I'm Homeschooling 3 Kids With IEPs And 504s -- Here's How We're Making It Work
I never thought myself the type to homeschool my children. I reasoned that if I wanted to be a teacher, I would’ve continued my post-graduate education toward that goal. That I’d be in a classroom, creating lesson plans, implementing behavior management goals, ensuring meaningful engagement for all learning styles.
But there is a reason I chose against teaching as my profession: I simply don’t have the patience. Teachers are the single most underrated, underpaid college-educated professionals. Until now, we as parents and as a society have not appreciated all the work teachers have to put in on a daily basis. And thanks to this pandemic, we have had to take on their roles.
So now I’m at home like you, homeschooling my kids like you. And, maybe like your kids, my kids have special needs.
I have three children, each with an IEP or a 504. All three have diagnoses that dictate a variety of accommodations and services that they typically receive either inside or outside of the classroom. They work with trained professionals who help them with speech goals, cognitive development goals, behavioral goals, and academic-specific goals. There are plans in place within the classroom that assist the children if they are struggling with a particular assignment, or if they are just having a rough day that greatly affects their ability to make good choices.
My children are used to a routine, a structured day that allows them to anticipate what to expect, and what expectations they need to meet; they perform best this way. And until recently, all three kiddos were doing very well within their respective classroom environments. My son was finally studying something that he is super-interested in, which aided in his attention and focusing skills. My daughter had finally found a way to approach difficult assignments with a positive attitude and without having to take 15-20 minutes breaks every hour. My youngest child was proving to be a leader among her Pre-K peers, finally putting aside her naturally-stubborn personality to listen and follow directions the first time. It was definitely the turning point we’d been seeking in what began as a challenging school year.
But like you, that all came to a drastic halt in March.
And so now, like you, I am homeschooling my children while balancing working from home. Individually, they require a lot of attention to ensure that they are staying focused, staying on task, and staying calm when things get too overwhelming (which they often do). I am having to reach out to teachers more than I was before to learn how they keep my children with autism and ADHD on task. I am texting the teachers of my child with ADHD and anxiety daily for encouragement in how to help her manage her frustrations so that she can see an assignment through to the end without tantrums or meltdowns. I am FaceTiming with my youngest’s teacher to help with keeping her interested and engaged despite speech and language difficulties.
Needless to say, this has been no easy feat. Schedules were thrown off, routines were destroyed, and most of our kids haven’t been able to understand why things can’t be the same as they’ve always been. We’ve experienced our share of frustration and tempers flaring. We cried the same tears over the last few weeks. I’ve gotten sick and tired of repeating myself over and over again. And like you, I’ve wanted to quit at some point — or many points — over the last few weeks.
Having three kids with different needs and goals in the house while trying to implement their routine in an environment that they equate with play time and relaxation has been particularly challenging. And although I have long been an advocate for ensuring my kids are getting what they need at school, I haven’t thought about how those needs would possibly be addressed in a different environment like home, should the need ever arise to homeschool my children. And now that it has, these are some ways that I am trying to handle this task best I can.
Here’s what has worked for us so far:
Learn the IEP/504.
I’m pretty familiar with my kids’ IEPs and 504 plans, but I haven’t memorized every single detail. During this time, I’m brushing up on the current documentation, and what each spells out for each child. Having a thorough grasp of what the IEP or 504 says allows me to continue to implement these accommodations within the home setting, and also to speak on ideas that are no longer relevant due to their being schooled at home. Knowing your child’s IEP and 504 plans through and through also allows you to better implement the following tips without all the stress.
Have your supplies ready.
All kids need the proper tools to help them succeed in their school work. This is particularly true for kids with special needs. Headphones, pencil grips, fidget toys, timers, highlighter strips, manipulatives, and visual schedules have been super helpful with helping my kids stay on task and be successful in completing assignments. Having the right supplies will also assist in easing that transition from the classroom to the dining room table.
We have found that headphones are great for minimizing distractions in a smaller living area where sometimes our children have to share one space. Timers are excellent for helping our ADHD child stay focused and for teaching her how to work more efficiently. Manipulatives have been great for our son who struggles with math. An abstract subject, math can be challenging for some children with autism who still think concretely; manipulatives help bridge the gap between abstract and concrete thinking. These can be anything that you already own. I have always been a fan of introducing my son’s smaller LEGO or Avenger figurines into the mix. And my daughter enjoys using coins, gems, or anything else that is shiny. Sometimes we break out the game pieces as well. Use what you already have!
Create a schedule.
I have read so many articles and watched so many news segments that have discussed at length how to best approach this homeschooling-while-working thing. And the same sentiment has been echoed in both. Creating and maintaining a schedule is key to getting through the day. We write down all three kids’ activities and assignments on a white board that is placed in a central location so that everyone can see it and know what to expect for the day. I also verbally express what the expectations are for that day, and assess each child to see if they have any questions or concerns. In looking over each child’s assignments, I can see if a particular activity will need further accommodations or modifications, and then I create them as I see fit.
Have a time limit.
One of the worst things we can do as parents is to make our child sit at the table for hours while they try to finish an assignment, or struggle to do so. This has been a particularly difficult lesson for me, as I am a fervent believer in doing your work before you play. But since we’re stuck in the house, I’ve had to learn to relax those expectations. Setting a time limit gives your kiddos a heads up about how long they have to complete an assignment and gives you a springboard for discussing expectations with your child. I love using sand timers with different set times to help my visual learners learn how to manage their workload appropriately. We also find that this is a great way to implement our Alexa Echo and Show into the school day. It’s super easy for the kids to say “Alexa, set timer for 30 minutes.”
Involve your kids in the planning process.
Since our kids are old enough, we have given each of them the opportunity to be a part of what they do every day. Even with getting guidance and assignments from their teachers, we allow them to choose the order in which they complete their work, or predict how long they think an assignment might take them. This fosters great critical thinking skills. In doing this, they’re learning how to take some ownership over their own responsibilities in a time where just about everything is unpredictable. And for my kids, middle school is imminent, and they will be expected to be slightly more accountable for their own work — so this is great practice.
Be present, but lose the umbrella act.
While we are stepping into the role of teacher, it is important to remember that we are not teachers. It has long been our habit to sit side-by-side with our children while they do their homework. They needed the support, and we needed to make sure they stayed focused. But in recent weeks, this has not always been possible because I am working from home while my active duty soldier husband still has to report for half-days at work. There is no way we can watch over them every second of the day while trying to meet deadlines for our jobs as well.
While we stay within sight of our children, we try not to intervene as much as we can. This is challenging because sometimes our kids believe that if we are not doing one-on-one with them all the time, they are totally unable to complete things on their own. We encourage them to try their best, to give it their best effort, especially those tasks that we know they can do on their own. And for the more challenging assignments, we create or provide modifications or helpful tools to encourage the kids to better organize their thoughts and stay focused.
Ask for help!
Our teachers have been amazing in supporting us and our children through this pandemic. And you bet I will use every bit of their expertise that I can. If I think an assignment is too challenging, I will ask for help. I know that my daughter does need at least one session per day of one-on-one support. She responds better if she gets that. So I reached out to her focus teacher to see if there would be some time during the week that they could meet via Zoom to review some areas where she experiences the most anxiety.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your child’s teacher. They are teachers for a reason, and they want to be sure your child is successful. Just be mindful of office hours and that most of our teacher friends have families too. They are in the same boat as us and probably in deeper water too!
Give them full range of the house.
It’s important that we feel comfortable in our own homes because this is the only place we really get to be right now. We allow our children to do their work in whatever space feels most comfortable to them in the moment. While my son prefers the dining room table where he can see the white board schedule all the time, my youngest prefers to move around from her room to the living room to my bedroom. It’s all about choices and allowing our kids the freedom to complete their work however — and wherever — they feel is best for them.
Encourage their passions.
All kids have interests. But sometimes between therapy and school, it can be tricky to find the time to help them explore those interests. Now that we are home, there’s more opportunity to infuse our kids’ interests into the school day. Want to bake more? Let’s do it! Start a garden? Sure, why not? Spend hours drawing every single dinosaur in your Prehistoric Encyclopedia? Go for it!
We now have the chance to choose how our child’s curriculum is implemented. Why not take math into the kitchen, or take science to the garden? We have found that mixing our kids’ interests within their home schooling is the motivation they need to be excited about school. I mean, who wouldn’t be geeked about letter recognition and shaping by playing with Play-Doh?
Let go of all the expectations.
This is perhaps the most important, and most difficult, tip of all. And to be honest, it is the one with which I am still struggling. While it’s true that they have schoolwork to complete, it’s also true that our kids are experiencing a traumatic event in their lives right now. They’ve lost their schools, their teachers, their friends, and their sense of routine. My kids weren’t even there for what would’ve been the last day of school before it closed, and didn’t even get to say goodbye to folks. They are being told to stay inside their homes, not to go near anyone except for those with whom they live. All three of my kids are social butterflies and love spending time with other kids, so this has been devastating and confusing for them.
While they are expected to complete their assignments, I’m learning that it’s okay if there are days in which they struggle. It’s okay if there are assignments that they may not be able to finish at one time; if they’re stuck, they have the freedom now to come back to something.
Meet them with grace during this time instead of mandated activities. Let go of all the stress and anxiety and just be with them. This is so much harder than it sounds; I hear you, momma. But we are not their teachers. There are no classroom rules and management strategies we have to follow to ensure the classroom functions well. There is no administration to report to. We are the administration. We are the teachers. And we are the parents. And we have to be whatever our children need us to be in that moment. So if the work doesn’t all get done on that day, put it to the side and do something else. Let your children lead and you follow. You do enough in a day, don’t you? Let it go.
Take care of yourself.
I cannot stress this enough. Just like our kids, we too are going through a tremendous shake-up in our routine. There was a time where my kids would get on the bus and I would drive to work. I wasn’t worried about actually implementing structure and routine in their everyday schedules. I wasn’t the one having to redirect a frustrated child in the classroom.
Having to do all of this ourselves while ensuring the kids are completing their work, and that we are still taking care of our responsibilities for our jobs, has been so stressful. I feel overwhelmed most days, taking on the role of the default parent to a level that I have never experienced before. Despite my husband being in the same room with them and doing absolutely nothing, they will walk right past him come upstairs to my bedroom where the door is clearly closed, and I am clearly busy, and ask how to log into a video chat with their classmates, or for help with a reading assignment.
Y’all, this has been a lot for me. I struggle with anxiety, and nothing good has come from this quarantine in terms of dealing with that. But the one thing I need to stress is this … you will make mistakes. There will be missed deadlines and assignments. There will be days where you oversleep, or the kids won’t go to bed on time. There will be days where it seems the kids won’t stay out of your pantry. There will be days where you will cry and want to pull your hair out because you’re running on empty.
Despite all this, it is critical to care for yourself, Momma. Be kind to yourself. Find time to take a walk alone, or if you are like me, go for a quiet morning or evening run. Take a bath and drink some wine, if that’s your thing. Stay hydrated. Rediscover your passion and pursue it to the best you can. Allocate the workload to everyone in the house. My ADHD child finds purpose when she is given a chore to do; it makes her feel needed and important and gives her a place to expel all that energy. It is not only you who live in the house, so why should it be only you who takes care of it?
It is okay to take time for yourself. Just breathe and count to ten. And remember to keep living your life too.
We all can do hard things. Hang in there!
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