One year ago, my son, Nathan, was a fifth-grader in the public school around the corner from our house, loving the kids and his teachers, and I was scrambling to prepare my oldest daughter for college. I was also working part-time as a freelancer from home and my days were…comfortable. Then the Delta variant of COVID hit our community right as the school year was about to begin and we threw on the brakes, switching Nathan to virtual school at the very last minute, and then pulling him out altogether when, a few weeks in, I realized that virtual school wasn’t going to work for him.
The homeschool option was intended to be temporary but became a long-term thing (I’m not ready to say it's permanent yet). My days are quite a bit busier now - the oldest did leave for college but I still have my freelancing gig - but over the past several months we’ve managed to work out most of the kinks and create a new rhythm. I’ll walk you through a typical day homeschooling my son with Down syndrome.
My alarm goes off but I almost never get out of bed right away (I’ve tried and I know the snooze is a waste but it is a struggle for me EVERY DAY and has been for over three decades). Somewhere between 6:00 and 6:30 I roll out of bed and let the dogs out (we have three, which yes, IS too many dogs in case you’ve ever wondered). Nathan is very much unlike me in the mornings and is always up at 6:30 (he isn’t allowed to come out of his room any earlier).
I use this time to set out our school things, do a quick check on any client work that must be done before we finish school for the day, and start a load of laundry (I’m one of those one-or-two-loads-each-day people). Nathan eats breakfast and plays with…whatever he wants that isn’t an iPad.
School Day Chunk #1 (7:30ish-10:00ish):
At 7:30, our Google Hub plays a school bell and we get started. Our school day is divided into two academic “chunks” on either side of a long break with a few small breaks sprinkled in between subjects.
We start the day with prayers (the Our Father) and the Pledge of Allegiance and a series of recitations. Working memory is one of the challenges people with Down syndrome have so there’s a LOT of repetition. Nathan has significant speech delays, so having him stand for these gives him an early form of “public speaking” in addition to memory work. Recitations include facts like “Name the planets in order”, “What does A.D. stand for and what does it mean?” and “How many nickels in a dollar?” and also familiar prayers and Bible verses.
After recitations, we move on to spelling and grammar. I use multisensory methods for spelling - spelling both aloud and on paper, an iPad app called Touch and Write, standing for quizzes, modeling clay, etc. Again, repetition is key, and using various sensory methods helps the information “stick” in his brain.
After spelling and grammar and a short break (usually a laundry reboot for me, a bottle of water for him, and a one-song dance break), it’s math time. Nathan picks up math concepts quickly but still struggles to retain basic math facts. Flashcards for addition and subtraction facts are our friends! In addition to lessons, we do timed drills of basic math facts and I try to use real-world examples in teaching. For subjects like money, I’ll slip into his room and swipe five of his trucks, label them with price tags, and expect him to hand me exact change to buy them back. Along with +/- flashcards, skip counting memorization for numbers 2-12 is on constant repeat, a precursor to multiplication and division that we’ll cover in the next school year.
Once we get through math, his brain needs a break, so we take about 30 minutes. I use the long break to reboot the laundry again, check my bullet journal, and do a little light housecleaning until our trusty Google alerts us that it’s time to start back.
School Day Chunk #2 (10:30ish-Lunch):
At 10:30 (or whenever the Google says it’s time), we jump into reading and writing, followed by religious studies, cursive writing, and what I call enrichment - art, music, history, science, fiction-for-fun-not-work, etc.
Reading and writing is my least favorite part of the school day. Nathan is an incredibly fluent reader, able to read (i.e., decode) whatever I put in front of him, but his comprehension skills are poor and his speech and language are delayed. I use a variety of different methods to help him with both sequencing and comprehension, and we typically read standalone short paragraphs in workbooks and also selections from longer books. For “WH” questions, I often have to provide multiple-choice options, rather than expecting open-ended responses.
For writing, he began the year copying sentences from a story we read but recently progressed to creating basic sentences on his own - progress! A side benefit of focusing on sentence writing is that it’s encouraged him to use more sentences in his speech, rather than communicating with us in short phrases (BONUS!) Similar to math and reading comprehension, he understands the concepts of sentences and can decode them (i.e., he knows what to capitalize, that a sentence is a complete thought, how to punctuate, etc.) but struggles to come up with a set of words needed to craft anything other than a very simple sentence.
Nathan attended religious education classes at our parish through his sacrament year in second grade, but he hasn’t been back since then because he just couldn’t keep up anymore. We also gave up on Vacation Bible School, but that’s a story for another time. Homeschooling gave me the opportunity to expand his religious education, so we spent the first semester of this year reviewing the St. Joseph Catechism for children. Throughout the year we read from a book of Bible stories, and I also found a great set of patron saint flashcards - we do about two of those each week, reviewing the same saint(s) each day. Again, repetition is key.
After religious studies, we work on cursive writing. Nathan’s fine motor skills are not good (although they’ve improved a lot since we started homeschooling), so at first I thought attempting cursive was crazy, but the curriculum I’m using recommended it at this level. Does he write well in cursive? Not at ALL! But he loves it, and he’s doing much better than I expected. We listen to a variety of classical music while he practices his cursive; his favorite pieces are “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and “The Planets” by Gustav Holst (specifically, the Jupiter movement). Cursive writing time is still work, but it’s like the “dessert” for him after a healthy meal of academics.
To finish the day, we move to the living room couch (where we are always joined by ALL THREE DOGS) to read fiction and/or nonfiction books together, look at images of famous art pieces, and relax a little before closing prayers (the Hail Mary and the Glory Be) and lunch.
The Afternoon (Lunch-4:30ish):
Afternoons are somewhat open, although we do have two more “extra” things to check off each day. I usually spend an hour or two after we both eat lunch doing client work, house cleaning, etc., while Nathan plays with Monster Jam trucks out back and/or watches videos about Monster Jam trucks and/or storm chasers (as I type this at 2:00 in the afternoon he is thrilled beyond measure that a storm appears to be brewing in the distance - I can hear his exclamations from outside). His reward for working hard all morning is to pretty much do whatever he wants (within reason, of course).
Around mid-afternoon, I round him up again for the “extras”. One day a week we drive to private speech therapy; on the other four days, we do speech homework and/or a cognitive training program called Equipping Minds for 30-45 minutes each. Being committed to the speech homework saves time and money (our insurance only cover 30 therapy visits) so since he is willing to work hard with me at home it’s a no-brainer. Equipping Minds is something we just started a couple of months ago to target his processing speed, working memory, and comprehension. The jury is still out on how effective it may be and how long the effects may last, but it’s going well so far and all of the activities are like games so he doesn’t mind it.
Late Afternoon/Early Evening (4:30ish-Bedtime):
By about 4:00, I’ll be honest - I’m toast. Nathan is once again free to play however he likes and I circle back to work and the house or sometimes sit down in the recliner and mindlessly scroll through social media or view the day’s top news stories or read a little. I’m an introvert by nature and while the kids were both in school I had grown accustomed to being in the house several hours a day without anyone else around. It was (and still is) an adjustment to have Nathan here with me all day.
Nathan swims year-round - an hour a day with a local swim club - so that’s our P.E. Mr. Andi gets home from work around 4:30 so most days I hop on my stationary bike or do a little strength training (usually both) when they head to the pool - my only “true” alone time - and then I shower and start dinner; when they get home Nathan heads straight for the shower while I finish up dinner and get it on the table. Mr. Andi cleans up the kitchen so I can crash in my chair for a few more minutes, and then we all relax for the rest of the evening.
Homeschooling my son with Down syndrome is time-consuming and probably always will be. Although he does a good deal of his work with minimal supervision, he never works with zero supervision. I can slip away here and there to do things like reboot the laundry or clean up the breakfast dishes, but I remain engaged with him pretty constantly for several hours each day, which often means shifting my freelance to work to evenings or weekends. I’m thankful that I am able to commit that much time to him; I know not all parents could.
As I said before, I hit a wall around 4:00 each day - especially so at the end of the week. But here’s the thing: I’m able to give him an individualized education and I’m able to have it be centered on God and faith. A public school might do the former but not the latter, and none of our local Catholic schools offer an academic program for him - of any kind. Educating children with learning disabilities in Catholic schools is a gaping hole in our communities.
Homeschooling isn’t for everyone, but a year ago I didn’t think I had the patience nor the temperament to do it, and I definitely didn’t have the desire. I wasn’t even the “homework parent” with our older daughter who was academically gifted, and (for even more of a challenge), when I decided to consider homeschooling, there were no simple answers about how to do it with a child with significant learning challenges. Yet somehow it all came together, and here we are at the end of the school year, celebrating our success.
A difficult situation may have pushed us in this direction, but in hindsight, I can see that God guided us all the way. With His grace, I stepped out in faith and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for my family. Thanks be to God.
A Few Things to Note:
We pack a LOT of academics into the morning hours. This schedule works for us because Nathan is motivated to get things done so he can move on to the “fun” parts of his day. When he was younger this format wouldn’t have worked because he wouldn’t have been able to sit still for that long.
Nathan thrives on praise and rewards. If he makes a 100/100 on a timed math drill, we take a picture of it and text it to Mr. Andi. The first time he created a written sentence completely without help, we did the same. If he has a particularly notable breakthrough, we text his sister even though she’s away at college. They dutifully respond with positivity, which he relishes. If he works hard all week, we get Chick-fil-A on Fridays for lunch - “God’s chicken” and waffle fries? Highly motivating. 🥰
None of Nathan’s curriculum is done online, and he only uses electronics for two things: (1) the “Touch and Write” apps for spelling and cursive practice - and then only as an additional sensory option, and (2) the Audible app for listening to audiobooks, which we mostly do as an “extra” in the car. Everything else is done orally or with pen and paper. I’m not anti-online, but for him, I think the old-school way is less distracting.
Because I didn’t intend for homeschooling to be long-term when we started, I didn’t join any co-ops or get involved in local homeschool activities. Now that we’re finishing up a full school year, I’m starting to branch out a bit. Next week we’ll go to our first ever “Game Day” with other homeschoolers in our area. A couple of weeks after that, Nathan will take his big sister’s old clarinet and go to a beginning band class with the local youth orchestra. It may be a total fiasco, but she showed him how to blow into it to make a note this week and he was very enthusiastic about the idea.
If you’d like to learn more about our why and how of homeschooling with Down syndrome, I wrote about it recently on my personal blog.
Andi Sligh is a wife and mother of two children with disabilities and three dogs. She is a lifelong Alabamian, Dr. Pepper addict, Catholic convert, and former engineer who rediscovered a love of writing when she became a mom. You can find more of her writing at https://andisligh.com/