School Choices And Special Needs: A Year By Year Decision, by Heidi Indahl
When it comes to school choices for my special needs kids, you can literally say we have done it all. Public, charter, Catholic, Montessori, homeschool, part-time, full-time… you name it we’ve done it!
While consistency in education is important, so is making sure that the academic needs of our special needs kids are balanced with their health and social needs. The end of the school year is a good time to think about what went well this year, what didn’t, and if a change might be in order moving forward. Here are a few examples of the changes we have made - both when and why.
For my teenager with autism, anxiety, two learning disabilities, hearing impairment, and a high IQ we have had two stints in full time school. One at a Catholic school and one at a public school. In both cases, we had recently made a cross country move and his anxiety was the biggest factor keeping him from thriving at home and in the community. Being in school was a challenge of its own, but the comfort of a consistent daily routine and getting familiar with more faces in the community helped him adjust to the move in ways that carried forward beyond his time in the classroom.
The challenges of those settings, however, eventually outweighed the benefits he received. In the Catholic school, he was having trouble with bullying due to his awkward social interactions. The school had taken his academics and advanced him a grade (very appropriately) but they didn’t provide enough help to overcome his speech, self care, and fine motor skills when interacting with other kids. In the end, this option was actually removed from us when the school brought concerns to us that the other kids were complaining to their parents and we chose to leave. In the public school, we did not leave all at once. The public school did not advance him academically and he was bored out of his mind. They saw subjects he was above grade level as a chance for extra speech and OT. We were grateful for the specialist help, but other than freedom to read books at the appropriate level he had a much harder time focusing during instruction. In this case, rather than leave at the end of the year, we switched to a part time schedule that would let him receive speech and OT twice/week. We were just a mile from home and he would ride his bike with his older brother, who would then walk to the library during his pull out time. Since that time, through middle and high school, my son has done quite well with self-directed (almost unschooling) homeschool. We work together to set benchmarks for each year and honestly I don’t have to hassle him too much except sometimes in the areas he really struggles due to his dysgraphia and dyscalculia. He will graduate in a couple years having read some profound books and having mastered a ton of trade skills that will help him as he looks into the future. Homeschooling around his disabilities has been much more a matter of finding what does work, and what he is really good at, and not stressing about the rest except where it is needed for life skills. Our younger daughter is currently nine and suffers from intractable epilepsy along with ADHD and several learning disabilities and motor struggles. She is smart as can be, but her memory is severely lacking depending on how frequent her seizures have been and what medications she has needed. Her academic delays are slow but steady to grow and she loves to “do school”. For my daughter, the combination of seizure health and COVID ended up playing into our schooling decision in a big way. She had been in the school district since preschool to receive a myriad of services. She loves people and was well known around the buildings for her cheerful smile and hugs!
Due to being easily fatigued and frequency of seizures, we moved to a part day schedule when she would have normally switched to full day. She would be at school for half a day with a combination of pull out time and then be in the classroom for some of the less academically intense subjects. She had a full time 1:1 para and the district was happy to accommodate the part time schedule, even helping with transportation. To be honest, this schedule was really to the advantage of our homeschool as well, because it gave me time to be more hands on with the other younger kids.
When COVID hit, however, the school district pulled my daughter from her classroom due to concerns about having her in and out and distancing requirements. (This was after the return to face to face, like most kids she was online for a few months to finish the 2019-2020 school year.) Our super social child, who (in her mind) went to school for the people, wasn't getting to spend any time with other kids at all! In addition, as the academic gap between her and her peers grew, they were making moves to increase the pull out time shortening her opportunities for even casual social interaction. It was not an easy decision, but we decided to give full time homeschool a try this year and to our surprise it has gone quite well. She has her siblings to play with and I’ve been able to combine her lessons with my younger two in many instances. We can easily rest on days when her brain is just off. That said, I don’t know if it will be a permanent arrangement because as she grows, her disease progresses (or not?), and the overall gaps increase we may need to look at other options. She also really does love people and I am not able to get her out into the community as much as I would like as we live on a farm well outside of town.
I have no doubt that your school journeys have been filled with similar ups and downs as ours has. I hope you have all hit the jackpot in terms of the right teachers and support staff to meet your child’s needs, but in case you haven’t I just wanted to encourage you it is ok to make a change. Beyond that, it is ok to try more than one thing and it is ok to make decisions based as much on social and emotional needs as academic ones. As you approach the end of the school year, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect how this year went. The answer might be obvious that a change is not needed. Great! Check that off your never ending to-do list. But if it seems a change might help, take some time to look at options and think creatively about what would make it better. What did and did not work this year? What challenges might arise from a change? How will a change affect your child and your family? You know your child best and if your gut says there might be a better option, don’t be afraid to try it out (at least on paper or in your mind) and see if a change might be in order.