School Doesn't Have To Equal Suffering

by Sara Farmer
A young girl at a school desk feeling overwhelmed, facing her hands and head on books.
Scary Mommy and LumiNola/Getty

I am not anxious to go back to normal. In fact, the thought of it, the articles about it, cause my anxiety to spike in ways it hasn’t in months.

COVID-19 is devastating. The loss of life and health for so many is tragic. I do want the sickness and suffering to stop. I don’t want to minimize the pandemic in any way. But there is often at least some good that comes from bad and the existence of alternatives to in-person instruction is an excellent example.

For some of us, regular life brings suffering. For some kids, regular school brings suffering. Not the kind of suffering that will kill you right away. But the regular, sustained assault on your senses and nervous system wear you down until all of your energy goes toward coping during the day and recovering at night and on weekends.

I was one of those kids. Now one of mine is, too. We are both what’s called twice exceptional (2E), which isn’t as good as it sounds. It means you have at least one area of disability and are gifted in at least one area.

I am not going to list my child’s issues, in order to protect their privacy. I have ADHD, probable Aspergers (I know it’s not still called that, but the label fits perfectly, so I use it.), severe anxiety, OCD, complex PTSD, panic disorder, and sensory sensitivities. I am also very introverted. Being around people too much, even those I love, drains me. If I don’t take regular breaks to be alone and quiet, I shake. My heart pounds, I itch, and I can’t breathe. My brain fills with fog and noise and I snap at people out of nowhere.

Schools are filled with noise and visual stimuli. They utilize frequent, quick transitions. You must sit still and be quiet fairly often. You can see how that doesn’t mesh with the conditions and symptoms described above. Also, kids and sometimes adults tease you, either to be mean or friendly. Either way, when a person has ADHD, they also suffer from rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) which causes every slight or correction, no matter how small, to cut like a knife. To make matters worse, studies show kids with ADHD get criticized much more than their peers, due to their difficulties with focus and attention.

There is no real escape. The hum of activity underlies everything. You have to stay until the day is over. You finally get home and homework brings school with you. (Schools are finally lessening the amount of homework or moving away from it completely.)


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I asked a few times for my child to have a hybrid schedule as part of their IEP, such as part of the week at school and part at home. The administration said it wasn’t possible. But the pandemic hit and schools proved they could change to protect the kids in their care. We need to keep those changes for kids like mine, like I once was.

Virtual school didn’t work for two of my three kids. We made it through the end of the 2019-2020 year and started 2020-2021. But I dreaded the start of school the whole summer and my two older kids just couldn’t sit in front of a screen for the bulk of the day. I wanted to homeschool for several years and figured there was never going to be a better time to try.

With homeschool, my children blossomed. They ask for school sometimes. We move through the subjects quicker and they have energy for activities besides screen time. They play together and are more cooperative. My oldest has taken on extra chores. Tantrums and meltdowns, which used to be frequent, are now rare.

Moving away from traditional education can benefit parents as well. Despite the fear for myself and my loved ones, I did pretty well during the pandemic. No crazy schedule, no reams of school paperwork, less email, no party supplies or teacher gifts or dress up days to remember. Many of these things are important and worthy of our time and energy. But put them all together and add multiple kids and a neurodivergent or even neurotypical parent and you’ve got a recipe for stress and strife. Without them, my anxiety went way down. I have time and energy to exercise and pursue my writing goals. I made immense progress dealing with my trauma, PTSD, and ADHD.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. It was hard sometimes having the entire family home all the time. But my husband already worked from home and we have a nanny, so pandemic normal wasn’t that different from our regular one. I get that, for other people, it was a very abrupt, huge change. They were deprived of very necessary social interaction and stimuli. (In the same way that introverts and those with special needs are deprived of the quiet and peace they need during normal times.) And many cannot afford a nanny or didn’t want to hire one during a pandemic and possibly raise their risk of infection.

Homeschool works well for us and we plan to continue for now. My child who is still in virtual school will go back to school in-person, probably in the fall. I know that I have immense privilege just in having these options. That’s why I want everyone to have a school experience that works for them and their children. I want public schools to offer these options, so that schedule flexibility or ability to pay for private school or desire to homeschool aren’t the deciding factors in a child’s education. I want this nation’s public schools to be the best they can be, so our kids can be the best they can be.

I know not all parents and kids want to homeschool or deal with any school at home. Many kids thrive at school all or part of the time, including one of my own. Some do well with virtual school, especially on asynchronous days, or with a mixture of virtual and in-person. Some kids don’t need to sit in a school for eight hours a day. They need to move and touch and talk. They need to spend extra time on a subject if they are really in a groove or having trouble grasping it. Some older kids are able to compress their schoolwork into a few hours a day, then hold down a job and make decent money while gaining essential life skills.

Every time someone says the kids need to be back in school, that that’s the best place for them, it makes me so angry. Those statements ignore the many children not best served by the traditional education system. They make me frightened that the schools will go back to business as usual and take back accommodations they made during the pandemic, forcing everyone back into the classroom to follow the same schedule and study the same topics in much the same way, even though children are not all the same.

Schools have changed for the better since I was a kid and they work hard every day to provide flexibility within the system for kids who need it. I’ve seen it firsthand. But it can be even better. For the past year, for some of us, it finally was. I don’t want that to go away. We need workplace flexibility and changes in the school day to help make that happen for those for whom homeschool isn’t an option, as well as keeping the freedom to attend part-time in person. These are huge changes, but we accomplished some of it this past year. I believe we can all work together to provide options that work for all families and create the support structure needed to maintain it.

Don’t forget what we learned and leave those who are different to go back to struggling alone.