong, tight family core.

Doing It for the Children

In the midst of making your homeschool life work, it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re doing it. Remembering your purpose is a basic principle for all homeschooling families, but it’s especially important when your homeschool life involves extra complications. If it’s been a while since you sat down and listed the reasons why you homeschool your children, consider clearing some time, either by yourself or with your spouse, and do that. Write them down! Come back to those reasons, and remind yourself on bad days—when you can’t imagine why you ever thought you needed to embark on this crazy endeavor—what you’re homeschooling for.

When you’ve refreshed your vision of why you’re homeschooling, prepare your children to deal fruitfully with the challenges of your life. It can be tempting to believe that your job is to remove hardships or obstacles from your children’s lives. But it will actually serve them better if you teach them how to respond maturely to the trials that come in varying degrees to every life.

Susie Knight reports that she expects her children to pitch in and help, to “operate at my level.” Rather than grudging the work, though, she says they are well-adjusted. When her kids spend time with families where the children don’t do much to help around the house, they respond, “Wow, I’m so glad we have you guys as parents and you’ve taught us to be independent and self-sufficient!”

In addition to teaching her children to pitch in with daily tasks, Susie also emphasizes emotional preparation—both for herself and for her children. “When I’m in bad pain or I can’t get out of my wheelchair, I think my kids have an appreciation for what we go through. They see, ‘Mom and Dad are down, and we have to be servants.’ They appreciate each other more because they help each other a lot more.”

Suzanne Broadhurst shares a way she taught her daughter how to deal with unkind or thoughtless comments from others about her daughter’s health issues:

One day I asked her, “Honey, what’s harder to carry: your actual physical diseases, or the comments that people are making to you?” And she didn’t even hesitate. She said, “Oh! What people say to me, it’s so hard, it’s heavy, Mommy.”

And so we sat down and we made little cardboard suitcases. And then we took slips of paper and we packed those suitcases. And we wrote down all the different things people had said to us that were hard to carry on top of dealing with the diseases, and we put them one by one in the suitcase, and we gave that suitcase to God. And when someone would make a comment, we would look at each other and just smile, and say, “Suitcase talk.” We don’t have to carry that.

Learn to resist the temptation to harbor bitterness or resentment about your life or the way people speak or act toward you. Yes, it’s hard—giving up anything is hard. But lightening the load you and your children carry will make your journey infinitely better.

My mother says, “Daily abiding prayer and obedience have left us with incredible strength and courage in the Lord to do His will in the home and beyond, in spite of personal weakness.”

The End of the Matter . . .

Finally, learn to recognize the harvest of your homeschooling and child-raising labors! These good fruits are children who enjoy being home and spending time with you and with one another. Keep in view the joy of seeing good character coming to fruition in them. Treasure that your family is learning how to love one another well, to serve cheerfully, to work independently, to take initiative. Take heart! The fruits of your labors may come one day when your son or daughter stops to consider the question, “Don’t you wish your life had been different?” and realizes, like me, that they wouldn’t trade those mornings spent reading in bed for the whole world.


About the author

Kaylyn Carlson started with stacks of books in her mother’s room and ended up with a bachelor of arts in literature from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and editor, like her mother.


Endnotes

1 Kathryn Frazier, “Homeschooling When Mom Is Sick,” Home School Enrichment Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2009), www.crosswalk.com/homeschool/11599857/page0/.

2 Heather Laurie, “The Chronically Tired Parent,” Special Needs Homeschooling website, http://specialneedshomeschooling.com/?p=239.

3 Frazier.